Yes, there are women in gaming… and some of them have Y chromosomes

Rachel Walmsley is the head of documentation for Dreamwidth Studios. She’s also a geek, a gamer, and a transwoman.

Hi, I’m Rachel, also known as rho, and I am — amongst many other things — a woman, a geek, a gamer, and a transwoman. Skud has invited me here to discuss some of the issues and experiences that I’ve had being both a transwoman and a geek, and I’m delighted to do so.

There are a whole lot of issues I’d like to go into at some point, such as privilege issues from the perspective of someone who’s been on both sides of the line or how feminists can sometimes exclude transwomen (accidentally or otherwise) but to start with I’d just like to discuss something a little lighter.

As I mentioned above, I’m a gamer. Video games are my poison of choice, but all forms of gaming are good. For transgender geeks, games are a wonderful escape. For as long as I can recall and certainly since before I realised I was transgender myself, I always used to play female characters in games wherever I had the option. Whether it was perfecting the timing on Chun Li’s spinning bird kick or just being sure that my @ sign was definitely a female @ sign when I was playing a roguelike, I was always drawn to female characters.

Role-playing games were the best, of course. Back when I was struggling with my identity and wasn’t generally able to be myself an immersive world with only a computer for company and nobody to tell me that I couldn’t be who I wanted to be was ideal. I suspect most people feel the allure of getting to be someone else for a while, but for transfolk such as myself it’s a particularly strong one.

Time has passed, though, I’ve transitioned, and I’m at ease with my gender identity. Mostly. One of the things that can still make me anxious on that front — in a huge twist of irony — is gaming. For starters video games today are no longer the solitary affair that they once were. MMOs are all the rage, and even my not-at-all tech savvy dad has heard of World of Warcraft. From a gaming perspective, this is great. From an escapism perspective, not so much.

Many female video game characters are, unfortunately, designed primarily to be aesthetically pleasing to the straight male primary audience (and in many cases, the straight male game designers and artists). Far too many games have the problem of “Wait? That’s meant to be armour? I thought it was lingerie!” for their female characters. Male characters get tough leather or iron armour whereas female characters wind up in a skimpy piece of cloth that wouldn’t keep you from catching a death of cold, let alone serve as protection against incoming arrows or fireballs.

This leads to a lot of male players creating female characters for no reason other than to ogle their pixelated behinds. I’ve even seen guides to in-game trading that explicitly recommend that the player creates a female character to get extra trade, and that they should pretend to be female and helpless to make other players more willing to trade with them. The author of this particular document didn’t seem to realise either that some of the players might actually be female or that females are not generally helpless and pathetic.

The default assumption then becomes that anyone playing a female character is actually male which leads to the whole “there are no girls on the Internet” thing. I’m sure that pretty much all women gamers have encountered this at least once, and probably many many times. It’s annoying at the best of times, but for a transwoman who has had to battle to be seen as a woman in the world at large, it’s doubly annoying. The final kick in the teeth for me comes when there’s voice chat involved. I don’t have a feminine-sounding voice, and while on the phone it’s a simple matter to correct someone who assumes I’m a man, when gaming, it’s a lot harder to convince people.

After all, there’s no such thing as a female gamer.

6 thoughts on “Yes, there are women in gaming… and some of them have Y chromosomes

  1. Meg Thornton

    I tend to stay out of the social aspect of MMOs, mainly because timezone issues (Zone GMT +8) mean I tend to be playing when most of the other participants are either asleep or at work, but certainly I can speak about the whole “there are no girls in gaming” thing. I’m a cis-woman who plays mostly female characters, and I occasionally get annoyed with being presumed to be male in chat (I can remember one episode in WoW where a trash-talking nitwit tried to insult my assumed masculinity by calling me “gay” and got disconcerted when I revealed, no, I was female, and my choosing to ogle masculine characters was absolutely heterosexual all the way – cue idiot retiring, metaphoric tail between their legs, as the rest of zone chat bursts out laughing). It doesn’t happen very often for me (I tend to solo – see timezone issues above) since I try to avoid the question of gender identity online most of the time (cis- privilege, I know). I’ve never attempted to hide the fact I identify as female (and that I have all the physiological features which cause society at large to agree with this identification) in any of my online interactions, so I get just a little bit annoyed when someone I don’t know tells me I’m wrong about my gender.

    Then again, I’m 38, and have been playing computer games since about the age of 18 (and got hooked on them a good three years before that), so I suppose I’m used to being regarded as non-existent by the gaming industry (as a woman, as a woman who plays computer games, as a woman who buys computer games, and as a person over the age of 18 who admits to playing and buying computer games). I keep a half an eye on the blogs of a few friends who are more seriously interested in gaming than I (I like it, but not enough to read the gaming websites or buy the magazines) and try to avoid the more egregious examples of overt sexism in gaming.

  2. Cesy

    Thanks for posting this. It highlighted some intersectionality issues I hadn’t really thought about before.

  3. Jonquil

    Well said. The bit about voice and gender must be the cherry on the cake.

    Tell me about female @ in rogue? The letter “e” looks female to me (it’s a Wicked Queen), but “@”, not so much.

  4. Jayle Enn

    “The author of this particular document didn’t seem to realise either that some of the players might actually be female or that females are not generally helpless and pathetic.”
    Not to defend the author of that guide, but it seems to me that he’s advising the trader to manipulate a common (and ridiculous) assumption among the player base, rather than showing an insight into his own psychology. That whole ‘no girls on the Internet’ meme has its roots in the assumption that computers are still a boy thing, and too complicated for Little Suzy Bank-Sitter to handle effectively. The (presumed) boy gets a chance to open a metaphoric pickle jar for the (presumed) girl, showing off his ability to virtually provide.

    1. ftfisher

      Jayle Enn:

      I honestly fail to see how this view of the author’s intent makes any difference in how I should view him and his document?

      It relies upon ridiculous, sexist assumptions about women, their general competence and effectiveness, and their presence in geek and gaming culture. And rather than combat those stereotypes, the author of this document says, hey dudes, *you* can use these to your advantage! If your avatar’s female and you act helpless, you can get people trade with you that wouldn’t otherwise.

      There is a very interesting discussion to be had over using sexist assumptions against those who have them vs. combating and challenging them. But frankly that’s a discussion that women should be having — and this isn’t a discussion at all; what is described is the outright and unreserved advocation of the use of sexist assumptions in such a manner as to perpetuate them. And it further sounds as though the sexist assumptions being used are explicitly carried by the author of the document: of *course* if a woman were playing the game, she’d be helpless and confused! So convince men you’re actually are a woman being being helpless and confused.

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