I used to play video games online, a lot. I still play video games, but these days I tend to play them with people I know, instead of anonymous strangers. My gateway drug to online gaming was EverQuest, a massively-multiplayer precusor to World of Warcraft, and it just sort of snowballed from there.
Most online role-playing games give you the option to customize your character’s appearance, and I preferred to play with characters that looked female, even though there was a good chance I’d get harassed -- weirdly, weirdly harassed -- for doing so.
I designed my lady characters (ideally lady characters that weren’t conventionally attractive) as a means of bringing a bit of variety to the dull landscape of strapping men swinging their big phallic weaponry around, and bosomy barely-dressed women being played by dudes who liked the attention and free stuff they’d get for pretending to be a lady. (Random strangers would regularly just give me stuff, for no reason, when I played girl characters; this never happened as a dude.)
Fact was I couldn’t win either way: if I played as a female character, I’d get in-game dudes "flirting" with me all the time. If I played as a male character, as soon as people figured out I was only pretending to have a penis, they’d get all mad, like I’d played some kind of cruel trick on them.
I’m just trying to avoid writing my Master’s thesis, people! I tried to explain. It’s three in the morning and all I’ve had to eat today is plaintain chips and vegetarian chick’n nuggets, and that was six hours ago. Also I’m not sure if I’ve showered in the past 24 hours. Just leave my genitalia out of it.
This magical time in my life came to an end in the mid-00s, partly because I was done being a graduate student who could afford to spend eight hours sticking imaginary swords in imaginary dragons, and partly because I was getting sick of the gross way lady characters were being treated by other real-life players. I reached my breaking point one day when I was innocently killing rabid wild bloodhogs-of-the-fae (or whatever) in World of Warcraft, and three strange dudes came running up to me apparently for the express purpose of telling me how ugly I was. At length, and sparing no details. I mean, really.
I stood there, with my little imaginary character, being bullied by three other people standing there with their own little imaginary characters, who were typing hateful things at me. Not only was it absurd, it was also oddly upsetting.
According to a recent Doritos poll quoted in a few places last week -- yes, DORITOS, because science now comes in Cool Ranch flavor -- 49 percent of women play online games. This is in line with other surveys, ones not administrered by corn chips, which have also demonstrated that the male stereotype associated with video games is pretty inaccurate. Of those ladies who play the online games, 84 percent reported that they “enjoy” them, beating out the number of women who also said they “enjoy” taking a bath (75 percent), or shopping (71 percent), or sex (70 percent). (The miracle of modern technology is that it’s now conceiveable to do all four of these things at the same time. I challenge one of y’all to try this and report back on your satisfaction.)
Of course, you still wouldn’t know that nearly half of game players are female, to listen to a lot of online games’ chatter. The conversations in many games not played on Facebook are often male-dominated, and are also home to some impressively unrepentant misogyny.
Fat, Ugly or Slutty is a site dedicated to the collection of offensive, hilarious, and enraging comments sent to female gamers, focusing mostly on the vortex of dudely hell that is Xbox Live. The site's name is a recognition of the three most popular "insults" levied at female gamers, who must be either fat, ugly, or slutty, or some combination thereof.
Most of what they showcase is grotesquely sexual; apparently graphic threats of rape are the go-to response when a female player hoses you in Black Ops. The sexual comments are occasionally seasoned with racism, requests for tit imagery and the ever-popular exhortations that the female in question should return to the kitchen whence she ought to make with the sandwiches.
The examples on Fat, Ugly or Slutty are so egregious I can’t actually reprint most of them here. And yet they’re no worse than much of what I’ve run into over the years, which is why I tend not to play online games with strangers anymore. I know many lady gamers who are admirably dedicated to shutting this stuff down, by reporting abusive losers and by submitting their idiocy to sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty for posterity -- not just to embarass the jerks in question, if that's even possible, but to demonstrate that we don't have to suffer their antics in silence.
I don’t shy away from standing up for myself, either in the real world or in an online game, but sometimes it seems like a hopeless effort in the face of such insufferable douchery. If women really do comprise half of online gamers these days (Edit: or at least 42%, according to the ESA), it’s not enough to shrug and suggest that they just need to “stand up for themselves” against sexist and racist abuse. The dudes who populate these communities also need to learn to behave themselves like respectable human beings, which means quitting with the sexist harassment and also calling out anyone else who does it. If it’s not cool to threaten to rape a woman to death for bumping into your cart at the supermarket, it’s not cool to do it to an anonymous video game opponent either.
Just because we’re murdering each other doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be civil about it.