Colonising the net

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.


Anonymous said…
This is a fascinating topic. I usually hang-out in the much-maligned mommy blogosphere, where the assumptions about gender are very different. Most of the bloggers I read and communicate with assume that their readers are married, heterosexual women. The occasional male visitor is an oddity.

Parenting bloggers can address the same wide range of issues as other bloggers and some of them are very articulate, but because at some point the conversation will turn to babies, the commenters prone to angry diatribes stay away. It creates a surprisingly polite and welcoming space for women as a result. I never knew pulling out the old wallet of baby photos had such power.

And given that, I'm suddenly tempted to try it while playing WoW.(Not that I do.)
Lyn said…
Well - it would be pretty funny if you did I think, but I too am speaking from a non-WoW playing perspective. What I do see online also is a real demarcation of space into male and female spheres (eg feminist blogs/mommy blogs) vs political blogs. The interesting thing is that space that should code as gender-neutral - polly blogs, WoW - seems to automatically get coded as male. I suppose most early adopters on the net have been men but blogging is a fairly recent innovation and this gendering is happening recursively - ie it keeps reinventing itself as technology changes. Women define specific areas for themselves and everything else is pretty masculine. I too find this topic fascinating and the more I think about it the more angles it has.
Anonymous said…
I did try WoW for a few months, and foudn the strategic intricacies lacking.

What I can say is that the bunch I found myself seemed fairly woman-friendly - though, I'm a man. I had a sort of "this is a virtual space and femininity is no more to be disparaged than deliberately using odd weapons vibe"

THough this isn't ideal, it would certainly be heabily frowned upon to pick on someone's gender, race, country or in fact any distinguishing characteric from real life. What you did in the game was what people liked you for, - other things might be important, but they weren't to be "used".

What I mean, is that I didn't seem anything that was anything near as bad as the sexism I see day to day in real life. There were some women I interacted with, but I had no idea if they were really real women. Those women didn't seem obliged to either have to assert their femininity, or guard it - they seemed at ease in their virtual skins (seemed).

It didn't seem to me that the WoW environment was more condusive to sexism than life in general, and in the case of the people I met, it seemed less so.

There were a large number of adolescent and sub-adolescent males (probably including myself) which might be irritating for women, but again, I didn't see it. In fact, given that playing a female character is nothing unusual at all, it might even help.

There are a few successful WoW blogs written by real women...

Hmm.. environments vary WILDLY in WoW - there are hundreds of different servers, and groups on people who play on those servers, so my remarks are unlikely to be definitive, but maybe they offer some hope.

Charmingly (or maybe not) when someone who was a woman, or at least playing a woman convincingly, turned up the reaction was a sort of abashed chivalry, rather than mysogyny. The idea that a women might play a male dominated game afforded respect, awe, curiosity, and patronisation in reasonably equal measures. There were also some hardcore women gamers (or again, sigh, pretend women gamers) who everyone treated as men-with an-extra-kick. So maybe the options were princess, tomboy, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

It's hard to know exactly what it would mean to be a "genuine woman" in WoW, but I didn't see anyone being rejected, belittled or treated badly because of it. This might be naive, but some people certainly acted within the bounds of what we might imagine to be feminity, and I didn't see adverse reactions.

On the interations I was privy to, though, I didn't see anything evil, brutal, cruel, demeaning etc. I saw women being noticed for being women, sure, and there was curiosity, but no more than if you were from any other under-represented demographic in gaming.

I know I'm not really engaging with the main point here- the "default-ness" of being male. that's too much for this brief comment. I just wanted to offer what I'd seen.

At least women certainly weren't invisible- they were unusual, but not second-rate, not excluded, and not "exposed" by being women.

I'm sure the women I met (and I'm still not sure who they all were) may have modulated their behaviour. But I would say that unless the male gamer is exposed to women being themselves regularly, it's hard to normalise it. My advice is that if someone treats like crap for being a woman, move on. There are more accepting communities. It's true that women are still much "the other", but that can't change without women encouraging the sympathetic, and rejecting the antagonists.
Lyn said…
Well anonymous that all sounds ok. It's interesting that no matter what else is true, we always assign some kind of quality to women - princess, tomboy, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens - I can think of worse boxes to be be put in, but they're still boxes. That whole thing with chivalry is interesting too, because I reckon as women we're not always prepared to live and die by the sword. If you put it out there as a male you have to. And in return you don't get marked out or noticed as different.

The rules for interaction for men and women might be different as well, even in a gaming environment. Check out my exchange with iprent in the previous post's comment thread about blog comments. There were a few modes of behaviour I'd missed or taken for granted even after being told about them.

However, greater visibility for women is the way to go for most of the net. Plus, maybe, for some net spaces, an acceptance that they are gendered and you have to play by the rules of the space you're in. I'm really fascinated by this concept.
Lyn said…
One thing I didn't address in my previous comment was the difficulty of actually being accurately identified as a woman in WoW. There's no way of actually knowing. And does it mean that one has to have a feminine avatar with pert boobs? Are there any hags? Anything without a gender? I stand by my comment that getting out there on the net is the way to stop men on the net assuming that there aren't any women, but exactly how to identify as a woman without VOIP software (or even with it) is definitely problematic. Maybe we need more online debate to "conciousness raise"!
Anonymous said…
Lyn- as an ex-WoW player, I can answer some of your questions. You can pick ugly or old faces, make your hair grey, however your body shape is determined by your fictional "race". (elves, gnomes, dwarves, trolls, orcs, "demons", you name it) They're almost all slim and curvy on the female side, and buff with ridiculous upper bodies on the masculine side.

As your Anonymous friend points out, there is now a LARGE female presence in WoW and only the really, REALLY isolated hardcore groups will have no women now, especially now that players cycle through "guilds" much faster. My guild was actually majority female. Despite this, however, the culture is remarkably sexist, homophobic, and there's even a sprinkle of racism.

I remember reading that article when it was published and remember feeling that she must have really drawn a short straw. The issues are still around, but they're moving into the minority sphere of online spaces. That doesn't mean they always get challenged successfully when they occur, though. I've often had to threaten people to an introduction with Joanna, who carries a nice EMP cannon.

Ironically, I played as a woman avatar because I pass casually better as a woman in that kind of environment. However, the most common reasoning given by men for playing female avatars is either sexualising it themselves ("I'd rather look at a woman when I play than a man") or taking advantage of the above-mentioned chivalry.

Serious players just accept that picking the sex of your avatar is rather like picking a screen name with gender associations, such as "pink" or "trucks". It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with that person's gender.
Lyn said…
Mmm - it all makes sense. I guess a question that springs to mind is how did you know the guild you were in was female, or were you merely referring to their online presentation and not caring about real life? And it's interesting to note that all the usual things we don't enjoy about the patriarchy were raising their heads (sexism, racist, blah blah) - it makes me rethink some assumptions I've prolly been carrying about gender and space in the real world.

I'm also now wondering how exactly would we define a space as gendered - what delineates a male space as opposed to a patriarchal/sexist/racist one? Behaviour? Speech? Assumptions about the gender of the people being interacted with? Once the commonsense assumptions start getting peeled back it's hard to find some solid ground, especially when avatars get involved.
Anonymous said…
How did I know the guild was female? Well, WoW is one of the more hardcore online games out there in some respects, and serious guilds use voice communication. It's ridiculously hard to alter your voice convincingly in real-time.

There is a small amount of gender-faking. This involved both men, who in some cases largely seem to have some sort of autogynophile tendencies, and women who don't want to "out" themselves as such, for the very reasons we've been discussing. Now and then I met a couple of dudes who deliberately didn't out their gender, sometimes partially in solidarity with women or to experience what it was like to be a woman online, sometimes partially because they were afraid of being judged not manly enough, sometimes because of contempt for the irrelevancies of discriminating against someone based on who they are "in real life".

The relationships formed in this sort of game are very real, if somewhat more transitory than usual, and many people who played were friends or family in real life, or became friends with other local players.

There was certainly an assumption that the game was a male space from some people. (a LOT of younger teenage boys would express surprise that girls played this game, or that women and mothers did) It would be very rarely that you could get away with a non-patriarchal viewpoint when commenting in the wider zone chats in the game without causing a massive arguement, but many guilds wouldn't let that sort of thing fly with their own members. Like in real life, anonymity protects people, except in the game, it works in reverse- public spaces are more anonymous than private ones, because few people in public spaces will know you by your character.

In text you can never really tell for sure what gender someone is. People with a good social sense can easily "pass" for the opposite gender. (I've done it myself a couple times to get a taste of the discrimination women face in online spaces, and it's usually quite rampant in all but the "rural" areas of the net, with small insular, friendly communities. Again, the reverse of usual) That said, most fakers who are in it for the deception will give themselves away by being ridiculously cutesy, oversimplifying, and oversexualising themselves to be some fetishised version of the opposite sex, that's more manly than men or more girly than girls. (fakers are never women, they're always teenage girls who are... let's just say they're extremely single. The patriarchy again, I suspect.) It's pretty surreal.

Online spaces, at least when they're populated with people familiar with the 'net, largely tend to ignore avatars, whether they're games or forums or chat rooms. They're not so much a form of self-identification as a form of expression, to be honest.

I suspect what simply makes a gendered space is an assumption about what real-life group(s) the common interest is most aligned with. WoW is a male-gendered, american-dominated and thus inherits a lot of patriarchal problems, because hardcore gaming focuses heavily on young men, even if most online gamers overall are actually women. (Casual online games and online gambling are apparently very heavily female-dominated)