Women’s Voices: Special Guest Blogger Hannah Elstrom

Part 2 in our Women’s Voices blogs, where we turn things over to female gamers for their point of view. This month’s blog is from Hannah Elstrom:

A while back I was having dinner with my family, and my little brother, age 8, casually expressed his belief that playing video games was an activity for boys.

He might have forgotten all the times he’d seen me engrossed with a new game I had just picked up, or playing multiplayer games with my friends, or taking over the controller for him whenever he had to go up against a difficult boss in his own games, the ones he had inherited from myself. Or, maybe he had forgotten that the person sitting across the table from him, the person he called his sister, was actually a girl. A girl who plays games. A girl who was playing games many years before he was even born. We’re all occasionally struck with partial amnesia, aren’t we? It happens to the best of us.

Now, even though I disagree with my brother, the fact that he said that doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m sure a lot of the girls he goes to school with don’t play games, while most of the boys do. That doesn’t surprise me. I know that reality all too well, because I’ve lived it.

 We’ve all seen and heard of the people with Xbox LIVE usernames like “xxxGamerGurlxxx”, who will not hesitate to mention that, yeah, they’re a girl who plays games (so don’t hit on her, you silly boys!). She might present herself as an anomaly, something out of the ordinary. Gamers like that are often mocked, parodied and singled out by people who feel like your gender shouldn’t matter at all, people who insist that if only you’d shut up about your femaleness and just play the game, people would leave you alone.

The problem with this reasoning is that gender does matter. At least, it’s not irrelevant. “xxxGamerGurlxxx” likely behaves that way because she’s already faced harrassment or different treatment for being a girl who plays games. Maybe she’s been denied a gaming console by her parents because “gaming isn’t for girls”. Maybe she’s been met with shock from her male peers when she mentions that she’s totally excited for the new Call of Duty game to come out. Maybe her female non-gaming friends have accused her of pandering to boys with a false interest in their hobby. Any female gamer will tell you that she’s been met with signals through her life that suggested she was interested in the wrong kind of entertainment. This is a reality that a lot of male gamers don’t see, because they never experience anything of the sort. It’s not just the vile, sexist comments made by the assholes of our community that is problematic – it’s this constant feeling that even though we love to play games, we don’t actually belong here.

It doesn’t even have to come in the form of actual harrassment – just a glance at how female characters are presented in video games tells us everything we need to know about what kind of demographic most developers want to appeal to. It’s certainly not us women. Now, to get something out of the way as soon as possible, I’m not saying that ‘sexy’ character design always equals ‘bad’. Sometimes a sexy character design completely fits the character and the context. For example, Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is one of my favourite BioWare characters of all time, partly because her sexy appearance isn’t meant to titillate a presumably male audience, but is rather deeply rooted in her behaviour and lifestyle. No, the problem with ‘sexy’ character design is that it’s grossly overused, as if the only way a female character can be appealing is if she gives the player an erection. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women sometimes feel alienated by that.

It’s not difficult to see why some women are turned off by the idea of gaming. It’s not that the actual gameplay is something women just aren’t built to do (which is a ridiculous idea), it’s the harrassment, the entitlement, the ‘boy’s club’ mentality, the lack of outrage at sexism when it happens, the character designers who think armor that exposes your midsection and cleavage is a good idea (hint: it’s a horrible idea, you will get stabbed in the heart and die before the battle has even begun). When my brother says that girls don’t play video games, he’s speaking from observation. He might not be consciously aware that developers intentionally cater to a largely male demographic while ignoring all the rest, that only 10% of developers are female, that 85% of playable characters in games are men, but he certainly feels the effects of it, even at such a young age.

I don’t want him to grow up to become the kind of person who doesn’t think women are worthy of respect no matter how they present themselves online. I don’t want him to throw around rape threats when he’s beaten in an online game, thinking it’s all part of the culture. I want him to understand that there’s a big flaw in the gaming world when attempts to stop harrassment is met with violent opposition. I want him to be able to listen to women when they talk about their experiences as gamers.

In a perfect world, “xxxGamerGurlxxx” might not feel the need to emphasize her gender in gaming spaces. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t feel the effects of the gaming community’s broken perception of women every single day. She wouldn’t be painfully aware that every time she uses her headset she risks being treated like less than a person by people who thinks it should be okay to call women sluts and cunts at least somewhere. She wouldn’t feel like being a woman makes her different in any way when she picks up a controller. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world that needs us to fix it. And we can’t do that by being quiet.

Hannah discovered gaming with Zork: Grand Inquisitor and the first three Tomb Raider games, and hasn’t looked back since. When she’s not working toward a bachelor of musicology, she can be found replaying Silent Hill 1 through 3, while anxiously waiting for the next season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.