World of Warcraft lets players identify as an elf or an orc or a human wizard. But while gamers can pick their race, all too often they can't pick their gender. And now that voice chat has become all but compulsory at the highest levels of gaming, trans, nonbinary, and androgynous gamers are finding that their fellow gamers can turn mean quick.
A decade ago, TeamSpeak and other voice-over-internet protocols weren't entirely necessary or even all that prominent in many games. But in World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and other games where teamwork is utterly necessary, it's weird—and a disadvantage—if you don't have a microphone. And if someone's online avatar or character doesn't line up exactly with expectations of their voice or gender, abuse can follow.
"You get all the flack of being a girl online, plus you have the stigma of not actually being a 'girl,'" Abi Burkholder, a 22-year-old androdgynous League of Legends player who is in the top eighth percentile of all players, told me. "When it comes to voice, that's where it comes out. Most every single game has voice now, and lots of trans gamers end up pretending they don't have a mic."
"It's easiest to pass in [text-based games]—I tell people I'm a guy, and they don't have any choice but to take me at my word"
The discrimination trans gamers face came into focus earlier this week when one of the world's largest League of Legends tournament organizers said that its upcoming all-female tournament would place restrictions on the number of transgender and lesbian people who would be allowed to participate. The idea, on its face, is the ridiculous notion that trans gamers are inherently better than female gamers. (The decision has since been overturned.)
But trans gamers I spoke with suggest that the proposed rules were simply an extension of the discrimination and bigotry they face every time they play games online.
"It's dumbfounding, really," Jessica Janiuk, who wrote about single-player games being her safe haven as a transgender gamer in an article for the gaming site Polygon, told me. "It's offensive on levels that I can't even begin to describe, and the only reason they would even consider a policy like this is because they think LGBT people are 'icky.'"
At the very least, League of Legends developer Riot and others roundly criticized the move. But, transgender and androgynous people still suffer plenty of discrimination in online gaming. At the highest levels, that may be slowly changing thanks in no small part to Sasha Hostyn, a trans Starcraft II player who goes by the name of Scarlett online and has become known as one of the best players of all time.
But many trans, androgynous, and nonbinary gamers who I spoke to said that online gaming is still a fairly hostile place, at least when meeting new people. And that hostility is often most vitriolic and most frightening when a trans gamer picks up a microphone.
Riordan James Flynn, a trans man who plays World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and several text-based online games, says that it's much easier to play the text games without experiencing discrimination than the ones where voice chat is necessary.
"We tell them it's OK, that we'll properly gender you and that they're in a safe space"
"Gaming is not a safe space, it's not a trans-friendly place. It's not even a female-friendly place," he said, noting the abuse suffered by many women at the hands of the GamerGate movement. "If you're not white and male and you're a gamer, you're going to be made fun of, made the target of abusive and sexist language, ignored, passed up over your guildmates for lead positions and generally treated like shit, especially if you're in a male-dominated guild or team."
And that suspicion, that misunderstanding, often comes up first when transgamers pick up a microphone.
"The amount of times where I've met someone and then i go into the TeamSpeak lobby and they hear me have a more feminine or masculine voice than they were expecting. They drop the f-bomb or or they talk about rape. It's still pervasive," Burkholder said. "However it is being attacked. I see progress made, and as trans people are more visible, as there are more high profile trans gamers, life gets so much easier."
Burkholder has a trans gamers TeamSpeak room that regularly has about a dozen trans people in it, and their experiences are often the same: "The amount of times people log onto TeamSpeak and say 'I don't want to use my mic,' it happens all the time. We poke at them and tell them to turn on their mic and tell them it's OK, that we'll properly gender you and that they're in a safe space."
Burkholder's experience is not unique. The discrimination and bigotry that comes with someone's online avatar or character not lining up exactly with someone's expectations of their voice or gender is something I heard time and time again in talking with trans gamers.
Janiuk says she generally doesn't play online games in part because she fears harassment: "People are much more willing to be mean when there's some level of anonymity," she said. "I rarely, if ever, get people who are mean to me to my face. Harassment is pretty much a non-issue for me in the real world. … I've played a few FPS games and over voice chat I've gotten stuff like 'Are your sure your name is Jessica? You don't sound like a Jessica.' I get it, I have a bit of an androgynous voice. It just gets really tiring, and I'd rather not deal with it or have to deal with personal questions by a complete stranger and that aftermath."
Flynn says that, at this point, his guildmates still identifies him as a female even though he's "explained I don't identify as female on more than one occasion."
"It's the easiest to pass in [text-based games]. I tell people I'm a guy, and they don't have any choice but to take me at my word," he said. "This is the easiest place for me to be myself."