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A Radical Concept for Addressing Sexism in Video Games

Illustration for article titled A Radical Concept for Addressing Sexism in Video Games

Imagine a game developer that takes such a stand over tackling targeted harrassment against women in video games that they design an entire game to not only be accessible for everyone, but then gives every woman who plays it the power to kick harrassers from any match.

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What would that do to the gaming landscape in regards to making gaming more accessible to marginalised groups?

This idea comes off of the back of the recent harrassment experienced by Twitch streamer “FerociouslySteph”, in which Steph stated that voice chat is a distinct disadvantage at the top levels of play in competitive gaming because society hasn’t moved past the collective mindset that women playing games is not only unthinkable, but invasive. Through solicitation of unwanted advances, verbal abuse and targeted trolling as a result of their sex, a woman playing a competitive game at the top tiers of play will forever be at a disadvantage in voice chat purely because primarily white, cisgendered men in her games will use her sex or gender to belittle her as soon as they possibly can. Speaking up in voice chat immediately exposes her identity, and someone fighting the psychological assault of their own team will never perform as well as their co-ordinated opponents. This creates an imbalance, as inherently due to simply being female the chances of being able to integrate into a team at high levels of play without experiencing some kind of harrassment is significantly lowered.

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And so most women don’t bother with voice chat. In a world that has always shunned women either for fear of giving them too much power or simply being unable to allow them to integrate into male-dominated spaces, voice chat by its nature isn’t designed for them.

FerociouslySteph stating this fact met a ton of controversy, and as you might expect a lot of the backlash was sexist harrassment under the guise of criticism of a radical idea. A common rebuttal states that if harrassment due to having a feminine voice is the problem then women should just mute voice chat. This is a fantastic way to tell women that they aren’t marginalised whilst also subscribing to a dated time where staying quiet was the expected behaviour of the married woman, and that their voice has no right joining the cacophony of masculine adolescence that permeats many competitive games. Additionally, if the “solution” to prevent verbal assault is to mute, then surely voice chat isn’t as important as some of these detractors are making it out to be? If it’s unimportant enough that some people can just “mute” and supposedly not affect the overall competitive performance of the team then it’s frankly unimportant enough for it to be removed entirely and uncontroversially.

And then a comment on the article linked above stated that we should push usage of voice chat harder, and that got the wheels turning.

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So maybe the answer is yes. Push voice chat harder. Normalise women playing games. Crush society’s preconceived notions of sex, gender and misogyny, but do it to the extreme and flip the societal norm on its face by giving women privileges within a game that are linked directly to the characteristics that make them targets in reality. If we live in a society where women are socially belittled in ways that males could never understand, why not tip that balance in a digital ecosystem where it is possible to give the ability to do so? Why not do it in a way that would cause so much furor and uproar that it would completely destabilise the zeitgeist and make men the ones who are at risk of speaking in voice chat?

It’s an insane idea and I LOVE the concept. Suddenly instead of women being the ones who need to consider if joining voice chat is worth highlighting themselves, it’s men. Suddenly men are the ones who experience first hand how it feels to be the marginalised demographic as a woman hears their (generally) lower timbre and realises “holy shit, now I’m the one with power.”

Society’s issues are omnipresent and this wouldn’t fix that overnight but sometimes you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelette. The headlines that this would generate would certainly garner plenty of attention and free PR, and maybe the reaction to doing this would be so uproarious that it begins a new movement further empowering women in video games, normalising the landscape in such a way that video games are no longer a “boy’s thing” - Especially if a pointed effort were made to actively disrupt the societal dynamic.

Of course there are issues with this idea that do not currently have workable solutions. In creating an ecosystem with a power imbalance you’re creating an environment that is potentially less welcoming to those without that power, but why shouldn’t that happen for women in a high profile case at least once?

And how would you prevent abuse of the system? Some women would undoubtedly kick whoever they want regardless of whether or not they deserved it. Without some kind of system in place that doesn’t exist today, the truth is that you probably can’t. But in some ways isn’t that the point? That women, who have spent their whole lives fighting for equality and in many situations losing out to their equally (or often lesser) skilled male opponents, are now able to use that power however they want? It has a beautiful symmetry to it.

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This does however open up women to even more potential targeted harrassment when men who have been kicked are unable to handle the embarrassment of having a choice made for them, and may try to clap back through the use of platform specific tools such as messaging through PlayStation and Xbox’s inbuilt messaging services. This could be combatted through utilising privacy settings to disallow messages from strangers, but is unfortunately not a catch-all solution. (For those curious, turning off public messages for me personally has been a boon and you can find instructions on how to do that here for PlayStation and here for Xbox).

An even bigger issue is how do you distribute these privileges to those who it is legitimately designed for? Would it require legal documentation? And then as a video game developer or publisher how do you ethically justify that requirement just for a feature in your video game? But if you simply take people on their word who’s to stop men from gaming the system? Again, the answer is probably that you can’t.

There’s also the risk of accidentally misgendering someone either at the privilege granting level or during gameplay. Trans women especially might not be comfortable outing (or straight up doxxing) themselves to both a public company and those that they play with so openly. But then how do you protect them from a system that is designed to hopefully make competitive and team-based gaming more accessible to them too?

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The concept behind crafting an ecosystem online that is designed to give women the kind of power that reality cannot is an incredibly poignant idea and it would be incredible to see it come to fruition in some way. However, given the cost of development of video games and the risk of alienating your male demographic it is highly doubtful that any big company would implement a system like this in any meaningful way. Some might see that as symbolic of how the perpetuation of an imbalanced system yet again wins out over experimenting with the prioritisation of the interests of women in a simulated medium.

Up to now this idea has primarily focused on gender (or perhaps more specifically sex), but who’s to say that you couldn’t empower BAME people in the same way? It comes with all of the same flaws but could go a long way towards providing inclusivity to marginalised demographics that so desperately need some kind of magic olive branch in a world that was not colonised with their integration in mind.

Could this radical idea spearhead a new movement if a company big enough took it seriously and valued women more than the potential outcome of implementing a system that might potentially reduce the player base of their game? I’d say so. At the very least that company would have created a product that is solely intended for the safeguarding of women at its heart, and even were it a commercial failure its symbolism in a world as prejudiced against women as ours would be a beacon of future hope.

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And maybe some of you think that the idea of actually implementing this into a game would be stupid, and functionally it probably would be. In reality it could end up being the digital equivalent of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But the idea isn’t about creating a watertight replacement system for the social elements that we already have and instead about demonstrating that the interests of women are being considered, experimented with, iterated upon and ultimately, once normalised, no longer something that needs to feel so radical.

And for those of you who think that you can’t go messing with the social order, or that this would signal the death knell of gaming as we know it, I’d like to part with this quote:

we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

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