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“Gamer” is a dirty word: my journey through a lifetime of harassment in video games

Detailing her experiences as a woman in the gaming community, Ash Gomez explains why she can’t identify as a “gamer”.

Illustration: Samaneh Sadeghi-Marasht

According to the Pew Research Center, in a 2015 survey, 33% of young men identified as “gamers”, while only 9% of young women felt comfortable with the label. Yet the same survey found that there wasn’t a huge difference between the overall number of men and women who actually play games – 50% and 48% respectively. Why are women almost four times as hesitant to embrace the label for what they enjoy doing?

I can’t speak for all those women who were surveyed, but I can offer my own thoughts. I am a woman who loves video games. I love video games so much that I spend time in which I can’t play video games thinking about exactly what I’m going to play once I get home. I waste roughly half of my day fantasizing about my favourite game at the moment. Constantly entering my dreams, gaming is a large part of what makes me happy and is a significant of who I am as a person. But I do not identify as a “gamer”.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the word, and I often must succumb to using it because saying “people who play video games” can be so clunky. The truth is that the word has a bad reputation; it represents everything about the gaming industry that I don’t like.

For many, the term immediately serves as a reminder of Gamergate, the 2014 raid encouraging violence and harassment toward women for criticising the gaming industry. It was a momentous occasion for gaming, and not in a good way. Suddenly, gaming communities were featured in mainstream news articles scrutinizing gaming culture. The already commonly-held-belief that video games can cause aggression gained momentum, as gamers made headlines for their death threats toward women.

That was four years ago. The culture of gaming has changed since then by taking the smallest baby steps. Discussions were sparked about online harassment and ways to prevent another controversy of the same magnitude. Gamergate was defeated for the moment, but women did not win. They simply learned to be silent.

I learned to be silent in the first online gaming community I ever experienced, which happened to be from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I had played the game a lot with my siblings, and I would watch my brothers play online and talk to strangers. When I eventually became pretty good at the game, I decided to give this a try. I was only 11 years old, but I immediately adopted a behaviour that I still stand by to this day: never leave your mic on.

This is common practice for women who game. We prefer to use a text chat if we absolutely need to communicate, and our sentences are often punctuated by “dude” and “bro” in order to avoid suspicion. I once experienced a wholesome interaction when I realised that the person I was playing with was overusing these terms. I privately asked if they were a woman, and I ended up having the warmest conversation and friendship with this young woman from England.

But that’s a rare occurrence within gaming communication, and the wholesomeness stops there. The verbal harassment I faced when I was 11 showed me that the world could be cruel. Even though I turned off my mic after that first game, I still received messages for months from men who asked me where I lived, how old I was, and if we could talk. I deleted all the messages before my siblings could see them. I was embarrassed. I somehow felt like it was my fault. It was my fault for using my voice, for sounding feminine, for being a woman.

Just as I learned to be ashamed of my gender as a child, boys learned that they could do as they pleased.

I’m 23 now. I exclusively use the name “Ash” as a gender-neutral shortening of my full name. Gaming has been a large part of that decision. Yet even with this protection in place, I will sometimes be harassed by men who ask if I am a woman. I think that the mere fact of the name being neutral can give it away; some men seem to be constantly searching for the women who hide in their gaming circles.

To be clear, I love the name I use now. But I was never given a chance to love “Ashley” because it was intrinsically connected to womanhood.

I have unfortunately gotten used to most harassment in voice chat, but I am always surprised by the very young boys who occasionally try to bother me. Their language isn’t as outright hateful as the men I have experienced, but it is clear that they want to make me uncomfortable.

These children are around the age I was when the harassment started. Just as I learned to be ashamed of my gender as a child, boys learned that they could do as they pleased. In fact, I would argue that these boys learned that they should harass women.

When this is the community it stems from, it is no wonder that women avoid the label “gamer”. But even worse than the word “gamer” is the phrase “gamer girl”.

Illustration: Samaneh Sadeghi-Marasht

The second entry for the term on Urban Dictionary describes it as “the chick that goes on voice chat . . . to act all ditzy and flirty”. I have never encountered a woman who does this, and I find it hard to imagine that the abuse one would receive for being a woman — and worse, a dumb woman — is something anyone would actively seek out.

Interestingly, the entry goes on to say that the alternative to the gamer girl is the girl that plays games, who “will sometimes hide her gender and play as a male in games . . . that require an avatar.” Even though the entry acknowledges that women often camouflage themselves while gaming, it does not indicate that this is for any particular reason.

It couldn’t possibly be because when a woman tries to use voice chat and rebuffs a man’s advances, he turns around and claims she was flirting with him and acting stupid. It certainly isn’t because of men like the one who had written that entry in Urban Dictionary.

The gamer girl myth is prevalent in most gaming communities, despite there being very little evidence that anyone acts this way. Search for the term, though, and you’ll find forums and animated videos in which men mock this kind of person relentlessly. Meanwhile, there is very little acknowledgement of the harassment that is so plentiful, that you can hear a personal anecdote of it from any woman who games.

How do we even begin to reclaim the term “gamer”? Firstly, women have to feel accepted into the community. But that’s a huge first step; mending years of abuse and cultural ethos cannot happen overnight. And how do we even start these conversations when this community has a history of silencing anyone who speaks out?

[we can’t] cede the internet to whoever screams the loudest at the most people, and just hand over this amazing technological achievement to the nastiest people.

Zoe Quinn

Gamergate did not end. It lost its momentum and ceased to be a newsworthy story, but the men who participated in it are still active online, and the majority have faced no repercussions for their behaviour. There’s even a chance that these men gained significant followings in the years since the controversy, and that children are watching their Let’s Plays on Youtube today.

It is certainly clear that Gamergate did not tie men to the scandal in the same way that it did to the women involved. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist thinker who criticizes the portrayal of women in media, has continued her activism even after she was targeted. Sadly, she laments the fact that she can only get so far away from the controversy, saying, “It’s frustrating to be known as the woman who survived Gamergate.”

There is no perfect solution to fix the gaming community, but the last thing we need is for women to go even further off the radar. Zoe Quinn, the initial target of Gamergate, still receives threats to this day. To her critics who tell her to simply go offline to avoid threats, she says, “[we can’t] cede the internet to whoever screams the loudest at the most people, and just hand over this amazing technological achievement to the nastiest people.”

Imagine if gaming communities were spearheaded by women, and harassment was kept under check. It’s a world that feels so far away from ours that I don’t even dream about it. But I want it so much more than whatever game I’m going to play when I get home tonight.