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Push to Talk: The Tricky Business of Being a Woman on Vent

Essay

Like many folks, I first used Vent in conjunction with World of Warcraft (for those not in the know, Ventrilo is a VoIP client beloved by gamers). Before I even left Shadowglen, I ran across an article about one girl’s unfortunate experiences in Vent. I was simply going to reference it here, but my mad Google skills have turned up the actual article, which hearkens back from the year 2005:

I made the mistake of speaking one day, out of the blue…People got loud, people were talking on top of each other, the channel got laggy from all the chaos…I very suddenly got flooded with in game tells: “Was that you?” I didn’t reply to any, I just kept my mouth shut, very quickly realizing my mistake. A few people took it to the next level, making some extremely harsh comments about girls, and girls playing the game. I didn’t talk for the rest of the raid.

That was how I thought Vent was going to be: a never-ending misogynistic gauntlet of harassment and requests for pics. It sounded awful. See, at this point, I hadn’t made any gamer friends, and the only female gamers I knew of were strangers writing articles like the one above. I avoided Vent as long as I could, making up excuses about not having a mic. My interaction with other players was minimal. But by level twenty, my gear was pathetic, and it was clear that I was missing out on a lot of game content.

I joined a PUG (pick-up group) for Scarlet Monastery. I was nervous about screwing up, but excited, too. Everything was fine until I got the fateful question:

“Do you have Vent?”

Oh, frak.

There was no turning back. I was in my first proper instance, and they weren’t going to spell things out for me in chat. With a heavy sense of doom, I dug out my headset. I installed the Vent client. I pushed the button.

“Hi, Asrai here,” I said, my heart in my throat.

A few casual introductions followed. We ran through the instance, the leader kindly offering strategy tips and praising me when I finally got the knack of healing myself (Feral Druid for life, yo). We divvied up loot and traded jokes. We had a really good time.

Nobody had cared. Not one bit.

I played WoW until 2009, and the two guilds I ran with during that time never so much as blinked at my gender. I caught a bit of flak from strangers, sure. I dealt with a few eye-rolling private messages. A small number of PUGs were decidedly prickly. Public chat channels were less than welcoming, but then, they tended to be places where intelligent conversation crawled off to die. And there was one charming fellow who violently threatened me after I turned down his brief, lackluster advances (he was reported to a GM faster than you can say “enjoy your ban, scumbag”). But these experiences were the small exception to the much friendlier rule. Most of the guys I’ve known in game have been awesome, the kind of awesome where you organize barbecues with the ones who happen to be within driving distance. One of them has been a houseguest. Three of them eventually became housemates.

Recently, I began to wonder what made my experience so different from the ones I read about (I have used Vent for other games since, though primarily with friends I made in WoW). Was it because I played in casual 18+ guilds, in which many of the members had girlfriends or wives or kids? Was it something about certain genres of games? In six years of gaming online, have I just been lucky? Or, could it be that things have actually gotten better for female gamers?

I knew that my experiences alone could not answer that question. In conjunction with doing some research online, I emailed out a series of questions to some fellow gamer ladies in an attempt to get to the bottom of things. Here are a few of the highlights.

Former guildie jaymckay08 also started out using Vent for WoW, but later began using it for FPSs such as Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2.

I never pretended to be male. I just didn’t care. I’ve never had anyone hit on me or give me a hard time for being female. If anything, I get a hard time for sucking in game (and not because I am female) which is completely acceptable. I don’t avoid going on Vent if asked to join and if someone is annoying in general I just mute them specifically. Unless its the event leader, which if they are an ass I either deal or jump out of the instance.

Val’s experience on Vent has been almost exclusively dedicated to WoW. She’s played in both hardcore and casual guilds.

Some [men] get super ‘nice’, I might even go so far as to say uncomfortably so in some cases. Some just give you more attention and more general chat than they seem to do with guys…If they get annoyingly clingy, I just mute them and say I was AFK. It’s the internet. I don’t have to be nice to people if they’re making my free time miserable.

Bara has played a variety of MMOs, and spent many a year as a WoW raid leader.

For my own part, I’ve never bothered to hide that I’m a girl, avoided acting/talking like a girl or otherwise behaved in any way unlike how I always behave. I don’t see any reason to. The internet is full of assholes, so it is statistically impossible not to run into them, and some of them will turn to gender-bashing simply because it’s there. But that is what the Ignore function is for.

I was hoping for a variety of experiences, something that I could dissect and theorize over. But the ladies I interviewed, who don’t all play the same games (other than WoW), and who have played on many different servers in a variety of geographic locations, all came to the same basic conclusion:

Things aren’t that bad. If someone’s a jerk, ignore them. Being a woman doesn’t get in the way of my ability to play.

Though this was a very small sampling of the gaming community, it tied in with my theory that things were, indeed, better. I found further evidence of this when, on a nostalgic whim, I went to see if WomenGamers.Com was still up. Eleven years ago, my mom let me use her credit card to buy a t-shirt from the site. “Because Women DO Play,” read the big, bold letters. Today, the site is up, but all that remains is a letter from the staff, explaining why they’re no longer active.

It’s no longer a matter of whether women play, but what they are playing that is now in question. Gamer shame is dwindling, and the world is changing. We too must change with it.

However, this optimistic outlook flew right in the face of a comment I received on my blog from gamer ECMSquared, who linked to a post about her choice to pretend to be male in game (she plays WoW as well). She wrote the post just this past April. And then there’s the site Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which encourages female gamers to send in screenshots and audio of the appalling messages they receive in game. It gets updated every day. The fact that such a site exists at all shows that for many women, life online is still pretty grim.

While I was scratching my head about the disparity I was seeing, I received three emails. One was a newsletter from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The headlining article, A Case for Psuedonyms, spoke strongly against online real-name policies. Following the links within the article, I found a statistic from a study done by the University of Maryland: chat room participants with female usernames are twenty-five times more likely to be threatened or sexually harassed (granted, the study was done in 2006, but I doubt that a margin that high could drop significantly in just five years).

The second email was from a friend of mine who goes by the name of Chimp (full disclosure: he’s jaymckay08′s husband). Chimp was concerned that I was going to write a BOYS ON VENT ARE JERKS piece, which he rightly felt was unfair, especially since our five-year friendship was first forged within Vent. This brought to mind a quieter phenomenon I have noticed amongst some male gamers: a resistance against aggressively us-versus-them female gamers. See, guys like Chimp would be the first to smack a dude down in Vent (or elsewhere) if they were being sexist. Understandably, when they’re confronted with articles angrily railing against the boorish behavior of gamer boys, they take offense. Those jerks don’t speak for them. It’s a case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch.

My friend Greg (the aforementioned houseguest) feels much the same way, as is evidenced by his Steam profile:

(I should mention that though Greg is a master troll, he is secretly one of the most progressive folks I know. I have always found his thinking to be positively third-wave feminist, though he’d probably hate it if I put that down in writing. Oops. And yes, he was a former guild officer, and no, any real harassment would not have flown under his watch.)

Chimp had another point, the crux of which has been detailed here before. I’m sadly going to cut down his full, wonderful story for length, but the gist of it is this: Chimp used to run a LAN café. One of the male regulars discovered that the player who was owning his face in Counter-Strike was, in fact, a ten-year-old girl named Tessa.

Because of Tessa, the phrases “you got beat by a girl” and “HEY SHOW ME YOUR TITS” phased out of the building extremely fast. She was no longer the 10 year old girl who was good at Counter-Strike. She was Tessa. And because of that, my regulars never gave any of the new female clientele any trouble. Although some got tongue-tied and hid behind monitors when the really pretty ones came in. I call it the “Jackie Robinson” effect. Black baseball players were frowned and shunned upon openly by the community. And all it took was one guy to break the norm and start getting people used to the fact that this is happening. Because of Tessa, the boys learned that there are girl gamers out there, and some of them are outstanding players.

And finally, the last email. It was from my mom, and it was seemingly unrelated to anything geeky. Rather, it was an article from the New York Times regarding Title IX violations in university athletics programs. In the past couple years.

I was incensed. Title IX?! Seriously? How could that possibly still be a thing?

And that’s when it clicked. In looking at a fight for equity in sports that still lingers after forty years, it dawned on me that I’d been missing the forest for the trees. See, what I wanted to write for you was something exploratory and sociologically intriguing. I wanted correlations and theories and a rough idea for why this sort of thing happens in the first place. But if I’d figured that out, I wouldn’t be writing this article at all. I’d be writing my Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech for solving the problem of good ol’ fashioned sexism. Because really, that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with the game, or the age group, or the type of guild. It just has to do with being human.

So here’s the problem with Vent:

Some people are mean.

For those of you who have gone through really rough times in game, I know this is over-simplifying. Yes, those encounters hurt. Yes, they’re unfair. Yes, it’s scary and infuriating to have some stranger’s voice coming into your home while you’re trying to unwind after work or school, preying on you solely because of your gender. But you’re still here. You’re still playing, just like the girls who fought for their own baseball gloves forty years ago. Hang in there. It is getting better. It’s just going to take some time.

And yes, gentlemen, some women take their ire too far. I know that many of you would never dare to say the things that get spat at us. Try to remember that the anger you’re encountering is often a defense mechanism. Tell the jerks to shut up and welcome the ladies who want to play.

If there’s one thing I want taken away from this mercurial wall of text, I want it to go out to anyone who might be avoiding multiplayer games or talking in voice chat. Maybe it’s because you’re a woman. Maybe it’s because you’re gay. Maybe it’s because you feel you’re too young, or too old. Maybe you think you’re just not good enough.

To hell with that.

There are jerks online, yes, and some of them can be downright cruel, particularly when anonymity comes into play. But that’s true anywhere. I’ve had my share of unpleasant things said to me at bars, but that doesn’t mean I shun such places in favor of drinking at home with my blinds drawn just because some idiot said something untoward about my boobs. If someone insults you, find someone else to play with. If a guild is giving you a hard time, find another one, or start your own. I cherish the friends I’ve made online, and I’ve had a blast gaming with them over the years. I hate the thought that people are missing out on this amazing digital playground solely because of those previously mentioned bad apples. Don’t let them win.

I’m going to close with a quote from Tina Fey’s book Bossypants. She’s talking about being a woman in management, but…yeah, you’ll get the idea.

If your boss is a jerk, try to find someone above or around your boss who is not a jerk. If you’re lucky, your workplace will have a neutral proving ground – like the rifle range or the car sales total board or the SNL read-through. If so, focus on that. Again, don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go “Over! Under! Through!” and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.

Indeed.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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