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For the past few years, I've been attending WisCon, the feminist sci-fi/fantasy convention held over Memorial Day weekend in Madison, WI. It was my first con, which no doubt gave me strange expectations for cons in general, although I was not disappointed by Arisia, a more literature-focused con I attended in Boston last year. This year I'm also going to CONvergence at the suggestion of friends who've gone in the past. Having learned quickly that I prefer to be centrally involved in con programming, an unsurprising consequence of my generally histrionic nature, I have already volunteered for a number of panels at CONvergence. Ever the sociologist, I'm on a WisCon panel about gender-swapping in MMOGs, obviously a topic that interests me given that it was a large part of my first ever Strange Horizons column, and one on homophobia and racism in online gaming at CONvergence:

It's sad but true—there are many bigots hiding behind the anonymity of a screen-name out there on services like World of Warcraft and Xbox Live. What do you do when you hear offensive remarks and what steps can you take to avoid and report instances when you hear them? On the flipside, are people overreacting or assuming things?

I find it interesting that the CONvergence panel description does not mention sexism. (You can be sure that it will come up on the panel itself, because I am a histrionic sociologist and systems of oppression are intertwined, dammit.) Panels and other programming being user-submitted, it would seem to be indicative of something about the gaming culture—one assumes that whoever came up with the idea is someone with a stake in that culture. One might also note that panel ideas are not carefully constructed dissertation proposals or anything, and I'm not trying to accuse whoever came up with the original idea of willfully ignoring the rampant sexism in online gaming. It's just curious to me that the panel makes no mention of a topic that seems—to a gaming sociologist—an obvious complement to those already included.

One claim that I heard made repeatedly in my informal interviews with other City of Heroes players was that sexist stereotypes like the "nurturing" female healer are "just part of gaming culture." Seasoned gamers, usually male people who grew up with consoles and first-person shooters, are accustomed to extreme gender stereotyping in the games that they play. Women, who are less likely to have grown up gaming and in general more likely to be sensitive to sexism, are understandably often put off by the sexist tropes of the medium, and frustrated by veteran gamers blowing off any critique of the latest incarnation of those tropes. Many gamers seem to view such criticism as a blatant marker of outsider status, as if it is impossible to be a critical consumer of game content, similar to the kneejerk reaction of many comics readers against feminist criticism of that medium (see my friend Karen's excellent column, Girls Read Comics; the most recent post addresses racism in comics, too). "It's not that bad/It's always been like this/That's just how it is/If you don't like it, go home," seems to be the basic response to any such critique.

So maybe the CONvergence panel description makes no mention of sexism because sexism in online gaming is assumed? Obviously—if you're a sociologist, anyway—sexism and homophobia are related to each other, both produced by a patriarchal system that enforces particular gender norms and punishes transgressors. And racist attitudes often have a sexist component as well: consider the glut of Asian school girls (some of them with kitty ears) running around City of Heroes, who seem to be the latest iteration of the geisha girls described by Lisa Nakamura in her work on virtual identity tourism within the text environments of MUSHes, MUDs, and MOOs.[1] So if you're going to talk about homophobia and racism in online gaming, it seems necessary to address the pervasive sexism with which they mingle, even if you may often take that sexism for granted, an integral part of gaming content.

It seems likely, however, that many gamers don't just take the sexism for granted—they often simply don't see it. I was talking recently with a friend who plays World of Warcraft, and the subject of pick-up groups (PUGs) came up. He doesn't mind them, while I loathe them passionately. He responded that it was interesting I should say so, because his female friends who play WoW all say the same thing, and he wondered why it should be that women in general seem to dislike PUGs.

It seemed obvious to me. I hate PUGs largely because they almost always involve interaction with either idiots or assholes. The "idiot" category includes mage tanks, people who repeatedly kill your debuff anchors, and people who run ahead of the group while people are taking an ANNOUNCED bathroom break, aggro, and get everyone killed, so that you return from peeing to the sight of your mangled avatar at the bottom of the screen.[2] The assholes are usually misogynists and/or homophobes. I'm sure some of them are racists, too, but it doesn't come up as much in casual conversation, at least in CoH. Racism is more noticeable in MMOGs most of the time, I think, in the characters people create (ninja school girls) and also in the ones that they don't create (African Americans, American Indians, and so on). This problem is compounded by the game interface itself, which offers little in the way of non-Caucasian or non-Asian features.

I don't have a lot of experience with Xbox Live, but I've heard that racist slurs are not unheard of over its voice chat; in CoH, the most common slur seems to be calling something or someone "gay." There's a lot more homophobia and sexism displayed in how people talk about themselves and other players/characters—an obvious fear on the part of many players, for instance, of being labeled "gay." There's also the cavalier use of the word "raped" to convey failure in raids and missions. At best, I find it extremely annoying to find myself in a group of players yapping constantly about how manly and heterosexual they are; at worst, I don't want to be playing anymore when people deny that women (can) play, jokingly refer to sexual assault, and toss around homophobic slurs (often directed at female characters, with the assumption that all players are male). Mostly, when I encounter this kind of behavior, I challenge it—and generally then quit the group, since it's not made up of people I want to be around in any sense. A lot of the time, though, I avoid PUGs entirely so that I won't have to bother, as do the female friends of my WoW-playing friend.[3] More comfortable for us, but probably bad for the games.

The problem is that by removing ourselves from obnoxious groups, often preemptively by avoiding any and all players we don't already know, we're contributing to the echo chamber of "traditional gaming culture."[4] This is, of course, exactly what its proponents would like us to do, assuming they can't have us removed entirely. If we never challenge anyone's racist/sexist/homophobic ideas, whether because we don't want to have a confrontation or because we're not there to have one, the people who express those ideas feel like they're in a space where they are appropriate and acceptable. Furthermore, other people who disagree with those ideas but are shy of confrontation may end up in the same PUGs and assume that there is no one in the game who will speak out against prejudice and oppression. Women often conclude that MMOGs are even more devoid of other women than they actually are because they assume that all female characters are gender-swapping male players, and the discourse of other players is often extremely sexist. Those women are unlikely to ever coincidentally encounter another woman in-game if we're all hiding out to avoid having to deal with assholes, convincing ourselves further and further that the "mainstream" (young, male) gamers are incorrigible and there's just no way to change their attitudes or behavior. LGBT and non-white players are in the same boat.

It's likely that many players, taking sexism/homophobia/racism for granted or not seeing it through their own lenses of privilege, would actually benefit from being called out on the unacceptable things that they say and do. The question asked by the panel description, "On the flipside, are people overreacting or assuming things?" seems misguided to me. Of course, I rarely think that I personally am overreacting. But an important point here is that within the virtual space of MMOGs, your avatar and your utterances are your self-presentation. Yes, people make assumptions—for one thing, people often assume that people who say sexist things in-game are male, but I've talked to plenty of people who declare themselves to be female players and account for their femininity in uncomfortably stereotypical terms; I don't assume, however, that this means none of those people were "real women." But people always make assumptions, in the physical world and the virtual ones, and to a certain extent we have to take that into account when we say and do things. We have to have a sense of how the things we say will be interpreted, just as we should have a sense that when we say nothing, it implies acceptance or at least resignation. We should not be afraid to demand that others take responsibility for the stereotypes that they present or the offensive things that they say. We may not always convince people to change their minds, but we can at least demonstrate to them that their norms are not universally accepted, and that game worlds are more diverse than they—as well as the discouraged LGBT/non-white/female n00bs being exposed to them at every turn—might think.

[1] Nakamura, Lisa. 2000. "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet."

[2] This happened.

[3] As if I had a single WoW-playing friend. You know what I mean.

[4] See Cass Sunstein's Republic 2.0.




E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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