Misogyny in gaming

Just an average Blood Elf mage

Just an average Blood Elf mage (Art by Genzoman in Deviantart)

This is not a post about Gamergate.

I have been trying to stay out of the Gamergate discussion from the start, mostly because having missed a big part of the controversy, it has become increasingly more difficult to understand exactly what is going on, but also because I suspect that the whole movement is not at all about gaming, and more about misogyny and trolling. This suspicion seems justified now that the cause has been hijacked by the American right as a rallying cry against feminism. Needless to say, threats and harassment are unacceptable types of behaviour, both online and in the real world.

This post is a complaint about the appalling levels of misogyny in games. A lot of the recent debate about gender in gaming tends to concentrate on the issue of game design and characterisation. While I recognise that there are some troublesome depictions of females in games, I actually do not see this as the main problem. Gaming simply shares many of the misogynistic characterisations that can be found in storytelling in general, from literature to film. Needless to say, there are some horrendous characterisations out there, and the damsel in distress trope is still alive and well. Similarly, there are some over-the-top character designs; just recently I installed a ArchAge, a new MMORPG, and had to stop playing almost immediately due to the laughable jiggly bits of some of the female characters. However, I have enjoyed playing some amazing female characters in games such as Planescape Torment, Knights of the Old Republic and Heavenly Sword, just to name a few of my favourites. You can find good games and bad games, just like you can find good movies and bad.

The main issue is with gamers themselves. For many years I have been fond of MMORPGs, and I have enjoyed greatly games like Ultima Online, City of Heroes, Star Wars The Old Republic and World of Warcraft. The common denominator in all of those games has been the baffling levels of open misogyny on display in open chat. You can read pretty much everything there, I once quit a guild because two members were openly telling each other that “a little bit of rape never hurt anyone”; it is also often common to read run-of-the-mill misogyny like “I need a girl to cook for me”, to more serious language and harassment issues. As I sometimes play female characters I have been on the receiving end of some shocking behaviour when the perpetrator assumed that I was female. Needless to say, most of these practices go unpunished.

You could be justified in thinking that I should just stop playing and abandon these cesspools of misogyny, but that is precisely the point that I am trying to convey. Why should normal people abandon public spaces to the trolls?

One explanation for the rampant levels of misogyny is that it could all be about gaming demographics: your average gamer is a nerdy teenager with poor social skills. But the actual demographics are more interesting, at least in the MMO arena. In 2004 Nick Yee conducted a comprehensive survey, and found that only 25% of MMO players were teenagers, and about 15% were female and just under a quarter were over 35. A study in 2008 found that there were 40% of women playing MMOs, while a more recent study places the figures around 25%. These figures fit my own experience, and the picture that emerges is that while females are a minority, the public spaces are almost entirely male. This means that women are either staying quiet or hiding in the public environments. The abandonment of public space to the most extreme voices could very well be one of the common issues that we are facing, and this is shared with other public spaces such as Twitter.

Some of the abuse and open misogyny could be up to the stereotypical teenager, but other types of abuse could simply be fuelled by anonymity and social norms. Some people go through life harbouring resentment and closet misogyny, and then they go online where these tendencies are accepted and appreciated, which reinforces the view and radicalises the behaviour. This will only change as long as those norms are challenged. This is almost impossible, it is futile to try to argue with trolls online. The change must come from gamers themselves, and seeing the toxic levels in the conversation due to #gamergate, we are facing an uphill battle. But change the culture we must, hence this short rant.

I’m off for now, my blood elf mage needs levelling.