Breaking the Gender Barrier in Gaming

I’ve been playing video games since I was four years old. I’ve scaled Mount Hyrule and plunged through Zora’s Domain. I’ve run through every castle in the Mushroom Kingdom until I found the princess.  I’ve stopped international conspiracies by nefarious weapons corporations using my secret agent skills.  I’ve saved Azeroth more times than I can count. I battled off the Zerg and the Protoss from the Koprulu Sector.  I’ve saved my Vault from dying of thirst, and found the GECK for my people. I’ve even rallied the galaxy to fight off the Reapers.  And yet there’s one barrier that I have yet to surpass as a gamer: my gender.

Gaming can be a relaxing way to take the edge off a hard day (and a much healthier alternative to a stiff drink). However, many games are competitive, demanding and based around a battle to reign supreme. Even games centred on cooperation, like MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas such as DOTA 2 and League of Legends) or MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft) still have a strong element of competition to them. In a MOBA game, your opponent is the other team; World of Warcraft has hotly anticipated races to be the first to best new content and achieve fresh goals before the other top guilds have the chance.

It is in the best interest of all parties involved if online competitive gaming is a meritocracy; the more outside influences on a game’s outcome beyond player skill, the less competitive a game becomes. If a player purchases an account, with all the bells and whistles meant to be earned, already unlocked, that is considered inherently uncompetitive; the player has cheated the system and is scorned by the community.  If a game’s developers decide that the battlefield will be randomly, and without warning, scorched by one-hit-kill fireballs, it is unlikely that supremacy at that game will be decided by skill as opposed to luck.

But we must tackle the idea that the  myth of online gaming being based on meritocracy  simply isn’t true. Women are at a massive disadvantage when it comes to entering the gaming community.  Women and girls face hostility from their male peers, disinterest from developers, and overall the community is an unwelcoming place; sometimes this is so because of laziness and lack of effort, but a surprising amount of the time it is due to active deterrence.

There are large, glaring examples of this critical flaw in the gaming community.’s gaming community (/r/gaming) attacked Jennifer Hepler, a Bioware writer, for several of her comments regarding gaming.  Referred to as ‘Hamburger Helper’ and ‘the cancer killing Bioware’, Redditor corporateswine called Hepler an infection, blight, vermin, disease, sewage, plague and waste alongside images of her public comments on forums and from interviews.  The problem?  Several of the quotes were fake, and others were taken out of context.  /r/gaming happily jumped on the opportunity to trash Hepler to the point where she received personal threats, phone calls, and a flood of e-mails and twitter messages.  Many of the insults Hepler received concerned her appearance, weight and sex life. Defenders of Hepler were labelled ‘white knights’ (a man who defends a woman online in hopes of sex in return), soft, and other vulgar words referring to their weakness.

The Hepler incident was not a one-off fluke. When Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency began a Kickstarter project to fund a series of videos that would address the idea of popular tropes regarding women in video games, she received an overabundance of funding.  She also sparked a wave of hateful comments, threats, misogynist slurs and lies, and efforts to stop her videos from even beginning.  As of the writing of this article, Sarkeesian has not released a single video; the backlash was entirely towards the basis of her project, not the content of her arguments.  Sarkeesian stood firm in the face of rape threats, steady harassment, stalking, and even an indie video game where the player was invited to beat Sarkeesian into submission.

Miranda Pakozdi (left) was forced to throw a match to get away from Aris Bakhtanians' (right)sexual comments at the widely publicized Capcom Cross Assault Tournament.

While there are other high profile incidents like this, something that can be just as damaging is the day-to-day micro-harassment that women face online. Fat, Slutty or Ugly ( chronicles messages that women receive online, and they are far from pleasant.  One message is hardly enough to dissuade a player, but women often receive a flood of low level harassment over time, forcing women who are ‘out of the closet’ as women and not assumed to be men to either play with enclaves of men they know will be decent, hide their identity, or not play at all.

This is where the idea of meritocracy in gaming falls apart. Women and men have an entirely different social experience online to the point where it affects gameplay.  Male is considered to be normal, the default; female is an unusual specimen.  Gamers often argue that women don’t have to reveal their identities and that to do so is to seek attention.  However, there are two facets of gaming that make this an impossible task on a long enough timeline.  First, gaming is social.  People build relationships; talk with each other, share things about their lives.  When a man online gripes to his team that he can’t play another round because his girlfriend is coming over, he is revealing his gender; the difference is that no one is surprised by this information.  It is impossible to be both honest and friendly and hide your gender without an effort simultaneously, what is seen as clambering for attention is usually just a lack of self-censorship.  To claim that self-censorship is mandatory if women do not want to be harassed is both a ridiculous concept in terms of practicality, but also in terms of the idea that boys and men simply can’t control themselves in the presence of a female.  We can expect more from male gamers, because they are capable of it.

Secondly, revealing yourself as a female is inevitable when a game uses voice chat. Playing a game which requires intense cooperation without voice chat is like eating a plate of spaghetti without a fork.  It’s technically possible, but it’ll take longer and will be a bit messier.  In League of Legends, if a team chooses to run a combination of champions meant to quickly kill their opponents in lane such as Graves and Leona, a lack of communication can cost them the game.  Pinging and typing is not nearly as efficient as being able to speak. In the Left 4 Dead games, voice chat is great for setting up strategies, finding team mates who have drifted behind or been snagged by an Infected, or rallying your team to the finish line.  In World of Warcraft, calling your cooldowns and reminding teammates of strategy can save the day.  In a true meritocracy, voice chat must be open to all players, not just male ones.  If female players are harassed for the crime of having a woman’s voice, then they have lost out on an essential advantage.

There are already steps towards the sort of gaming environment that can create a true meritocracy for all players. League of Legends professional player and semi-celebrity Dyrus has sworn that he will stop using the word ‘rape’ publicly.  Feminist Frequency’s video documentary project on female tropes in video games has raised more money than thought possible thanks to the publicity and attention that trolls helped raise.  Games like Farmville, Angry Birds and Plants Versus Zombies are starting to bring more and more women into the gaming fold. The question is whether these efforts are enough.  While they build a solid foundation of accepting women, the community is still so heavily toxic as to run women out nearly immediately. One problem is that major nerd hubs on the Internet tend to be male dominated, and aggressively so. is famous for being a hive of misogyny – not just because of the Hepler debacle, but also for their habit of doxxing (spreading personal information) female posters and hosting subreddits such as /r/beatingwomen and /r/mensrights.  YouTube is crowded to the brim with kitchen jokes.  If the owners of the site want their comments and threads to be open to the average female gamer, they should consider moderation.  While there may be cries of censorship and free speech, I feel that gaining women and girls into these typically male circles would be worth the trade off.

Part of the responsibility lies on men in gaming communities. While it’s often considered common wisdom to ignore trolls, in reality, it only has negative consequences.  When a troll only receives positive reinforcement via laughter and agreement or achieving their goals by making their victim weep or yell, they have no impetus to change.  If the silent majority of mature males gave a ‘not cool’ and muted the troll or left the game, things might begin to change.  Players like Dyrus are making an amazing contribution to the gaming atmosphere by working on their attitude and throwing away terms like ‘rape’ in a derogatory tone, but other professional players can follow in his footsteps and try to be more like Dyrus and less like the infamous Starcraft player Destiny, who is well known for his crude rape jokes and constant slurs.

Sadly, just as the small minority of loud, obnoxious, bigoted gamers ruin the dialogue for their responsible and mature counterparts, the feminist and social critique of gaming is marred by activists who aren’t aware of diplomacy or proportional responses.  Feminist site Shakesville has gotten into quite a few scraps with gamers.  Melissa McEwan, in the explosive Fat Princess controversy of 2008, wrote “congrats on your awesome new game, Sony. I’m positively thrilled to see such unyielding dedication to creating a new generation of fat-hating, heteronormative assholes”, and during the ‘d***wolves’ controversy regarding a rape joke in a Penny Arcade strip, she suggested that the creators of Penny Arcade ‘be honest’ regarding their refusal to “give a f*** about rape survivors.” Radical feminists and activists immediately crank the debate to 11, drop terminology such as ‘rape culture’ ‘heteronormative’ or ‘privilege’ which are shorthand for complicated concepts while expecting their audience to grasp these terms perfectly, and are just generally hostile.  While it’s true that women and girls are driven out of gaming circles and belittled by a minority of men, turning around and returning the exact same behavior won’t win any progress.   To reach a true meritocracy and gaming utopia, all gamers – men and women alike – must band together to eradicate the barriers that impede the progress of female players. For the last few years, the debate on women and games has been flooded by the angriest of either side.  With a little effort and a little restraint, we can settle these problems together.  After all, isn’t the point of gaming to play?  The more the merrier.

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