Girls at Play

So one of the major questions that’s behind a lot of what I’ve been talking about here is not why are women being harassed in online and gaming communities, but why are they a minority to begin with… After all, there are slightly more women than men in this world, at about 51% globally, and is even slightly higher in Western countries (Europe, Australia, North America, and most of South America). So why are there so few women playing games and participating in online communities?

The answer, at least according to Clementine at Tiltfactor, is because of the very toxicity that the presence of women in the gaming community produces. She’s talking about a specific subset of the gaming community, admittedly, but the team-based RTS (real-time strategy) games she mentions are a microcosm for the larger issues in online (especially gaming) communities. In short, that they are insular and over-protective of their exclusivity – regardless of the gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity of the newcomer. And noobs who are not immediately skilled (which would be most of them) are harassed for causing the team to lose. However, when that newcomer has a clear “flag” that can be used as a slur against them, that “flag” becomes an easy target.

However, Clementine points out that the knowledge of someone’s gender (which is more readily apparent in voice-chat than either ethnicity or sexuality) produces an immediate hostile reaction unrelated to their gameplay abilities. And this is not exclusive to team RTSs – many women avoid using voice chat in all online play because of the sorts of treatment Clementine is discussing. Here’s the issue:

If I’m lucky they’ll just express surprise that women use the internet. Sometimes they ask for sexual favors (“MAY I TOUCH YOUR VAGINA”, said one guy. “NO PLEASE. I WILL MAKE YOU FEEL REAL GOOD”). Sometimes they just yell “Go make me a sammich” (seriously? That would also be bad for the team if I left the keyboard to prepare foodstuffs. Smart.) Or if I mess up or die even once, I am told that “This is why women shouldn’t play games.” If I don’t use voice chat, we are losing a great strategic advantage for the team. If I mute an asshole on the team, then I can’t hear what he or she might have to say, which is also a strategic disadvantage if they actually decided to use voice chat for strategic purposes.

So should women really be expected to mute harassers and, in essence, not participate fully in the gameplay experience because their teammates can’t be bothered to act like adult human beings? And, as she continues to point out, this is not a problem exclusive to gaming. It’s a problem that surfaces in any male-dominated field: science, business, academia.

The biggest concern, of course, is that a hostile environment will lead to a perpetuation of the dearth of females (or any underrepresented minority) in those fields. When women are ostracized, they become decreasingly likely to want to continue to participate in that arena. So when, as Clementine and The Border House both point out, a Launch Party for Battlefield 3 banned women, it is perpetuating rather than “solving” the problem by implicitly authorizing misogyny – saying, “make enough rude comments, and we’ll keep the girls out of your hair”:

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.

The rationale behind the female ban is to “protect them from misogynistic insults”; the consequence is to permit and perpetuate the misogyny that produced them by maintaining the male-exclusive community that legitimates those comments to begin with.

Clementine has a call out to both her fellow players and to Valve:

Valve Software – Take this stuff seriously. Building a more civil community is only in your best interest. Don’t excuse sexism, racism, or homophobia, and give players better mechanisms for reporting folks who give MOBA games their bad reputation.

Players – don’t be assholes, and don’t let other people be assholes. Speak up and say it’s not okay, and definitely take advantage of reporting. We could all benefit from fewer assholes in our games.

Which comes back to something I’ve been talking about for a while – how much of this is truly Valve’s responsibility? Should they encourage a civil community? Sure. But beyond saying “play nice,” what are their responsibilities as a company? Should they take complaints from players of abuse seriously? Yes, I think they should. But they can’t monitor every game and intervene in every situation.

Personally, I think the onus here lies with the community – collective leadership is more effective than imposed, top-down autocracy. Autocratic imposition creates resentment, while collective leadership on the part of the players themselves grants more agency and solidifies community in a more productive way that can actually (eventually) create the kind of atmosphere that is currently sorely lacking.