I have often described language as that mortar that binds together social institutions, and in this vein it is as instructive to consider what language elides as much as it includes. Take for instance the well worn, extremely tired joke about how there are no women on the Internet or the assorted nonsense about Guys In Real Life (G.I.R.Ls). We know that’s out there and it’s as eyeroll-inducing as ever. But what culturally constructs that idea? What are the seemingly dissociated monads that are woven together and transmuted into that mortar that binds the idea that few women are gamers to the larger institution of virtual pleasure in our society?
Look no further. Chantaal describes a customer service letter that was sent to her by Microsoft that assumed she was writing about an issue her nonexistent son was having, instead of making the correct inference that she was the gamer in question:
Thank you for using XBOX Customer Support online! I am Joyce and I will be helping you today with this issue.
As I understand, when your son tries to sign in to Xbox LIVE, [redacted]
I know how disappointing it is when your son cannot enjoy the Xbox Live service due to this matter.
And this was despite her saying nothing about writing in on behalf of someone else.
Now, this by itself is not some grandiose instance of oppression. Its significance lies in the larger matrix of hegemonic thought that such statements occupy, statements often made in innocence with no malice aforethought, just a deeply socialised assumption- that this something boys and not girls do. This one letter is not an isolated incident either, and that is another portion of its significance. A woman friend of mine was one of many Starcraft fans who stood outside shops ahead of SC2’s midnight release. Most of the people in the queue were male and my friend’s experience might go some way to explaining why. As soon as she got to the head of the line she was treated as an object of fascination by the male staff who could scarcely believe that ‘a chick’ played Starcraft but was hardcore enough to actually stand in that queue. Objectified as an anomaly despite the fact that both she and I know tonnes of female SC players and gamers in general, she left feeling unfairly singled out.
For those who are interested she is duly kicking ass in the silver tier of the Starcraft ranked competition ladder, and ascending ever higher each night. And ain’t she a woman?
On that same note, I have also seen more often than I’d like trans women colonised as ‘men’ in gaming spaces. When a trans woman outs herself or more often is outed some hysterically witty gentleman will often say “Aha, see? Even the women are men on the Internet!” or somesuch tripe.
So we return to the original problem- the androcentric assumptions about how women are not present in gaming spaces. Another female friend of mine went into a GameStop and tried to purchase a game that is often gendered for male players, and the clerk actually asked her “Why?” when she handed him the game to be rung up. We are very much out there, and very much a part of gamer circles. But you wouldn’t know it from the neverending litany of stories like the ones I mentioned in this article or situations like Chantaal’s. Or those really tired jokes whose tiredness is surpassed only by jokes about a certain gender occupying a certain room of a house where food is often prepared.
It is a self perpetuating ideology that is reinforced by the memetic repetition of the notion as if it were fact, transmitted like a virus through jokes, jibes, assumptions, and objectifying curiosity. Blogging about it and calling it out is one way to throw a sorely needed monkey wrench in this machine, of course. Reminding those who will hear “Yes, I am a woman, here I am” will do some work to undo this edifice of androcentrism, but at the same time there is another subtle reason for the fact that these assumptions are made. It is simply because the ability to stand up and say “Yes I am” is contingent on conditional privileges many of us don’t have, or requires a level of fortitude that defeats the purpose of playing a relaxing game.
Many, many women do not identify as women online to prevent unwanted attention being drawn to them, hiding under the haze of pseudogeneric manhood. We game for the same reasons men do: to have fun, not to constantly fight off sexist advances. We get enough of that in the physical world. I can’t fault women for not getting up on a digital soapbox and announcing their gender, and it is in my view wrong to put the burden on them. Some women might be escaping abuse or stalking and would not want to give people online even the slightest inkling of who they are. Some trans women may say they’re women, but hide the trans bit in a perfectly understandable bid to dodge the often pernicious transphobia that is an accompaniment to sexist ideologies in gaming spaces.
And thus we get a disturbing lesson in how social systems self-perpetuate. We are often invisible for the sake of our own protection, and yet that very invisibility contributes to the boy’s club atmosphere that can make games such an uncomfortable realm to inhabit in the first place. But the onus is not on us to expose ourselves. It is on those who make the assumptions, make the jokes, to take note of the women in their lives, in their guilds, in their families, kins, clans, linkshells, and all the rest, who play with them.
There are women on the internet, and a generic ‘he’ doesn’t begin to describe us. Ain’t I a gamer too?