That ‘women in gaming’ post

There has been a lot of discussion on gaming blogs I read recently about feminism and gaming. Much of it valid and making good points (if couched in rather arcane jargon for a non-arts grad like me).

The elephant in the room with feminism and gaming

And yet no one seems willing to really deal with the core issue, which is that there is a strong gaming culture that really hates women. I’m talking about the cesspit that is xbox live chat. I’m talking about the smack talk on trade channels and the ease with which some PvP players talk about raping their opponents.  (Rivs discussed this in a post yesterday, and also linked to appletellsall who makes a poignant call for people to challenge this behaviour).

The fact that some faction leaders are wearing string bikini tops pales into insignificance compared with the shit that comes out of the mouths of many male gamers. And the horrible and unfriendly culture of many games. Games which in themselves may not be overtly sexist in any way – any way except for attracting foul mouthed yobbos as their core audience who think that the entire genre is their safe space to say all the things they are told off for at home.

It isn’t just computer games. Even when I was playing RPGs as a teen, there were stories going around about sexist GMs who thought it was amusing to have female character brutalised and raped in games. (When I say stories, I mean you didn’t have to go far until you ran into someone who’d experienced this.) A product of poorly socialised teenage men with a bone to pick? I don’t know. I only know that no RPG rulebook I ever read had rules for that or even suggested it. Players thought of that one all on their own.

So from early on, as a female gamer, it’s easy to get the sense that you are intruding on a male domain and a lot of people really really don’t want you there. In fact, gaming culture hates you. And all you wanted to do was just play games. The games don’t even have the decency to label themselves, “No women allowed!”

Now don’t get me wrong. I know there are many many male gamers who are far more welcoming, and I love you all (in a sisterly sense). I play RPGs and board games with and against some of them. I have played MMOs with many of them. I’ve commented on blogs written by many, and I even married one! I do in fact like (some) guys, although it will not stop me trying to stomp you into the ground if we should meet in a battleground.

But gaming culture has been toxic for far too long. Trying to change that is a long haul proposition, a journey towards recognising that “those guys” don’t own the hobby. We don’t need to feminise everything; neutral is a win compared to where we are now. It’s going to be a messy fight because the perpetrators will – correctly – see that what was previously their space is being invaded and cleaned up. Just it will benefit everyone else who isn’t them, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, etc. I have the smallest violin in the world and it’s playing for all of them right now.

How can it ever be viable to cater to the minority?

masseffect2stats

This week, Bioware released some statistics they had gathered about how people play Mass Effect 2. One of the things they showed was that 80% of games played featured a male Shepherd.

Now, riddle me this: if you were Bioware and had that statistic to hand, would you think it was worthwhile to keep offering the option of a female Shepherd in ME3? That’s a lot of voice work and artist work for only 20% of the player base. And unlike class distribution, which can be tweaked by making various class abilities more fun or more powerful, people either want to play a female avatar or else they don’t.

And yet, as a female gamer, I’m never going to be in that 80% who want to play a male character (OK, I have a male blood elf alt but BElves don’t count!). Gaming is so male dominated that I’m never  going to be in the majority of players, unless I swear off the games I love and switch to another genre. Any argument that says “Well, most players want more boobs on their NPCs and more bald pasty space marines as their PCs so that’s what we must provide” is always going to exclude me, because I will never be part of that ‘most.’ It will exclude anyone else who wants to be a bit different too. And since I don’t want to go and play Farmville, I pretty much have to grin and bear whatever the market wants to serve up to their majority male audience who have certain preferences in their power fantasies. That’s the reality for most female gamers, although we still have a non-negligent amount of gaming dollars/ pounds to spend.

I don’t for a moment think that Bioware will use these statistics to stop offering female Shep as an option. But I’d wonder if they were tempted to eye the bottom line, just a bit.

What would be so bad about catering to a wider player base?

I am sure that the sorts of things that female gamers typically ask for would benefit most gamers anyway. More crafting, emotionally engaging storylines, more non-combat activities, cosmetic gear, better housing and more roleplaying opportunities. No one would lose out if MMOs catered to a wider playerbase.  Game genres that are popular now won’t just disappear. For example, there will always be shooters. Even the drive towards dumbing down isn’t particularly driven by a female audience but more by common sense and market numbers. An accessible game doesn’t need to be a dumbed down one.

So why do people make such a crazy fuss whenever this subject comes up instead of saying, “Hey maybe you’re right. How can we make our games more inclusive so that you don’t always feel like an unwanted stranger?”

It’s because games are generally designed to appeal to the notional core male gamer. As soon as anyone suggests that perhaps all gaming activity should not be focussed on this marketing ideal, people who fall comfortably into that group will start to bitch like crazy. That’s a good thing, it means that the message is getting through. And yet, going back to the Bioware numbers, we cannot really argue that it would improve the bottom line. We’re asking for something that may or may not be financially rewarding for the developer and that’s a sticky wicket to be on.

Yet, what choice do we really have? Give up on gaming and go back to the knitting, sci-fi fandom, or some suitably feminine pursuit where we will be in the majority? We’re gamers. And this too is a game.

(For the record, I don’t think that WoW is by any means the worst offender. Which is part of the reason that it does have quite a strong female demographic.)

Are Real Names the magic bullet for cleaning up gaming?

In the wake of last week, this is the one question that sticks in my mind.

Blizzard felt that requiring all forum posters to use their real names would improve forum behaviour. It was based, presumably, on psychology/ sociology studies which showed that people were more polite online when identified with their legal names. I’ve also heard several people comment that using a real name makes a poster more accountable. But more accountable to who exactly, and in what way?

I’m going to quote from some comments I wrote on a Buzz thread yesterday, about real names and accountability.:

Accountable doesn’t actually mean that you go round to their house or harass them in real life because they said something you don’t like on an internet forum in this case. But it also means something other than ‘your account could be banned’ — which actually is the only accountability which will effectively stop someone repeating the behaviour.

It’s psychological magical thinking (I include this with placebos as things that have been shown to sometimes work but with no deep understanding as to why) that says people FEEL more accountable when they post under their legal RL name. It’s the reputation that’s accountable and the fact that people who know you iRL and can connect you with the forum poster will recognise it.

Now the way I see it, on an established online community, people will have built up those sorts of social ties and recognitions on a virtual name. Or else they’ll be trying to build respect for a virtual name, which will keep them trying to impress the rest of the board. (sort of, in theory). In fact, joining a new community (eg. starting a blog) and building up a reputation is one of the harmless and fun parts of community type games anyway, I think. For example, a lot of well known WoW bloggers and writers built up their reputations on the official boards. (People like Ming, Ciderhelm, etc.) This why people talk about pseudonymity rather than anonymity.

I actually suspect on a gaming board, a high proportion of the community would be impressed by really good flames. (This is the same portion of the community that spout sexist, racist, flamey comments on facebook where their real name is available, but they know that their mates find it amusing.) But at the same time, a lot of good posters will be dissuaded because they simply don’t want their RL friends/ employer/etc to know that they’re involved with gaming. And this is quite aside from actual real life risks to people from being stalked or enlisted to fulfill the RL wishes of needy or manipulative posters. And I haven’t even started talking about people with young kids they’d like to protect.

So it’s not so much the legal name itself, it’s the notion of being accountable to the community of people who know you outside that bboard. And – yes — using that to skip the tedious process of having to actually win respect via what you say and do on the forums. And as I say, I don’t think just using real names would fix the broken parts of gaming culture, whereas it definitely would make a lot of non-troll people more reluctant to comment and put some of them at genuine risk.

The problem of a toxic gaming culture

Gaming culture can be horrible. Really nasty. You don’t have to go far in a game like WoW to find racist, sexist, stupid, nasty, abusive, personal comments. I would never use xbox live, for example. I can handle nasty comments in text far better that people being arsey via voicechat. So I am sympathetic to anyone who shuns MMOs because of that concern.

And that’s a big problem for online gaming. In fact, it may be the biggest problem of all. It puts a shedload of people off, and with good reason. The Blizzard forums are honestly the tip of the iceberg, and also contain a lot of redeeming sides and genuinely helpful guides and posters.

We need to tackle this. Devs need to tackle this. But as players, we clearly haven’t been able to do it. And I don’t believe that Real Names are the magic bullet; they may help, some people who act like arses online may genuinely not want to do so when their real name is attached to it. But many others have legitimate reasons not to want to expose their real names to the selfsame trolls that they’re trying to fight. And for some, building a reputation of a virtual name is a big part of the fun, at least as much as earning xp on the same character in game. (If I was a game designer, this would be the angle I would be looking at.)

The problem of forum manners is soluble. Blizzard is going to try some new ideas such as letting people moderate forum posts up and down (shown to work by sites like slashdot). I personally think they could also look harder at rewarding posters who have earned the respect of the forum (maybe by posting popular guides, or helping to organise the forums or just giving good advice). And at more active moderating.

But the problem of people spouting shit in real time on in-game channels (ie. text or chat) is more difficult. Not totally impossible – we could allow people to ‘moderate’ other players in game. We could even look at designing in-game channels to be far more twitter-like (ie. much more control over who you follow) than basic IRC-alikes.

What do you think? Is using real names the magic bullet?