Have you read Fat, Ugly or Slutty? If not, it's an education. Not a revelatory one, perhaps, but it's nonetheless a pretty shocking lesson on the behaviour male gamers exhibit towards women online.
But that's the way the internet is, right? Men act like turds because there's little threat of personal retribution. There's not much anyone can do, is there? It's just the way things are.
That's pretty much the state of mind that Margaret Robertson, an ex-editor of Edge and now development director at Hide&Seek, has taken ever since I've known her. She's always been at pains to distance herself from discussions about women and games. She'd never get involved in debates about the need for more women working in the industry, or about treatment online of female players. Games are games, and gamers are gamers, and games are the important thing. That she's female was totally by the by.
As such, she has never presented herself as overtly female online. The outcome being, as she relates in a new post on her blog, is that "I don’t get the flack that a lot of other women-on-the-internet, and especially women-on-the-games-internet get".
Great! Not really. She's now decided to turn her back on that old attitude because it's the result of fear and it has fundamentally affected the way she conducts herself online. "I have avoided making myself a target of sexist assholes by playing by their rules. I’ve done a blinding job of that so far. I think I’m going to stop doing that now."
Mark Sorrell, a friend of Margaret's and head of games at Screenpop, has written about the other side of the coin: being male and witnessing the impact of other males' behaviour on women in gaming communities online.
"There is a gathering number of smart and interesting women who state that they don’t write what they want to write because of the abuse they will get for doing so … It’s really bad for the game industry to have an atmosphere where women have to self-censor in order to avoid or placate a bunch of duck-brained super-ninnies."
Sorrell points towards men to "do something about it". He wants to instigate "a 'don't let it slide, get up and call bullshit' approach." He calls for better moderation on websites. "I am hoping that a couple of people might examine their own behaviour and question that of those around them. It's exactly that, on a grand scale, that does change things."
It's the grand scale bit that seems to be the issue here. A right-minded blog post that will mostly be read by men who already deplore the way women are treated online surely can't make major in-roads into the communities its message needs to be accepted.
Instead of having men change their attitudes, then, what about women? Perhaps Margaret has the better idea? After all, silence lets the ninnies win. Faced with an online world of women who disguise themselves and never talk back, dumb male keyboard warriors are never challenged by their quarries and have no reason to stop their bullying behaviour.
If more women were to be more vocal online – and present themselves overtly as female on their terms – they'd become part of the conversation, and the gaming online world would no longer be clearly dominated by men. Normalising the presence of women is surely the most powerful way of suppressing the behaviour documented by Fat, Ugly or Slutty. If past performance is anything to go by, men will only go so far in changing their own behaviour.
In other words, maybe it's time for women, as Francis Urquhart might say, to put a bit of stick about. It won't be a pleasant process, and there will be tears. But the current reality is not acceptable.