"…we shouldn't be having to hide online, and this is unfair. I should be able to tell people I'm female and not expect crazy to come out of it."
"The first rule is: try to avoid pronouns." A tall order, especially when it comes to the basic act of writing. And taller still given that Brittany (whose full name and publication she wishes to remain anonymous) has worked in editorial media for several years. "I mean, of course you end up using them. But if it's on Reddit or The Guardian online-anything with comments or feedback-it's the same: you're going to get shit if readers figure out you're female."
Since the internet's explosion into the mainstream, the idea of harassment has been thrown into the same semantic cyber-danger pot as "chatroom predators," "identity theft," and "Craigslist personals". But as online experiences which have long been solitary become increasingly community-based, receiving abuse via interactive technology has become, it would seem, a given-and widely-absorbed into women's online routines.
Kim Pittman is a level-designer for Toys For Bob, an Activision studio based in northern California. In addition to working in the game industry, she is herself an avid gamer: "I got into gaming because of my mother and my brother," she says. "My first conscious memory is of a video-game. I've always played them. It was just a family thing at my house."
Pittman studied at the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, which has offered an accelerated graduate program in video-game development since 2003. "As a designer, it's kind of my job to study new games. So I try to spend thirty minutes to an hour every day playing something new: everything from Facebook games to iPhone games to Xbox 360 games. But most of what I play for my own pleasure – not deconstructing anything – is World of Warcraft."
Blizzard Entertainment's massive multi-player online game World of Warcraft has gained notoriety in the past decade for its die-hard, often socially reclusive fans, coupled with massive commercial success. But Pittman remains conscious of the stigma attached to advertising gender within its gameplay. "You do not share the fact that you're female," she states. "Despite the fact that I play solely female characters, everyone assumes that you're male. And when you play these games, you just let people assume you're male, because it's easier. You don't have to worry about ‘creepies', you don't have to worry about people ‘falling in love with you' – it's just easier. Then when you get to know people, eventually you reveal yourself. You can say ‘Well, you know, I'm not really a guy,' and then you have to combat the initial disbelief. People think you're just trying to get something out of them. I actually played with a guild in World of Warcraft for over a year, and we finally got a vent server and were suddenly all like ‘Oh God, you really are a girl!' I'm just said, ‘I've been telling you that for over a year now!' They didn't believe me."
A 2006 statistic from the Consumer Electronics Association revealed that women ages 25-34 were out-playing men in "casual" (non-console) games by 30%. Three years later, a Nielsen report would find that women over age 25 make up the largest constituency of gamers in the United States. And in the UK, women have been projected as made up 48% of World of Warcraft players. "It's a little relieving to not be singled out as that odd girl doing something she shouldn't be," Pittman explains. "Video-games still have that kind of stigma – that they're for children, or that they're a waste of time. Over the years, as I've met more and more people, I've begun outing myself as an actual female. And more often than not speak with people you thought were male—and they're not. Suddenly they're like ‘Oh thank God, another woman!" and suddenly you build these friendships where you're just clinging to each other like someone drowning clinging to their life-jacket."
The irony and self-perpetuation of online anonymity is not lost on female gamers and new-media users. "I went to PAX—the Penny Arcade expo up in Seattle—and it was an eye-opener. Up til that point I saw myself as something of a unicorn," a metaphor Pittman finds particularly apt, and returns to often, "being a female gamer. At something like that there are going to be thousands of other girls running around, just as nerdy as you, if not drastically more so. It kind of reached this point where I thought, OK, this isn't abnormal; we shouldn't be having to hide online, and this is unfair. I should be able to tell people I'm female and not expect crazy to come out of it."
But out of this unsettling trend has come comfort in the form of the ever-useful screenshot. FatUglyOrSlutty.com, launched early this year, allows gamers to share the creepy, comical, inane, and often deeply disturbing feedback female gamers receive, most often via the chat functions in the World of Warcraft and Call of Duty franchises.
"I shared some of the messages I had received with GTZ [co-editor Grace*] and other friends," explains Ashlee, a co-founder of FsoU, "and we were all laughing about them. I said something like, ‘Everyone is the same. I'm always either fat and ugly, or a slut.' GTZ said I should make my own site in which I just post all of the messages I get, and our friend Marcus suggested we call it FatUglyorSlutty.com. It started out as a joke, but we quickly realized it would be an awesome idea."
One "whisper" reads: "wow retard r u on ur rag or somethin." In a Call of Duty chat-log: "you fat fuckin tomboy go kill yourself."
The site has received widespread media attention since its launch, including profiles on Kotaku and GamrFeed, and news aggregator Reddit, which launched an extensive discussion among both male and female gamers. One Reddit user contributed: "I never realized how bad it was until my girlfriend got into gaming. She started with L4D [Valve's Left 4 Dead] on the 360. She would constantly get bombarded with disgusting voice messages and lewd comments. I've been playing online games for a long time and never experienced anything close to what she has to deal with. I'm not even talking about comments like ‘lol a gurl, get back in the kitchen', I'm talking about extremely vile things. Like the little kid who voice messaged her that he was going to chop her up into little pieces and have sex with all the pieces. I mean, seriously?"
Like all areas of waking life, women in online media are caught somewhere between indignation and the frustration at having to be indignant: the distress of being targeted, and the backlash at discussing factors which still allow women to be targeted – particularly in ways which many view as vestigial of a time long past.
"I know, rationally, that random insults are exactly that," says Grace. "But I still find it hard to brush off. Maybe I'll grow that thick skin, but I don't feel that the onus should be on me to do so."
For Pittman, her history of harassment in gaming don't begin and end in the digital world. Since entering the Guildhall in 2005, she has left an internship because of a co-worker's obsessive behavior, and been asked by a previous studio's human resources department to delineate her own definition of workplace sexual harassment ("because," she explains "it wasn't so much a question of if and by what circumstances it would happen, but when it would happen, and I think they wanted to be prepared"). She also shares a story about being kicked out of a guild by a female leader upon realizing that she-Pittman- was also a woman: "You know it's funny, I've never encountered anything even remotely close to that in a game of Call of Duty. I played Team Fortress 2 quite a bit, and even in that it was like, ‘Oh you're a girl? Big deal – HEAL ME!'"
"There is no reason we should have to hide our gender to play games," says Jennifer. "I'm not going to go all Mulan and cut my hair, deepen my voice, and wrap my boobs. The comment we get a lot is: ‘Just don't talk or let people know you're a girl.' And it's bullshit. We shouldn't have to hide. We like games, so get over it."