In the wake of #GamerGate, an attempt by some gamers to silence women and minorities who have questioned the sexism, racism, and misogyny in gaming culture, artist, writer, gamer Angela Washko has performed an essential study that seeks to understand how gamers talk about and see minorities, and whether or not that culture can change. The World of Warcaft, it turns out, is a hell of a lot like a Men’s Rights Activist forum.

Washko, the first person to ever sell a Vine, founded the Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft in 2012 “to facilitate discussions about the misogynistic, homophobic, racist and otherwise discriminatory language used within the game space” after being fed up with the casual sexism exhibited by players she encountered in games.
After all, how can it be that in WoW, a game that its players allege translates to real-life lessons critical for team-building and leadership, how we talk about women, gender, and race would be inconsequential?

In the ’90s and early 2000s, our internet identities were largely anonymous and it was easier to dismiss hostile users as faceless trolls on the web. But in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, our online personas are increasingly seen as extensions of ourselves. Who we are online is the public face we present to the world. The flip side of this, Washko noted, is that “opportunities to interact online without potential repercussions for one’s offline life are becoming fewer and fewer.” This paradox about how we interact with the internet is what makes games like Wow such a battleground — gamers whose opinions are edged out by changing cultural norms are fiercely hanging onto WoW as a safe haven, while minorities are becoming increasingly vocal about their rights to have a space for honest dialogue there, too. But in the culture of WoW, Washko observed, the rights of the former dominate.

Waskho set out to have honest conversations with people about the issues at the core of #GamerGate, in one of the spaces where people still feel like they have anonymity:

What’s especially strange about the sexism present in WoW is that players not only come from diverse social, economic and racial backgrounds but are also, according to census data taken by the Daedalus Project, 28 years old on average. (“It’s just a bunch of 14-year-old boys trolling you” won’t cut it as a defense.) If #gamergate supporters need to respect this diversity, many non-gamers also need to accept that the dichotomy between the physical (real) and the virtual (fake) is dated; in game spaces, individuals perform their identities in ways that are governed by the same social relations that are operative in a classroom or park, though with fewer inhibitions. That’s why—instead of either continuing on quests to kill more baddies or declaring the game a trivial, reactionary space where sexists thrive and abandoning it—I embarked on a quest to facilitate conversations about discriminatory language in WoW’s public discussion channels. I realized that players’ geographic dispersion generates a population that is far more representative of American opinion than those of the art or academic circles that I frequent in New York and San Diego, making it a perfect Petri dish for conversations about women’s rights, feminism and gender expression with people who are uninhibited by IRL accountability.

Here were her findings:

Players believe gaming is an inherently male activity

Because of the time investment the game requires, only those dedicated enough to go through the leveling process will ever make it to a chatty capital city (like Orgrimmar, where most of my discussions take place), meaning that only the most avid players are capable of raising these issues within the game space. At such moments, the diplomatic facades required of everyday social and professional life are broken down, and an inverse policy of “radical truth” emerges. When I asked them about the underrepresentation of women in WoW—less than 15 percent of the playerbase is female—some of these unabashed purveyors of “truth” have attributed it not to the outspoken misogyny of players like themselves but to the “fact” that gaming is a naturally male activity. Many of the men I’ve talked to suggest that women are also inherently more interested in playing “healer” characters. These arguments are made as if they were obviously true—as if they were rooted in science.

Women are objectified

Women now have to “come out” as women in the game space, risking ridicule and sexualization, as more than half the female avatars running around in WoW are played by men (women, by contrast, are rarely interested in playing men). Unfortunately this is not because WoW is an empathetic utopia in which men play women to better understand their experiences and perspectives; WoW merely offers men another opportunity to control an objectified, simulated female body. When I ask men why they play female characters, I’ve repeatedly been told: “I’d rather look at a girl’s butt all day in WoW,” “because it would be gay to look at a guy’s butt all day” and “I project an attractive human woman on my character because I like to watch pretty girls.” I found these responses, which were corroborated by a study recently cited in Slate, disturbing to say the least.

But they don’t speak up

Most of the women I’ve addressed in WoW do not see themselves as victims within this system, likely because their scarcity greatly increases their value as projected-upon objects of desire (as long as they don’t ask too many questions) without having it related to the physical body outside of the screen. Among the women I’ve talked to, I’ve found that there are two common yet distinct responses to my questions about feminism and being a woman inside of WoW. Response type #1: “Feminists hate men and feminism encourages physically attractive women to be sluts.” Response type #2: “Feminism is about equal rights for women, but I don’t talk about it in WoW because bringing up issues about the community’s exclusivity compromises my participation in competitive play and makes me a target for ridicule.”

Players largely misunderstand feminism

[Chastity]: Feminists are man hating whores who think their better than everyone else. Personally I think a woman’s job is to stay home, take care of her house, her babies, her kitchen and her man. And before you ask, yes I am female
[Xentrist]: Feminism is about EQUAL rights for women
[Hyperjump]: well all you really need to know is pregnant, dish’s, naked, masturbate, shaven, and solid firm titties. feminism is all about big titties and long stretchy nipples for kids to breastfeed.
[Taetra]: Feminism is the attention whore term of saying that women are better than men and deserve everything if not more than them, which is not true in certain terms. Identifying with the female society instead of humans. Working against the males instead of with.
[Yukarri]: isnt it when somebody acts really girly
[Try]: google it bro
[Holypizza]: girls have boobs. gb2 kitchen
[Raspberrie]: idk like angry more rights for females can’t take a kitchen joke kind of lady

“WoW is a space in which the suppressed ideologies, feelings and experiences of an ostensibly politically correct American society flourish,” Washko observed. She concluded that because of the inherent nature of an anonymized space, there may not be a way to change the discourse within it:

In many areas of physical space, racism, homophobia and misogyny play out systemically rather than overtly. It has fallen out of fashion to openly be a sexist, homophobic bigot, so people carve out marginal spaces where this language can live on. WoW is a space in which the learned professional and social behaviors (or performances) that we all employ as we shift from context to context in our everyday life outside of the screen are unnecessary. At the same time, this anonymity produces one of the few remaining opportunities to have a space for solidarity among those who are extremely socially conservative in a seemingly unsurveilled environment unattached to participants’ professional and social identities. For the players I talk to, my research project provides a potentially meaningful platform to share concerns about how social value systems are evolving while protected by the facade of their avatars.

Washko, for her part, hopes that gaming platforms move toward creating more inclusive spaces that “promote empathy.”

(Image: Angela Washko)