Featured photo: Annelise Kniseley plays the online first-person shooter Valorant but says she avoids solo-queuing because of sexism she’s experienced in the past. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

It’s got a bit of a negative connotation these days.

Often envisioned as highly sexualized imposters who play for attention, the idea of “gamer girls” has been co-opted over the years by predominantly male gamers while being simultaneously rejected by many girls and women who play video games. And who could blame them? Despite societal advances towards equality, particularly post #MeToo, the gaming industry and video game culture remains one of the most sexist and toxic subcultures that exist.

According to data by Google and Niko Partners published in a Forbes article this year, women made up about 41 percent of all gamers in the US in 2020. And despite their prevalence in games, 77 percent of women surveyed by Reach3 Insights said they had experienced gender-based discrimination, according to an article by Paste magazine. And because of how common these type of interactions are, 59 percent of women surveyed in the US, China and Germany said they mask their gender while 55 percent said they use non-gendered or male gendered identities when playing online.

The Gamergate controversy during 2013-14 encompassed some of the most visible examples of women facing harassment within gaming. During those years, prominent female game developers and game reviewers such as Zoë Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu faced online harassment that ranged from rape and death threats to the doxxing of their private home addresses. And while regular female gamers may not face that level of vitriol on a day-to-day basis, a few local players say that sexism and misogyny within video games still exists.

‘They kept shitting on me for being a girl’

Hannah Bowman, a 22-year-old who lives in Winston-Salem, plays video games on her laptop. She mostly likes to play first-person shooters like Valorant but also plays puzzle games like Among Us and Pico Park. She said she started playing video games with her stepbrother when she was in high school. One of the earliest memories she has from that time was when she was playing Call of Duty and the online players found out she was a girl.

“I remember they found out I was a girl, and I hated it,” Bowman says. “They kept shitting on me for being a girl, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And especially even now in Valorant, I won’t solo queue because I’m a girl, even if I do solo queue I definitely won’t speak.”

Hannah Bowman, who plays Valorant, says she only plays with friends or her boyfriend when online because of sexism comments she gets when playing alone. (courtesy photo)

Solo queue refers to when a player hops onto an online game and plays with only random other people as opposed to queueing and playing with friends they know.

Bowman, who says she spent a lot of time gaming in the past year because of the pandemic, says she’s had a lot of negative experiences dealing with other anonymous players in video games. Typically, she says the players sound like boys or young men who they belittle her by saying things like, “Oh, we’re going to lose now” or “Oh my god, she’s a gamer girl.”

Because of that, Bowman says she rejects the phrase.

“When you’re a girl you instantly get sexualized,” she says. “I hate being called a ‘gamer girl.’ I think it’s a negative connotation being called a gamer girl. I have a negative relationship with that term. I think what it has to do is when someone calls me a gamer girl, they’re already underestimating me. They think I’m bad at games, and then I feel pressure to actually play well and I feel the need to play good but I don’t want to necessary be like that. I don’t want unwanted pressure that I didn’t put on myself.”

These days, Bowman says she mostly plays with friends she’s met online and queues with them or she plays with her boyfriend.

Annelise Kniseley, who is 18 years old, says she also tries to play with friends she’s made online and avoids talking into her mic if she solo queues into a game.

“I enjoy gaming, but I also get anxiety from gaming because I’m like, I’m playing bad and letting people down,” she says. “And I don’t want to deal with the guys calling me a gamer girl.”

Kniseley also plays Valorant and says that she’s been called “stupid” and a “bitch” on a few occasions. When that happens, she says she immediately mutes people so she doesn’t have to listen to them in-game.

Like many of the girls and women I spoke to for this article, I also turned to video games as a release and an escape over the last year. When Valorant was released in June 2020, my fiancé, my future brother-in-law, my sister and I all downloaded it so we could play together. The game quickly became our go-to hang out activity and we ended up playing for hours every evening while we were cooped up inside. And like Kniseley and Bowman, some of the worst things I’ve ever been called were while I played Valorant. During one particularly toxic game, a player who recognized my voice as a female, also deduced from my gamer tag that I was Asian and started calling me a “chink.” It was the first time in my life that the racial slur has been thrown my way. And for women of color, the addition of racism on top of sexist remarks can be draining.

“I’m Afro-latino so I’ve heard the N-word,” says Emi Vener, the founder of Athena Alliance CLT and the owner of the Gaming Goddesses stream team. “I’ve had people rail in on me. Most of the time it’s unprompted.”

Emi Vener is the founder of Athena Alliance CLT, an organization that promotes women in gaming. As a Black woman, the sexism she experiences is compounded by racism as well. (courtesy photo)

One of the most recent examples was when Vener was playing Overwatch. She says she was talking into the mic when a guy started harassing her.

“He was like, ‘Who let this N-word in here? She thinks she’s better than us,’” Vener recalls. And because she wasn’t on video and didn’t reveal her race, she knows that the player wasn’t targeting her specifically because of her race, but that he was just using the word as a general pejorative. And as Vener noted, unfortunately, that’s a common refrain in many video games, according to data collected by the Anti-Defamation League.

Vener, who is 28 years old, says she’s been gaming since she was a child. She remembers playing Spro the Dragon on the original PlayStation as the first game she ever played. Over the years, she’s played a number of different video games ranging from first-person shooters like Overwatch to puzzle and strategy games, which she says are her favorite. After playing for several years, Vener realized there was a need in the community for a female-centric gaming organization. So, in November 2019, Vener founded the Athena Alliance CLT in Charlotte. The organization is run by women for women and hosts events such as community outreach to try and get more women into gaming. Over the last year and a half, Vener says the community has grown from 80 women locally to about 500 members worldwide after they moved their events online and started meeting up in the online voice community, Discord, and live streaming on Twitch.

Initially Vener says that the community was started so that women in the area could get into gaming and create friendships. During the pandemic, the organization has taken on new meaning for many of its members who talk every day and even meetup offline.

“It’s one thing to know there are women gamers out there but also to get together, it’s something to bond over,” Vener says. “Gaming during the pandemic definitely brought people closer together, and then it also introduced new people into gaming as well, like people who maybe didn’t game before.”

And that’s important, Vener says, because it’s hard to get into gaming when you don’t know anyone. Like Kniseley and Bowman said, playing online with random people can be a bit of a crapshoot.

“When you wanna play a game, you can play with random people, but I’ve always thought a big part of playing games is being able to foster relationships,” she says. “That’s a big reason I started the organization. And when you’re playing with people you don’t know, you’re just hoping that they’re at least decent to you or then you’re thinking, Are they being decent to me because I’m a woman? But most women just want to play the game.”

‘Gaming is a part of the world’

Dr. Laura Colson, the vice president of academic affairs at Bennett College said they have been trying to find ways to promote esports and video game creation on campus. Colson was recently a part of an online event hosted by the Wilson Center that looked at how HBCUs are encouraging students to be more involved in video games.

“From a Bennett College perspective and being an all women’s college, we look at gaming and esports from probably a different lens than everyone else does,” Colson says. “We are truly a liberal arts college so we look at esports and gaming from that perspective.”

Dr. Laura Colson, the vice president of academic affairs at Bennett College, is looking at the ways video game creation can be taught on campus. (courtesy photo)

As a college that is looking at teaching from an interdisciplinary approach, Colson says that they are looking at esports the same way by breaking down the making of a video game into its different parts such as the storytelling aspect, the visual arts, the engineering and even the sound design. For now, rather than focusing on the playing side of games, Colson says she wants her students at the women’s college to see themselves on the backend of creating games.

“It’s becoming a very lucrative way for young adults to generate revenues,” she says. “This allows us to be pioneers from this perspective. We’re looking at before you even get to the competition, such as the development and equality and justice and women in the limelight.”

Colson, who says she doesn’t play video games but has children who do, says she has seen the disparities in not only how women are treated but how women are portrayed in video games. If there are more female creators, Colson believes that could change.

“Most often, women are looked at as more of a sexual character,” she says. “Just looking at the characters, the young ladies their clothing is sexualized. So we’re looking from that perspective and what kind of impact can we have on it.”

And as a historically Black college that has only women, Colson says it’s up to Bennett to center Black women in all aspects of society, particularly ones in which they have been marginalized or erased.

“We want to spearhead the focus on gaming and let it be known that as with racecar driving, as with aviation, it doesn’t matter the area or the career, that there is space for everyone, especially African-American women,” Colson says. “Gaming is a part of the world, it’s just like social media. People were resistant to it, but now everyone is a part of it. It’s a part of everyday culture and the norm and we want to stay up to date on the trends.”

While traditional sports teams had to pause their seasons during the pandemic, video games and esports saw a huge surge in the last year, according to research by the Nielsen Corporation. And as popularity for video games increases across the globe, local businesses and organizations are cropping up to capitalize on the rising interest.

Jacob Neal is the operations supervisor for Greensboro’s parks and recreation department and is helping to facilitate a new esports program within the city. The idea started last fall and has blossomed into trying to host regular leagues for games like Madden, Rocket League, Fortnite and 2K. Neal, who is 29 years old, says that he grew up playing video games and saw the creation of an esports league to be a natural continuation of the kinds of programming he does with in-person sports through the city.

“Having sat here through COVID, obviously our youth sports program hurt quite a bit,” Neal says. “I just wanted to find something that was a good pivot point,. So if we can’t do in person sports, what can we do? We were trying to keep that competitive aspect in the program.”

Drawing on his personal history of playing games, Neal introduced the idea of hosting sports video games like Madden and 2K as part of the city’s recreation program for kids. Then, he started to add some other popular games like Rocket League and Fortnite. Still, with the program’s rising popularity, Neal suspects that most of the players involved are boys or young men.

“It appears to be mostly male players, which I’m sure is not all that surprising given the video game world which is something that we would like change,” he says. “What appealed to us about video games was its inclusive nature, that anyone can play. We want the demographics to be a little bit more varied; we want our program to grow.”

HQ Gaming Lounge, located in the Four Seasons Mall, is another entity which is looking to foster a community of gamers. With more than a dozen gaming stations located in their shop, owner Bobby Jordan says that their business charges people by the half hour or hour to play video games on different consoles. On a recent weekday, the store was filled with about 10 kids, most of whom were young boys. And that’s pretty common, Jordan says.

A handful of boys and one girl played a variety of games at HQ Gaming Lounge on a recent weekday. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“I do see girl gamers but it’s not often,” Jordan says. “They’ll come with their brother. It’s always a group when a female is involved.”

Part of that, Jordan says, is because of how video games are perceived in society, he says.

“I think it’s probably because of what you see what’s portrayed out in the gaming world,” Jordan says. “You don’t see a lot of female gamers but as far as gaming, they made it seem like a guy thing. While the girls play with the dolls, the guys are gaming, you know? But you are seeing it more often now.”

‘It’s you and me now’

For 13-year-old Cyrah Hardy and her 11-year-old sister Victoria, representation within video games is very important. While the two have been playing games since they were younger, it’s only been in recent years that they’ve seen themselves as Black girls represented on their screens.

One of Cyrah’s favorite games to play is the Sims and because of the game’s historical whitewashing and marginalization of Black characters, she went searching for custom-made game packs made by other Black gamers who created more realistic skin tones and hairstyles for players to download and incorporate into their game. In addition to Sims and some fashion games, the two also play Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite, a popular battle-royale shooter.

The sisters say they got into playing games because their father was interested in gaming. Their mother, Christina Yongue, says she preferred the days when they would play dance games on the Wii. When the girls revealed that they too have had to deal with sexist or racist comments when playing online, particularly on Fortnite, Yongue says she was shocked.

“That makes me very uncomfortable that they have to combat that and just try to learn to play, play the game and have fun but that’s in the environment,” Yongue says. “I know that there are bullies everywhere. I’m not surprised because I know when people are anonymous, they are more likely to be bold with being mean because they can get away with it more.”

Cyrah, 13, and her sister Victoria, 11, began playing video games when their father introduced them to Grand Theft Auto years ago. These days they prefer to play Sims and fashion games that allow them to personalize their characters. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Both Cyrah and Victoria noted that they have heard people say the N-word on voice chats in game and praise Trump. Some players if they noticed they were girls, would ask them if they were good at the game.

Despite their mother’s concerns, even at their ages, both Cyrah and Victoria seem to take the comments in stride and brush them off easily. When in doubt, just mute them, they say.

And unlike some of the other players interviewed for this article, both Cyrah and Victoria said they felt like there were an equal number of girl and guy gamers out there, but just that guys may be more visible than girls.

For Hannah Bowman, that’s why it’s important to develop and maintain friendships with other girls who game when they meet online, even if it’s randomly.

“It’s basically instantly like, ‘Okay, we’re friends now if there’s another girl in my queue,’” Bowman laughs. “Like, there’s no question, and it’s nice because that was always reciprocated. It’s like, ‘It’s you and me now.’”

Bowman says that kind of instantaneous connection with other girls in games comes from the desire for friendship but also to protect one another from toxic players, she says.

“Girls have to have each other’s backs especially when gaming,” she says. “I think a lot of females feel that sentiment towards that. Like once you find another girl, it’s like, ‘Oh hey girl.’ It’s just comforting to not be the only girl. And when you have another girl, I would stick up for her if someone started saying shit and I feel like they would for me too, especially the sexist comments.”

And for those who are looking to get into gaming but feel intimidated by the culture of it, Annelise Kniseley says if they can be brave and give it a try, they might just find other people who share their passion.

“The worst that can happen is that you hate the game and it’s just really not your thing but if you do end up getting into it, you’ve just found another hobby that you love and you join a whole other community besides other things you do,” Kniseley says. “Because the gaming community is actually really huge, and you can meet a lot of cool people when you’re gaming.”

Tips for newer players:

  1. Start with single player games that interest you: “Focus on whatever your interests are,” Vener says. “Visual novel games are good for beginners because they are more focused on the story and less on the competitive aspect.”
  2. Mute toxic players if possible: “Just ignore the people,” Bowman says. “There’s a reason you can mute people in game.”
  3. See if you have friends that you can play video games with: “I prefer gaming with other people because it’s more fun that way,” Kniseley says.
  4. Sign up for Discord and find other players to play games with: “Believe it or not, there’s actually a lot of Discord servers where it’s girls only,” Bowman says. “Try to find a public server.”
  5. Remember that the point is to have fun: “Keep your head up and think about the reason you play games,” Bowman says. “Just enjoy the game for what it is.”

Learn more about Athena Alliance CLT on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about the city’s esports program at greensboro-nc.gov/departments/parks-recreation/sports/adult-sports/esports. HQ Gaming Lounge is located inside the Four Seasons Mall. Learn more at hqgaminglounge.com.

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