In 2012, the lead designer of Borderlands 2 described a playable character he had created for people who "suck at first-person shooter" games. The character was the "girlfriend" mode, he said. In other words, it was a support character. Clearly not "lead player" material.
The comment was a slap in the face for women gamers. Many already felt they weren't taken seriously, or weren't welcome in the gaming community, especially following GamerGate, the 2013 harassment campaign that targeted female gamers and critics (and gave troll Milo Yiannopoulos a platform as the new poster boy of the alt-right).
Now new research has emerged on the experience of the "gamer girlfriend," that is, the experience of women who play games with their partners. Mahli-Ann Butt, the Australian academic behind this research, says in some ways being a "gamer girlfriend" is positive: by gaming with their partners, women are often shielded from the online harassment prevalent in the gaming public. But so-called gamer girlfriends, who are often introduced to gaming by their partners, also have a history of being viewed as a sidekick to their boyfriend's gaming, and not a player in their own right. We asked her about all that.
VICE: Hey Mahli-Ann, when did you become interested in the "gamer girlfriend" label, and why did you write a 15,000-word thesis on it?
Mahli-Ann Butt: I was chatting with my supervisor and reminiscing about how at one point in my life I would predominantly play as a healer in World of Warcraft. Although I do enjoy it, I still felt that it was a role thrust upon me, because no one else usually wants to play the support role.
Another conversation with my supervisor [made me realise] it was rather weird that my boyfriend suggested I should play as a healer, even when I originally wanted to play as a mage or a wizard. To have that moment of, "Woah, yeah, I guess it was weird," made me really connect with the negotiations around women playing video games with partners. Like, why wasn't I allowed to play as something else?
Your research found this is a recurring theme—boyfriends controlling what games and roles their girlfriends are "allowed" to play.
Yeah. Gaming is a medium which has a lot weighing on authenticity. There is a "real gamers" vs "fake gamers" debate, and gaming has been gendered by a regulatory fiction constructed by gaming magazines as if it were "for boys." This all accumulates into gatekeeping practices such as designating certain games (usually firs-person shooters) as the "real" gamer games and some games as not real games.
Some boyfriends organise and buy games for their girlfriends to play. Most partners see these presents as coming with good intentions, but they can also recognise that buying these games is a way of increasing gaming time. It's not necessarily insidious, it just shows that partners could sometimes be more open about negotiating how they spend their leisure time together.
But some of the women you interviewed found that this lead to controlling, or even abusive, relationships, right?
One of my interviewees mentioned that she felt that her partner was a dick when he played games with her—he was a massive abusive jerk. He'd insult her and then ignore her for hours if she beat him at a game, so she'd end up purposely losing to him so that she wouldn't be punished. All interviewees with abusive gamer and partner relationships were previous partners. But there was no distinction between online and offline personas. Abusive behaviour is always abuse. Toxic masculinity in online gaming can result in abusive behaviour between couples, like when the women is being verbally abused [in a game] and the boyfriend lets it happen. Letting abuse happen isn't just contributing to the abuse but is a form of abuse in itself. Watch: VICE meets the dating app hackers helping site users find true love:
How do women then change their gaming participation to avoid this kind of harassment?
Many women mute their microphones while playing online so that they can mask their voice or gender. They might avoid talking about gaming to people because they don't want to have constantly prove that they're a "real" gamer, or downplay their femininity in male-dominated gaming spaces. Women are always negotiating their gender and love for gaming, depending on what spaces allow them to express themselves.
Obviously many women do participate in gaming for their own enjoyment and on their own terms. In these instances, does playing with their boyfriends actually make gaming a safer space, with less or no abuse or harassment?
A lot of my interviewees particularly enjoyed gaming in a social environment but also mentioned that they very desperately did not want to get involved with online gaming communities for fear of harassment and abuse. Playing together with a partner (or even friends and family), enables social gaming without feeling as if they have to open themselves up to online abuse.
Playing with partners and friends can also enable women to play online if their partners and friends stood up for women when online gamers start to throw verbal abuse. It's about creating a more welcoming community for everyone.
And has all your research influenced your identity as a gamer?
I think it was important that my research grew out of my own lived experience. Feminism for me [is] finding the language to explain things we've always known to be true. It's peeling back some of the layers to get clarity about why we're uncomfortable about something, and why it doesn't feel completely fair.
I've played games for most of my life, but playing with my partner after high school nurtured it into a greater hobby. I'm now researching video games as an academic and hoping to build the community so that everyone feels welcome to enjoy the medium, without arbitrary rules around "what to play" and "how to play", enforced by gamer gatekeepers.
We shouldn't define what gaming should mean for someone else. There are so many different games and gaming styles, it doesn't make sense to limit gaming to one singular "real" gamer style. How unnecessarily boring.
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