After the lecture, Jennifer Jenson sat down for a roundtable discussion about games. About fifteen were gathered, three women, the rest men. One man spoke up and shared a story about World of Warcraft. He played in a guild with a single mother of two. One evening, the guild was to go on a raid. The mother didn’t log on – both her children were sick. In the team chat, frustrated, he called her a “c***”. Jenson was shocked. The man, dumbfounded, said, “I don’t see why that was wrong.”
It goes without saying that sexism is a serious issue everywhere in society, but gaming is different. In terms of both the culture and the industry, Jenson, a professor at York University, argues that there is something unique about the gaming context.
“There’s a level of entitlement to be an asshole,” she said, “that isn’t in the rest of the world. That is the difference. I don’t get asked in any other context how that [the WoW player’s story] is an incorrect speech act.”
In the games industry, only 1 in 10 employees are female. However, roughly the same amount of women play games as men. Online, women are often harassed, degraded and marginalized. Grace, co-founder of the website Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which collects submissions of sexism from (mostly female) gamers, remains optimistic.
“Incremental change is how to get people to see that there’s a way,” she said. “Changing it all at once isn’t as easy as eroding the current structures that we have. You can do this small thing and watch the huge impact that it has, then go on to the next one.”
Fat, Ugly or Slutty has been one small but significant step for Grace (knowing what it means to be a girl on the Internet, she does not share her last name and achieves androgyny online by being known only as “gtz”). The website has slowed down recently as she focuses on other mostly sexism-related projects (like this and this), but she stands behind the site’s legacy.
“What I’m really proud of is the rhetorical power of the site [in] the archive format,” she said, “where I’m learning that it’s not actually a requirement for daily posts to make the argument that there is something different in women’s experiences online.”
The idea for the site, with the tagline “Every message is the same. I’m always either fat and ugly, or a slut,” was to simultaneously draw scrutiny towards the issue while primarily making others laugh.
“It’s stratospherically absurd how each individual message is,” she said, “and when you take them as a whole, it’s still funny.” She is quick, however, to note the fact that although it started as a joke, it wasn’t long before it took on an additional shape. “We were laughing,” she said, “but it wasn’t until later that I realized it was because I was so surprised and shocked that I was laughing. So it has this serious element, but it absolutely comes from a place of humour.”
Looking through the many images on the site, I noticed how in that majority of cases, I was surprised to notice that the offending gamertags or handles were not blanked out.
“We have had a couple people contact us, or come into the comments and act just as you’d expect the original behaviour that got them on the site would have them act,” Grace said. “But there was one person in particular that contacted us, and he said that he didn’t mean for it to be that way and he understands how none of that was appropriate, so he wouldn’t want to have his gamertag presented that way. He didn’t exactly say the perfect words or say he’s sorry, but we took his name off the site. He got it just that little bit, just enough. If you understand some of it, at least you’re on your way.”
In the future, she plans to stop including the gamertags.
Grace brought an interesting example to describe why women have such a harder time when gaming online.
“What I think it is for a lot of people is just straight up ignorance,” she said. “For example, what’s the likelihood that when a guy plays online, he’s going to pick a feminine gamertag, a feminine avatar? The odds are gonna be pretty low. For women, the odds that they would choose a male avatar, a male name, are going to be higher in comparison.”
“So what happens,” she continued, “is that you have women who will actually see the difference in treatment that they get being perceived as men versus being perceived as women. But if men don’t actually spend any time making efforts to be perceived as women, they are ignorant of what that experience is like, because they’ve got no reason to think that it’s different, so they assume that it’s the same. But there is a difference in the experience.”
Overall, Grace sees gaming’s issue with sexism as part of a much larger whole.
“Sexism in gaming is a tiny piece of the larger sexism problem in our culture,” she said, but she explains her optimism. “Other companies are taking notice, and we’re gonna start seeing tools being put in the hands of players. It’s so hopeful. This is why whenever people are talking about harassment and trolls, they get depressed and I get excited.”
“This is why I say baby steps,” she goes on. “What I’m really happy about is that the shock I had, and the shock so many guys [have] had with the site, it’s that it opens their mind even just a little bit, to start looking at the world through a different set of eyes.”
While FUoS provides an outlet for awareness, Jenson comes from a researcher’s perspective.
“We do empirical research so we can identify problems and issues and talk about how we can fix or address them,” she said. “That really is the feminist agenda. It’s not to just document what’s happening, we’re saying we know what’s happening, now we need to work to change it.”
Jenson is the organizer of Feminists in Games, an annual workshop devoted to better understanding the gender digital divide and to finding solutions for it (Grace was a panelist at this year’s workshop). Most of the feedback, from developers, designers and gamers, has been positive.
“We’ve had people who’ve e-mailed us,” she said, “to say they’re part of the industry and they really want to have more conversations about this, that there aren’t enough conversations about this, and these are from both women and men. We’ve also heard from community members, people who’ve very much benefitted from some of the seed funding opportunities that we’ve made possible.”
“We had some interesting negative pushback,” she said, “someone called us feminist circle-jerks or something. [laughs] I think the negative stuff is actually useful, too, helping to prove our point.”
Jenson puzzles over the rampant sexism in gaming culture.
“A lot of girls know they don’t belong,” she said. “All they have to do is open a magazine, look at an online gaming website. They’re told that where they do belong is in this marginalized pink way, if you look at the broad message that is out there.”
“For some reason,” she continued, “games companies tend to have these really hostile work environments for women, not just because of the kinds of jobs people are doing, but because women are subjected to porn on the walls and on computers, because they’re outright stalked or harassed.”
“I can’t tell you the number of people who I’ve talked to,” she shared, chillingly, “that said people feel like it’s perfectly their right to follow them around at GDC for 3 days. That’s not cool.”
Jenson and Grace both pointed out two recent developments, the Xbox One’s new approaches to matching players and monitoring harassment and Riot Games’ new tribunal behaviour system for League of Legends, as examples of systemic improvement. But more must be done.
“We have to take the reigns in our own hands and make the changes that we want,” Jenson said, “because they aren’t just going to happen.”
“I think the conversation’s changing.” Grace said. “You know when you see people get mad about, like, ‘Argh, we get it, you’re a girl and you’re a gamer, we don’t even care’. Even that kind of anger is borne from the idea that they accept women gamers as normalized. So the conversation is different. I play the long game, so these are baby steps.”
In the meantime, Grace still enjoys laughing at the archived submissions at FUoS. “The very act is so weird,” she said, “and bizarre, and without merit on almost every level that everything about it combines into this perfect thing.”
She shared with me her all-time, for-the-books, absolute favourite submission she has ever received, posted to the site on February 6, 2011. “Is he sending it just out into the ether,” she wonders, “or is it supposed to be some sort of escalating conversation? It’s just magical, every part of it.”