It surprised me to no end last week when I saw an article pop up in the New York Times of all places, addressing the problem of sexism amongst the gaming community.
The article brought non-gamers up to speed on the current state of things in the medium of gaming, highlighting the plight of Miranda Pakodzi, a 25 year old woman who was sexually harassed by her own coach at a professional gaming event, and of course, Anita Sarkeesian. She’s the woman that began a Kickstarter campaign to fund her project documenting the portrayal of women in games, got spammed with hate mail up to and including threats on her life, and got $150,000 instead of the $6000 she was asking for by shocked bystanders who couldn’t believe how extreme the hate towards her was from the anonymous internet.
The article highlights something that every gamer knows very well; the world of gaming is not a great place for women to spend a lot of time in. Professional gaming events simply accept that sexual harassment is part and parcel of the culture, while online multiplayer gaming on networks like Xbox Live are legendary for some of the recorded and e-mailed dialog exchanges leveled at women when anonymous players discover a female in their midst.
The typical response of the jaded or veteran gamer to the the Time’s “recent” discovery that gaming is a hot-bed of anonymous misogyny (and racism and homophobia) is a monotone, “Yeah, well, that’s just the way it is. If you don’t like it, stay out, no one is forcing you to play online.” And to an extent, that’s true. Although in the same way, it could have been said “Well, if you don’t like being treated like a simpleton because you’re a women at a particular sexist office, just quit, no one’s forcing you to keep working there.”
Of course it’s the anonymity that’s played a big part in this. It’s not just gaming of course, it’s the internet in general where people have embraced their inner troll; after all, if you can say whatever you like with no consequences to haunt you, why should you act like a decent human being? In that sense, the jaded gamer is right. As long as there’s no shame, no public humiliation, none of the usual social pressures that keep less courageous trolls in line for fear of making their life difficult, they’ll continue to give in to their more horrible impulses. But it’s a mistake to think that just because this kind of online sexism is prevalent now, it’s going to remain that way forever. That kind of thinking is about as fatal as assuming that because MySpace was the first and most dominant social network, it was guaranteed to thrive on the internet for all eternity with no possibility for a superior successor.
Time passes, tastes change, and more importantly, generations move on and are replaced by newer, younger ones. There was a time when racism in North America wasn’t just accepted, it actually was institutionalized. Time passed and you can now be charged for it. There was a time when homophobia wasn’t even considered a phobia. Time passed and in Canada, same sex marriages are now legal. Right now, the accepted “wisdom,” is that sexism is just a part of gaming and there’s no getting away from it, but that is unlikely to remain the case forever.
The internet is becoming a much more regulated place, services like Google are moving towards the usage of real names, and, perhaps more importantly, women are a dominant force in the market and that is a trend that continues to grow. If you were a multi-national corporation, and you found that 50% or more of the market was avoiding your service because the service had a reputation for discriminating against them, you can bet that the love of money is going to be as great—or greater—a motivation than the love for social justice would ever be. Right now, Xbox Live has that reputation of being a No Woman’s Land because of the rampant misogyny. It’s doubtful Microsoft, in their efforts to woo the family market, are going to let that reputation fester in subsequent hardware generations. The last thing Microsoft needs is competition like Sony, Nintendo, or even Apple to come along and say “Hey all you females, use our service, Xbox Live hates women, but we don’t!”
It’s just the natural passage of time that will eventually kill off the online sexists. A combination of much more active enforcement and a growing intolerance of sexism in the next generation of kids will do for sexism online what it did for racism and homophobia in the real world. Obviously the people that speak so freely online but not in real life fear punishment. Once that punishment is added to the online world, be it social or corporate, it will shrivel up there too.