Names have been changed.
The first video game I played, when I was nine, was Call Of Duty: Black Ops III, a first-person shooter game. The player experiences the action through the eyes of the protagonist in a three-dimensional space. I loved the adrenaline rush that it and other games gave me. They provided an escape from my responsibilities of caring for my parents, my sister, and my grandma.
When I first started playing, the best thing about video games was that I could hide myself behind a gamer tag, a username. With anonymity on my side, I felt that I could become closer to the person I wished to be, someone outgoing and confident, instead of the shy tomboy I was in real life.
“This is why I don’t play with girls”
When I was around 12, I started playing Fortnite Battle Royale, a new first-person shooter game with the ability to build structures such as walls and stairs. I found out that some boys from school played the game too. Seven of us started playing together multiple times a week, but sometimes, I saw that they were online and playing without me. Some of the boys went out of their way to include me, but others were more competitive and often insulted me.
One time, we were playing in a ranked arena, and I was the last player alive on my team; all I had to do was eliminate one competitor and we would win. I was crouching inside a bush when I mis-clicked the button to reload. The second my gun made noise, I was ambushed and eliminated.
The boys on my team spiraled into a rage. Miguel, who I joked around with a lot, said: “Bruh, are you f-cking serious, are you so bad? This is why we never want to play with you.”
I frantically apologized, explaining that I didn’t mean to press the button. But no one seemed to believe me.
Will, who I didn’t know too well, said to another boy in the group, “Adrian why’d you even invite her? I thought you said she was good. This is why I don’t play with any girls. We never win, all of you are so ass.”
I left and closed my computer, my hands shaking.
I realized that because these boys knew that I was a girl, they were critical of my playing ability. No matter how skilled I was, whenever I made mistakes, it would be chalked up to stereotypes about girls being bad at video games.
I never spoke to the boys about how I felt, afraid they would find me annoying. I was desperate for friends to play with. I tried not to care about what they said and hoped they would stop being insulting, or that I would get better and they would have no choice but to stop. But months later, they didn’t, and I finally stopped playing with them.
Voice Chat Technology Encourages Misogyny
I started playing Valorant as soon as it came out in 2020, another first-person shooter game. Two teams of five are put against each other, attackers and defenders, with the objective of planting or defusing a bomb. It quickly became my new favorite game.
I also discovered voice chat technology while playing Valorant, a system that allows players from all over the world to talk to each other without having to show their faces. But as soon as I spoke, my teammates heard my feminine voice and started making comments like “Oh we’re gonna lose, we have a girl on our team.” Some even left the game.
To avoid being judged prematurely, I became selective about using voice chat. Because I’m proud to be a girl, it was sometimes uncomfortable for me to conceal who I really am. But I was determined to try to protect myself from verbal harassment, and more than anything, I wanted to be taken seriously as a gamer, regardless of my gender.
Valorant ranks players based on skill through a leaderboard system, so I started speaking in voice chat only when I was doing particularly well in the game. I expected to get bombarded by compliments when I was first on the leaderboard.
But when I spoke to call out positions of the enemy team or needed a heal from a teammate, my teammates greeted me with sexist comments. At first, they said things like, “No way you’re a girl,” or “You’re lying, you’re too good for one.” Then once they acknowledged that I was a girl, they would say things like “That shot was so sexy like you. You’re so good at this game, baby. How old are you, let me get your Snap.” Comments about different parts of my body, and what they wanted to do to me, started becoming more common.
When I played less than perfectly, I was told that I was more useful in a kitchen. One comment went so far to say that maybe I should kill myself because of how awful I was.
I’m Not Alone
There are many other female players who have had similar experiences. The 2014 Gamergate controversy revealed the depth of systematized online harassment against advocates, mainly women, who called for a more inclusive gaming culture and received death threats in return.
According to a 2020 survey of over 2,000 men and women over 16 by the British marketing company Bryter, female gamers are more likely than men to experience sexually inappropriate behavior. The survey also found 27% of female players are excluded from games because of their gender, compared to 14% of male players. And finally, like me, 31% of female gamers do not reveal their gender identity while playing online multiplayer games.
Some video game companies have been trying to combat misogyny. In June 2022, Riot Games updated Valorant’s voice chat system to “combat disruptive behavior” by recording chats to collect evidence of any toxic online behavior. While Riot Games has acknowledged that there may be problems with this recording system, they remain confident that this new system will be effective. They also use alternative strategies, like muting certain words in chats.
Players have also been devising strategies to prevent sexist abuse and protect female gamers. Some female gamers have even taken it upon themselves to record instances of abuse and expose abusers on social media.
Protecting My Friends and Myself
Recently, I found Dante, a gaming friend who protects me from online harassment. If I make a mistake while playing Valorant, hearing him say “NT (nice try), don’t worry about it, you were in a rough spot” makes me feel better. When a teammate criticizes me for being a girl, he defends me and says, “Yeah she’s a girl who’s probably way better than you. Stop talking,” which only makes me want to play more and live up to my potential as a player.
Having an ally step up for me has made me realize that I am capable of defending others in the gaming community. I often play with my cousin, and while we’re both girls, her voice sounds more feminine than mine. I hear sexual comments thrown at her more often when we play. Instead of privately asking if she is OK or telling her to mute the harassers, I defend her. I ask the bullies why they think it’s so fun to put down women who play video games, especially when they’re placing the same on the leaderboard. They often get quiet at this point so I hope that means that in a small way, I am making a difference.
I’m frequently tempted to yell and curse out male players that belittle me, or humiliate them while playing, but I don’t want to behave just like they do. Swearing at my bullies might feel good in the moment, but inevitably, I know retaliation like that won’t amount to anything positive.
Gaming has always been a sanctuary for me–something that blocks out the yelling in my house, or calms me down when I’m overwhelmed. I’ll keep working hard, game by game, to try and keep it that way, for myself and for other female gamers.
- Why do Erika’s peers blame every in-game mistake she makes on her gender?
- While Erika is proud to be a girl, she has to hide her gender to protect herself while playing online. What hardships does this cause her?
- In what ways is Dante a good ally to Erika? What does she find helpful about the ways he supports her when they play online video games together?