Friday, October 23, 2009

Virtual tomboy: my secret life as a girl gamer

While the law profession may still be male-dominated at the highest levels, my experience of law as a student is quite different. King Hall's student body is 53% female, and, perhaps because I am on the female-dominated public interest track, the gender division feels more like 60/40 to me. Whatever the reason, my "professional life"--such as it is at the moment--is characterized by interactions with women, both as peers and as professors, supervisors, and advisers.

In fact, most of my social and recreational life has been set in similarly female-oriented environments; as a dancer and practitioner of yoga, I've never been much of a tomboy physically. However, I've recently been spending a significant portion of my free time in what is inescapably a man's world: a highly popular MMORPG (massively multi-player online role playing game) in which the ratio of male to female players is about 80/20 (84% male in 2005--I was unable to find more recent statistics, but based on my experience, this is fairly accurate.) The fact that I belong to such a demographically small minority is not something I normally think about during game play--I'm more preoccupied with figuring out how to improve my spell damage--but when I step back and consider my experiences through a feminist lens, there are some fascinating things going on, some expected and some surprising.

One interesting aspect is other women's reaction when I tell them about my hobby. From confusion to outright dismay bordering on disgust, I suspect there's an aspect of gender enforcement at work: why would a girl want to play that kind of game? It's not like I would want to date any of those guys, right? Of course there's another stereotype at work here (in fact, most of the people I play with are married, and none of them live in their parents' basement.) But the implication is that girls don't game, and if they do, they must be doing it to meet men. Men, on the other hand, don't engage in this kind of social enforcement--they may be surprised at my interest, but they're normally more impressed than distressed.

An ungendered world?

One aspect I really appreciate about the MMORPG I play is that it presents a world apparently without gendered roles--the non-player guards, bandits, warriors, and leaders that populate the game world are as likely to be female as male, and male and female characters are equally available for players regardless of role or the player's actual gender. Furthermore, because of the anonymity provided by the internet and by the use of avatars to represent the player, no one can determine a player's gender unless he or she chooses to reveal it. Players are judged by skill rather than prejudged based on gender. The game world is also designed to be highly cooperative, rather than wholly competitive--players must team up to achieve the biggest triumphs and get the best rewards.

On the other hand, with such a disparity between male and female players, the reality is that one is assumed to be male unless proven otherwise--as in so many other contexts, male is the "default" gender, as evident in the Urban Dictionary's definition of girl gamer: "What are you talking about? No girls exist on the internet. Girl gamer - As real as bigfoot. " The environment isn't truly ungendered--it's gendered male. This is also apparent in the character art. As with most mainstream pornography, the female characters tend to be conventionally pretty and homogeneously well-endowed, while most of the options for male characters are rather unattractive.

This aesthetic by males, for males probably contributes to another interesting aspect of online gaming--the G.I.R.L. or Guy In Real Life. When I first began to play with large groups in high-level content, I was impressed by the number of men out there playing female characters. In fact, as many as 55% of female characters are played by males. It seemed to me that their willingness to have themselves represented as a woman in the game world showed a progressive attitude toward gender--especially since no one ever gave anyone a hard time for using a female avatar. However, after thinking about it, I realized there might be a more prosaic and much more patriarchy-friendly reason for this trend. Since a player spends the great majority of their time in-game looking at their avatar (their representation in the virtual world), it makes sense that many men would choose to look at the large breasts and pretty face of a female avatar.

"Kill the bitch": sexist language in the virtual world

Perhaps I'm lucky, or perhaps because most of the people I play with are friends outside of the game, I've experienced very little (if any) sexism directed at me personally. (I also play on a server that has a reputation for being GLBT-friendly, which may contribute to a more gender-progressive environment.) However, sexist language is endemic as colloquialism in this environment. Female enemies are frequently referred to as "bitches," being killed swiftly (especially by many opponents) is "getting raped."

This places me in a social quandary that is probably familiar to any feminist who routinely hangs out with the guys. Melissa McEwan writes eloquently and with great emotion about this dilemma in her piece The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck: "I never know when I might next get knocked off-kilter with something that puts me in the position, once again, of choosing between my dignity and the serenity of our relationship." Does one speak up and inject politics and seriousness into the fun of the activity? Do I want to be the girl the guys tread carefully around? Most of the time, I don't--although I like to think that I would choose differently were the objectionable language directed at me or another female players. As one of our classmates observed about her experience with sexism at a law firm, I become a "silent feminist," letting my principles slide in exchange for the conviviality of the group experience because it doesn't bother me that much and because I know it's not intended to offend. And each time, I wonder about my willingness to do so. Do I have a responsibility as a feminist to police sexist language? How bad is the bargain that I'm making? What does it say about me that I make that compromise without all that much regret?

Just one of the guys?

The truth is that I very much enjoy my participation in this stereotypically male environment, not in spite of the men I play with but because of them. Those I play with regularly all know I'm female; they don't treat me with any less respect because of that. I suspect if anything I get a little bit of extra slack because of it, an odd kind of reverse sexism that bothers me more than the occasional sexist language. By entering a sphere perceived and claimed as male I have gained a kind of privilege, and been welcomed rather than ostracized. The silent feminist within me still wonders: at what price? But the tired law student wonders: is it so bad to not want to educate others about feminism every second of every day?

1 comment:

Anne Kildare said...

I wanted to respond to your "silent feminist" dilemma. You asked, "Does one speak up and inject politics and seriousness into the fun of the activity?" My answer would be: "Only if she wants to." And it sounds like you don't.

One of my favorite advice columnists, Dan Savage frequently answers letters from people who are torn apart by the fact that their values in their "fantasy" worlds differ from their values in their real lives. Granted, Dan's readers are usually writing about their sex lives, but I think the parallel still works.

Dan consistently reassures readers that, as long as no one's getting hurt, people are entitled to gratifying escapes from the real world. And compared to what Dan's readers are doing, letting sexist language slide in the gaming world seems like a fairly innocent transgression.