The thing about gaming is you can’t quite explain the immersiveness of it to non-gamers. And I speak not about mindless arcade games you play to pass the time (although I think time-passing on a screen is totally legit. Play on, Candy Crushers). I mean multiplayer real-time strategy (RTS) games with tens of thousands of players competing for glory.
Glory?? People scoff. Yes. And if you don’t get it, good. Save yourself the addiction. There is glory in gaming – one that is the object of great envy and desire. And although nobody in real life (IRL) might care, the glory you earn in virtual worlds is no less psychologically captivating than any other reward you’ve invested much time and effort into.
Your gaming community
And the thing about glory is that it must be witnessed to exist. You can’t be glorious by yourself. You need a sea of people, friends and enemies, to lend you their awe and admiration. That is why you need a gaming community. People who will witness and who understand that this is not “just a game” but something larger and far more significant.
Also, you need a gaming community because survival in online RTS gaming requires teamwork. You are only as strong as your guild and no single player will ever survive as a one-person-show unless they are spending serious cash daily. And even then, it’s pretty much wasted money. And so it’s also important that your guild members like you. And like in all social interactions, your likeability is generally proportional to how well you conform with group culture.
And so as in all social interactions, every player enters into a group with a persona and a status: talkative, helpful, obnoxious, wise, rash, selfish, whatever.You demonstrate a persona over time and you establish your relevance to the team. The more relevant you are to the team, the more people will like you – the more they will rush to your assistance, defend you, promote you, and support you.
The stronger, more experienced players, often the leaders of the guilds, will enforce community, through the hierarchy, rules and expectations. There are demanding leaders, self-serving leaders, rude leaders, patient leaders. Again, same as in any group anywhere. And in all of this, interpersonal communication is key – whether you’re shouting to your friend sitting next to you or frantically texting on KakaoTalk or Line to strangers in time zones 12 hours away. But more key is how well you fit into a community.
Your gaming persona
I will come back to community subculture in a minute but first I want to discuss these online gaming personas. Are you the same personality in a virtual world as you are IRL? Do you behave exactly as you would under similar circumstances? I am not sure. I think it’s generally pretty hard for one to create an entirely different persona from who you really are. If you are timid and shy IRL, it’s hard to be aggressive IG (in-game). If you are the loyal type -– scared of losing the trust of friends – you’re gonna be pretty much the same loyal player online. Maybe you can experiment a little if you think you have nothing to lose, act a little out of character and see what happens. But that hasn’t been the majority of my experience with gaming. People’s personalities are pretty much consistent.
What I have found interesting, however, is the intensity with which your personality limits are tested. It’s quite unusual compared to the real world, unless you work in a high-powered environment where you have to interact with hundreds of people under lots of stress every day, seven days a week. War games are simulations of wars – same rules, same strategies, same tactics. They are war as harmless sport. Your commitment is tested, your loyalty is tested, your precision under nerves is tested, as is your ability to lose. And so your IG self is often an exaggerated, few-dimensional version of your real self, where you are expected to perform your persona very often, very clearly, and in non-complex ways. Nobody is particularly interested in your history, your context, your problems, your life – just fire the damn troops on schedule, as planned, that is all.
And so your identities don’t quite matter when it comes to gameplay. That is why, probably, women find it confusing to call themselves “women gamers” rather than see themselves as what they simply are: gamers.That’s also why I’ve never felt the need to disclose my identity and say: I’m Arab or queer or whatever. On the contrary, the more anonymous you are, the better – nothing useful comes out of disclosing your time zone or your job; that information will be used against you.
The flipside of this, of course, is that your identity – despite its real-life importance to you – gets erased and merged into the single default identity of gamer – which is the single default identity of humans: dudes. And in the case of massive (and fantastic) games created by US corporations, the default is American white dudes. I am not saying they are the majority – maybe they are for some games and maybe they aren’t. I am saying they are the default. A dude is the first person you picture when you see an online avatar. In fact, to picture a woman, it has to be a hyper-feminine avatar. And a dude’s conservative politics come to dominate the subculture of gaming communities. So even if the majority of players in a guild are not conservative, conservatism is still dominant.
So back to these communities – transient or long-term – formed around a common goal, consenting to a chain of command, and spending hours upon hours every day interacting in online forums or chat apps. Norms develop within the communities that are very similar to everyday social norms, in the same way personas are created online that are very similar to real life personalities. Also similarly, the performance of these norms is exaggerated. I think of it a bit like theatre performances, where you can’t just laugh on stage like you normally do IRL, you have to let out a huge chuckle to perform laughter.
It is not true that all gaming communities have the same culture, no. If a guild is dominated by younger boys, it’s going to be a rash, bold guild, impatient with diplomacy. If a guild is dominated by older guys, they’re going to be very big on diplomacy, long-term strategy, keeping the order, sending long lists of instructions. They’ll probably also bore you to death before they decide to go to war. But there are similarities across subcultures that one can generalise: eagerness, competitiveness, team values, and listening to orders.
Gameplay itself is gendered in the sense that war is gendered, where a masculine-type aggression is celebrated, and the skills associated with gameplay – logical, spatial, tactical – are stereotypically attributed to masculinity and, therefore, one assumes that men are better at gameplay than women. Skills traditionally associated with femininity like multi-tasking, negotiating and care take a backseat in the mindset of gamers, although they are no less valuable to winning. Either way, an essentialist analysis of stereotypical gender constructions is not what concerns us – although it probably contributes to the explanation of why more women play Zynga-type games than RTS games. The real gender problem is not so much the gameplay as the community norms.
The community norms around gender, i.e. the norms of social interaction and group dynamics, are hyper-stereotyped – like the exaggeration of personalities – and the only version of hyper-masculinity is one that allows misogyny and sexism to flourish.That is why it is expected of boys to interact with exaggerated boy-ness and the ones who don’t are perceived as weaker. That is also why girls drop out of these communities from the exhaustion of having to constantly prove themselves worthy of belonging to strong guilds and having to put up with the conversation and aggression that come with online communities dominated by a toxic masculinity. I will give some examples of what I have experienced very often, and it is relevant to disclose that I have always played with a boy persona and those who play with girl personas probably have a ton more to say about these kinds of behaviours:
- Using sexual violence and rape as metaphors for conquest in-game
- Using sexual violence to trash-talk a female player
- Attributing female players’ weaknesses to gender stereotypes: emotional instability, lesser ability, manipulation
- When dividing tasks, allocating administrative-type tasks to women and leadership-type tasks to men
- Using threats of rape and violence towards women when gameplay becomes aggressive (or when a boy loses to a girl), including threats to dox them and hurt them IRL
- Sexual harassment in forums as the “friendly” way to interact with women in guilds
- Possessiveness and jealousy over women’s allegiances
- Sharing “funny” memes or videos that are demeaning to women
- Talking about personal sexual “exploitations” when chatting about personal lives
- Homophobic comments and “jokes”, and using “gay” to describe weakness.
Can online chat rooms turn into mobs? Damn right they can. Panic spreads and fear spreads and people follow whatever instructions seem most legit at the time. One only has to look at the example of spies and infiltrators to see what happens to a guild when someone comments, “We have an enemy snitch in this chat room.” Chaos. Panic. Blame pointed everywhere. Eventually someone must pay the price and the leaders must kick out a player in order to restore order (whether or not they believe there even was a spy to begin with). Mobs are easy online – we know this from social media. In the same way, it’s very easy for male players to gang up on women once someone starts a misogynistic thread and it’s very difficult to stand up to it.
But here’s the thing about community norms…
One time a friend of mine had a city conquered by an enemy player who renamed it CometIsGay, of course as a way to add on to the humiliation of defeat. In our guild chat room, hundreds of messages poured in discussing how we were going to take it back and what we were going to name it in retaliation. All the suggestions, naturally, were variations of the simple return-of-a-slur “no, you are gay.” I quietly watched the conversation with suggestions ranging from severe sexually violent terms to lesser sexuality-based insults. In the meantime, I re-captured the city.
Me: Nevermind, the city is ours again.
Dudes: Fuck yeah, what did you rename it?
Dudes: Lol. Ok.
While it is quite difficult to stand up to sexism in these large groups in online chat rooms (50, 100, 200 players at a time), it’s not impossible. I’ve navigated among dozens of guilds until I found one that was as strong as it was decent. And here I’m going to use language that feminists don’t particularly like – and I totally agree – because we’ve struggled for decades to complicate the notions of “honour” and “respect” associated with gender and sexual justice. So pardon my regression into mainstream lingo, but I want to talk about honour as it relates to doing the right thing, not as it relates to concepts of honour that repress diversity in sexuality.
I don’t know what sort of gaming community some guys are building when they invest hours online harassing women who talk about their experiences with online misogyny. The gaming communities I’m part of are not about trash talk or dishing out slurs or harassing women. They are about honour. And loyalty. And respect.
Honour means you don’t betray your guild mates. Honour means you show up on time when you’re needed. Honour means you study the op well before launch. And honour means you won’t let good players get bullied or harassed or driven out of the guild by stupid behaviour. Honour means you are just as grateful when a woman covers your ass IG as you would be if it was a man. And you would afford her the same protection as you’d offer anyone on your team – from IG attacks or from chat room attacks. It doesn’t mean you use excuses like “we’re all equal players” to coward out of confronting misogyny. It means you recognise that gaming culture puts women at a disadvantage and you will do all you can to counter it. I am not in any way saying women need you to offer male protection that is a variant of control and superiority, no. I am saying you either take a stand in solidarity against the bullshit that you witness in your community or follow the mobs so you don’t upset your bros.
Honour means you play with a deep respect for others. Respect for the terms you set with allies. Respect for your enemies even when you want to crush them. Respect for the game and its rules. Respect for the code even when it’s full of bugs that cowards exploit for cheats. Respect for the time and effort your teammates put into the game.
And even – wait for it – respect for women.
Image source under creative commons: Andrew Becraft