This is a response to Spinks' That 'women in gaming' post. I posted a comment to that post in haste, and didn't really convey what I wanted to convey. So this is my second stab at it.
Proposition 1: A significant portion of gamer culture is virulently misogynistic.
I completely and utterly agree with this proposition. It's pretty much self-evident.
Proposition 2: A significant portion of gamer culture is virulently misogynistic, because of the way games are designed.
I completely disagree with this proposition.
Aside from the few companies who are stupid and/or deliberately provocative (*cough*Rockstar*cough*), modern Western games--not gamers, but games--are extremely respectful to women. They feature strong, competent female characters. Off the top of my head consider Jaina, Sylvannas, Jaheria, Bastila, Annah, Fall-From-Grace, Leilana, Morrigan, Wynne, April Ryan. Western game rulebases do not differentiate between male and female. Female characters are just as likely to be successful as male characters.
Female villains are just as daunting as male villains, without resorting to offensive caricatures. Quite frankly, this is something the game industry does better than any other media out there. Consider Onyxia, Queen Anora, Kerrigan, SHODAN, GLaDOS, Carmen Sandiego. There aren't that many female villains, but the ones that are tend to be drawn quite well.
Most game companies also go out of their way to be welcoming to women. A decade ago, when Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, they wrote the rulebooks using female pronouns (she, her instead of he, his), to basically hammer home on every single page the point that women were welcome. I don't really know how successful that method was, but I thought it particularly stylish, so I copied it for my own writing.
In my experience, the modern game industry is more respectful of women than most modern movies, music, television, fiction, and even media aimed mainly at women like romance novels1. In my opinion, the only genre that routinely treats women better than modern games is young adult fiction, and even young adult fiction rarely has good female villains.
So then, how do we square the fact that many gamers are misogynistic, when most games are not, and in fact do make significant efforts to be respectful to women?
I think it is a combination of three factors.
The first factor is that gamers, especially teenage gamers, are treated badly by female culture. Male culture has mostly absorbed gaming to the point where almost every young male games casually. But female culture still looks down on gaming. Exactly how many guys would tell a girl that they gamed on first acquaintance? Versus pretty much any other hobby? What other moderately mainstream hobby carries such social stigma as gaming?
So is it any surprise that some gamers, especially teenage males, lash back defensively? It completely fails to excuse that behavior. Misogyny is inexcusable. But if the misogyny stems from this cause, then there is really nothing that game makers can really do. They've been trying to make games more popular and more main-stream for years now.
The second factor is that it is much easier for like-minded gamers to find each other and group together, reinforcing their negative tendencies. This is because gaming communities are heavily internet-based. In a smaller or geographic-based community, the community leaders could police these behaviors, and bring deviants in-line with the rest of the community norms. But in a very large community, such as the internet, the deviants just slink off and form their own sub-community and impose their behavior on others.
Again, I am not really sure what game makers can do about this. Would you really accept limitations on your right of association? Imagine if you could not choose your guild, but were randomly assigned to one. And you could not easily switch guilds. What would the social structure look like? What norms would prevail? I think it would prevent the reinforcement of an individual's misogyny, but it would also prevent reinforcement of some positive norms. Not to mention that most people want to play with their friends.
As well, so much of association is carried out on Vent and external message boards that the game maker cannot control.
The third and final factor is anonymity. Anonymity dehumanizes people. You don't see other people in the game, you start to see just characters running around. These gamers do not see how many women actually play the game, do not see that real people control the characters that they are insulting. Anonymity also reduces fear of reprisal. People act badly just because they can. They pay no social price for their vitriol.
Consider the game of chess. In many ways, chess maps to gaming in that very few women play, and it has a low social cachet. Yet, chess culture is not nearly as misogynistic as game culture can be. Now, maybe it's because chess is more staid, but I think it is because chess lacks that culture of anonymity. Everyone uses their real name and are ranked with that. And as a result, chess culture is far more respectful to everyone than gaming is, even if almost no women play.
But then again, none of you agree with me about anonymity and real names. Everyone is too concerned with "privacy" in video games2. And so we reap the consequences of that decision.
That's where I stand on this issue. I agree that a significant portion of gamer culture is virulently misogynistic. However, I think the games themselves have done a really good job of driving out disrespect to women in the actual game and rulebase. I'm not sure that there is too much more that they could do. They can't force female culture to not stigmatize gaming. I think gamers would fuss if they made a solid attempt to break the right to choose your associations. We've already seen that gamers howl if their precious "privacy" is in any way threatened.
So what's left? Fiddling with crafting and pet collecting in a futile effort to entice more women to play? (Does anyone really believe that women don't game because there's not enough pet collecting?) And this will reduce the misogyny how exactly? More women in the game won't matter because you cannot force the misogynists to associate with them. Social shame is pretty much the only option to control them, and that path is blocked.
Games cannot be held responsible for factors out of their control. Modern games have done, in my opinion, a superb job of creating strong, competent female characters and generally being friendly to women. If I had daughters, I would much rather them take Sylvannas as a role model than most other characters in non-gaming media (though maybe with less emphasis on the whole "raising the dead" thing).
1. I read Regencies, and kind of frankly, sometimes I wonder that women accept the way women are treated in a significant minority of those novels, let alone how men are treated. If women were treated that way in a male-dominated medium, there would be Senate hearings. Also, what's the deal with red hair?
2. Meanwhile, your local government is probably putting your house plans and property taxes up on the internet. Not joking, by the way.