Opinion: Gamers and gaming communities need to address problems of discrimination

Photo by Claire Keener

I’ve loved video games since I was a kid. I remember playing old flash games and taking turns playing RuneScape with my brother when it was popular in the early 2000s. 

Since that time, my life has turned to other things. However, I’ve always retained my love for video games; I wrote an entire essay in my ENGL 304 class about why video games should be considered art. 

While doing research for an article on Valorant and Esports, I discovered that three different companies had been sued for discrimination against female employees.

That discovery led me to think more about gender discrimination in video game communities.

A part of me wants to simply blame men and the patriarchy and leave video games out of it; unfortunately, the video game community is not excluded from perpetuating this discrimination.

I believe the issue is incredibly complex. It runs from gamer stereotypes to the nature of online communities themselves.

Video games culture, Discord
[Photo of a woman using Discord, a popular communication app among gaming communities.]
Photo by Claire Keener | The Arbiter

About a year ago, I got into OldSchool RuneScape, a multiplayer online game. While completing one of the first quests, I ran into another person. We started chatting, and I was asked if I wanted to join his Discord server to chat. Excited (but nervous) to make a new connection in the game, I agreed. 

Upon joining the server, I was met with about five masculine voices, and one of the first things I heard was “Oh my god. You’re a girl.” After which, introductions were made, and despite having told them my name I was simply referred to as “gril,” a “meme” term gamers sometimes use to refer to women players

Believe it or not, this was my first time experiencing such overt actions toward me simply because of my gender. 

That first initial reaction, though, is what I want to focus on first — the surprise that a girl would be playing this game. This surprise is rooted in gamer stereotypes.

Ultimately, the mens’ surprise is not unfounded. The gaming industry is a field dominated by men. 

“Stereotypes are not mysterious or arbitrary, [but] grounded in the observations of everyday life,” said social psychologist Alice Eagly. 

In other words, these stereotypes exist because they can be, in small part, true. They are just assumptions made and applied to people without care.

Not only are gamers stereotyped to be men, but they are also negatively stereotyped to be lazy, unemployed and lacking in social skills, despite video games being popular among large swaths of society. 

Being in a company full of other stereotyped men would give a sense of power to this group which lacks power in wider society. When lacking in power, people often take action by establishing power over another group of people, and oftentimes, women are the target. 

A system already exists which discriminates against women, and video games do not generally cater towards women. Video games themselves are full of hyper-masculine characters, stereotypical damsels-in-distress and hyper-sexualized female leads. 

Negative stereotypes do not excuse discriminatory behavior, but they are a large contributing factor. All those stereotypes must be addressed before significant change can happen. 

The biggest issue, though, lies in the nature of online communities. 

When you can hide behind a username, there is virtually no fear of real-world consequences. Anonymity online is an issue for almost all online platforms, and it is especially relevant to video game communities. 

You can be banned in-game for offensive behavior, but that is vastly different from real-world consequences. Game companies create a real-world place for these behaviors to propagate, but now there can be real-world consequences, hence the discrimination lawsuits.

In addition, when no one has told you that behavior is inappropriate there would be no reason to change. Online communities are insular. 

When you’re focused on playing a game and/or discussing it, you may not be worried about whether what you say is offensive or not. You lose sight of the wider societal implications of your behavior. 

The men I spoke with had genuinely never spoken with a girl playing that game before and had never been told that the term “gril” might be offensive.

In order to change behavior online, people need to ally against discriminatory behavior and language, and they need to be willing to stand up for not only themselves, but others too. 

One last thing I want to focus on with my personal experience. I want to address how that was my first experience with gender discrimination in gaming communities. Gaming communities take many forms, and inclusive communities certainly exist.

I remember in early 2017 trying Fortnite and being welcomed by all the squads I joined. A YouTuber’s clan and community in OldSchool RuneScape even welcomed me and other women “‘scapers.”  

Indie gaming communities are especially welcoming, like the Hollow Knight community. Hollow Knight has the most inclusive and welcoming community I’ve ever joined. The game even has a mod to make a bug look like the trans flag

There are many welcoming and inclusive gaming communities, but much more still needs to be done. I’m very lucky to have avoided misogynistic language and behavior for so long.

By addressing existing gaming stereotypes and calling people out in online communities, a small change can be made. Hopefully… eventually, a wide change will happen for not only the “girl-gamers,” but for all gamers of different genders, sexualities, races and ethnicities.

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