It was during a cooperative online match of Mass Effect 3 (one of my favourite online games from the last few years) that I was reminded that I was a girl. Not that I had necessarily forgotten that I had to sit down to wee, but I had forgotten that my sex could be an issue. Three guys were discussing whether or not the inclusion of 'Alice' in my Gamer Tag was proof enough that I was a girl, or if that was offset by the fact that I was playing as a Geth Infiltrator: apparently a steel robot body doesn't scream 'woman.' After 25 minutes of debate, I plugged in my headset and confirmed their most excellent deduction. To my surprise, the rest of the match was a model of teamwork and communication, with each objective completed with ease. I'm happy to say that we were all safely extracted.
My surprise at this reaction was that it was actually relatively positive. For the most part my sex happily goes unnoticed or is seen as irrelevant. However, there are still those who insist on seeing it as a problem, and are more than happy to offer their opinion on why it's such an issue. Their insults usually follow a similar pattern: I must be fat, or lonely, or desperate for a boyfriend, because why else would I be playing FIFA or Gears of War? If I ignore them that spurs them on and the kitchen comments are soon to follow. If I try to engage them then 'how desperate for attention am I?'
I wonder how many people this would surprise. From talking to female gamer friends, this kind of reaction is all too common. Of course the virtual world can in itself be a fairly toxic environment, where insults flung under the guise of anonymity serve to sour the experience for many people: there are countless examples on YouTube of adolescents screaming obscenities into their microphones, so perhaps it is inevitable that sexism too has a place in this virtual world.
However, these incidents are not limited to the Internet. As a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, I was at a shop on release day to buy GTA V. As I waited in the queue, a sales man approached and immediately addressed my boyfriend, and proceeded to try and sell him a giant poster and entry into a prize raffle for game merchandise. I could have forgiven this assumption had he not ignored my boyfriend and I both telling him that the game was for me. We were glad to escape his company when the cashier called next, but were met with the same assumption that persisted even as I handed over the money.
Though minor annoyances, such instances serve to further undermine women's place in the gaming community, despite annual reports from the Entertainment Software Association showing that not only are the number of female gamers growing, but that this year the number was as high as 48%. It's no longer safe to assume that a woman you know doesn't play video games, or that a real woman doesn't exist behind that female avatar.
But why should it matter? My sex is irrelevant, win or lose, it's not like my breasts get in the way of the buttons. It's time women were respected as gamers, and able to enjoy this pastime without the threat of misogyny and insults. Though there have been steps forward, for example Halo 4 under the developer Bonnie Ross has a no tolerance policy towards sexual harassment online, there is a still an awful lot that needs to be done. Rather than the existence of my vagina or the fact that I wear a bra, I would much rather be judged on my headshots, fatalities and assassinations. Wouldn't we all?