Chandra Sullivan strapped on her headset and galloped throughout Red Dead Redemption (RDR), a popular western role-playing video game, meeting cowboys from all over the map. She stopped to offer help to a group of male players arguing over a glitch she’d beaten many times.
“After I spoke there was this silence, and then I just hear, ‘Are you a girl, or are you a 12 year old boy?’” recalled Sullivan.
First, the other gamers asked Sullivan to prove she was a girl. They then wanted to know how old she was, what she looked like and more – nothing pertaining to the glitch she had tried to explain.
Fed up, Sullivan tried going to a different area in the game, but the players sought her out.
“Maybe they felt threatened. I don’t know,” said Sullivan. “When I told them to stop, they told me to either get better at the game or stick to cooking and cleaning.”
Sullivan eventually left that session of RDR – she hasn’t spoken on her headset in that game since.
In many online multiplayer games, players speak to each other on headsets as they play – but it’s rare to hear a female voice. Even though females now make up 48 per cent of the gamer community, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), they are silent amongst the competitive banter that exists during play.
Girl gamers are still being treated like the new kids on the block, while according to a study published by the ESA; they make up a larger sample of the gaming community, at 36 per cent, compared to teenage boys under 18, who only make up 17 per cent.
“I don’t talk on a headset because I don’t want people to know I’m a girl,” said Sullivan. “I have to get a feel for the atmosphere first – it’s a state of vulnerability.”
This is an opinion that is shared by many girls in the gaming community. While some have no trouble combating the negative attitudes they face – there is a mute option when playing with a headset – others are disheartened by it.
Tracy Gibbons, who used to work for GameStop has hidden her gender from other players in the past, afraid it would alter their attitudes when playing.
“If they knew I was a girl right away,” said Gibbons. “They would either take it easy on me or target me, because they didn’t want their ego to be ruined by being beaten by a girl.”
Gibbons also said gamers regularly sent her messages asking if she was really a girl or would automatically friend her, so they could connect for future games because of her gender.
Logging into an online forum dominated by voices of the opposite sex can be very intimidating, but in this case, the dominance on one side of the spectrum and the privacy of an anonymous username can make the experience unsettling.
“It’s totally misogynistic,” said Sullivan. “If you were a woman any insult is because you’re a woman, and if you’re a man, it’s if you’re not being man enough.”
Sullivan said she doesn’t always hide her gender while gaming, using female avatars during play, but she has had to stop playing because she didn’t want to deal with other players abusing her because of her gender.
According to a survey published by Price Charting on sexism in gaming, out of the 874 gamers who participated, 63 per cent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment while gaming.
Milli Simonics, who used to play online once a week said she doesn’t even approach gaming as a gamer or girl gamer. She says it implies that she excels at gaming and puts a target on her back to be better.
Simonics said while she is a female player, it isn’t something that defines her in the gaming community. She said she mutes her headset because she isn’t interested in hearing gender based insults. “I’m just not interested in hearing that while I’m trying to game. It’s annoying and a distraction that I’d rather avoid, so I just chose not to talk.”
In an online setting, all players are anonymous unless they choose to be otherwise. This protects players on both sides from the abuse that runs rampant in online game communication, and that isn’t something that’s about to change. The question is if there is really a choice to be anything but anonymous when being anything else, in this case a girl, could mean having to disconnect from a game due to abuse.
“The games keep me coming back,” said Sullivan. “But the community makes me uncomfortable.”