My Love of Video Games and My Disappointment in Their Culture


*This is my version of Commander Shepard from Mass Effect…my favorite video game series

Karen + Video Games = Love

I love video games. It all started when I was five and my father plunked me down in front of the computer with a game called Mixed Up Mother Goose. In the fantasy land created by the game, nursery rhyme characters had been separated from an object integral to their story. For example, Jack-be-nimble had lost his candle stick and it was my task to reunite them. And reunite them I did…over and over and over again.

Fast forward another few years. It was the early 90’s and my dad was showing me this cool new thing we had called the internet. He had connected to another cool thing called a bulletin board service and we could talk to people through the computer. Best of all, this bulletin board service had both online games you could play with other people and games you could download for free! Anyone remember arcade style Mario?!? Then came years of assorted console games; a few favorites were 007 Goldeneye on N64, assorted Final Fantasy games on the Playstation (everyone knows VII is the best), and of course Halo on Xbox.

Sadly, I went to college and lost interest in games for a few years until one day an ex-boyfriend of mine introduced me to a game that would become a catalyst for learning, creativity and friendship. I played the World of Warcraft for about 6 years. I loved so many things about it, the story was interesting, the content was challenging, the competitive environment it fostered could be exhilarating, and the 24 hour a day, 365 day a year social scene was satisfying.

The Social Side of Gaming

At first, I was awful at the game. I didn’t understand the mechanics like more experienced players did and as a result, people were mean. Eventually one person I had bumped into several times took me under his wing and decided to explain the finer points of strategy to me. Part of that strategy was that I should adopt the supportive role of a healer because “that’s what girls are good at”. I didn’t think anything of it. It was friendly advice from someone looking out for my in-game social welfare.

As I became more and more involved in the game my competitive side really started to shine through and I began seeking out more competitive guilds. This is when I really began to notice that the ‘guys’ (and they were pretty much ALL guys) treated girls differently and that I would have to adjust my social strategy if I wanted to be accepted as one of the group in a competitive raiding guild. While I didn’t realize this at the time, it seemed there were two strategies for acceptance, to play the role of the sexualized ditzy girl, or to convince them that I was just one of the guys.

It was common, everyday conversation to hear jokes about women and kitchens, sandwiches and refrigerators in WoW. It was also rare that you could go more than a few hours without being the victim of some sort of gender related verbal abuse. In fact it was so common that there is a website dedicated entirely to documenting these comments. The website is called fat ugly or slutty and is named after the most common themes to the suffered insults.¬† ‘Rape’ was a term used in a variety of contexts. People would say “I raped that guy in the arena” to indicate that they had been victorious in a competition or if someone’s avatar died for whatever reason and it was seen as funny someone would inevitably chime in with “get raped” and much laughter would ensue.There was also a distinctly homophobic undertone to the entire community. Also frequent, was the jerk who would discover my true identity as a woman (usually through voice chat since it’s easier to coordinate groups that way) and start asking inappropriate questions, asking for nude photos, or offering nude photos of himself. When participating in pick-up groups (a group of strangers working together to accomplish a task), if the leader of said group discovered I was female I would often be delegated the least demanding position or simply be kicked from the group. This was the case even though I was visibly a member of the most successful competitive guild on the server. The easiest way to avoid being kicked was to have a male friend vouch for me, to say that I was competent. The worst part of all of this, is I never even once questioned it. All of these experiences seemed normal and accepted amoung gamers and so I never thought anything of it. At least not until I went back to university to study sociology.

Video Games + University 

Throughout my undergraduate degree I have taken every opportunity to research and discuss video games in my courses. During this research I stumbled upon feminist frequency, the website of feminist and pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian. Having watched some of her videos and reading about her story (you can read about it yourself at her website), I began to think critically about my experiences playing WoW. Through a project in my violence and society class, I learned and developed the tools and skills to analyze online gaming through a sociological lens. I began to understand that much of the sexist and arbitrary verbal abuse I was subjected to while gaming online could be boiled down to a backlash from a patriarchal sense of entitlement felt by men and boys who were threatened by the presence of women and girls in ‘their world’.