There's a lot of stuff I want to write about. DLC versus buying physical copies of games, educational games, more about cheating, and I ask myself: am I really qualified to write about those things? No, but I'm still going to. But first I'm going to write about something I am very qualified to write about. Sexism in MMOs. I'm a woman, I play MMOs.
So, here are some of my initial thoughts after reading Richard Bartle's take on gender in MMOs.
Dear Richard Bartle,
I recently finished your book, Designing Virtual Worlds. It is very apparent that you are a man. Not because most people with your name shorten it to Dick, not because you constantly feel the need to mention it, and not because...er...well...most people who read your book know that already. No, it's obvious because of how much you enjoy speculating on how gender issues affect MMO gameplay, and whether or not MMOs are at all inherently sexist. For me, as a woman, there's really no debate about whether or not a female player could be alienated by a given game design. Because if I do feel like I don't belong because of my anatomy, well, that means it's possible.
Now, there was a lot of crazy talk about gender in your book, and actually I appreciate that. Even though I personally found a lot of the extreme feminist stuff you cited and discussed to be pretty bizarre, I like the completeness of all points of view. However, there was one opinion of your very own that is just plain wrong.
You suggest that maybe more men play MMOs than women because men are kept more rigidly in place by societal gender roles and taboos, and finally have a free and safe space where they can spend hours designing their face, spend lots of fake money on clothing, say and do and act how they want, etc. Well, shame on you, sir. You of all people should know that the real reason is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Earlier in the book you describe and even bemoan the start of MMOs, and the “no girls allowed” boys' treehouse mentality. Well, little boys' clubs become old boys' clubs, and MUD1 has become World of Warcraft, and as you can see things stay basically the same. I don't really care which gender is pigeonholed more overall in real life, all discrimination sucks, but that has nothing to do with the gender disparity in MMOs. No, they started stereotyped as something men did that women don't do, so women are going to look at them and think “part of me feels like those weren't designed for me.”
Now, here's are some slightly less knee-jerk things I've been thinking about since then, about what I think is the worst kind of sexism in the world of MMOs.
Even in online gaming communities where women may know they have a strong presence, plenty of men (I'm looking at you, Dick Bartle) still feel “this isn't something women do.” Now, there are a lot of different sentiments that come after that sentence, but pretty often it's “But it would be awesome if they did!”
For example, 6 months after I got legally married, my husband and I finally had the money, time, and organization to follow it up with one hell of a reception. We decided the browser based MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing provided a perfect theme, since a huge part of the game is making tasty food and alcoholic drinks. Not to mention most of our friends (and his mother) also play or have played. We posted pictures of our shindig to the official forums afterwards and got lots of comments from male players saying things along the lines of “Wow, you're so lucky to find a woman who will tolerate that kind of idea.” It was female players (either smart enough to look at my husband and my player ID numbers and realize I had been playing a lot longer than him, or just pretty savvy to this sort of thing in general) who replied with comments like “She is a player in her own right” or “notice who has been playing the game way longer.”
So I understand first hand that being seen as a novelty, or a tourist, or anything but an ordinary player is alienating and discourages in-game socializing, and that is the most common type of sexism in MMORPGs these days.
I disagree with lots of feminist criticisms of games. I mean, it'd maybe be nicer to see some smaller breasts or some lady characters over the apparent age of 18, but really, who the hell cares? It takes a lot of crap to make me actually believe designers had any kind of big grudge against women or actively wanted to demean them and make a whole generation of dudes look at women as nothing but sex objects (though Guitar Hero 3 did convince me), and I have yet to play an MMO that I felt that way about. The problem is with the players. And it isn't the kinds of problems people (again, including Bartle in most of his writings on sexism) like to bitch about, male players actually harassing female players. Seriously, I haven't had a dude use creepy internet pick up lines since I played Diablo on battlenet when I was in high school, and haven't had dudes shower me with in game gifts just because I had a female avatar since I played Meridian 59 (haha, they were hitting on, like, a 12 year old. Freaks!) But I still regularly get other players, even real life friends of mine, refusing to take me seriously as a player of various games.
Anything else I could shrug off as the reactions of a bunch of immature losers who have never been with a woman, but really, what I talked about above is the breed of video game sexism that actually gets under my skin and makes me feel like an outsider