Girls at Play

13 Aug

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.

8 Replies to “Girls at Play

  1. While I agree that the most effective way to change the atmosphere into something we want, it’s also the most difficult. How do we do it? Crowdsourcing measures (like League of Legends’ tribunal) are iffy when cases of harassment are being judged by the very perpetrators committing them. Even if you believe these people to be a vocal minority, it’s still quite clear that the typical straight white male gamer lacks empathy for groups outside his own.

    (On a side note, Valve has proposed its own fixes: )

  2. Valve’s idea of charging for abuse is an interesting one, like a “respect fine,” but it still presents a lot of the same problems as banning a user – which is to say, what constitutes “finable” (or “bannable”) behavior? I think there are many cases which are obvious, but I think there will also be cases that aren’t – jokes and teasing that one player might recognize as non-offensive but might be offensive or hurtful to another. It’s a problem we encounter in real life as well as online, and it just seems like any sort of top-down imposed measures are going to run into that problem.
    Now perhaps a solution based on player regulation (someone who gets 10 “reports” for inappropriate behavior gets fined, for example) may be a more fair way to approach the issue, but I see your point that crowdsourcing also has problems, especially when it seems that many members of a community are the source of the problem to begin with.

    • I agree, this solution still puts the burden on valve, but in the end I don’t think I will ever be comfortable giving other users control of the judging process. Those users who aren’t actively problems still don’t take these issues seriously. To see this all you have to do is look at the comments on Clementine’s article over at Few if any take the problems seriously, and 90% either blame the victim or put the responsibility of not being harassed on the victim (by not talking, or using voice changers).

      The point I guess I disagree with most is that the onus should be on the community to decrease harassment. As has been shown time and time again, few people in these insular communities care about harassment except the victims of it themselves. Putting the onus on the community, then, is really just giving the responsibility to the victims, which I feel is uncomfortably close to victim blaming — “wow it sucks that you had to go through that. Fix it.” In the end it just provides another barrier to women entering gaming (that they have to do more work for the same outcomes).

      Because of this, I think the only practical solution is policing by the game companies. In this case, I believe the ideal solution should be a three-pronged offensive launched by Valve:
      1. Valve-judged offenses are punished. Offenses must be determined by a stringent and fairly objective process. Blogs often have commenting policies that weed out potentially offensive comments. A similar rubric could be used.
      2. To decrease the use of this system, the community should be encouraged to collectively support understanding among players.
      3. Technological solutions and game mechanics should be used to decrease the problem. These can range from algorithmic ways to determine problem users, to simple mechanical changes like by default turning off the ability to hear your opponents’ chat. This last example is great because you can still turn that feature on, but jerks are much less likely to be jerks if they don’t know if anyone’s listening.

  3. Hi, Clementine here.

    I just want to add some of the additional observations and thoughts to my piece since it was posted in January.

    A few people (very patronizingly, in my opinion) told me that I should play with friends, so that I can laugh off sexist comments. In point of fact, I do play with friends most of the time, but it’s still very hard to play if there’s even one random idiot in my team who won’t stop harping on me for one reason or another.

    Another person (also quite patronizingly) told me that I should learn to type faster, citing the example of one pro who only typed. If he can play Dota well just with typing, why can’t I? The worst and most condescending suggestion was when someone suggested that I should use a voice changer to hide my gender:

    “Just use a voice changer … You can’t stop them, change them or, worse, become one of them. With enough time, you’ll learn that insults only hurt when they are made by people you actually care about.

    Good day. Oh, and try to play with your friends.”

    In short, it was very disappointing that these (presumably male) commenters accepted that the community would never change. Therefore, the onus was entirely on me to just pretend like I wasn’t really a woman. While not speaking in games certainly does protect me from harassment sometimes, on an individual level, though, the main problem is that, by telling me not to use my real voice, they are implying that I should instead just continue to uphold the idea that women don’t game. Rather than calling anyone in the community out, they asked me to be complicit in making a hostile community.

    As such, I always make it a point to use my voice at least ONCE in almost every Dota game I play – at the end of the match, I say into the mic, “Good game.” Sometimes, people freak out. A woman was playing with them all along – the horror! I hope that every time I do it, at least one person’s opinion on girls playing Dota changes (especially if I win). I would hope that more women are brave enough to use their mic to change perceptions of who plays MOBAs (in my entire time playing Dota, I have only known 2 other women who played a game with me. One was my friend. And I have played HUNDREDS of games.) But on the other hand, I do understand if the harassment is overwhelming and they decide to lay low.

    In the end, I think the responsibility still lies with Valve, and feminist allies. I am heartened by the occasional in-game pop up that says that they’ve “taken action” against someone whom I’ve reported in the past, and I hope that these mechanisms are strengthened. As Ramenhotep points out, it is possible that Valve will experiment with an “asshole tax.” But finally, it is up to the community and anyone who doesn’t think “GIRLS ON THE INTERNET? GET BACK TO THE KITCHEN” isn’t funny and is actively hostile to say it (and of course, other forms of oppression like homophobia and racism). It’s up to the entire community to say that they want to play in a friendly environment and won’t tolerate jerks. Most importantly, it begins with the mindset that we, as gamers, can change our own communities.

    • I’ve had similar experiences with voice chat, and I, too, most often play with friends (or single-player), but not to actively avoid harassment.
      I like your point that the impetus needs to ultimately come FROM the gamers, whether that includes imposition of rules from above or not, because, really, you can’t enforce rules about respect without the participation of the people in the community itself.
      I’m not sure how to change people’s minds, though – or whether it’s simply (as my husband insists) just a matter of being patient. I’m not a patient person and I want to figure out how to make an active change. How do we as gamers who don’t want to deal with or hear harassment make it stop?
      Personally, I think that you help every time you say “Good game,” because eventually people will just think, “Oh, hey, a girl,” instead of “What is a girl doing playing this!?”

    • The Dota/HoN community and the MOBA community in general really is terrible. It is basically a case study in just how out of control an internet community can get. It is not an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of people(at leas the only vocal ones in competitive play) in this community behave like vicious, sexist, racist assholes when they play. After having played Dota/Heroes of Newerth for many years I simply quit playing because I found that I wasn’t enjoying the type of environment that people create in both textual and voice chat in these games. What finally pushed me over the line was when I and a friend were the unfortunate recipients of 3 games in a row full of over the top rage and a flurry of racial and sexual slurs when we weren’t even playing poorly. After this I started playing Starcraft II almost exclusively and my friend started playing League of Legends and Starcraft II pretty much exclusively. I imagine if I had been a member of one of commonly slurred groups I would have left even quicker or would have been unwilling to play at all. I’m really impressed that you are even willing to play Dota 2. Maybe it’s not as bad as Heroes of Newerth.

      I really hope that Valve finds a way to deal with these problems effectively because the more hardcore side of MOBA games really are enjoyable and can be very demanding in terms of teamwork, strategy, and player skill. Unfortunately the community does their best to ruin this for everyone.

      The good thing about Valve taking this issue on is that if anyone can find a way to change the social norms in these communities it is Valve. Riot Games (publisher ofLeague of Legends) has made some headway in fixing these issues but they have not introduced voice chat. If Valve can manage to create a version of Dota where I can play and not have to put up with over the top vitriol I will be very happy.

  4. My concern with an autocratic system is precisely the complaint we hear from trolls all the time – the limitation of free speech. Now I think that the trollish complaint is ridiculous when it comes to much of what they say, and in a community where it seems like the majority want to remain exclusive (a male gaming community being predominantly anti-female being the prime example), self-policing is problematic. But I also don’t like the idea that a company can dictate what can or cannot be said – in that system, there is no leeway for changing language or politics, and ideologies and ideas can be suppressed that shouldn’t be.
    I don’t think a purely communal approach will work, either, however, but it seems to me that a hybrid system that includes feedback from the community (perhaps to initiate oversight from a company) would produce the “fairest” results. But it isn’t perfect, either. I think there are online communities that are capable of self-policing because the majority of their members want a respectful atmosphere. I also think there are communities where that isn’t the case, and perhaps in those communities more autocracy on the part of the company or system is needed.

  5. I have no problem with the precedent of companies limiting what can be said on their turf. In the same way I think it’s completely legit for a Walmart to throw a customer out for yelling slurs and verbally harassing other customers (and they get to choose what qualifies as that), there’s nothing wrong with Valve deciding what can and cannot be said in the game they run.

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