Gender, Gaming, And Safe Spaces

Gaming and geek cultures are increasingly a part of contemporary people’s hobbies, lifestyles, and social options. Notice that I said “people” and not just “guys,” because, as it turns out, many gamers are also women–around 42% according to some studies. However, a lot of these women don’t feel safe or welcome while playing in large online games, so they hide their gender, or otherwise try to downplay their real-life identities. Why?

I’ve been reading posts by Lesley, a blogger who’s also a gamer, on this topic in an effort to understand. She paints a disturbing picture in her essay “Yes, I Play Video Games, And No, You Cannot See My Boobs.” Here, she describes the lose-lose situation of trying to decide whether to play a female or a male character:

Fact was I couldn’t win either way: if I played as a female character, I’d get in-game dudes “flirting” with me all the time. If I played as a male character, as soon as people figured out I was only pretending to have a penis, they’d get all mad, like I’d played some kind of cruel trick on them.

Moreover, women in games are subjected to sexual harassment by male players, especially when they win. Lesley writes that “apparently graphic threats of rape are the go-to response when a female player hoses you in Black Ops.” Or requests to see boobs, or racist slurs, or… the list goes on (there’s a website called Fat, Ugly, or Slutty where women can submit these comments for public ridicule). Clearly, there will be some trash-talking in competitive endeavors, but the gendered insults go beyond anything that would be acceptable in face-to-face competitions. Additionally, the apparent need to feminize and sexualize one’s opponent is a part of male Western competitive culture that anthropologists and folklorists have noted before, hypothesizing that to feminize a (male) opponent is, due to the low status of women in the West, one of the worst insults possible, hence one of the best ways to emasculate and demoralize a guy. While I agree with this scholarly analysis, it sure doesn’t make me happy.

I also read a follow-up piece by Lesley about male-only gaming spaces. A group hosting a LAN party in Austin announced that only men could attend:

Nothing ruins a good LAN party like uncomfortable guests or lots of tension, both of which can result from mixing immature, misogynistic male-gamers with female counterparts. Though we’ve done our best to avoid these situations in years past, we’ve certainly had our share of problems. As a result, we no longer allow women to attend this event.

This is, Lesley notes, an entirely inadequate way of dealing with the entrenched sexism in gaming culture: “The idea that it is somehow ‘safer’ to make the event male-only is problematic in that it reinforces the assumption that men are feral fucking animals who are incapable of controlling their allegedly natural chromosomal need to be assholes.” By choosing to ignore the sexist bigots in their midst, and by denying their own culpability in creating an environment that feels threatening to women, these dudes are, sadly, part of the problem.

Safe spaces and one-gender-only spaces have been a contested aspect of the feminist movement, dredging up debates about exclusion and inclusion, but I think that the rationale for creating a men-only space here doesn’t make it safe for anyone. Telling women to stay away from misogynist spaces does not, in the long run, make things any safer for women. And telling men that it’s okay to engage in misogynist (and racist, and homophobic) discourse doesn’t do much to improve their quality of life, either; it’s not easy to compartmentalize hatred such that you can interact pleasantly with a hated and mocked group one moment, and verbally abuse them the next. It’s not as though hate speech ceases to matter if it’s anonymous, over the internet, or “just” trash-talk during a game.

I hang out with a lot of gamers, and mostly they’re pretty respectful (this goes for both the men and women). But reading essays like this makes me glad that I’m not more into online gaming, because I just don’t think the barrage of misogynist vitriol would be worth putting up with in order to have fun killing pixelated bad guys. Maybe this is why I’m drawn more to board games (because seriously, who’s going to cuss you out over a game of Balderdash or Dixit?) and role-playing games that meet face-to-face, as both include greater accountability for one’s behavior. Maybe combining accountability with gaming isn’t the first thing that comes to mind as fun, but since one of the purposes of playing a game is for everyone to have fun, it’s worth being inclusive!

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

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    I think it’s very true that those who play these kinds of games (specifically ones like World Of Warcraft) too often have very limited social skills. Either they use the games as an escape because of their poor social skills, or they erode any social skills they possessed because of their self-imposed isolation. I see it in several people I know.
    We know that Humans need social interaction throughout life, otherwise their mental stability and abilities to interact with others is damaged, and I’m afraid that is what we are seeing here on a large scale.
    All of these guys might be mouthing off at people in their isolation – where they are protected from having to actually SEE other people – but get them in the real world and they fall apart.

    If we create fantasy worlds, and live them at the expense of reality, it’s inevitable that something will be lost.
    At the moment it’s the basic respect for others within that fantasy world and the ability to be an adult outside of it. But in the long term it could be the start of something far more real and far more damaging in my opinion.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    I actually disagree with you – I think people can live in rich and varied fantasy worlds that enhance their experiences of real life (full disclosure: I’m a total bookworm who made it through childhood by escaping into literature and daydreams, so I have a stake in this argument).

    But I do think you’re right that people *can* live in fantasy worlds at the expense of reality, and that’s when their quality of life (and that of those around them) begins to suffer. Like, if people escape to fantasy worlds because they don’t want to deal with the problems around them, so they imagine a perfect world, where they don’t have to exercise their social skills or tact or… well, pretty much what you were saying in the first paragraph. I just bristle at the implication that fantasy’s not much good for people, because I think it can be… when applied consciously, like any good medicine. :)

  • http://twitter.com/slikid2 Jevad Jackson

    I’m not a gamer. Never was. I did forward that to a young woman I know (18 years old) who is a gamer. (Primarily World of Warcraft which she enjoys for the social aspect.) She agreed with almost all of it and enjoyed it.
    The one thing she disagreed with was “women in games are subjected to sexual harassment by male players, especially when they win”
    She said the opposite. When she’s kicked a guy’s ass a couple times she gains their respect and they really enjoy interacting with her. (lol)  She also said there’s always a couple jerks that take it personally but overall she hasn’t experienced any sexual harassment because of it.
    I’d also like to add she enjoys a full, rich life outside of gaming. Full time student, works, finds online gaming a great escape but not a way of life.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    I’m glad to hear she enjoyed the article, and of course she’s welcome to disagree with my statements in it. I used to do some online gaming (also as a diversion while a student), but I don’t anymore, so I can’t verify from personal experience the claims that guys are either very very rude or respectful to female gamers. It’s cool that she’s had positive experiences, though… from what I understand, those kinds of experiences are in the minority right now!

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    Oh, absolutely! I’m a big reader myself. I worked in the security industry for fifteen years and I couldn’t get through a night shift in my building without some adult literature to immerse myself in!
    I totally agree that fantasy itself is entirely healthy, and when it comes to media you can’t beat a good book, because it allows you to combine your own imagination with the story.

    But, what concerns me is that many gamers don’t use fantasy and imagination in the same way. I don’t think I have ever seen someone sit down and read fantasy novels for ten hours a day, seven days a week, to the point where it limits their lives and prevents them from enjoying reality.

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