More Than Just a Game: Sexism in a Virtual Reality

Link to the Guardian: "Sexism and Abuse isn't Only on Twitter"
Link to the Guardian: “Sexism and Abuse isn’t Only on Twitter”

The prevalence of online abuse has been highly publicized in the past weeks as a barrage of rape and death threats were aimed, mostly via Twitter, at Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, and others. Sadly, many people were surprised to discover that sending a social media message that says, “I will rape you” is not just a joke. It’s actually illegal. Women (primarily) experience abuse and sexism online regularly, some hourly.

Read some of the stories from the Everyday Sexism Project and you’ll pick up on trends of sexism and abuse in the workplace, on public transit, and online. As Soraya Chemaly noted in her recent article “When Did You First Have to Think About Rape”, women have – often unconsciously – altered their behavior to reflect the threat of violence and abuse:

It has become obvious to me that most men don’t realize that virtually every woman on the planet thinks about rape and avoiding rape regularly. Like every day. Ask a woman if she thinks about rape everyday, and she might very well say no. I mean, who wants to do that? It’s depressing and if we paid enough attention to it we’d drive ourselves crazy. We may not be walking around, petrified, saying to ourselves, “I could get raped today,” or pondering which man we encounter on any given day is a potential rapist, but by the time we are fully engaged in the world, at school, going to work, shopping for food—you know, living—we have already made our own personal adaptations to the reality of the threat.

For example, we choose our commute options carefully to avoid being alone in certain places, we park closer to entrances than men might, we don’t exercise outside as much, we limit our daughter’s physical freedoms earlier than they or we want to, we develop instincts about the level of threat implied in street harassment, and we learn to weaponize everyday objects, like keys.

We have a gendered safety gap and we pretend that it has no effect, when it does. It affects everything from how we dress to the suppression of our speech as a result of this violence and its threat.

I am not a gamer personally. I can’t say I have too many friends who play video and/or online games regularly who are not male. I’ll willingly compete in a round of MarioKart with my brother or little nephews, if only to give them someone to beat.

Link to Slate: "What It's Like for a Girl Gamer"
Link to Slate: “What It’s Like for a Girl Gamer”

So when I began reading stories on Everyday Sexism about girls and women who do game – and are incredibly talented at it, I should add – being verbally abused online, it was a realm of abuse I had never considered before. And it’s a lot more serious than the little boys taunting the girl who wants to join their ball game at recess (that’s a whole other issue). These women have been subjected to all sorts of sexism and threats, rape threats being the most common. Just because they’re female and enjoy [and excel at] what society has deemed a “male” activity. Just because they might beat the boys at their own game.

One competitor shared her story with Charles Arthur of the Guardian (linked above):

“Whenever I won against my opponents, which I did almost always, some male players would threaten to rape, mutilate, or even kill me (but rape was by far the most frequent threat). I reported these threats to the game operators, whose response was:

1. It’s your fault for choosing a username that reflects your gender. You should change your name to something that is gender-neutral.

2. If you are concerned about this, report it to the police.

Her response: “How do you report someone you only know as VikingKiller0912, especially when that player is in a different country from you?”

“In other words, even though these personal threats were against the game rules, the game’s staff assumed no responsibility for enforcing the rules, or else blamed me for ‘provoking’ the male players. (One game operator did tell me that I ‘provoked’ the threats by ‘playing too well’ and suggested I deliberately lose more often so as not to bruise male egos. This game operator was, by the way, female.

“Eventually, I complained to the CEO himself of the gaming company and his response was to ban me from the game because he was ‘tired of hearing about this problem’. The players who threatened me with rape, mutilation and death are still active in the game and some of them have been given jobs as game operators (the referees of the game).

Rather than shrug it off and tell women, “It’s just a game”, we need to be reminding men that rape threats are unacceptable. No, in this case, it’s not just a game. It’s a reflection of the society that accepts misogyny and sexism as the norm, that expects women to bend to that norm.

Another gamer wrote (Slate, linked above):

I shouldn’t have to prove anything, you’re right, but there are those determined to limit my rise in the gaming world. Though 47 percent of all gamers are women and though many of us are equal in our skills and drive to the men, we are often not welcome. The gamers who still aren’t ready for us resort to online harassment to belittle, silence, and drive us away from their precious boys’ club.

Online harassment is a phenomenon as old as online gaming itself, and it is not necessarily limited to victimizing women—although they are arguably its most visible and numerous targets. A recent New York Times article has given a mainstream voice to the problem and detailed the attack on feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who, after conducting a successful Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising money to examine misogynist tropes in gaming, was in for it. The Kickstarter campaign garnered Sarkeesian plenty of attention, both from the gaming media and those who turned to online harassment in order to silence and denounce her. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized, her website hacked, and a Flash game was created where a player could beat a likeness of her black and blue. Mind you, Sarkeesian’s proposed project hasn’t even gotten off the ground—this is just the response to her planning and getting a decent sum of money to do so.

Link to the New York Times: "In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment is All Too Real"
Link to the New York Times: “In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment is All Too Real”

Related article: read Does Misogyny Lie at the Heart of “Fake Geek Girl” Accusations – or is it Self-Loathing? for another aspect of sci-fi sexism.

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