It's a man's (virtual) world

LUCY MEYER
Last updated 12:28 04/07/2012
Gamers

BATTLEFIELD OF THE SEXES: Don't believe the stereotype; there are almost as many female gamers as male.

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"F-----g dumb bitch. I hope a f-----g n----r rapes you and f-----g kills you and your family."

These are the words Jenny Haniver hears while playing a video game online. Her male opponent shouts them at her. It's only a game, but he sounds like he means it.

It's the worst tirade of abuse Jenny has received while playing video games online, but it's not an isolated incident. The 23-year-old student goes online almost every night to play the popular multiplayer combat-based game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where gamers communicate via headsets.

Haniver is part of a growing number of women who enjoy gaming online. According to a US-based study by the Entertainment Software Association, 42 per cent of gamers are now female.

Every time Haniver plays, she is harassed because of her gender. Men call her bitch, slut and whore. They tell her that she has no right to be playing video games because she's a woman. And sometimes, they even threaten to rape and kill her.

Alarmed at the level of abuse she was receiving, Haniver created a website called Not in the Kitchen Anymore to document her experiences. She posts screen grabs and audio files of the harassment she encounters.

A similar website, Fat, Ugly or Slutty, also chronicles the abuse female gamers are subjected to. When I speak to the site's co-founder, Grace, she reads me the latest submission: "F--- you bitch, f--- I will rape you in the pussy, f--- you".

It's not just websites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty that are drawing attention to the treatment of women in online gaming. A series of recent incidents has also intensified the debate surrounding the issue.

A few weeks ago, the executive producer of a new Tomb Raider reboot, Ron Rosenberg, announced that a pack of scavengers will try to rape heroine Lara Croft during a scene in the new game. Rosenberg's comments reignited a debate about whether the prevalence of sexualised violence in video games is to blame for the gaming world's problem with sexual harassment.

Around the same time, pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a feminist video series on the portrayal of women in gaming. While Sarkeesian has already raised more than $US158,000, she has also received a large number of venomous comments on her YouTube channel, which include threats of sexual assault.

In February, another female member of the gaming community was condemned for expressing her views. Gaming writer Jennifer Hepler was attacked on Twitter and in online forums after she was quoted on the social news site Reddit proposing that games could be improved if players had the option of skipping combat sections. Many of the criticisms levelled against Hepler concentrated on her gender.

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Not long after Hepler was abused, the world's first online gaming reality show, Cross Assault, sparked outrage when one of its male stars defended the use of the word "rape" and the phrase "rape that bitch" while gaming.

"There's nothing unacceptable about that," stated player Aris Bakhtanians during a live broadcast.

The competitive gamer also claimed that "sexual harassment is part of the culture" of combat-based games.

Bakhtanians issued an apology, but the Cross Assault incident lead to a heated debate within the gaming community about whether the abuse women face is unacceptable or simply a legitimate form of the "trash talking" that occurs between players during online fighting games.

"I try to stay under the radar," says Rebecca Oakley, who hides her gender while gaming.

"Trash talking is a part of gaming," admits Haniver.

"But when you start attacking people based on their gender, that's a line that should not be crossed because that has literally nothing to do with their ability to game."

Gender-focused abuse is so common in the gaming world that many women have come to expect it.

To Maude Garrett, who hosts 2DayFM's gaming segment, Geek Speak, sexual harassment is "almost a norm" in the gaming world.

Garrett can't count the amount of times she's been told to "get back in the kitchen" while gaming online.

Though sexual harassment in gaming is widespread, not all women experience it. But that has less to do with the frequency of abuse and more to do with the way women identify themselves online.

According to Grace, many women disguise their gender to avoid being targeted. They tend to choose androgynous screen names, play as male characters, and even avoid speaking so their voice won't give them away.

This practice is known as "hiding", says Grace.

It's a form of camouflaging that long-time gamer Rebecca Oakley knows all about.

"I try to stay under the radar," says the 36-year old Melbourne mother.

"I've seen people say, 'I'm a girl' and the abuse that gets hurled at them from 'get back in the kitchen' to 'f---- off, girls don't play video games' is just incredible."

Hiding is one of many techniques female gamers employ to deal with abuse.

Another, cited by many gamers Fairfax Media spoke to, is adapting to the gaming world by "toughening up".

"You have to develop a bit of a thick skin when you start playing online," says 23-year-old Melbourne student and avid gamer Katie Laczko.

If a male player's comments are particularly offensive, female players can leave the game they are in and join another.

According to Haniver, this approach isn't always successful, with some men chasing women from one game to another in a virtual cat and mouse game.

"There are some people who follow you from game to game all night, for no other reason except that they are stalking you for fun," says Haniver.

"There are also people who will send you messages harassing you hours after you play with them."

When avoiding an abusive player fails, women can report a player and try to have them banned. But many gamers recount how ineffectual this complaint system can be.

According to Oakley, "you'll only get a stock standard 'we take your report very seriously and can't advise you of the action, but blah blah blah, rest assured, we will be looking into this petition'".

If a gamer does manage to have an offensive player's account banned, that player can always open a new account and begin abusing them once more.

For some women, the sexual harassment they experience while gaming is too much to bear.

"A lot of people have said they have stopped playing online games, they will just play single player games," says Grace.

Laczko recalls a friend who was very active in the gaming community, until the harassment wore her down.

"She couldn't handle the abuse that was being thrown at her, " says Laczko.

"Unfortunately, she actually suffered a lot."

It's not just women who are turning away from gaming because of the prevalence of sexual harassment.

Long-time gamer and editor of CNET Seamus Byrne says he feels ashamed of the way some of his fellow male gamers are treating women online.

"I quite regularly think about whether I want to be defined as a gamer when these are the kind of people who seem to be getting all the attention for what gaming is supposed to be," says Byrne.

While many agree that the gaming world has a problem with sexual harassment, there is a debate about what, if anything, can be done about it.

Haniver thinks a change in attitudes is in order. Even though an increasing number of women are gaming, she is still met by surprise when male gamers hear her voice and realise they are playing with a woman. Haniver believes that when men begin to realise that female gamers are common, they will be less shocked when they encounter them and less likely to respond in a negative manner.

Others aren't so hopeful. Oakley believes that the situation for women in gaming will never improve. To her, the sexual harassment female gamers encounter is an unavoidable consequence of the anonymity of online gaming. In such an environment, she argues, people think they can get away with anything.

Known as the Online Disinhibition Effect, this is an oft-quoted theory that has been applied to all manner of online interactions.

To Grace, anonymity is only part of the picture of what's happening in gaming.

"People think it's about anonymity and so they think the problem is too large to try to solve," she says.

"If you start thinking about it in terms of consequences on an account, it starts to feel like a smaller problem that we can start working on."

As a programmer, Grace believes there are many changes that gaming companies can make to combat harassment.

In April, she contributed to an episode of online video series Extra Credits, which canvassed consequence-based initiatives that gaming companies could introduce to deter their players from harassing others. These included the idea that if 80 per cent of a player's messages are ignored, that player should lose the right to message anyone besides their friends.

As part of the episode, Extra Credits launched a campaign targeting Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming platform and challenging Micrsoft to act. In May, Extra Credits writer James Portnow was invited to meet with Microsoft to discuss how the ideas suggested in the episode could be realized. 

While none of the ideas proposed on Extra Credits have been put into practice yet, Grace believes the meeting with Microsoft was a positive step forward.

"If we can start realising that there are systems out there that can even make a small dent, then that's better than what we have," she says.

Even minor changes will make a difference for female gamers, who want to continue playing the games they love without being harassed because of their gender.

-Sydney Morning Herald

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