A comment last week on my post “what’s in a name” included a link to an article written by a female gamer who plays World of Warcraft online (hat-tip: ._.). The game is populated by over 10 million players who take characters with certain powers and work their way up through the levels of the game. There is fighting, socialising and the keeping of virtual pets. I can’t say much more than this because I haven’t played it. However, I note with interest the perception inside this heavily populated virtual world that “women do not exist on the internet”. This is a direct quote from the aforementioned article and the view is substantiated by two youtube clips that a friend at work sent me, and by conversations we’ve had about his gaming life.
The gamer who wrote the article about her WoW gender alientation experiences usually plays as a male character. Ergo the other players assume she’s male. Her article includes a raft of anecdotes about being asked for pictures to prove she’s a girl, about the time she inadvertently shut down an entire gaming episode by speaking for the first time online and thus revealing her gender (we’ve been infiltrated!), and about meeting other players or going to gaming conventions and being unable to catch anyone’s eye or being talked down to by product vendors. Being a woman made her somehow abject – even in person she was treated as invisible. People she had socialised with online couldn’t handle the physical reality of her femininity. Her experiences read like a play on the t-shirt slogan “All this and brains too” but in reverse.
The article was written in 2005, aeons ago by internet standards, and yet, I wonder if things are actually any different today. Certainly comments from female bloggers on my last post would indicate that we’ve got a long way to go before people online stop assuming that an undeclared gender or a male name means someone is also physically male (I’m as guilty of this as the next person).
The default assumption of maleness is not just an online phenomenon. Think of the times you’ve assumed that “Dr Smith” refers to a man. I’ve done it. It’s an indication that we’re still living in universe that treats the unmarked case as male – that male is “normal” and anything else is a deviation from the norm. Of course, assuming “Drs” are blokes also reflects a recent time in history when doctors were much less likely to be women than men. Least we forget.
In the case of WoW the majority of players are probably still male and may always be. There is a statistical likelihood that if you’re interacting with someone in an online game, they’re not going to be a girl. However it’s the assumption that causes all the problems. This morning in conversation there was apparently something quite revolutionary for my work friend in realising that the guys he plays with in WoW might be girls. In his experience of WoW, all female characters are treated with gender suspicion – “don’t flirt with her – she’s probably a guy”. But the same is true in reverse. Don’t not flirt with him – he might be a girl?? That’s trippy. As is the thought that male ways of interacting and behaving might be appealing to women. Fighting? Ordering people about? Enacting violence? Flaming someone on a blog? Aren’t those things supposed to be the exclusive franchise of men? Revelation was written all over his face.
There have always been reasons for women to elide their gender. Writer George Eliot did it because men’s writing was taken more seriously than anything penned by a woman. Women in WoW do it because it saves them from being hit on by guys when they just want to play and be taken seriously. I do it on Trademe because I don’t want to be stiffed by someone selling a car or some other accoutrement of masculinity. I used to do it when commenting on other people’s blogs because I wanted to hide – and then I discovered the joys of being one of the boys.
Online environments can be freeing for precisely the same reasons that they’re essentially misogynist; the undeclared gender defaults to male and people assume that male names mean men IRL. As a woman with a male handle or character you can shout and burp and fight and not care about people’s feelings and not be looked at. It’s an oddly comfortable place to be. The way that women get treated may always going to be a motivation for us to assume male identities if we can pull it off. Does the net actually offer us a way to get beyond the vicissitudes of gender? Could it be possible to escape misogyny forever by becoming metaphorically male in droves?
Sadly I think not. It’s discovery that causes the problems. One slip about how attractive Johnny Depp is, or that you’re appalled by the sexism in a blog post and it’s all over.
I reckon it’s time that women in online environments really staked their claim. There are a lot of women online and open about their gender, but it sounds like there are many more out there lurking. The only thing that will change the domination of the net by male entities and the sexism that goes with them is a wholesale population of all cyberspaces by more women who are out and more importantly - proud about it. And of course who are willing to brave the sexually explicit or sexist attention they’re inevitably going to attract. It used to be that women were bad luck on boats, in need of protection, confined to the home. But we’ve somehow managed to make it into universities, operating theatres, laboratories, the voting booth, warships, submarines, trade unions, boardrooms, the Olympics, the best-seller list, the newsroom, firestations, electrical apprenticeships, private men’s clubs, the director’s chair and space. Amongst others. This is it girls – the internet – the final, final frontier.