I am a cis-gendered, straight woman who plays video games on the internet. I do actually exist.
Most of you are probably getting pretty sick of seeing articles like this. Gamergate supposedly blew over months ago, and I’m sure everyone just wants to get back to normal life. The problem is that women online can’t get back to a normal life, because we’re in constant fear that voicing our opinion will lead to massive backlash. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take us voicing our opinion, as evidenced by reddit’s explosion over Ellen Pao, which is just another example in a long list of hateful campaigns targeted at women online. I’ll make you a deal: articles like this will stop being written when crap like the reddit blackout stops.
Just so we’re clear, I’m going to talk specifically about the gaming community in this article. I could write an entire article on gender equality in games themselves (how many games actually pass the Bechdel Test?), but with companies like BioWare doing their thing, that problem at least seems to be improving dramatically.
John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory, officially called the Online Disinhibition Effect, is a theory which states that normal people turn into gigantic assholes when given anonymity and an audience. It has become a massive phenomenon with the rise of the internet, and many minorities have become the unwitting target of a small – albeit extremely vocal – group of f*ckwads. More often than not, that minority in the hardcore gaming community has turned out to be women. Jokes like “There are no women on the internet” or “Girls only play Candy Crush” are usually laughed at, assumed to be examples of Poe’s Law, and then ignored, even though they clearly aren’t true. While these jokes are considered socially acceptable, problems like Gamergate will continue to crop up. With Gamergate still fresh in our minds, we need to remember that this is not a new problem. Misogyny and sexism have existed as long as women have been a minority anywhere.
I recently read an article about the correlation between losses and negative comments directed toward women in Halo 3 . The article explains that negative comments between men tend to stay pretty consistent, regardless of performance. However, as a male gamer performs worse in the game, his nastiness towards women increases dramatically. It seems that the only way to avoid this issue is to lie about your gender. I love playing Halo, but I’m not very good at it. I rarely play multiplayer and instead stick to playing campaign on easy. The few times I have ventured into multiplayer, I’ve come across requests to send nude pictures and various other derogatory comments. My screen name is pretty obviously female (The Arbitress), and Halo gives you the option to have the grunts and death gurgles voiced by a female voice actress. I love having the option to pick female voice overs, but is the price of that freedom uncalled for catcalls? I suspect that if I were to play more multiplayer, I’d come across a lot more negativity.
When I don’t make my gender obvious, I seem to be accepted into the pack. A survey taken last year claimed that 95% of r/Halo subscribers are male. My reddit username, /u/Rhydnara, seems pretty feminine to me, but people have called me “Bro” when responding to my posts in that subreddit community. The assumption that I’m male doesn’t bother me; it’s not even something worth correcting, but it does make it very obvious that I’m in the minority over there. Thankfully, I haven’t come across any real sexism on that subreddit, but then I’m extremely careful with what I post, because I don’t want to suffer any backlash.
A lot of the gaming communities have very skewed gender ratios. As I mentioned, r/Halo seems to be 95% men, but r/Masseffect is about 80% male and r/Dota2 is about 95% male. Thankfully, not all gaming subreddits have such skewed ratios. For example, r/Dragonage is about 46% female and 3% gender queer, most likely because BioWare always goes out of their way to be as inclusive as possible. As a result, the fan base seems to contain one of the most equal gender ratios of any gaming community I’ve found.
Of course, gender ratio doesn’t automatically mean harassment. I’ve never faced harassment on r/Halo, and r/Dragonage is one of the friendliest communities I’ve ever come across. Both subreddits provide great evidence that gender ratio doesn’t have to be linked to harassment at all. That said, I don’t know if anyone has ever pointed any of this out over at r/Halo. A survey was passed around 8chan (an offshoot of 4chan with a community spawned just to circulate Gamergate discussion) asking for the gender ratio. Most responses consisted of “Fuck you,” or “Eat shit.” Pointing out or trying to figure out gender ratio is often met with a severe lack of enthusiasm, except on r/Dragonage where I’ve seen several posts praising the community for being so inclusive. I have yet to work out any concrete formula on what will be upvoted and what will be downvoted on reddit.
One thing that was upvoted – across basically all subreddits – was the harassment of reddit CEO Ellen Pao.
A few weeks ago, reddit employee Victoria Taylor, who coordinated some of reddit’s “Ask me Anything” threads, was fired. The internet rallied behind this woman, and spoke out against reddit; specifically, they spoke out against Ellen Pao. Several subreddits went private, which basically meant no one could access them. Protests were breaking out everywhere on the site, and nasty images flooded subreddits like r/pics.
Chris Pratt, Mother Theresa, and Hitler are chatting about themselves. Chris Pratt claims that he’s the most loved celebrity in the world. Mother Theresa claims she’s the most holy woman in the world. Hitler claims he’s the most hated person in the world. They all agree, and suggest they go to the Guinness Book of World Records office to stake their claim.
They make their way to the office. Chris Pratt goes first, and comes out ecstatic. “Yep!” He says. “I’m the most loved celebrity in the world!”
Mother Theresa goes next. She comes out, praises God, and says “I am indeed the most holy woman, next to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Hitler goes next, and storms out, exclaiming “Who the hell is Ellen Pao?!”
This was an actual joke I found a few days ago on r/jokes. Godwin’s Law states that any argument on the internet will invariably lead to someone calling someone else Hitler and/or a Nazi. The behavior is stupid and childish and proves that people always go for the kneejerk reaction. Regardless of what anyone like Pao has done, it does not compare to the wholesale genocide caused by Adolf Hitler.
One particularly disgusting part of this saga was that it wasn’t even Pao’s fault. In the end, it was discovered that Pao had nothing to do with Victoria Taylor’s firing. Unfortunately, people latched onto a public, female figure and launched an attack, including racist and misogynistic death threats. There are numerous things people could have done to support Pao, but that support only materialized after she resigned. The man behind Taylor’s firing, Alexis Ohanian, was never even mentioned.
As bad as this event may have been, it still doesn’t top what happened to Jennifer Hepler, a lead writer at BioWare. Hepler was instrumental in the development of Dragon Age, and was listed as the lead writer for Dragon Age II. When Dragon Age II hit the market, common complaints against the game were the reduced combat tactics and repetitive environments. These may be valid arguments, but of course it didn’t end there; a few deranged f*ckwads (I’m not even going to call them fans) absolutely lost their minds. They turned against Hepler, pinning all of their complaints solely on her. They started launching death threats and threatened to kidnap and kill her children. Quoting Hepler, one forum post “…Included graphic threats to kill my children on their way out of school to show them that they should have been aborted at birth rather than have to have me as a mother.” Some of these people even got a hold of her home phone number and called in these threats. Is it any wonder Hepler left BioWare?
And, of course, there’s Gamergate. What do Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Jenn Frank, and Mattie Brice all have in common? They are all women who have been sent death threats and in some cases forced from their homes because of the explicit hatred sent their way. All this garbage started when an ex-boyfriend of Zoe Quinn blogged, in vivid detail, claims about how Quinn had slept her way to the top with various men in the gaming industry. For some reason – and with no proof – gamers took this as a personal affront to their moral standards and took to Twitter, reddit, and 4chan to protest this ethical breach.
Somehow it spread to any woman who voiced an opinion on the issue, and then Adam Baldwin stepped in to name it “Gamergate.” This was all back in 2013, and we’re still feeling the effects of it. Another round of hatred flared up back in October. Many, many people have written articles about it – many anonymously to avoid attracting the same type of attention Quinn (and countless others) gained from having the gall to be a woman voicing her mind. I’ve avoided writing anything on the matter, because I’m kind of afraid I’ll end up with death threats in my voicemail. But hey, I’m only a part time writer under a fake name on a relatively small site that only gets a hundred or so views a day, so I should be safe, right? (Cue nervous laughter)
Many supporters of the Gamergate movement claim that at its heart, it is about ethics in journalism. I haven’t taken a very close look at these complaints, because anything I hear about Gamergate comes down to misogyny. If a conversation about ethics in journalism is necessary (which it may very well be, it just isn’t something I often pay attention to), then by all means have that conversation; just don’t link it to this movement, because Gamergate itself has become a vehicle for misogyny and needs to be abandoned.
While some controversies only have one side (like evolution – don’t teach the controversy, because there isn’t one), there is actually another side to this one. Women occupy a unique position in gaming, and some women do take advantage of this minority status. Everyone’s seen a picture of a cute, half naked woman clutching an Xbox controller in some lewd position, proof that this woman is a “gamer girl.” The only thing that type of picture proves is that you’re willing to whore yourself out for attention.
Women shouldn’t have to hide the fact that they’re female online, but at the same time, it’s not something that should be flaunted. Coming up with clever names like “Booba Fett” unnecessarily brings attention to the fact that you have two X chromosomes. Flaunting cleavage will only encourage idiots to ask for boob pics. Women, we’re making it worse with this kind of behavior.
To be fair, I know that I can be just as bad sometimes. I used to be the only female employee at my local Gamestop, a position I greatly enjoyed. I did get some creepy customers now and then, but for the most part I just bragged that I was the store’s token female (I was 17 at the time, and an idiot). I’m also fairly sure I only got that job because 1) I am a woman, and 2) I went full fangirl, hugging someone dressed as Master Chief at the Halo 3 midnight launch. The Gamestop manager oversaw my display and essentially gave me a job on the spot. I’ve frequently been called the Token Vag on this site, and not always by someone else. I’ve used the title as well (I’m 25 and still an idiot). It’s nice to enjoy this extra attention, but it’s not worth the fallout from movements like Gamergate.
The day we find equality is the day we stop making gender anything special. Don’t hate on it, don’t flaunt it. Just let it be.
I know the tone of the article so far has been that harassment online only happens to women. The truth is, harassment can happen to anyone. Just look at the shitstorm that happened when Mass Effect 3 came out. Fans again lost their minds that the ending of a beloved franchise wasn’t as expected. I’m not defending the ending here; the Mass Effect 3 ending was definitely bad.
However, this is where a sense of entitlement came into play. Fans expected and demanded a certain kind of ending, and when they didn’t get it, they took to the internet to vent their frustration. BioWare employees, both male and female, came under attack. Thankfully, even among all of the negativity, I don’t quite remember any death threats being thrown around. Sure, there was a Scumbag BioWare meme going around, and reaffirmation of Godwin’s Law, but things didn’t escalate to nearly as many serious threats of violence as Gamergate. No one called for the death of Mac Walters. I was at the PAX East following the game’s release, and BioWare did an excellent job of communicating with the fans about our reception to the game. Everyone was civil and polite.
Ironically, many of the men who come under fire do so because they defend women. Game developer Tim Schafer faced death threats for defending Anita Sarkeesian when she posted a video analyzing violence against women in games. So yes, violence can come from both sides, but what causes the threats to escalate often ends up being somehow linked to gender equality.
Let me get a little preachy here for a bit. When I was a freshman in college, I had to attend a seminar about campus safety. Most of it boiled down to this: if you are a woman, don’t go outside alone at night. I had a very strong fear instilled in me, a fear that very few guys I know can understand, one that’s not easy to explain. Unfortunately, women in this day and age need to have a fear instilled in them in order to stay safe. The fact of the matter is that violence against women is extremely common place, and from the get-go it’s just assumed to be one of the facts of life.
I was discussing this article with a male coworker the other day when he commented that he welcomed death threats from the internet. He said that if a kid wanted to show up at his door, he’d just pull out a shotgun. Men and women have different reactions to this sort of threat; if someone threatened to attack me in my home, I wouldn’t rely on gun ownership – that’s a very different sort of mentality. Something could be said for the “Come at me, bro” approach (where any threat is seen as an excuse to start a fight), but for a woman, retaliation can lead to escalation. Instead of fighting, our best option is often to flee.
So what can actually be done about all this negativity? First and foremost, don’t be a f*ckwad. You are not entitled to anything from these games. Telling Jennifer Hepler to kill herself because you don’t like the combat in Dragon Age II makes you a f*ckwad. If you don’t like the product, don’t buy it. You are also not entitled to free speech to the extent that you can call people and threaten the lives of their children. The first step is with you. This counts for men and women.
Everyone also needs to understand what actually constitutes harassment. A lot of harassment isn’t intentional, but some behaviors – regardless of their intentions – are still inappropriate. Amanda Warner, co-founder of indie game developer Giant Spacekat. After running into an old acquaintance and chatting with them about gaming, she received the following email shortly afterwards:
“By the way, I don’t want to sound like a creep, and I know you have a husband, but I just wanted to let you know I think you’re smoking hot. If your company ever needs any help play-testing or contract work, let me know!”
I’ve been told time and time again to just accept a compliment when I’m given one – and a compliment is wonderful when it has to do with the matter at hand. I design nuclear submarines; when I’m at work or talking about work with an acquaintance, it’s perfectly acceptable to compliment my work designing nuclear submarines. However, in that context, pointing out that I’m “smoking hot” is not appropriate in any way. The workplace harassment videos most people have to watch on their first day of work may be repetitive and come off as silly, but anyone who thinks the aforementioned email is acceptable needs a refresher in those videos.
In addition to not being a f*ckwad on the internet, you can support people when they start to get attacked. Ellen Pao mentioned that the vast majority of people were supportive of her in the wake of all the hate. Jennifer Hepler noted the same, and went on to specify that many members of the LGBTQ community reached out to her to say that the inclusivity of the Dragon Age world helped them with their own lives. Messages like these remind those under attack that there are still good people out there. We all need to keep in mind that while internet f*ckwads may be incredibly vocal, they are still the minority.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me
Alright, I may have just perpetuated Godwin’s Law, to some extent. However, the point is still valid; by staying silent, you allow hatred to exist.
Women have a part to play, as well. Don’t follow the advice of this article, as it suggests that women should stick to Facebook and Pinterest, because those tend to have an even ratio of men to women. The answer to all of this negativity is not to hide in places of the internet where we’re well represented. I adore Halo. My next tattoo is going to be from Halo. I’m going to frequent r/Halo whether or not I’m outnumbered by men.
Alright, I think that’s enough internet shittiness for one day. Here’s a picture of Dogmeat from the Fallout universe to make you feel better.