“Ha ha! I bet you’ve got a really small dick,” LOL-ed the American teenage boy over the crackle of the headset and the sound of intermittent machine-gun fire.
“Actually, I haven’t got a dick,” I replied equably. This sent him off into further hysterics. “Dude, what’s wrong with you?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m a girl.”
I still remember the shocked silence that followed this, intercut with the laughter of my team-mates.
Replaying the memory, I like to imagine that was the moment I popped out from behind a rampart and no-scoped him from half a mile away. Sadly, I doubt it – I probably fired a rocket launcher at my feet instead in a fit of over-excitement – but it stands out as a rare moment when someone tried to be rude to me on Xbox Live, and my gender actually helped. Often, being a girl who plays games online can feel like walking round with a big sign saying “Got any hilarious jokes about sandwiches or kitchens? Try them out here!”
I object to the fact that people who were still not in full control of their bowels when the first Halo game came out now make my life a misery every time I try to play FPS multiplayer. “You’re going to get raped!” they squeal at me. Sometimes, they and all their teammates gang up on me, ignoring other male players through their sheer excitement at the thought of being able to shoot a woman. Repeatedly, I get singled out, either in a goggle-eyed, roll-up-to-see-the-gaming-lady way, or in a malevolent, I-have-always-wanted-to-call-a-real-life-person-a-whore way.
Of course, I’m not the only one. The Fat, Ugly or Slutty website has been recording the lowlights of game culture for years now. (“Would you like to watch me masterbate [sic] on video chat? You don’t have to talk or be my friend),” is just about the most genteel contribution.) And it’s not just sexism which is the problem – there’s a potent brew of racism and homophobia in there too, with “faggot” and “gay” being two of the most over-used synonyms for “not as technically proficient with an assault rifle as you could be”.
Women get hit particularly hard, though, because their difference from the presumed mainstream is immediately apparent: through voice chat and through their avatars. A new documentary on BBC radio perfectly captures the response of some gamers to the news there’s a woman about: what are your breasts like, I bet you’re ugly, I bet you don’t have a boyfriend.
The effect of this on me, and other female gamers I’ve spoken to, is to feel excluded by the community. The statistics showing greater numbers of women playing games don’t address the fact that many genres are still heavily male; I can’t count on two hands the number of other women I came across while playing Halo – and I played a LOT over the years. (Of course, perhaps there were many more out there, but they didn’t feel they could dare go on voice chat.) While such intense and widespread harassment exists, that’s unlikely to change.
Part of the tide of sexual harassment dished up to female gamers must be down to what Penny Arcade termed the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. I’ve written extensively about the sexist abuse that female writers get when publishing online, ranging from dismissive comments about their appearance to crushingly repetitive rape threats.
This isn’t news to anybody, but some men don’t like women very much, and they particularly don’t like them doing things which they see as male preserves: both gaming itself and writing about games fall squarely into this bracket. (Mark Sorrell wrote brilliantly about the absurd reaction to Emma Boyes’s excellent piece on Saints Row 3, noting: “If that exact same article had been written by a man, not a single one of those comments would have been written.”) Other men are just as tired of the “banter”, but don’t know what to do about it: when I tweeted about the BBC documentary, I had dozens of replies from men who had either switched voice chat off entirely, or stuck to playing only against friends.
So: misogyny. It exists. But what can be done about it? The first thing must be for everyone in the gaming community to refrain from using sexist language (yes, that includes using “rape” for anything which is not rape) even in the heat of battle. Next, don’t be silently complicit: when a woman is being silenced, or verbally abused, why are you putting up with it? Internet pricks are trying to make you part of this, to say that this is normal, that it’s the women who complain who have the problem. It’s not.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to tell Microsoft and Sony that, actually, this is kind of a big deal. There’s a perception that racist, sexist and homophobic language isn’t taken very seriously online, and mealy mouthed statements such as “bullying and harassment are not welcome on Xbox Live” mean nothing without action to back them up. Perhaps it’s too much to expect giant international companies to take a moral stand: but they would certainly be forced into action if all the people quietly cancelling their Gold subscriptions, or deciding not to buy the next COD or Battlefield, made their voices heard.
We might also point out that none of this is helping gamers in their continuing mission to convince the world that we’re not all mouth-breathing basement dwellers. (We should also have a word with the people behind the new Hitman trailer, and maybe tell designers about this great invention called underwiring.) Videogame fans are more diverse than ever before – older and younger and in more different colours and shapes and genders – and a subset of shouty bigots must not be allowed to define us.
As for me, I decided to do two things: switch off my headset, and make my Spartan armour the girliest fondant pink imaginable. (Seriously. It makes my teeth ache just to look at it.) That means that somewhere out there, a foul-mouthed teenager is still sore about being shot by the Halo equivalent of the Sugar Plum Fairy – but I didn’t have to hear about it.