In a recent conversation with a young female relative, I asked her about her experiences of online gaming, as I know that she is a devotee. She explained why she enjoyed it so much – the challenge, the camaraderie, and so on – but she went on to explain how difficult it was for girls and young women to navigate the misogyny and anti-female sentiments that she and her friends encountered. Female gamers, she reported, will often play games either with a very tight group of friends, or – if there is a speaking component – with the microphone turned off, so that they cannot be identified as female.
Why should they worry about being identified as female? Well, unfortunately, they have learned through experience that they will often be met with a range of responses from surprise to hostility. Inappropriate and unwelcome sexual innuendo abounds. And – as was clear in the dreadful Gamergate events of last year – the perceived anonymity of the internet (as well as, no doubt, the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality) can lead to more disturbing attacks on women – rape and death threats. Even if the personal experiences of my young acquaintances have never been so shocking, they are conscious of the wider scene, and cautious as a result. All that they want to do, of course, is just game.
Theoretically, gender should matter less online than it does in real life. Worlds are imaginary, and people can be whoever they want. We teach our children to realise that if they encounter someone online, that person could very well not be who they appear to be, and while we usually do this from the perspective of online safety, countering danger, there is an equally positive corollary – anyone can be anyone online, especially in a virtual and invented world. Girls or boys, men or women … it really should not matter at all, particularly when we remember that there is no physical, practical or cognitive reason why girls shouldn’t be as good as boys at manipulating the keyboard or controls. Moreover, gaming can be enormous, challenging, educational fun – why shouldn’t this be open to girls as well as to boys? Online technology has the potential to be a great empowerer – and a great leveller.
Technology itself is not the issue. If, then, an uncomfortable experience potentially awaits young female gamers as they develop their skills online, as it clearly does, then we cannot blame the technology, but rather the attitudes of some of the users – and we have to explore, too, how we can address these creatively but firmly.
Later this month I will be talking on this subject at the annual conference of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools in the USA, making the case for what we can do to level this playing field. I am looking forward to it immensely – and if you are going, I shall see you there!