Lately there have been a bunch of shifts in the terrain of game development and the gaming culture surrounding it. There have been discussions about women in games. National newspapers in Sweden and abroad are starting to talk about the sometimes toxic culture that women navigate in order to participate in games.

This makes me very, very happy. To fix a problem, we have to understand the problem. Discussion is good. It changes people’s minds.

Most of the people who have gotten to speak recently, who are heard when they talk about the problems the gaming culture faces, are men. This makes me angry. Well, not angry per se, but sad perhaps. Sad angry. Frustrated.

I am so happy that the gaming culture is finally being seen for what it is – both amazing and awful – and that people are starting to agree that perhaps it needs a good wash and a rinse.

I’ve been saying that for about, oh, I don’t know, 10 years? What makes me frustrated is that a man is required for people to listen. Still. For a question or a discussion to gain validity, men have to agree and men have to raise it. I met Tom Abernathy last year at Gotland Game Conference. He told me that many women were upset and angry at him because he talked about diversity in games. That he was seen as a threat and a fake and that he didn’t know about being a gaming minority.

I can totally relate to those emotions. Personally, I’ve been fighting so long for this change to happen, and when it finally does, someone else gets the kudos and the credits. At least that’s how it feels. And at the same time I am so grateful to Abernathy and every other man that stands up and says “this is not ok. It’s not ok to threaten a woman with rape or death because she’s playing. It’s not ok to send images of your genitals to a person, just because she admitted she’s a woman or girl. It’s not ok.” I am so grateful to all guys who won’t tolerate that kind of behavior.

What pisses me off, and what tells me that we’re not that far along after all, is that it takes a man for all the other men to listen. I can scream until I’m blue in the face, but I still need a man to validate my claims.

But actually, that’s not what this blog post is about. It’s about comfort zones and an article Jonas Linderoth sent to me, written by him and Elizabet Öhrn. It’s called Chivalry, subordination and courtship culture: Being a ‘Woman’ in online games.

I will talk a bit about the article and I’ll probably space out as usual while doing it. It sort of touches on the introduction, but not quite. Although it is my firm belief that all things are connected, so maybe it does after all.

What made me think twice is the connection that Linderoth and Öhrn find between online gaming and real life. It’s a connection that I’ve talked about before, and that I keep lugging around in almost all my blog posts. That even though we have the opportunity to transgress gender, as they put it, we’re still not really doing it. We are more comfortable viewing ‘women’ in a gaming context as the stereotype of a woman. And it’s not just the sexualised avatars that contribute to this behaviour. Our social interactions also strengthen the view of ‘women’ as subordinate.

To be a woman in online games includes, according to this study, being treated specially, sometimes to get a nicer reception, extra help or ‘favours’ from online male players, but also being less likely to be recognized as a skilled player. As is often the case, chivalry is given in exchange for subordination (cf. Öhrn 2001). In this study, the de-valuing of the female players coexists with the standard system in which the player’s value is judged by his or her skill.

This means that women, real women this time, not ‘women’, are viewed as less skilled, no matter the real skill level. And it also means that we constantly have to prove ourselves, our interest and our competence, because we are viewed as “fake”. Remember the fake nerd girl meme? That is probably a reflection of this cultural need to subordinate women and to arrange us into accepted roles. So it’s perfectly fine to put us on a piedestal, but it’s not okay for us to want recognition, not for our role as ‘women’ but for our skill set.

By the way, I’ve left the article behind a while back. I might have reason to get back to it. Anyway. Our skill, not a stereotype.

This is arguably one of the reasons why women and girls play “anonymously”. To not have to buy in to the accepted role of ‘woman’, but to be oneself. To be judged, not by a stereotype, but by one’s own skill and competence. The price is to withhold information, not join voice chats etc. This may also be a possible explanation for the non-existing women in online games. The reason men never see women hanging around is because we’re hiding among you, impersonating men in order to be able to participate fully and not get special treatment.

The other alternative is to become one with the culture, to be just as misogynistic and prejudiced as the rest of the culture. To become one of the guys, at the cost of other parts of your identity.

So the options are to be anonymous, to be a ‘woman’ and thereby subordinate or to be a ‘man’, but still subordinate because even though you behave like the guys you are not one of them and you will never be.

The last option is to be yourself, a woman, and different. To not play the game, as it were. To raise your voice, to shout out loud, and to be the grain of sand that will eventually become a pearl. A game (culture) changer.

I believe that we have not only personal comfort zones, but that a culture surrounding a phenomenon such as gaming, also has a comfort zone. That’s where the society or culture doesn’t have to think, doesn’t have to risk anything. Where the culture is at peace.

I believe that we women, talking about this, being gamers, being feminists, wanting to take up space, actually causes a step out of the cultural comfort zone. A risk, if you will. A crisis. Anxiety. Change. That’s what we’ve been doing for about 15 years.

I believe that the gaming culture or society have faced parts of this crisis, and found a new level of comfort. Still at the edge of what’s ok with respects to some, but it is happening. The discussion is gaining ground. It’s becoming less controversial, more comfortable to talk about women in games. I also think that’s why men are starting to talk about it. It’s not so much a crisis as an edgy thing to do. I’d also like to point out that as a man, talking about women in games is not a risk. You’ll do fine. You’re a man. A woman on the other hand is marked for life. Being outspoken comes with a price, and it is not always visible.

(I’m not sure if this has been coherent in the least, I’m writing this with a migraine lurking about and nice blossoming fields of color all over my left eye. Categorise it as one of my more “stream of consciousness-y posts”)

As a final wrap up of this blog post I have to say something that’s been on my mind for a very long time. Every time a guy walks up to me and says “you really changed my mind about women in games, I hadn’t understood it before, I mean I knew, but I didn’t know“, I am so close to asking this. And I know it may sound snippy, and I know it’s not that easy to navigate life. It is a life long lesson after all. But I still want to ask.

What the hell took you so long?