Sexualised play and sexism are both online gaming problems.
Most parents have at least one horror story.
My barber, for example, had his Sunday coffee rudely interrupted by an X Box gamer called Daluvpump messaging his two sons during their WWF Wrestlemania slam to ask whether they were "fighting naked like he was".
Gamergate will forever be associated with sexist harassment, where #Gamergate was used as the cyber club with which to anonymously beat leading, outspoken women in the gaming industry. It appears to be part of a long-running culture war resisting attempts to diversify the traditionally male video gaming community.
Recognising how unpalatable the essentially sexist phenomenon may be for the bulk of society, there have been numerous attempts by leading figures within the gaming community to shift the epi-centre of the controversy away from the misogyny at its core. Much subsequent sleight-of-hand PR has sought to re-position Gamergate as a reactionary attempt to avoid the dumbing down of virtual-reality gaming. The apologists have pointed at the negative impact of the political correctness lobby which they see as having had a poisonous influence in many other walks of life. Yet the stench of base sexism still seeps through the cheap cologne of excuse-making.
As a father I find the debacle worrying. But as a businessman I find it plain stupid. Morality aside, sexism, in any form, is poison for profits. To put it bluntly, sexism alienates at least 50% of potential customers not to mention talented developers able to connect authentically with female audiences and thereby grow additional revenue streams.
It's wrong to think of gaming as a pursuit for teenage boys and dysfunctional men in old AD&D t-shirts with fading slogans. Stats, like the 2014 annual survey by the Entertainment Software Association show that nearly as many women play video games (48%) as men. Shocked? What is unsurprising is that this broader audience will challenge many assumptions and norms hitherto common in games and the groups playing them.
Troubled, I decided to carry out my own social experiment. I created four female accounts and slipped them unceremoniously into one of the top selling, most publicised online games.
I found that my female avatars, complete with photos of famous warrior women like Liv Tyler's Lord of the Rings character, were quickly accepted into clans. Yet within hours, the sleazy direct messaging started. Messages were usually initiated by a player in a position of ranking seniority within my alliance, never invited or initiated by me.
At first the messages were patronising and over-familiar in a way they would never be to men, calling my warrior women names like "sweetheart", "darling" "love" and "gorgeous". They progressed to asking me my home town and relationship status. This would be compounded by little gestures like reinforcing my base with troops amusingly referred to as "inserting my troops into your castle" and then requests for telephone numbers and chat line addresses would start. Speaking to female players it was clear that they encountered the same experiences time and again, boycotting the chat functions as a consequence.
Interestingly, there is no differentiation between the powers, skills and attributes of male vs female players in this game. There is no justification for any assumptions that female players are playing as a form of dating or that they are any less able than male counterparts and I never once heard of male players exchanging intimate details with their gaming peers. There is no undercurrent in the game implying that female players are in any way innately subordinate to men and the chat functions are very much ancillary to the game and largely in the public domain. Yet how very quickly the sexist jackals circled, regardless.
Casual sexism, constant flirtation and lewd comments became a daily norm. Defeat an opponent in battle and I became "a cheating whore". Great relish was taken in my pursuit and the creation of intimidation and fear. I was taunted by a group of 20 men, for example, all with superior battle power, that I shouldn't go to sleep that night as "a gangbang party was coming" and that I "needed a cock up (me) to chill (me) out". Posts were placed on world chat forums that one of my characters needed to have the "hotdogs" of every male player "dangled in her mouth". I was amazed and appalled in equal measure as never had I experienced anything like this abuse playing myself, a male, in any game before.
Now consider that there is no age limit on a game like this. There is no overt moderation or suitability check. The simple fact is, the game could just have readily been accessed by my ten year old daughter as by me.
At one stage, I challenged the perpetrators in the open world chat forums. But the most common reaction from the online community was to suggest that I leave the game, that I was "getting what (I) deserved" or that I was probably "ugly" and had an "inferiority complex" because I was a woman. Interestingly, not once did the owners of the game respond to my complaints about the bullying, sexist and sometimes racist behaviour. Not once. And that was despite the fact that they probably employ online game makers or facilitators to stimulate activity within each realm and who should have intervened.
I have to conclude that the controversy surrounding the Gamergate scandal does not appear to have improved gaming for women. I was disturbed by the absence of mediation and control and poor response to complaints. I remain very concerned that children can now access games and environments like this as they simply aren't ready to be exposed to the sexism, the lasciviousness and the bullying. It was difficult enough for me, an adult male.
But I guess my primary criticism remains the commercial one. Failing to understand or do anything to cultivate the gaming experience for half the gaming population is simply stupid. Investing some of the profits the developers make back into proper game experience management to cultivate a culture of mutual respect wouldn't be that difficult. I am certain there is a business case for it. But the fact that our children are being placed at risk, especially the girls, when morally and economically it makes no sense at all, remains the worst scandal of all.
Ian P Buckingham is a management consultant, business coach, social commentator, lecturer, and widely-published writer on subjects ranging from sport through to leadership dynamics appearing in a range of publications and online media. He has also written two business books to date Brand Engagement (PalgraveMacmillan 2007) and Brand Champions (2011).
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