Feminist Theory and the Girl Gamer

Often in class, we are told to situate the theories and critiques we read into our own lives, which I have decided to do both as a woman and as an avid gamer. Mainly I have asked myself, how are these theories relevant to my life? Can I learn anything from them? Where can I draw parallels between them and my everyday experiences? Upon reading early and contemporary feminist theory by Wollstonecraft, Butler, Wittig, and Woolf, I have considered the obstacles of being a girl living in a patriarchal society but specifically my plight as a gamer in a male-dominated activity. Here, I intend to recount one exemplary experience (among many) in my years of gaming and examine how being a girl has made my gaming experiences different, what it means in the social construction of gender, and whether any discrepancies can be resolved.

Since my first Nintendo 64 console as a child, I have been an enthused gamer for most of my life. More recently in the last five years, I have taken part in the online PC gaming world with games like Maple Story, World of Warcraft, and currently League of Legends. My love for playing has always been keen and I’ve always felt a sense of belonging in the gaming community, making long-lasting friends from all over the world. However, there are times when the community is not as welcoming as one would think and I do encounter some hindrances as a girl gamer. I want to start off this essay with a particular story of one such encounter on League of Legends.

Normally I never bother to reveal that I am female to others during gameplay because I don’t want to bother and I don’t see how it would be relevant to the game. On one occasion last year, I was on a winning team and after the game was over, one of my teammates (a complete stranger and a male) began to verbally abuse an opposing player, justifying his abuse by saying that he had “played with her before” and knew “she was a girl” which was “why her team had lost.” The harassment was so downright sexist and derogatory that I stepped in and said, “Hey, I was on your team and we won and I’m a girl too.” That remark, instead of silencing him, only made me the new target of abuse which consisted of being told to “go back to the kitchen” and other such domestic niceties. At the time, this backlash made me regret telling him my gender and I wished I had not got involved.

Immediately after this incident, I joined some friends of mine to form a team and play another round. Lo and behold, who were we put up against? Mr. Girls-cannot-play-games. He recognized my username and wasted no time throwing insults at me again for…well, being a girl. I was told among other things, to go “make [him] a sandwich” because I “don’t belong there (but I do in the kitchen)”. Offended, I went to prove him wrong. I chased him down and killed his character consecutively three times to show I was better and I mocked him back, saying that I had killed him all while “simultaneously making a sandwich.” Admittedly, I insulted him back too by claiming his insolence was probably compensating for a too-small reproductive member. Despite some last snide remarks from his end, my efforts to shame him paid off and he did eventually cease his insults, when I noticed something else happen. My own friends who were both male and on my team and whom I hang out with regularly, neither supported me or defended me, instead asking me why I bothered and to not talk back at all to the enemy team. Sure, I understand they meant it was pointless to stir up trouble but their complete disregard for the situation was unsettling nevertheless.

From this personal anecdote, I want to focus on and discuss certain aspects that struck me as important in separating the girl gamer experience from the guys. One, that I always felt I had to hide my gender; two, that similar incidents have occurred when my identity was disclosed in-game; three, how a woman’s role and place in society has been socially constructed; four, my own role in participating in gender social constructions by emasculating my harasser; and finally five, why men like my friends don’t feel comfortable defending women in games. Understanding all these points will hopefully illustrate a picture of what it means to be a girl gamer, how she is perceived by other players, and how she is excluded.

First up is why I feel the need to keep my gender concealed. Besides privacy reasons and not wanting to make an announcement of my sex, there has always been an underlying sense of fear. From “Chloe Likes Olivia,” Virginia Woolf describes women as being so “terribly accustomed to concealment and suppression, that they are off at the flicker of an eye turned observingly in their direction” (900). I can’t help but lean towards agreement with Woolf’s statement. Outside of the game, I always try to call as little attention to myself as possible, as a girl, because when people notice you, sometimes it leads to unwarranted harassment. In a game however, you have the choice to be anonymous. My gender is never explicitly made known because I don’t want the attention that comes with it. If someone knows I am a girl, sometimes they use that knowledge to criticize me if I play poorly. Hidden, I was included in the game as one with the group. It was just more convenient to stay hidden and be treated as “one of the guys” so that any criticism or attention would be based off my playing skills alone. Wittig says that “to refuse to be a woman does not mean that one has to become a man” but in the game realm, it does mean that (1908). It is concerning though that choosing to be anonymous doesn’t mean one is neither male nor female, but only male by default. For instance, there have been countless times when people have messaged me in-game referring to me as “dude” and “bro,” not knowing that I was a woman, but therefore a man.

This leads us to the second point of discussion—the differential treatment I received in similar circumstances being the reason behind my choice to remain anonymous. In the past, when players knew I was a girl, if they didn’t criticize me, they would treat me like a sexual object they rarely came across. As a girl, I have been catcalled enough times just walking down the street to know sexual harassment as a common occurrence but I am still surprised this phenomenon transfers into games as well. Woolf has argued that “women in literature have almost always been imagined as only sexual…and usually only in their relations or nonrelations to men” (894). This is definitely true in the gaming world too. Upon realizing I am a woman, players have inquired about my personal contact information, Facebook, pictures, age, and location. Even real time and spatial difference between us don’t seem to bother most people or deter their inappropriate attitudes. Somehow it is doubtful that males get the same sexual interest from other players in the middle of a game.

The second part of Woolf’s quotation about women being seen in the context of their “relations or nonrelations to men” bring us to perhaps the most noteworthy point of discussion about the social construction of women and how that applies within games (894). In her critique of Milton, Wollstonecraft exclaims, “how grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!” (497). This last sentiment exactly captures the conflict in my story and shows how women tend to be seen as domestic creatures. When that guy told me to return to the kitchen, he implied that that was my place of belonging, and when he told me to make him a sandwich, it connoted my relation to him as supposedly subservient. Are women, like Wollstonecraft says, made out to be inferior? “Taught to please…and only live to please” (500)?

“As the second-born and first daughter of six children, [Wollstonecraft] experienced firsthand the preference accorded to men” when her older brother inherited assets from their grandfather (493). I like to think that as the eldest daughter in my family, I understand this biased preference too. My brother was allowed to study abroad whereas I was made to stay home, study here despite wanting to go to Toronto, and help my mom maintain the household. In “Shakespeare’s Sister,” Woolf imagines men laughing in Judith’s face, telling her, “No woman…could possibly be an actress” (897). Men took all acting parts back in Shakespeare’s day and nowadays a good portion of them think that games, too, are their domain. “Actress” in that spiteful quote could easily be replaced with “gamer.” The female gamer whom I stepped in to defend couldn’t be taken seriously by the male gamer; she couldn’t be a “gamer” or at least one as good as a guy.

To make sense of these constructed gender roles, I turn to Judith Butler’s idea that there are “performative accounts of cultural meaning” and her exploration of “how gendered identity is socially produced through repetitions of ordinary daily activities” (2536). Historically, women have been the homemakers, engaged in domestic activities such as cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Nowadays, girls appear to be materialistic, concerned about shopping and their looks. Possibly, these reiterations of female construction have contributed to why we aren’t taken seriously in a competitive field such as games. Butler believes that “the norms…of identity construction and maintenance are oppressive” which explain why women are attacked in gaming (2536). Putting down women in games empowers a man to reclaim his space in the game, pushing women out of what he sees as his territory. Objectifying her as a sexual being places her beneath him, serving his desires, and is reminiscent of Milton’s view that “women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace” (497). Either way, the woman is oppressed in the game; her place is forced out back into a domestic sphere and she is seldom seen as an equal.

How does the oppressed girl gamer react? What did I myself do? To defend myself, I had told the bully that he had a small penis. Was that any better, any more progressive than how he had treated me? Considering again Butler’s performative gender theory, it is evident that I also participate in gender construction and in what masculinity represents. Since he tried to remove me from the game context, I tried to remove his masculinity by targeting his ego. “Gender Trouble” explains that there is a “play of presence and absence on the body’s surface, the construction of the gendered body through a series of exclusions and denials, signifying absences” which is relevant to the specificity of my retort (2548). I had consciously chosen to focus on the absence of a large penis in order to deny him his masculinity, suggesting my belief in an “organizing principle of identity” (2548). This means that I am guilty in being part of a society which has outlined gender constructions. Of course, whatever the size of his penis, he wouldn’t be any less of a man, he would just still be a jerk; to say that a small penis made him less of a man would only be a “fabrication manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs” (2548). Just as he had his own reservations about what constituted a woman (belonging in the household, cannot play games, etc.), I had my own idea of what constituted a man. Perhaps not only did demeaning his penis have to do with his masculinity but also worked to imply that he could not please a woman. Suddenly I see a reversal where I had turned men into being responsible for pleasing women. For Wittig, “matriarchy and patriarchy are equally oppressive because equally heterosexist” and here, one can see the truth of that statement (1905).

Finally, I want to discuss the silence of my friends in the face of my own dignity. One can say they aren’t good friends to begin with, but I think it is more to do with the fact that they are male too. For although I was being bashed by an opposing player, I was still a girl and therefore an outsider, and there is a sort of camaraderie between male gamers. Certainly it is not my playing ability that is an issue because my friends are familiar with my skill level and I even beat my aggressor several times to prove myself. No, the non-defense was not due to poor playing, but the opposite. By not addressing the conflict, my friends rendered me invisible. What is the purpose of this inaction except to downplay the existence of the girl gamer? Referring back to “Shakespeare’s Sister,” Woolf wrote that “any woman born with great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed…half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at” (898). In today’s context, does a girl’s gaming ability invoke fear in the male gamer so much that she must be figuratively burned at the stake for it? Woolf further pinpoints the source of this fear in “Androgyny” when she said that “The Suffrage campaign…roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged” (901). Following this thought, perhaps a girl’s high gaming ability unnerves males because they are afraid of the competition, or of losing to a girl, and it makes them review their own manhood.

Hopefully this account sufficiently exposes the differences between a male and female gaming experience. Although it was based on my personal experience, the fact that it happens periodically suggests that these experiences aren’t only limited to me but also to other girl gamers. Girl gamers stay hidden or risk being criticized or sexualized, we are seen as the inferior gamer regardless of our skill level because it threatens the gender constructions that male gamers have become socially accustomed to, we are insulted with remarks about our place in the domestic sphere (and out of the gaming one), and gaming at all seems to make male gamers uncomfortable, especially if you are able to outplay them. How does one begin to resolve any of these dilemmas? Surely resorting to matriarchal backtalk like I did, is not useful. How about then, Woolf’s advice to incorporate an “unconsciousness of sex,” or an “indifference to sex” (895)? If players were neither perceived as female or male but simply as “gamers,” attitudes in the playing field may become more neutral and be based on skill alone. But then there are gender differences and knowing that, shouldn’t girl gamers be celebrated and encouraged? It seems for me that this predicament leads to more questions than answers.

Reference

Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: Norton & Company, 2010.