There & Back Again: A Survivor’s Journey Through Video Game Culture

[Screenshot by Kit.]
[Screenshot by Kit.]

I don’t remember a lot of my childhood, but I remember getting the PlayStation. The first game my older brother and I played on it was Tekken, and I immediately kicked his ass with my invincible six-year-old button-mashing skills. I quickly moved on to cuter games like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Klonoa: Door to Phantomile and let me tell you, those games were my jam. Growing up, the less “realistic” the game, the more time I was going to put into it. The type of gaming I did as a kid was pretty much the type of gaming I do now: I preferred my enemies disappearing in a puff of smoke to excessive violence and gore. Occasionally, I’d play fighting and racing games with my brother or we’d team up in more violent games like Future Cop: LAPD, but I spent most of my time with Crash and Klonoa. I only felt comfortable with more violent games if my brother was there. He would fight boss battles for me because I found them to be stressful and upsetting, which defeated the purpose of gaming for me completely.

Gaming was more than entertainment: it was an escape from reality. My brother and I used video games as a coping strategy and distraction from our lives where we felt helpless. Our abusive father both provided this escapism and the reason we needed it in the first place. My brother played more aggressive games to express his frustrations while my style was more lighthearted, but both of us were just looking for an outlet.

As I got older, the use of gaming as an escape became even more essential. My parents were going through a horrific divorce, and I was severely depressed. I spent most of my time sleeping, because when I was awake I felt completely powerless. The only game I played was The Sims, and I spent hours building a world in which I had control. I was obsessed with The Sims and played it every day until I was 14, when my brother acquired a closed beta account for World of Warcraft. I had watched him play Diablo and Warcraft and they hadn’t interested me, but he worked hard to convince me that this was something I would like, too. And he was right.

Being in the early stages of soft-goth teen angst, I started out as a warlock. It took one day to get me completely hooked, thus starting a long-running battle between my brother and I over computer time. World of Warcraft was the major source of our sibling fights, and it quickly became an obsession for both of us. Once the game was released, we were able to play simultaneously on different computers, and when our friends bought it we all joined a guild together. Sometimes our friends would bring over their computers and we’d all watch Legends of the Hidden Temple and play WoW and eat pizza, and it was wonderful. I gave years of my life to World of Warcraft, and a lot of that time was fun.

Unfortunately, a lot of that time was also filled with misogynistic microaggressions and sexual harassment. Random groups contained people who used slurs as punctuation, and god forbid they find out I was a girl: the mood would change, and I had to laugh along with whatever awful things they decided to throw at me. I hardened myself to fit in. I laughed at the “jokes,” I used slurs flippantly, I brushed off abusive language, and agreed that people who wouldn’t participate in this toxic community were just “too sensitive.” I ended up in a romantic relationship with our adult guild leader who lived in another country. I walked a fine line between feeling “grown-up” and incredibly uncomfortable. 

I tolerated the constant barrage of sexism and convinced myself that the endless parade of random men who hit on me were just paying me compliments. I was an underage teen in an internet community filled with adult strangers trying to act tough and mature. My confidence and self-esteem became more and more eroded, and I didn’t have the ability or the resources to understand the causes, so I drifted away from the game. I didn’t play for years—time that I used to battle with myself. I came out as queer, I challenged my own misogyny, racism, and general internalized bigotry. I realized that I had to change, I had to care, and I had to try to be better. I looked back at my 24/7 gaming days, back at World of Warcraft, and wondered if it had changed, too.

I came back to the game in my early 20s with a determination to have fun, which translated to “pretending I wasn’t a girl.” My feminism was pretty basic, and my strategy shifted from changing myself to participate in this toxic culture to hiding myself. I didn’t want to attract sexual attention from men in any way, so I stopped playing elves and young human women. My characters were all either elderly human women or orcs and trolls who didn’t sport any of the “cute” face options, and I have to say, the sexual harassment stopped.

Alliance or Horde, strangers were so irritated that my chosen avatar didn’t exist to aesthetically please them that I got random whispers and men running up to me in-game to berate me for it. “Why is your avatar so old/ugly/gross/etc.?!” My response was always to say, “I don’t fucking care what you think” and block them, but it wore on me. I didn’t feel safer. The casual “locker room” sexism continued in instance groups, despite none of it being directed at me. I felt like I couldn’t win. I started calling out the misogyny in these groups, sometimes even in trade or general chat. The result was always the same: I’d be mocked, and the men would double down on their abuse, often becoming defensive and saying it was “just a joke.”

[Screenshot by Kit.]
[Screenshot by Kit.]

In one group, I met someone who told me their guild leader was a lesbian and she co-ran it with her girlfriend. This was incredible to me. I had always dreamed of joining an all-female and/or queer guild and finally feeling some sense of community where I could let my guard down a bit. I asked to join, and they eagerly accepted me. I was super enthusiastic and gushed that I was so happy to find other lesbians in the game. The guild leaders immediately asked me to join Ventrilo, saying that they wanted to hear my voice. This was the typical line that I got from most male-led guilds, and it was always followed by increased sexual attention, so it gave me pause. I put them off for a little bit, but they didn’t talk too much in guild chat, so I relented and joined vent. General guild vent was upbeat with some ribald joking, but once I started talking with a headset the pressure started.

The nature of the guild leaders’ conversations with me became more and more sexually explicit. No matter how much I laughed them off or changed the subject, both guild leaders flirted with me relentlessly. I got more and more uncomfortable, taking longer breaks from playing that character until I returned, angry with myself that I couldn’t face them head-on and say they were being inappropriate. I knew why it was hard to call out this behavior: I had enjoyed my brief feelings of community and didn’t want to endanger it, and I was having a lot of trouble coming to terms with sexual aggression from queer women. When I returned, the sexual propositioning became more explicit and they asked me to join them in their relationship. I gave up and cancelled my account.

Misogyny and harassment was the background noise of my entire gaming experience. As a child, I didn’t understand the misogyny, as a teenager I intentionally denied it (and even participated in it), and as a young adult I tried to avoid and then to fight it. The microaggressions all built up, a constant negative buzzing that overwhelmed all my positive experiences. The only time I ever felt safe in World of Warcraft was when I was utterly alone, and I realized that was the answer. I was done. The “lesbian incident” had been the final straw; I could not find a safe space where I wasn’t sexualized even with other marginalized people. I was disgusted with gaming culture and nerd culture in general.

Being unable to see a positive future for gaming really upset me. I had grown up with games, I loved them, but all I could see was the legion of awful people ruining lives and going to extremes to maintain the oppressive status quo within the gaming industry and culture. Video games felt like a loss; all the news I heard was negative and my memories were marred with the frustration of having to navigate fantasy worlds just as delicately as I had to in my daily life. I only thought about gaming in relation to how toxic it was for women and marginalized groups. I didn’t touch my Xbox for anything other than Netflix for years, but I missed video games and how much they used to help me.

One day, my best friend bought me Dragon Age: Origins on a whim and I loved it so much I bought DA2 the moment I beat it. I was so far out of the loop that I hadn’t even heard of those games, and they blew my mind. I could romance other women while playing a woman! When my male teammates irritated me, I could play through the game with an all-female team (just kidding, Varric was ALWAYS with me, he’s amazing). I had choices, I had agency, and I didn’t have to tolerate casual misogyny while I saved Thedas. While still avoiding gaming culture, I started to enjoy playing games again.

Gone HomeMy best friend, who always knew more about games than me, was so excited about Gone Home that I bought it the day it came out. For the first hour or so I was reluctant and grumpy, constantly expecting a jump scare. But by the end, I was crying and I wanted to tell everyone on the internet how happy I was. A game existed that I could really identify with! I felt hope for the future; for gaming, tech, and marginalized peoples’ place within those spheres. I started participating again—actually using Twitter to reach out to people, to search for community. I got more vocal about social justice activism, which has come with negative repercussions. My relationship with my brother has been destroyed—he is a Gamergate supporter. It turns out that the clear line between SJW and GG runs right down the middle of my family. We no longer speak. But I’m still hopeful that he and the other gamers who feel like he does will stop feeling so threatened by little games about lesbians trying to find their way. You can always come back to gaming, especially now that inclusivity is becoming a priority in the industry. For the first time since I was a kid, I finally feel like there is a space for me in video games.

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12 Comments on “There & Back Again: A Survivor’s Journey Through Video Game Culture

  1. Kit! Just wanted to chime in here by saying your article definitely struck a very familiar note with me. Some of your experiences exactly mirror mine, and though I never thought lady gamers were alone in these experiences, reading this kinda made me go, “oh yeah, we ARE really in this together” a bit more strongly than usual. Escapism is a subject I’ve written papers about and think about often. Though I never allowed myself to fully take that step into an online gaming community (I play a little GTA5 online from time to time,) a lot of your conversations with others about gaming in general are spot on.

    Where you became more attached to fantastical games, I went more your brother’s route and got into ultra violent stuff. Now whenever I find myself in a confrontational conversation with another gamer I find myself speaking in an aggressive tone which I know is more palatable to dudes. (this being an odd problem a lot of nerdy women have to face.) my lingo communicates that “i’m just one of the guys” which gives me, after, deep feelings of frustration. I AM one of the guys! (“guys”/”gang”/”team”) …but… wait… only by my OWN perception? Or? But? What?!? And what if that’s just how I speak naturally all the time? Am I overcompensating? Are they? Being hyper aware of my tone while discussing something I love so much is alarming and frustrating and confusing all at once. Is my genuine love of gaming invalidated because to them I’m some sort of anomaly? The paradox of the girl gamer is a myth. We are a strong and ever growing demographic! The obvious connection to a larger struggle over women’s equality in general makes this niche battle that much more aggravating. As a woman who has also been long term employed by the comic book shop world, the struggle is pan-nerdiverse. (I’ve actually had dudes ask me “is there a man I can speak to?”) But you know what? They’re old testament. They are part of a generation which is dying out and being replaced by younger gamers with different viewpoints. Keep loving what you love! Don’t tolerate bad behavior! The media is meant for your consumption as much as anyone else is entitled to it. You are definitely not alone in your experiences and thoughts, and that in and of itself at least to me is very encouraging.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! It’s really encouraging to hear other female game-players share their experiences with misogyny in gaming culture; a lot of us have had similar ones. There really are so many of us, and our voices should be heard.

      I’m really sorry you’ve had bad experiences in nerd culture as well. I did that “one of the guys” thing, and I still find myself reverting to that mindset when I’m around a bunch of bros. We adapt to the culture that surrounds us. I’ve had issues surrounding my love of comics too. I’d always wanted to work in a comic book shop, but the treatment I received in them (not always, but often enough for a pattern) pushed me away from that nerdy dream, ha.

      I hope you’re right about generational shifts, but we gotta keep speaking up or toxic cultures WILL stay the same. The battle for equality on multiple levels never really ends, but it feels like it’s getting better.

      Like

  2. I never played WOW but I have had some similar issues in SWTOR, more so when I first started playing at launch and didn’t know anyone else playing except my boyfriend (now husband). After bad experiences playing COD on xbox, as my gamer tag gave me away as being female, I was very hesitant to use any voice chat system or let anyone know I was a girl in SWTOR. I had an issue in a guild I was in where one of the fellow guild members made a “joke” about raping me, I was in vent with the assistant GM at the time and brought it to his attention after I whispered the kid that had made the joke and called him out on it and his response was the typical I didn’t do anything wrong, what’s your problem, it was just a joke bullshit. This kid had been an issue for a while in guild with inappropriate comments and jokes, and was an irritation to a small group of us on a regular basis but come to find out this kid was IRL friends with the GM’s son so nothing was done about him and his comments to me. I was livid about it and me and the other guildies that had been having issues with this kid decided to quit the guild and start a new one together as it was the last straw that they let another guild member treat someone that way with no repercussions, they made me GM of the new guild and while there are only a handful of us that are active there’s no one else I’d rather play with and I know logging in that there won’t be any drama and that if someone in a pug pulls some bullshit with me in an op they have my back. I wish that you could have found a great group of supportive people to play WOW with like I managed to eventually find in SWTOR.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my god I am so sorry that asshole treated you like that! Thank you for sharing…ugh that makes me so mad…

      But it’s amazing that you found a supportive group of people that you could enjoy playing with! Playing video games with people you trust and have fun with is the dream. That’s what it’s all supposed to be about, when you’re playing social games. I’m hoping that when Star Citizen comes out and I’m playing with friends that I know, I’ll be able to find the fun that I used to experience in WoW again.

      Like

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  4. I’ve been dying to reply to one of the FemHype articles for a while now, but this one here really hit home. I’ve been a female in the gaming world a long time now. So I’m with you guys on this, I can relate so much, to what Kit wrote here. I definitely have a different side of the same sort of story to tell tho. I was raised in a very toxic home, and my whole life feminism was viewed as a bad thing, and the word “feminazi” was tossed around more times then I can count. The older I got tho the more I realized that I am a Feminist and proud of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really happy to hear that you’ve come into your own and decided to ID as a feminist; I know how tough it can be to separate yourself from toxic familial beliefs. Thank you so much for commenting, it’s heartening to know that while these experiences are negative, we have community, and so many of us can relate and call it what it is 🙂

      Like

  5. After a decade of gaming online, I ended up absolutely quitting it around 3 years ago.

    I have no idea about multi-player now, but back then I had to stand to any guy out there asking me if I had a partner, if I could send them pictures, and things like that.
    Even when I refused to respond, they still quickly escalated to asking for “cybersex” and nude pictures, mostly in exchange for helping me level up, kill some boss, or giving me equipment I didn’t even ask for in the first place.

    In the end, it was annoying.

    The other female players I met had mostly agreed to those demands of male players, so they could “fit in”. Then the guys would start talking crap about me (like I was “moody” or always “angry”) and women would join them. None of them actually knew me much or anything.
    Maybe they did it to “play cool” with the male players, maybe they were scared they would talk that way of them as well and wanted to prevent it, or maybe they were right.

    It was always the same, so I simply avoid anything multi-player to keep myself away from drama and awful people. I gave up some entertainment so I could preserve myself.

    PS: I did build a couple of awesome friendships with people I met on multi-player. Even though none of us plays anymore (mostly due to the general immaturity of “gamers”, one way or another), we remain close.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story! Gaming online was so stressful. I had the same experience with men wanting to trade online favors & attention for in-game help. When I was a kid I accepted it, and was like those asshole girls you’re talking about. I’m really sorry about that bullying; I participated in it/was silent as well. It’s terrible. Getting out to protect yourself was absolutely the right choice and I’m glad you did it.

      I still have friends from WoW on my facebook. It’s cool to acknowledge that there were good times while still critiquing the bad 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi. I am a guy who has played many a game as a girl/woman. I have been gaming since 1983 or so (you might not believe it, but it’s true). I was/am a feminist supporter and have been since the late 70s, when I built a lending library of women authors for the local queer/alphabet co-op, of which I had many friends in. And etc. if you need details.

    Also, I knew many young women who were techs; computer & sound. They also had a hard time being “recognized.” The deliberate reason to play female characters was a political one.

    I was determined to present a female person as strong, tough, funny & yet devastatingly bloodthirsty & competent. It also gave me a way to talk about some of the more-rampant sexism in gameland. I wanted guys to go, “omg she is the shizz” and “better respect her.”

    This was done in admiration for the many women, straight, queer or what-have-you that have been my friends, teachers and companions in both my real-life and my virtual life.

    Feminism kinda got shoved back in the corner (a lot of stuff did) during the 90s. I am _extremely_ glad to see another generation of young women who have the guts and spirit to challenge this “bro” co-option of the game worlds. I hope, in some small way, being my characters has at least given many a guy pause to think about what he’s saying. This was A Good Thing.

    You go, girls.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Wow, thank you for this. Same sort of story here, only I started out with Sierra games and now I’m on the ps4. I hardly ever played anything that would require me to play with other people; I told myself I didn’t like people, when the truth is, really, I had a bunch of experiences like the other women here and playing mmos in particular just seemed like a terrible time.

    I started playing GW2 with a guild through a friend, and eventually the guild led us to another game all the while the toxic environment of casual hate and bigotry being the norm started getting to me, and i was fighting with my guilds over saying harassing things to people, over their avatars doing gross things to other avatars, and they felt, I was oversensitive to everything.

    I eventually just felt so ground down and so alone with trying to keep the gaming community un-shitty. I just quit one day, and by quit I mean I just shut off the computer and went back to playing single player games. I’m just so happy that there’s a site here with all of you.

    Liked by 1 person

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