“Hey, thanks!” I shouted as one of my teammates shot down an enemy player who had been tailing me for ages. I was feeling relieved, when I heard a different teammate angrily respond, “Shut up, fag!” I sighed and muted myself.
I was in a competitive Overwatch game, and I’d grown the tendency to cheer for people who’d helped me out. This guy instinctively calling me a homophobic slur, likely because I have an obviously feminine voice, made my stomach turn. I refrained from replying, as I knew that feeding the flames would guarantee a loss due to an unhappy team, while ignoring him would give us at least a small chance.
I was always someone who avoided confrontation and social interaction, and the prospect of encountering harassment had turned me off of online gaming for a while. That changed last year when I bought Overwatch, and thus far, I have had games where someone jokes about or attacks my voice on voice chat. I feel frustrated and slightly discouraged when that happens. I think that I should be used to it, that it’s no big deal, that I will never see these people ever again.
Yet the very fact that I must have this conversation with myself points to what is wrong in this community that I so love. At the end of the day, fighting every instance would be useless, so I roll my eyes, zip my lips and march on.
This experience isn’t limited to female players, but can also occur to players who have an accent or a prepubescent voice. Some people can turn into complete dicks online when there are no direct repercussions for doing so.
I’ve happily been a “gamer” for several years, but because of all the mental images associated with that word of a toxic loner youth, I’m uneasy about referring to myself as such. Even with all of the video games I own and merch that I wear, I understand why a lot of other people won’t touch the video game world with a 10-foot pole.
This was especially true during the Gamergate controversy, a months-long incident in 2014 in which many “gamers,” given the cover of anonymity online, harassed and released private information on video game journalists and female game developers under a call for “concerns over ethics in video game journalism” — though it appeared to outside observers to be just an excuse to complain about feminism and social criticism seeping more “video game culture.”
The straight male demographic traditionally dominates, and the loudest voices seemed to prefer that this self-imposed bubble stay the way it is. This was very much evident in just how many people supported all of the sexism and racism that spewed once given a banner to rally under.
Mainstream social critics tended to give video game culture a pass even more after that incident: With the word “games” in the title, how can one see them as more than a childish hobby for teen boys?
But what’s the difference between binging Game of Thrones and grinding enemies all day in a game, outside of the mode of interaction? Television was barely seen as a respectable art form when it was first created, yet here we are now, celebrating and writing think pieces about Stranger Things and Black Mirror.
Video games, too, should be taken seriously for their influence on society in simultaneously combating and perpetuating structures of oppression.
Because video games benefit from an interactivity not present in other forms of popular media, they can be just as culturally significant as books, films and television. They can present a story, a personal story, in a way that other forms of media cannot, as the player takes control of the actions. Games beg to be commented on and admired just as any other form of art.
Overall, I do feel like people are more socially conscious than before and try to create an inclusive space, at least from my own experience on Overwatch. But the effects of Gamergate still linger on in the video game community: While I haven’t been attacked to the extent that those journalists were, I have received sexist, negative comments and emails attacking my column.
Don’t get me wrong, someone disagreeing with me is fine. Freedom of speech allows for discussion to occur, and everyone is allowed their opinion on what they believe. I get the feeling that, however, just like three years ago, some people do not understand the goal of video game criticism outside of, say, ranking whether a game was fun or not or why it might matter in an academic space (even if that space is “just a student newspaper”).
And as the video game community grows and invites new members, encountering harassment based on race or gender should not continue to be normalized. That doesn’t mean that video game culture is a toxic space where I can never be accepted, but that there is room for improvement. Gamers have to stand up for others who may not be like them in some ways, but who just want to play games without worrying about being attacked for who they are.
My feelings on video games, in the immortal words of Mayor Quimby from “The Simpsons,” can be two things. Even my most beloved works of media and communities can improve, and that’s an exciting prospect rather than a negative one.