Playing with Fire

21 July 2016 Leena van Deventer and Dan Golding

Playing with Fire

Photograph courtesy of istock

Leena: I’d like to tell you a story about me and my headset. I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember, but one in particular that I loved, Team Fortress 2, requires coordination. You need to talk to your team members (often strangers) while playing together online. Enter the headset.

A headset changes a lot about playing a video game, of course. It adds a whole new social element, possibly a sense of comradery and humanity not present via plain old text. But as I jumped into a random server to first try out my new headset, it slowly dawned on me that, for the first time ever, people might know I was a woman while playing online. Big deal, right? Proverbially crossing my fingers, I spoke into the headset for the first time, warning my teammates about an enemy spy.

“OMG, dude are you 12?”

“I’m not a dude…”

“OH MY GOD, we’ve got a GIRL in here, boys!”

Among the three or four loudest voices on the chat, one man stood out. He started following me around in the game, asking me what I was wearing, whether I “fucked guys that played games” and reassuring me that he’d “have my back” as we played. It wasn’t long before I realised, through the foggy grunting noises through the man’s very own shiny headset, that he was masturbating while talking to me. Humiliated and annoyed, I went to close the server, but wasn’t fast enough to exit before hearing him moaning my username into his microphone. My face went red. Hot tears began to sting behind my eyes as the headset was dumped in a drawer for a week. It didn’t feel fair.

I still play online, and when I have the energy for what might happen, I will use my headset. But there’s a tinge of sourness to the experience, playing while knowing those hot stinging tears, that bitter taste of unfairness, could be just around the corner.


The worst thing about this story is that it’s not particularly out of the ordinary. Despite the fact that women have made up half of the playing population in Australia for a long time now (the latest Bond University research puts the figure at 47 per cent), women in games routinely face harassment and exclusion for no other reason than their gender. Sometimes that means guys sexually harassing women on voice chat. Sometimes that means flooding a woman’s social media feeds with anger, outrage and threats. Sometimes, unbelievably, that means bomb and death threats – in 2014, a letter threatening the “deadliest school shooting in American history” was sent to Utah State University in response to a planned lecture from Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist video game critic.

And despite the near-parity of gender in terms of players, the question of who makes games in Australia is another issue. The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey (now from 2012) placed the percentage of women working in the Australian games industry at 8.7. That’s worse than mining, and construction. Video gaming, clearly, has a gender issue.

So why is this the case?

The answer, of course, is complicated. Though some might automatically think of computers and video games as boys’ toys, that’s actually not always been the case. In fact, women did a lot of the pioneering work in the digital world; the world’s first computer programmer was a woman, Ada Lovelace. The similarity between computing work and secretarial work meant that the digital world was initially thought an “acceptable” area for women to work.

But when businesses figured out that serious money was to be made in the world of computers, it was quickly reclaimed as a masculine pursuit. It was this world that video games were born into. In the 1980s the industry began to target boys specifically. Magazines wrote stories that assumed a horny teenaged straight guy as the reader, and adverts began to use sexy women as a sales strategy. In the games themselves, women were more objectified than ever (think Lara Croft). The world of video games, as far as the industry was concerned, became a boys club.

The thing is, though, that’s never actually been the reality of the video games world. Though the industry and the media have conspired to tell them they don’t exist, women and girls have always loved video games. They’ve made them, too, with incredible designers such as Siobhan Reddy, who co-founded powerful British video game development studio Media Molecule and is responsible for games like LittleBigPlanet.

This is because, as it turns out, video games are the simple combination of creativity and computers. They’re the first creative form native to our new digital world. Though the popular image of video games may be guns and guts, if you take the time to look behind the surface you’ll discover a decades-old culture of creativity and craft that tells us a lot about our digital age.

Video games are too important to be left to an industry and a fan culture that actively excludes women. Video games certainly have their share of problems, but they’re worth trying to improve. As more and more people become entwined with their computers and online selves, blurring the line between “real world” and “digital world”, video games have the capacity to be used to tell stories that help make sense of things. And in this new, confusing and sometimes scary digital world, making sense of how we navigate being humans in this space is more important than ever.

» Leena van Deventer and Dan Golding wrote Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the Fight for the Future of Videogames.

This article first appeared in Ed#516 of The Big Issue