Ain’t I a Gamer?

That looks a bit more like the women I know. (A white woman with short hair, headset and a purple tank top looking rather enthralled with a racing game.)

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:

Hello Chantaal,

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?

16 thoughts on “Ain’t I a Gamer?”

  1. I actually suspect that that instance had a lot more to do with inept tech support than it had to do with misogyny. I’ve done online tech support in the past so I like to think I have a vague idea of what goes on in cases like this.

    A lot of the time, the inquiries that you receive are very similar, so the temptation is always just to copy and paste from a stock answer, or from an answer you gave to someone else recently. In the perfect world, this doesn’t happen, or if it does then the answer is then carefully edited to more closely fit the exact question asked. In the real world of outsourcing, targets, and efficiency, things are different, and the important thing is no to properly answer the question, but to get them an answer that is right enough to get them to go away, and do so as quickly as possible.

    So what I suspect happened here is that someone just copied an answer that referred to someone’s son, pasted it as a reply to this woman’s query, and sent it off with no editing. I doubt that the tech support worker assumed that the woman was writing on behalf of her son, not least because I doubt the tech support worker assumed anything about the person. They were probably too busy just trying to get an answer sent off as quickly as they could to even think about the person who sent in the question.

    Of course, this is a problem in its own right, and of course, this doesn’t mean that misogyny of this sort isn’t endemic in gaming, because it is. I agree with the basic idea behind this post wholeheartedly. I just don’t think that it’s accurate to use this as yet more evidence of the misogyny.

  2. While this could just be a normal ‘snafu’ I do think it has implications about the gender-bias of ‘gamers’. Would it have occurred to the customer support to mass send a copy of this but have ‘your son’ replaced with ‘your daughter’? Or would that have sent off alarm bells in the head first before the person hit the send button?

    Why have the gender/family identifier in the email in the first place? Why not just the information?

    Beyond that single issue and onto the issue at large- I play as a female avatar most of the time. I feel I’m relatively safe to consider doing so. I’m older, don’t play FPS/MMO so I don’t have the need to cooperate with other gamers in my games, thus no need to have a headset/game chat while ending up hearing a twelve year-old call me names.

    I do miss out on some of the social interaction on places like PSN Home, because I had to turn off all comments and chat to keep the b.s. at bay. I still get random friend requests, male avatars rubbing up on mine and ‘dancing’ (if that’s what the kids call it these days) on me, or generally standing in my way. That makes me sad that I can’t inherently enjoy a major part of the design, yet I do it to get more females seen in a ‘male’ space. I do it to wear regular clothes in a game environment where females are usually scantily-clad and exist only for the male gaze.

    I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. It’s a personal choice. I will admit it’s one I wish that didn’t hold so much weight. I wish I could just log on, walk around and have some fun. Meet some new people while playing some games. The downsides just aren’t worth it to me, for me to enable chat.

    I’ve thought about organizing a day where everyone chooses a female avatar for the day- just to get people used to seeing something that represents females in the gamer space. That, I’m sure, would backfire but I like the idea of it.

  3. Would it have occurred to the customer support to mass send a copy of this but have ‘your son’ replaced with ‘your daughter’?

    I would so pay a tech support person for a mainstream game to pull this on a few people.

  4. Chantaal’s case is more likely a situation where the tech support person assumed that a child was the gamer rather than the adult who emailed in. As an adult male gamer I’ve had tech support people from both Microsoft and Sony refer to the problem that my non-existent “son” was having, so it seems like a bit of a stretch that they even took the Chantaal’s gender into account when replying to her tech problem.

    This is a serious issue in gaming culture, so it’s a little disappointing when a questionable case is used as the prime example. Now if this were discussing that the tech support assumption was that it was a son rather than a daughter, as Treehouse eluded to, then it would be relevant to the discussion. But as the article and Chantaal’s blog makes it sound, the issue was more an assumption of children as gamers rather than adults.

  5. Kimiko: I am reminded of Vampire:The Eternal Struggle (a game I still play). While not a computer game, I was incredibly impressed that 10 years ago their rule books began gendering all player descriptors female. I even recall a phrase at the start of one of the rule books stating something like “herein, whenever we refer to a Methuselah or player, they will be a default ‘she/her’”.

  6. @Rachel

    Let me begin by saying that I fully support the notion that customer service people are overworked, underpaid, and often maligned and I certainly did not mean to do so in this piece. I actually consider it somewhat classist to treat CS people as though they are the dutiful handmaidens of their corporation’s policies or of larger social issues.

    Secondly, you could well be right.

    Thirdly, that is not mutually exclusive of sexist influence.

    As Treehouse said, had the form letter included something like “your daughter” in it or some other feminine reference, that might’ve raised a red flag to whoever did the copy-paste. Whereas “your son” passed under the radar.

    This is not indicative of conscious, malicious sexism, although that’s how some might understand it to be. My overall point was that the taken-for-granted world is one in which men are the default and thus appear more normal when situated in gendered spaces like gaming, which makes it easier for a mistake like this to occur.

    My post sought to articulate a brief, partial answer to the question of why such assumptions get made about gender, and part of that answer is that an honest mistake is not mutually exclusive with hegemonic ideas about gender influencing such situations.

    So, I hope that clears that up, or at least clears up my view on the matter. :)

    Also, total sidenote, I should also add that another one of my female trans friends (who’s in the Platinum league) also got quite a lot of stares and reactions from male gamers who were in an SC2 queue, which she reminded me of upon reading this article.

  7. Great article! As an aside- did you go to law school? Your casual use of “malice aforethought” is a big tip off that you’ve been in a 1L Criminal Law class. :)

  8. @Scott

    You raise some good points about the default assumptions also tending towards younger rather than older gamers and they’re quite valid. I just thought I should clear up a couple of things.

    I did not say that this letter was the “prime” or leading example of the problem I was trying to illustrate. I think that part of that perception is my fault since I tend to be very Big Picture in my thinking and I don’t always take my readers on the journey from small to big in the clearest way. :P But to continue with the metaphor of bricks and mortar what I was trying to say was that that letter was like a drop of mortar.

    By itself it’s just one drop, but mixed in with the thousands of other mortar dollops it can bind together institutional ideas. Seeing the letter as part of something far larger than itself is key here, rather than interpreting me focusing on it as being the Ur-text of sexism in gaming or what-have-you.

    You also point out:

    “Now if this were discussing that the tech support assumption was that it was a son rather than a daughter, as Treehouse eluded to, then it would be relevant to the discussion.”

    Which is itself a good point. I don’t see, however, how either Chantaal or myself elided that in our take on the letter. I think that I could’ve stood to play that up a bit more (“why is it a son and not a daughter or generic ‘child’ “) but it’s not mutually exclusive from the issues raised.

    I used the letter to pivot to a much larger issue, not to say that the letter categorically *defined* that issue. See what I’m saying?

    I wanted to write an article that was about more than the sum of the parts of that letter.

    Thanks for your comment, though. It really helps to make things as perspicuous as possible.

    @KBot

    You flatter me, and thank you, but alas no! No law school. I just find it to be a particular beautiful and succinct phrase to express that concept of malicious intent and it works very well. My present academic training is skewing towards sociological research.

  9. Thanks for this article Quinnae. I really like how you highlight the feedback cycle of the internet default gender phenomenon. Complex dynamics aren’t mentioned enough in socialogcial/cultural talk imo. Is this what you were focusing on, or just an interesting offshoot in the post?

  10. I enjoyed your article…your “big picture” mentality is a good thing, I’m sure it allows you to really dissect all of the little “dollops” that effect you as a gamer. As far as assumptions on female gamers go I really feel that they will fade as long as more female gamers claim the title of gamer.
    I know what you mean though, it is a pain to be boxed into stereotypes that you don’t fit into. I always raised eyebrows when people found out I was a WoW player…A giant black guy with a 500lb bench press doesn’t really fit the mold of wow player…or gamer in general. I really can relate to much of what you say in the article (although from a different perspective) I constantly have to turn off my headsets when gaming because of some of the insanity that goes on during those late night gaming sessions. It’s not hard for me to imagine hearing more racist/sexist comments during a session of Halo than I have during my entire life.

    Keep posting great comments
    http://mediamindfield.com

  11. @KBot: Woo, thank you very much. :)

    @Alex H: Yes, the complexity of the feedback cycle as you put it very elegantly is what I was driving at. I used the email to pivot to that larger concern which, as I wrote the article, is really what the whole piece is about. I agree that we need to get our hands dirty in complexity more often and I’ll certainly be doing what I can in that regard so long as I write here.

  12. Great article. When I’m gaming online solo (without my gaming friends), I tend to hide my gender for reasons specific in this article. I’d rather just be another “dude” and not have to deal with the snide comments and/or stalking. It’s sad, and sometimes frustrating as voice comms are way more efficient with online gaming, but it’s easier than putting up with the headaches that go with it.

  13. My comment isn’t so much about the article. Because that, while annoying, is almost (sadly) expected from a source like Xbox.

    Instead, I’m curious why the caption for the photo to the article decribes the woman as white. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like a stock photo. Thus… how would the author know what the woman’s race is? And why would it matter in this context?

    This is not a criticism of the written captions as a whole. I appreciate their purpose, but in this case where there could arguably be some ambiguity, why describe her that way?

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