Not A Girl IRL: How Online Gaming Can Level the Sexist Playing Field

Female shephard

Women are represented pretty poorly in the media. Their roles are neglected in every genre of film from comedy to action, downgraded to sexual prizes won by the male lead, or the nagging “straight-man” foil to a charismatic Adam Sandler-alike.

Screenplays either completely gloss over any attempts to create depth, or get praised for having a “strong female character” (“strong” being one of the few adjectives allowed to a woman in a film, along with “naked” and “sexy”) as if that were enough.

Nowhere are these derogatory and devaluing opinions more evident than on the internet. But can the web also be the saviour of our perception of women? Moreover, can online gaming specifically, the breeding ground of misogyny, be the prophet that leads us to the light?

Not a Girl IRL

Heather Graham gave an interview the other day where she revealed a few home truths. Firstly, she knows, guys, she knows. She’s well aware of her sex symbol status, moreover, she’s resigned to it. However, she’s not allowed to enjoy it for herself:

“A woman being able to express her sexuality is the ultimate form of freedom. In American culture, I feel like women don’t have the safety to express themselves sexually. There’s a lot of movies about men’s fantasies, but what about women? What would the world be like if women asked for everything they wanted?”

The male-orientated mentality of the film industry robs her of her own sexuality and gives it to men. The Bechdel test is a startling, if not foolproof insight into how movies perceive female roles. Only in one industry are women guaranteed to earn more than men: pornography. Outside of the cinematic world, the same is true; women’s health issues in countries like the USA are decided by old, white men in a situation that would be laughable if it wasn’t so crushingly, depressingly real.

With the weight of all this underlying misogyny bearing down on women who dare stick their head above the parapet, I can imagine what a dilemma this is.

Well actually, I can’t. And that’s precisely the problem.

Wow, just wow.

How Online Games Can Level The Playing Field

Now, I am a man. Not a great one, admittedly, but I possess all the parts to medically have the designation “male” as my sex. And I can wax lyrical about Heather Graham and the Bechdal test all I want, I’ll never have a real opportunity to experience the viewpoint of a woman.

Can online gaming rectify this? World of Warcraft, The Mass Effect series, and other similar games afford people the ability to create a female character, and in the latter’s case, be homosexual. Gameplay is usually not affected, but this minor cosmetic feature has caused some of the greatest friction.

It’s unleashed a tide of insecurity within the gaming community regarding sex and sexuality. A quick peruse of online forums and Yahoo answers show threads full of gamers desperately trying to define sexuality under a strictly maintained umbrella. They have one question, “WHY?” Why play as a female character if you’re a male? Why is there the option for same-sex relationships in Mass Effect? When this insecurity meets immaturity, it’s a dangerous cocktail. But before you hang up your headset in shame, why don’t we take advantage of this opportunity?

The confusion is paradoxically glorious. An MMO, while reinforcing stereotypes on the one hand thanks to it’s decisions regarding skimpy bikini armour, on the other hand provides us with a unique gender-bending opportunity that is opening up gamers to a whole new perspective. It’s engaging people in a dialogue and issues which they might otherwise have avoided in real life. Yes, they use online games to disparage the opposite sex, but I see this very medium as a chance to change their way of thinking as well.

Of course, it’s not an exact science; the female characters themselves are a shapely, curvaceous extension of the male sexual fantasy, in the same way that the brawns-and-bravado men represent the typical male power fantasy. But this kind of opportunity for role-reversal, and an attempt to normalize it, may in fact lead to the one thing the internet needs: more empathy.

Male and female hawke

More Empathy

What I’m recommending is that everyone try and use the variety that gaming allows to step out of their own shoes and role-play as someone of  a different gender, sexuality, creed, race, and so on.

Others have made strides in the right direction already, including this blog, where the creator asks other players opinions about women’s issues. However, arguing about women’s rights with a misogynist on the internet is like engaging in a moo-off with a cow; it’s exhausting, the cow’s invariably going to be better at it, and every onlooker is shaking their head and trying to avoid you.

Wow on gender

Instead, I’m interested in taking a stroll around an environment as typically hostile as an MMO, as a female character. Rather than engaging other people about the issues, I’m interested in merely observing the atmosphere. Is it a bit deceptive? Not if I don’t invite the attention, but in my experience very few females do, yet the harassment is still commonplace.

MMOs have this amazing potential for dialogue, but also are known to shield people from reality and reinforce their own stilted views. Gaming itself allows people to be anyone they want. Maybe one day we can get to a stage where it’s not a stigma to play as a woman, or a homosexual, despite your own personal preferences or situation in real life.