- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The computer gaming industry has a problem: Even as a new survey confirms that women make up almost half of the gamer population, female players say they are often made to feel like a despised and disrespected minority, regularly meeting with hostility and scorn in the male-dominated culture of video and computer games.

Jenny Haniver, a freelance artist in Wisconsin, plays “Call of Duty” every night for an average of two hours. Every time fellow gamers realize she is a woman, she said, they make surprised, derogatory or sexually suggestive comments.

“When they see my name pop up, they’re like, ‘Oh holy [expletive]! There’s a woman in the room,’ or when they hear my voice, ‘Oh, she sounds so [expletive] hot!’” Ms. Haniver said.

“It goes from that, to if you win a game, they think you’re cheating or that it’s not really you playing, and they think it’s your boyfriend or your husband, because there’s no possible way a woman could be playing that well. The responses are varied. Some people tell you you should be in the kitchen. It’s kind of bizarre.”

In 2010, assigned to do an art installation piece at her Wisconsin university highlighting a social issue, she decided to focus on the sexism and harassment she regularly encountered through gaming. She recorded the audio of her interactions with other players and launched a website, Not in the Kitchen Anymore (www.notinthekitchenanymore.com), to share some of the more choice put-downs.

“It’s disheartening to experience it frequently,” Ms. Haniver said, while noting that the harassment only comes from a minority of gamers. “It’s annoying because they’re making a big deal about your gender. … I just like to play games too. My gender has nothing to do with it.”

Exploding stereotypes

Gaming isn’t just for teenage boys holed up in basements these days. Women are expanding in the gamer world and now make up 45 percent of all U.S. gamers, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Entertainment Software Association. The 2012 figure is actually down slightly from 47 percent in 2011, but confirms an upward trend for female players from 38 percent in 2006. Women 18 or older now represent 31 percent of gamers, while boys 17 or younger only represent 19 percent.

ESA spokesman Rich Taylor said the study challenges many stereotypes of “who a gamer is.” He said sexual harassment should not be tolerated and that the industry is looking to a “self-policing community” with gamers identifying other gamers who are behaving inappropriately.

Mr. Taylor, an avid gamer himself, said he enjoys playing a variety of games with his two teenage children.

“My son and I have an ongoing soccer rivalry, while my daughter and I team up and take on zombies,” he said. “Every now and then, I get my wife to participate and do something like ‘Just Dance’ or ‘Rock Band’ or a game like that.”

Games have expanded to include entire families like Mr. Taylor’s. The average U.S. household now has two gamers and owns at least one dedicated game console, PC or smartphone, according to the ESA survey. About one-third of parents play computer or video games with their children at least once a week.

“I just wanted to be with them and to know what they were doing,” said Jeffrey Hsueh, a financial officer from Fremont, Calif., who regularly played the computer game “GunBound” with his daughter, son and nephew when they were in their early teenage years.

Mr. Hsueh said “GunBound” was a way to be a part of his children’s lives, and that he also worried about them chatting with strangers online. “There’s lots of people out there, and I don’t know them at all,” he said. “I think most parents worry about that.”

His daughter Allison is finishing her third year at the University of California, Riverside. Now 21, Allison still plays computer games — mainly, “League of Legends” and “Borderlands 2.”

“It was fun. He was pretty good,” she said of playing “GunBound” with her father.

Ms. Hsueh said she has never encountered any hostility or harassment while playing “League of Legends,” even though the community of players is predominantly male.

“A lot of people will be surprised that there’s a girl playing, but I’ve never had people say, ‘You suck at this game’ because I’m a girl. They’ll be like, ‘What? There’s a girl in ‘League of Legends?’ No way, that’s a lie,’” she said.

Lingering prejudice

Despite the steadily growing number of women in gaming, Ashlee, a college graduate from New Mexico and co-founder of the site “Fat, Ugly or Slutty” (fatuglyorslutty.com/), said there is a long way to go for women to feel comfortable in the gaming environment.

Ashlee, who asked that her last name be omitted, said male players are constantly either hitting on her or insulting her. Some say that reflects the general insult-heavy, no-holds-barred nature of gamer trash-talking, but Ashlee said the comments too often go way over the line.

“That’s where the site name came from. I was explaining to friends how every time I play games, I’m either fat and ugly, or a slut,” she said. “I like to trash-talk online [too], but when I trash-talk, it’s just game-related. I don’t ever try to make it personal.”

Female gamer Shannon Sun-Higginson raised more than $33,000 — more than 50 percent above her original target — in a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year for a documentary to chronicle the “exclusionary response that many women encounter while gaming.” Titled “GTFO” — an acronym for the vulgar expression demanding that female players log off — the film talks to gamers, developers, bloggers and others about the abuse still facing female players and game designers.

“Not all gamers are trolls or abusers — many are kind, supportive, and equally disgusted by this type of behavior. But the fact remains that this is a real problem, and it’s time that the non-gaming public knows about it,” the filmmaker wrote in her Kickstarter appeal.

Ashlee said she loves third-person shooter games, citing “Gears of War 3” as her favorite. She spends at least 10 to 20 hours on busy weeks playing games, bumping up to 35 to 40 hours per week when she has more free time.

“A lot of women are intimidated by playing online because of the stuff our website shows. It’s a message to them: ‘This is what to expect when you play online.’ … it’s sad that it has to be this way,” she said. “Games are fun, and I don’t think anyone should be scared away from them because of small-minded people.”

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