Why Can't Men Handle It When Women Excel at Video Games?

I can speculate on "the answer" forever, but it never provides a solution.
Publish date:
August 16, 2016
sexism, misogyny, video games, gamer culture

More than once, I've had people reach out to me to comment on my "fixation with sexism" embedded into the geek world.

Maybe this comes from the fact that I've spent my life as a particularly social geek, and I've noticed it pretty obviously.

Maybe it's because so many people in the geek world refuse to admit the prevalent inaccessibility to women.

But it's also likely that it's because I'm seeing this trend just barely starting to change from the head down, and I'm desperately trying to help the process of opening up the nerd world for complete gender neutrality. Which I think is by exposing the harsh reality of the situation. I've written about this very broad subject, and it was focused primarily on the cosplay and convention community (i.e. the "nerd police"). But recently I've been immersed in the geek subculture of gaming, considering I've been working as a gaming journalist for the last year.

What I've noticed is that the world of video games is probably, definitely the harshest toward women in the vast nerdy word I live in, particularly when these women are good at the games they're playing.

I'll open this up with a firsthand account:

I occasionally went to the gaming club at my old college. It was more of a social obligation than a general interest — I love video games, but I just didn't like the group that played them at this club. They were very loud and very aggressive, but I went because I was dating the president of the club, and I wanted to be supportive.

At this club they pretty much only played Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which I was and still am unabashedly good at, and so that's something I'd play when I was there.

But I am never going to forget when I won a four-player round and was threatened for it. The culprit was a trilby-wearing freshman who came every week, who I didn't know or speak to. But when I won the match, this guy literally started screaming at me for it. He got up off the couch to stand over me where I was sitting, lifting a finger to jab into my face while he yelled, "You fucking cheated! This isn't fair; you fucking cheated!"

For those readers who know Super Smash Bros., they'll understand I couldn't cheat even if I wanted to. I didn't even do any standard exploitive cheap moves.

But he still went on, getting literally in my face while I sat there, dumbfounded, only able to say, "Calm down; it's just a game." I wanted to yell back, but when you're being crowded by a guy you don't know who's in a pretty threatening posture, instinct is to not push it.

He went on from calling me a cheater, navigating to how I was only there because I was dating the president. "You shouldn't even be here," he said, probably not even fully understanding the connotation of what he was saying and why. "You shouldn't be here; this isn't for you."

Everybody watched, and I just kind of left. My boyfriend gave him a strangely polite talk outside about how to not act in a club setting, that it's rude to yell at people, all that. If I ever came back, I avoided the guy. And a side note: A few years later, trilby guy became the club president.

I watched this guy play game after game before I sat down to play too, and when he lost, he turned to the other guys and high-fived them. So why was it that I got screamed at when I won?

Now this isn't just a crazy random happenstance, and most girl gamers will know that from the get-go.

This summer, this kind of hostility was in the news, from the case of the 17-year-old Korean girl who was banned from the game Overwatch. It's a pretty interesting story: Gegury, as she's known online, is a teenager from Korea who's been competing in regional Overwatch tournaments. She has a win rate of 80 percent out of 420 games she's played, which basically means she's incredible. Now the problem is that after playing in the qualifier for a regional tournament and beating quite a few other big Korean teams, Gegury was accused of cheating, reported, and then banned from the game.

So for some resolution, Blizzard Korea (local chapter of the game's producer) cleared the charge after Gegury gave a live demo that she's actually just really good at the game. But the story has some sourness to it at the end, mostly how in the actual video of her live demo, the poor girl ends up crying to the interviewer about the stress and misery this whole confusion brought her. She was flooded with requests to join teams, but also with insane amounts of hate messages. But it's nice at least that the tons of angry gamer boys who swore to never touch the game again if it turns out she wasn't cheating now had to stop.

As a gaming journalist, I've seen this story everywhere, but I'm legitimately surprised about the amount of people who just glossed over the reality of the situation:

This probably wouldn't have happened if she wasn't a girl.

What women involved in the gaming culture and industry understand by Anita Sarkeesian's example is that saying something like that is bound to stoke some people's fires. Something generalizing, like "male gamers can't handle it when girls are better than them." Or something open-ended, like "Gegury probably wouldn't have been accused and banned if she was a boy." But anything that would dare put "the Feminazi slant"™ on the gaming world is bound to make some people (boys) angry.

But, damn it all, it's true. Get on an online shooter and be good at it. Then be a girl —noticeably. Put on your microphone and speak in your girly voice, or do something that'll out you as a woman. You are very likely to get some form of accusations, or somebody yelling at you, and you're alarmingly likely to hear "bitch," "cunt," "slut," or something else in harmony with those.

I have a theory that I discussed in a previous article that I'm going to call the "ownership theory." It basically means that in the geek world, because the media is generally catering to men (male protagonists, male power fantasies, lack of female inclusion), the men that consume it feel an ownership over it. Women are seen as outsiders to something that is theirs. But the specific, uniquely vitriolic hate that women get specifically in the gaming community makes me want to expound on it, and there's more to the discussion when it comes to this sub-subculture.

First of all, the history of the gaming world provides a unique spin on the idea of marketing to boys — mostly because there was legitimately no reason for the decision. When it started with the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first widely marketed gaming system, there was a shift from selling it in the electronics section to the toy section. And because the toy section was gender-divided, Nintendo had to pick a side at random. There was nothing about gaming that catered more to men than women, no masculine ideal, no physical preference, just a 50/50 choice that went one way.

While male-centric marketing became the norm for the last few decades, in this day and age, it's now totally outdated. New studies show that women make up at least half of the consumers of video games. Gaming publishers are even starting to take notice of how outdated the marketing is, and now we're seeing a huge push of games with female protagonists and RPGs with total gender-neutrality. We're seeing more female representation (more than the standard "princess needing saving") and even a fair amount of LGBTQ representation, too.

So if the producers of the industry are starting to change their marketing tactics to include women, why then are the consumers still so hostile to female consumers when they show skill at the games they're playing?

I think this is when we discuss the fact that the majority of bullying, abuse, and the excessive use of the buzzwords like "bitch," "cunt," and "slut" is seen over online games. The internet, as a lot of us here know (especially you guys down in the comments), is a place where the thin veil of anonymity is tempting enough for people to get as nasty and unreserved as they can. When you have the ability to scream at somebody over the microphone about how they should protect the payload or kill themselves — and you don't have to look at them while you do it — it gets a lot easier.

The hostility toward women in the gaming world does stem from the same "ownership theory" that the rest of sexist geek hostility comes from. But there's a line that's drawn when it comes to the nerd rage we see toward a woman who's legitimately good at video games. It's a surprisingly primal anger that's more than just defensiveness over something they think they should own; it's an instigated excuse to let go of suppressed hostility that can only be done in the gaming format.

When people get competitive, they can get nasty. And when you take gaming, a coveted niche community that's now branching into major league competition, and combine it with mixing genders that weren't always welcomed together in that space, it breeds a toxic competitiveness.

Ultimately, what needs to break through to the type of dude who would scream in a girl's face for beating him at a game is simple: It's a game. It's for everybody, including women. Suppressed sexism and anger isn't becoming, particularly in a community that's now gender-neutral from the head down.