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"Our" problem? Sexism in gaming is everyone's problem.

Women in gaming have made huge strides over the past few years -- but endured equally huge setbacks.

It’s clear that there’s an ongoing issue with the gendered harassment faced by women online. This isn’t new or revolutionary information -- for every positive development, there seems to be a new scandal. Sexism in gaming is detrimental to both the community and the industry, and without action on an individual level to combat sexist attitudes and discriminatory action, we stand to lose out on a rich tapestry of voices that ultimately improve our gaming experience as a whole.

Quite often, it’s easy to disregard experiences outside the ones of those we know and are familiar with. This circle of family, friends and acquaintances is known as the “monkeysphere” or, less flippantly, Dunbar’s number. This is roughly the number of people it is possible for you to empathize with on a personal level. Many of us have heard some variant on “eat your dinner, there are starving children in Africa who would love this” growing up. Dunbar’s number suggests a scientific reason that this classic ploy never worked. Those starving children are simply not part of that number. This can also be applied in a different context -- online interaction and harassment.

How can some girls and women seem to have things so bad, when others that you know have never encountered harassment online or offline?

To answer that question, it's worth widening our focus a little. Plenty of different factors shape who we are. These include but certainly aren't limited to race, gender, religion, sexuality, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, age, location, and choice of console back during the console wars -- to name some of the more important ones. If you're part of the majority in any of these factors, this normally puts you at an advantage: you can be more or less assured that your society and culture are designed to give you the best shot in life that they can.

Being part of the majority, being considered the default usually affords you privilege. (The obvious exception to this is being in the minority of socioeconomic statuses, because that would make you rich.) As a word, it's serviceable shorthand for this concept, but the Internet has just about done it to death.

Most people are privileged in some way, but disadvantaged in others. The overlap of those factors is known as intersectionality, and it’s an important concept for everybody to keep in mind when approaching topics like this.

The above video takes its cues from a very famous essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and, as encouraged in the body and footnotes of the essay, examines it through another lens. It is designed to prompt viewers into considering how they relate to the points presented.

Some gamers feel maligned because they know that being born into relative privilege is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for any of life’s major challenges. Many also overcome great disadvantages or are discriminated against in other ways that are not always visible but nonetheless formative to their identity.

Privilege isn’t a term that was invented to make anybody feel guilty for what they have, but a gentle reminder to consider what others might lack or also have -- their difficulty setting for life, if that's what you want to call it. That is perhaps in part why an article posted last week, entitled Female Gamers: it’s our problem now, gained popularity. The article itself and the thrust of most of the comments indicated that those involved had never personally encountered sexist harassment, and misattributed this as proof of improvement rather than proof of some amount of privilege.

On the whole, I absolutely agree that things are improving and am delighted to see so many comments stating as such.

But this does not mean that sexism is over, or that some truly vile things don’t still occur with a disheartening regularity. And when women try to discuss this or enlist the help of the community to deal with the issue, it's not because they're painting themselves as victims. It's because sexism is still a legitimate problem that a lot of female gamers are facing.

Thankfully, it’s actually pretty simple to be part of the ongoing improvement: speak up and challenge sexist attitudes when possible. Pointing out and challenging those attitudes within yourself is also important. It's easy to lean on cliches and stereotypes to make snap judgment about a strangers or write a quick joke -- something we've all been guilty of at some point or another. (In doing so, though, be sure not to take it too far.)

Silence in the face of toxic attitudes is similar to acquiescence -- not speaking up is an endorsement of the statement being made. To give an example, if a girl or woman is harassed for using her microphone during a game, and nobody speaks up against it, other girls or women are likely to infer that the team is hostile towards women and fall into a spiral of silence. Especially in team-based games, where effective communication plays a large part in deciding the victor, the effect of this is felt very quickly. Additionally, if the person who is doing the harassing isn't reprimanded, they're probably going to do it again without a second thought. 

In the long term, stifling and silencing experiences like these thin out the diversity of input in the gaming industry. Portal would not have been the explosive hit that it was without Kim Swift, and there are similar tales across the industry -- from indie titles to AAA games.

We can also look to current events for further evidence that harassment is far from a thing of the past.  Level Up, a proposed for SXSW that focused on harassment in online gaming communities, was recently called off following multiple violent threats. The conversation was shut down before it was ever allowed to happen. That's everyone's problem. 

There are real, tangible consequences that arise from the harassment of women and girls online.

While things are, on the whole, improving, it’s harmful to deny or ignore the fact that as a community, we still have a long way to go. This applies not only to women but to minorities of all kinds, in the thousands of ways that they overlap and crystallize intersectionally within individuals.

But we're getting there. And as individuals, it is up to each of us to do what we can about the issues that remain. There's a lot more strength in numbers, after all. 

Published Nov. 9th 2015

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