A friend of mine thinks that console gaming might be turning me into an antisocial couch potato, because that’s what gamers are. I know, I know. I felt the same way you do—such stereotypes are utterly irrelevant these days, right? ‘Video’ games are no longer the purview of the adolescent, the nerdy and the misanthropic male. Not only that, but gamers come together to form supportive communities and forums. We totally have each other’s backs in a world that relegates us to Nerdville en masse. At least, this is what I thought before I stumbled into online gaming at a time when the industry and its customers are embroiled in a debate about stereotypes in games and bigotry among gamers.
Just last week, an article by Amy O’Leary that appeared in both The Age and TheNew York Times highlighted how much of an issue bigotry is in the gaming world. The article outlined the experiences of Ms Miranda Pakozdi, who forfeited her position in the Cross Assault game tournament after repeated harassment from her coach, of all people. And before that, an article at The Mary Sue by Becky Chambers—a gamer and games reviewer both—succinctly laid out some pertinent examples of other gamers on the receiving end of bigotry and abuse, including Anita Sarkeesian of Kickstarter fame (she raised over $150,000 for her research project Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and in the process was lambasted by abusive gamer backlashing).
According to my misguided mate, this kind of behaviour is to be expected. She thinks bigotry is a stereotypical response for an average gamer, which in her mind is like a cross between the smelly kid and a drunk, foul mouthed uncle. To prove to her that modern gamers defy such antiquated stereotypes, I decided to faithfully chronicle my very first interaction with another gamer, online. Thus, I would prove how social, mature and fun gamers can be. I suspect she agreed to it just to get me away from the console. Well, it worked. What follows here is my very first social interaction online. It wasn’t what I expected.
It started off well. I spent an hour or so making my warrior elf look unique-but-approachable and then I was off traversing new terrains. But I didn’t talk to anyone straight away. I needed to level up a little first, because of reasons. Reasons such as, nobody likes a noob.
But I thought gamers were social and mature, says my friend.
Me: Zero. Mate: One.
Anyway, after respawning for the eighth time, I was open to some interaction. Read: help. I needed help. The problem was a mammoth troll who had appeared out of nowhere. I literally ran into him. The dude was three times my size so I ran to a graveyard, a respawning spot that I figured I could hide in. But the fat bastard followed me to the graveyard and stayed there, trapping me into a dead-end loop of attack, die, respawn, repeat. So, I was stupendously grateful to the decked out, black haired wizard who came to my rescue on the ninth spawn. He even let me run up behind the troll boss thingy to deal the death blow, so I could collect the loot. How nice is that?
Me: One. Mate: One.
I thanked him with the weird bow whatsit that you can make your avatar do and I headed into the woods. He followed me, striking the first few blows against a host of baddies. And he always let me keep the loot. An altruistic side kick. Score, right?
Me: Two. Mate: One.
Then, there I was picking through the carcass of a vanquished dire boar, when the private chat bubble opened up and asked
“Do you love me?”
Unsure of how to respond, I decided to do the mature, grown-up thing. I left the loot and ran.
Me: Two. Mate: Two.
I got as far as the coast before he caught up. Again the bubble asked
“Do you love me?”
So this is what I said.
“Of course I don’t love you! I don’t even know you! What on earth is wrong with you?”
He just stood there. He didn’t say anything. Then finally his bubble updated to “if you’re actually a girl, you’re a really mean one.” Then he turned his back on me, sat down and started eating some elf bread.
I was meant to be demonstrating just how mature we gamers are, especially among our own kind. Instead, I realised there was no such thing as ‘our own kind’ and I did feel like a mean girl. But seriously, I did not expect to be talking to someone I assume was a preteen and I ended up responding awkwardly.
The weird interactions just kept on coming after that. Comments bounced from shocking racism to blatant sexism and it was not fun to deal with. Now I know firsthand that if you are a female character in an online game, other players follow you around like lost puppies or potential saviours until you get yourself into a situation where they can either save you, or beat you over the head with a club. One seriously chased me from location to location purely to hurl insults. I was constantly asked what I was really wearing. It ran the gamut of perverse to pathetic. So, I stopped playing as a female avatar. The harassment virtually ceased, but the posturing did not. The comments in the dialogue box kept rolling. For the most part they were racist, but there was a pretty decent smattering of sexist stuff in there too. Having encountered someone who was probably surrounded by dinosaur paraphernalia on my first try, I was acutely aware that kids were being exposed to this as well.
Anyway, the result of my online interaction experiment was the revelation that I have been utterly naive about gamers and gaming culture online, ensconced as I usually am in offline console gaming. And I’ve been just as naive about myself as I have about other gamers. Now even console gaming has started to feel hollow as I become increasingly aware of the stereotyped characterisation. I can’t help but wonder if I just ignored it because I figured it was status quo. But online gaming has changed the way I think about both content and social components of gaming. I’m now reflecting on ethics, genre tropes and characterisation in a way I just never had before. By extension I’m contemplating what we can do as gamers to make gaming more enjoyable for everyone, regardless of race gender or in some cases, age. Turns out, I’m not the only one. Very far from it, in fact. Because although the trolls are out in force, there are individuals and groups out there in the gaming community fighting for equality, respect and the upending of gaming stereotypes in breathtaking ways. One fellow, by the name of Sam Killerman has even started his own campaign called Gamers Against Bigotry to combat online harassment.
And honestly, I think that until more of the gaming community does reflect on their online behaviour, those stereotypes we so enthusiastically reject will continue to have a sad validity.
Me: Two. Mate: Wins.
- Samantha Tate
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