Yes, this is my contribution to the recent discussion on feminism, women and gaming. Not so much about feminism, I wanted to go back to the source – girls and women playing WoW.
Notable posts on this discussion from other bloggers:
- Gamer Girl and Non-Feminist – Effraeti’s RP
- Am I blind to sexism? – The Daily Frostwolf
- FYI, you’re a Feminist – Tami Baribeau
- Feminists All the Way Down – Apple Cider Mage
- Embracing Feminism – Hypercriticism
- Oh, we haven’t had a feminist post for at least a month – Welcome to Spinksville
- Few essential reads – For everybody – Raging Monkeys
The Girlfriend Effect
Back in 2006 my boyfriend at the time introduced the idea of buying a World of Warcraft subscription. We had only played Guild Wars together and the thought of a monthly sub did not impress me. He bought his account and before long, I was hooked too.
This little story is the basic reason I started playing WoW, and a lot of other games for that matter. It is also the basic reason a lot of other girls and women play WoW. Nick Yee (2008) writes in Maps of Digital Desires: Exploring the Topography of Gender and Play in Online Games that about 27% of female players were introduced by a romantic partner. On the contrary only 1% of male players came to MMO’s this way.
The graph below shows the percentage of players playing MMO’s with a romantic partner by age and gender.
This particular body of research is from around 2005, so what has happened to the female player base since then? Looking at the PlayOn 2.0 most recent result on WoW demographics from 2012, we get this:
“The US had the highest female ratio at 39%. The EU had a female ratio of 29%. And CN has a female ratio of 15%. Incidentally, the female ratio for the US seems to have been slowly increasing over the years. In our Phase I data from early 2010, the ratio was 32%. And back in 2005 from the Daedalus Project data, it was 16%.”
In the US the number of females playing WoW has only gone up, in fact it has more than doubled since 2005! There are some stark contrasts between the regions though, why is the EU so far behind the US, not to mention CN?
For many females, including myself, WoW was the first game that really had me engaged in the culture surrounding a game, WoW was an entry point for me into gaming in general. I’ve seen this pattern before, women claiming to not “really” be gamers, they’ve only “really” played WoW. Amidst all the discussions about game companies catering to girls/women in particular as a separate and “special needs” subgroup, I wonder if part of the success of WoW was pulling in women whose previous digital gaming experiences may only have been limited. Unknowingly Blizzard may have tapped this market, but not by catering to women in particular with “pinkification”, which was the girl gaming trend in the 90’s.
Lets consider the possibility that gender isn’t always the main difference when looking at motivations. Lets look at age!
Age as a Parameter
Players of WoW are actually fairly diverse – students, parents, married, single, young, old, we’re all playing the same game. Yet we tend to spring to gender as the main and most important factor. Following Nick Yee’s research (Maps of Digital Desire), he found that the overlap of why men and women play WoW, is more overlapping than differing – an overwhelming part of the WoW player base like to do the same things. In fact, sometimes gender doesn’t show up as the defining parameter, age explain certain differences better:
“What the multiple regression shows is that differences in how competitive or power-driven a player is are better explained by age than gender. Players are less likely to be achievement-driven in video games as they get older.”
Yet, we are increasingly fixated on gender as the explanatory force of everything.
Yee asks: Are we trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist, by targeting “the female brain”?
But why is the female ratio not higher and why is it even lower in other games? And what is up with the ratio doubling in the US over the years? Surely, women just doesn’t want to play WoW, and that is the sole reason, right? What else could be stopping them?
Well, play isn’t just about what the game is about and what we do in it, surely it matters, but we are ignoring the bigger picture if that’s the only answer we’re ready to accept. Playing is also about what constrains the access to the game, how we were introduced to the game, and whom we play with.
Yee mentions two constituents that deter females from playing MMO’s – physical and social access and the social dynamics within the game.
Initial Social Access Points
Remember my story? My choice to play WoW was strongly influenced by someone introducing me to the game. That someone for females is usually a male, a romantic partner, a brother, a cousin or a friend. They are usually male. My initial access point was garnered by a male WoW initiate, who had already played the Warcraft series. I have no IRL female friends who play, but all the guys seem to have a whole network of LAN pals.
Holin Lin (2008) has done a study in Taiwan called Body, Space, and Gendered Gaming Experiences: A Cultural Geography of Homes, Cybercafés and Dormatories. He found that young female and male players are not met with the same social perceptions, and they face different situations when they share the same game space. He accounts for all the barriers young female Taiwanese players meet as they grow up, and concludes that if we take into account the structural and social isolation that many female players face, they can be considered the most dedicated group of online game players.
Oompf! Didn’t see that one coming!
This is probably the section that falls the closest to the current discussion about feminism.
We made it to buying the game, we pay our subs, we play WoW. Sadly, for some of us, we meet resistance from inside the game too, or become witnesses to the struggles of others.
Back when I raided in the Burning Crusade, I was part of a guild that quite frankly had a very hostile atmosphere to not only women but also homosexuality. I still remember when the resto shaman, who was female IRL, criticized the healing setup in Hyjal, where after she was asked if she was having her period. This aggression and the following argument took place in danish, my mother-tongue, hence why I became witness to all of this, but the majority of the raid didn’t even know. It was ugly and demeaning. What was a legitimate remark about raiding was shot down as a hysterical female emotional response, the message was clear – “If you’re female, we will not take your opinion seriously, shut up”.
The misogynist attacks were coming from one individual in particular and I think this is a good example of such cases. One true villain, the rest bystanders, including me. Not all men are bad (obviously), I believe it’s only a small minority, the rest of us are either unable to identify what really is going on or unwilling to step up and call it out for what it is. “It’s just a fall-out” – although this fall-out was not based on what someone said, but on who someone was.
I am not proud of the fact I did not step in. I was new in the guild and I had quickly picked up that disclosing I was female was NOT going to work in my favor. The continuous harassment during raids reinforced that decision. I never spoke on Vent. An expectation that the officer who was also danish, both would and should step in, meant I positioned myself as a passive bystander.
Today I realize the my ongoing attempts to remain invisible as female in WoW meant taking the male subject position silently. I believed to begin with that not bringing up gender ever, meant that it would never become an issue. But it was most certainly an issue regardless of how I went about it. I also realized that censoring myself this way meant I passively perpetuated the problem.
- A relevant and quite striking read is Perculia’s personal story: In-Game Harassment: Ignorance, Silencing, and The Mary Sue published on Flavor Text.
What to choose? Risking harassment and discrimination or keep low profile and cowardly let someone else fight what was also my battle. Geez, I just wanted to play WoW!
For some it might be relevant to know that the GM was female. Some of the homosexual slander disguised as humor was instigated by the GM herself. It might also be relevant to know that we had 4-5 female players raiding with us. The presence of females does not mean everything automatically will be perfect. I am regrettably also proof of that.
To get to the point, I get to quote myself from the post titled “Bring the Player, Not the Gender” I wrote about gender-bending in WoW:
“On one hand, female players/avatars are sometimes met with a differentiated treatment, where they are regarded helpless and in need of protection (i.e. from a male player). Other times female players are treated more generously, help is easier attained and players can be more forgiving if a female player makes a mistake.
There is another side to this coin, where forgiveness is replaced by distrust in the female player’s skills and abilities to play well. It can be disheartening to be treated as an inferior player, suspected of not being able to fully perform to the standards of male players.”
Many of you may already know the video below. It displays the double edged sword that female players are sometimes confronted with. I find the video funny, but I also consider it a criticism. It wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t referring to a pattern and then reversed to expose the ridiculousness of female players acting this way. These issues become so much more salient when reversed.
I’m seeing a message in this video that, besides the giggles, the viewer is meant to take away from this.
Nick Yee mentions several other social and cultural deterrents fx excessive propositioning and clothing, where the advent of Transmogrification has given back the choice to the players, and we are all now able to avoid armor we dislike. Regardless of what (female) players then choose to wear, don’t underestimate the empowering effect of making this choice yourself.
Finally, I’ll quote Yee again when he concludes that simply jumping to the conclusion that females just doesn’t want to play WoW, is a drastic simplification of all the factors involved:
“Together, these stories imply that physical and social barriers to entry for women become misinterpreted as a lack of desire to play video games. The twisted logic legitimates both the want and the should of playing MMOs for female players, but this logic is ultimately predicated on the assumption that women neither inherently want to play or should be playing MMOs on their own.”