Thursday, 5 June 2014

Katty Polyak on Women and the Gaming Identity

Most days I wish I could take you all out for coffee to pick your brains for the doc...but since I've neither mastered the art of teleportation nor mad-money-making, online coffee-date discussions will have to do. I'm very pleased to introduce you to this week's guest blogger, Katty Polyak.

Katty's a cool young lady living in the Big Apple. When she's not playing video games and board games, she's dreaming up ideas for her own documentary. I just know we'd get along.

So here's the big question: What exactly does it mean to identify as a "gamer"? And why is this sometimes so awkward for women especially online?

As a preview to this discussion, let's watch this fun YouTube video that some guys posted of themselves running into a girl in League of Legends:

Women exist in a rather nebulous space when it comes to gaming. Conventional wisdom tells us that there are far more male players than female ones, but is this really true? In fact current statistics state that women make up almost 50% of gamers. Yet we don’t see a lot of women talking about their interest in gaming the way men do. What can we attribute this discrepancy to?

I think a large part is due to the fact that “Gaming” is predominantly seen as a boys’ hobby.
Gaming has several qualities to it that are typically seen as male traits. Video games are usually competitive, can be aggressive, and are not always social. In addition, there are also some qualities that are seen as normal in boys and less normal in girls. This means that friends, coworkers, and parents may ascribe these qualities to women who express an interest in video games and make judgments because of it. 

To avoid these stigmas, a girl is less likely to identify to others as a gamer because of how it immediately shapes their perception of them. Better to not discuss that aspect of themselves than be ridiculed or ostracized for their hobby.

You might think then that girls would feel more comfortable revealing their gender online, however the problem is only worse there. Although online gaming offers a great deal of anonymity, the anonymity also means that it can be difficult to predict how another person might react to someone different than them on the internet. They are also more likely to “fill in” your personality with stereotypes.

I’ve seen a variety of different reactions upon mentioning that I was a woman while playing League of Legends. I’ve been told that we were losing specifically because I was a girl, been told that my boyfriend had just carried me to my ranking, and flat out been told that I wasn’t a girl or if I was a girl, I was unattractive and fat. Somehow, it becomes every girl’s responsibility to prove that female gamers can be skillful but each male is judged individually based on their merit.

On the other hand, I’ve also had positive interactions after identifying as a woman in-game. My boyfriend casually mentioned that we were dating. After some initial disbelief, another gamer said it was really cool that we gamed together and had been dating for so long. I liked chatting with him so much that I told him about how my boyfriend and I cosplay together and showed him a photo of our costumes.

Sometimes identifying as a female gamer or any other minority can lead to some interesting and rewarding interactions. Our physical characteristics don’t necessarily matter while in game but they can add an interesting element to the story of our online interactions. Unfortunately, we get denied these interactions because some women are afraid of being ostracized and some men don’t feel ready to share the world of gaming.  Like anything else, we need to allow culture to catch up with reality.

So what do you guys/girls think? Is this consistent with your experiences? What other gaming minority groups run into the same trouble? On the flip side, what are the social benefits of identifying as a female gamer? What kinds of doors does that open up?


  1. "if I was a girl, I was unattractive and fat"
    "some men don’t feel ready to share the world of gaming"

    So here is my theory: many of these male gamers fall into this stereotype - - and their behavior is the by-product of our culture.

    They grew up with a narrow view of what it means to be male (cue the advertisements that suggest ONLY men with muscles and wavy hair and six-figure incomes are considered to be successful) but of course hardly any male lives up to that notion, so you are called a "geek" and a "nerd" and get pushed around. You try to find some sort of escape, fall into gaming... and suddenly, your self-worth is tied up in the only thing at which you are at all successful: gaming.

    But the gaming lifestyle is not glamorous. No, it is more often lonely, sitting in a chair eating Cheetos in front of a computer/console on Friday nights. Any socializing is done via microphone to your raiding buddies, who may as well be carbon-copies of yourself. So you end up overweight with a big fat ZERO in the dating column of your life, experiencing Valentine's Day through the in-game festivals of your favorite MMO. You exist like this year after year, never venturing out into the world because we all know how it treats people like Comic Book Guy.

    Then along comes a female who beats you at a game, or at least holds her own in a raid, and now you are left with a quandary: either you suck even more at life and are worth even less as a human being because you just got beat by a girl who may have played a small fraction of the time at gaming than you have, or your ego tries to avoid being killed and you lash out irrationally. The idea that gaming could come so easily to someone who is already more successful in other areas of life compared to you, who may even have been one of those jocks who used to push you around or the cheerleaders who never gave you a second glance, is so unfair that there must be a REASON you were beaten. They were obviously helped, or they cheated, or they must be as overweight and unattractive as you are, or... really ANYTHING that would explain why your hobby, your only escape for the past decade, was trampled before your eyes. Because without gaming, what do have? Who are you? Where will you go now?

    Of course, this theory of mine does not apply to ALL male gamers, but I have met this man. He was rude, unwelcoming, fitting of many other male gamer stereotypes, and when I was winning, he cheated so that HE was winning instead.

    I never called you out on that one, rude male gamer, even though I knew that rule as well as you did that day. I was about to correct you, but instead I took pity and let you win. After all, to me, it was only a game...

  2. Charlie Emma - I can't help but feel that you are using a sweeping generalisation to explain those that use sweeping such as "girls arn't good at games".

    The idea of smack talk is just as common in sports played by "jocks" as they are in on-line digital games so it may not be just the Comic Book Guys perceived lack of social skills/love life causing the problem. That said - the point about defining yourself by you skills in a narrow area probably holds some truth. (Also - the idea that relationship success is the definition of success at life - not particularly helpful or true).

    In the video shown above they start mocking before they realise she is a girl - its all part of heightening the power fantasy. Hearing a female voice game them a specific suite of tropes to do what they were going to do anyway - ridicule the other player to heighten their power fantasy beyond the game.

    When they arn't given a convenient bundle of pre-baked insults they leap to some that could be true of the assumed male player they are mocking leading to the homophobic / racist comments that seem to be their fall back.

  3. "I can't help but feel that you are using a sweeping generalisation to explain those that use sweeping such as "girls arn't good at games"."
    Yes, I am. See the definition of theory:
    Thus my theory started with "many of these gamers fall into this stereotype". I also stated that "this theory of mine does not apply to ALL males gamers". I was only explaining the ones that fall into the Comic Book Guy stereotype.

    I watched the video, but I could not understand most of what was said (bad audio quality?) so I cannot comment on that. I was replying to the text only. Was there name calling and smack talk in the video? I really could not hear anything but garbled speech.

    "(Also - the idea that relationship success is the definition of success at life - not particularly helpful or true)"
    Yes, that was kind of my whole point. The fact that defining yourself by these notions is completely false. I understand that and tried to address it specifically, but apparently not well enough because you got the complete opposite message of what I was trying to say. I will have to do a better job at explaining myself next time.

  4. Hey guys,
    I found both of your points pretty interesting and I want to say thank for actually taking the time to think out loud about these issues even if you don't agree 100%. It's always hard to talk about these topics, because it's nearly impossible to avoid generalizations while still talking about something broader than our personal experience. I’ve noticed that women haven’t been as active when it comes to commenting and communicating about this project, so I’m always trying to figure out why that is.

    One thing that occurred to me is this: the fantasy of women in video games might be “strong and sexy” but another fantasy of women in everyday life is that they’re social facilitators. What I mean is, they feel a lot of pressure to get along with people, to make them feel good and not to offend them. This applies to interactions with men and other women. As with any group that’s been the target of discrimination, it makes sense that women want to stick together. When it comes to gaming and talking about gaming, this can sometimes make it hard for them to throw out some of their more radical ideas if they conflict with other girls’ point of view. It’s amazing how deeply ingrained this feeling can be.

    In online gaming, you have the potential to be anonymous, and yet you rarely hear stories of women power tripping and unleashing their wrath on other players. I’m not in any way endorsing the disgusting trolling of online gaming, but I do find it interesting that women tend not to deal with their social frustration in this way. Do you any of you women who play MMOGs have any thoughts about this?

  5. Charlie Emma - Reading it back with that in mind I can see where you were coming from. The internal thought process of the Comic Book Guy rather than an external explanation of his actions. I think it was the effective portrayal of self loathing that threw me.

    I wonder how true the assumption that the Comic Book Guy is a majority of the types of gamers that will intimidate in this way. Xbox Live's "Sports and Shooters" crowd are said to be particularly prone to it but I'm assuming they arn't the D&D basement dwelling stereotype of old.

    As you say - the Comic Book Guys are likely following suit in the "jock" male ideal and both reacting out of their insecurity but it might be something common to both rather than a geek centric reaction.

    Comment sections often miss the fact that conversation is about an exchange of ideas rather than proving your own. I'd rather find out something new and interesting than be right.