Girls, G.I.R.L.s and Everyone in Between: Gender Identity in Video Gaming and/or Why I’m Male on the Internet

Ella is an outright devotee of video games and has been since she was small. She has a BA in English literature from the University of Sussex and is currently on her way towards an MA. When not studying she works as a copywriter (most recently for GameStop ), and when not working she’s usually found up to her ears in primarily PC games. Those interested can find her ramblings about the latter and sometimes more) on Twitter.

Virago, a World of Warcraft character

World of Warcraft character Virago, a hefty Tauren druid

First of all a brief word about the title’s acronym for those among us who may not be aware of its meaning. G.I.R.L. stands for “Guy In Real Life”, a pejorative term used for somebody who pretends to be female in online video games for their own material gain. As an erstwhile player of World of Warcraft, I can attest to people – usually, but not always, heterosexual males – being fleeced in this manner. However, with this often advantageous deception in mind I have a confession to make.

Despite being and (for the most part) identifying myself as female, I have done something similar. Online I have, more often than not, pretended to be male.

As anybody involved in online gaming can attest, gender politics play a big – if sometimes subversive – part, and there were easily at least several notable instances during my World of Warcraft career when my gender caused more issues than it should have.

The first was when I initially began to get into high level instances and raiding. At that time on our server tanks were scarce, and I was lucky enough to be friends with a few fairly reliable ones. One seemed to have become markedly better disposed towards me when he found out I was female in real life (I first met him on one of my female-avatared characters and we got chatting; I tend to play a pretty balanced mixture of genders), engaging me in idle small talk and frequently offering help whether I needed it or not. When making groups for instances, friends who knew of this particular individual would try and persuade me to ask him to tank for us, saying that he’d be bound to accept for me, a woman. My subsequent refusals resulted in many awful PUGs (oh, the repair bills) while the aforementioned tank was happily strung along by skinny blood elf after skinny blood elf (my main character at that time was a hefty Tauren druid and proud).

Another fairly significant incident was when I first joined a proper raiding guild. My then partner was also a member, and for some reason he simply couldn’t stand the idea of me remaining gender anonymous (a threat to his own identity/sexuality perhaps?). Indeed, he was so irritated by the fact that he ended up purposely “outing” me to the guild, much my chagrin. Needless to say, that didn’t last long.

Anecdotes aside, however, the fact remains that gender continues to be a huge issue online. A woman who identifies herself as such on a forum is often flamed beyond recovery, dismissed as an attention seeker and called many other derogatory names besides. While there definitely are some female attention seekers out there there are, of course, just as many from every other gender and persuasion. The sad thing is that I’ve seen many women making legitimate points, points that require the citation of their gender in order to make sense, only to be shot down for the sake of some kind of habitual misogyny.

I am far from ashamed of my gender, but unfortunately online I feel the need for privacy or, at the very least, anonymity. If this means, sadly, that I must masquerade as male in order to avoid possible prejudice (as I was made to do recently yet again by a well known eSports site who refused to restore my gender to the default neutral, instead forcing me to be recognised as female) then so be it.

28 thoughts on “Girls, G.I.R.L.s and Everyone in Between: Gender Identity in Video Gaming and/or Why I’m Male on the Internet

  1. Eivind

    I think online is actually the exception here.

    Generally, in most cases when you interact with someone, there’s certain facts that you usually learn about in the first few seconds. Their sex. Their aproximate age. Their race. Their style of clothing. (and indirectly, strong hints to their social class and to which subcultures they belong to)

    Online is -special- in that some or all of these can be completely or partially invisible.

    People interact differently with 70 year old women and 20 year old men in meatspace-interactions too, so I don’t think it’s surprising that they do online.

    There’s plenty of interactions in real life, where I’d *also* have opted to be anonymous, if it had been possible. But usually it isn’t. There’s been some experiments recently with public hiring for example, where the sex, race and age of the applicant has been shielded from those deciding who to hire, but such examples remain the exception.

    Meanwhile, anonymity also tends to bring out the worst in some people, because it shields them from consequences.

    Being able to experiment, to (to take one example of something I’ve done) post an argument to GeekFeminism from a neutral, or female-sounding nick rather than from an obviously-male one and witness the difference in reaction, is a good thing. Not even geekfeminism is entirely free of treating peoples arguments differently depending on the perceived sex of the person making the argument, and the people here are *much* more conscious of gender-issues than most people are.

    It’d be nice to live in a world where such distinctions mattered less — and ideally not at ALL unless relevant to the interaction. But that isn’t presently the case offline, so I’m not surprised that it’s not the case online either. Is it -worse- online ? Maybe, it’s hard to tell for sure. To the degree it *is* worse, I think the main reason is the anonymity.

    1. Leigh Honeywell

      In the vast majority of online spaces, neutral is assumed to be male. Just because people’s characteristics can be hidden does not mean people don’t assume that their interlocutors are the male default of most online communities.

      Also, we make assumptions based on the perceived VISIBLE characteristics of commenters, for example, because they give us clues as to the life experience of the person behind the comment. Like for example, while there are a lot of dudes who can see the neutral~male thing that goes on online, you are clearly not one of them.

    2. Brenda

      Your experiment seems invalid — when discussing the lived experiences of women, it is statements by those living as women that hold the most value. Try it again when discussing Python database abstraction libraries.

      1. Eivind

        I would say it’s debatable.

        The value or validity of an argument, does not usually change based on who is making it. The exception would be if someone is merely telling their own personal experiences – in that particular case it is offcourse relevant what experiences the person has. But for most arguments, the argument should be critiqued based on content, rather than on messenger.

        My point wasn’t that GeekFemism is in any sense bad. My point was that people do, to varying degrees, react differently to the same statements merely as a result of who is making the statement. And that is true even for people who are conscious of the issues.

        And online, you can to some degree skirt these issues by hiding the facts. For example, a statement made by an old person would normally be treated differently to the same statement made by a young person, but online the readers may not be aware of your age, unless you choose to disclose it. I argue that this is actually an *advantage*.

        But Leigh above is correct. In spaces where young males dominate, the assumption if you don’t disclose your personalia, is probably that you are also young and male.

        I tend to think that’s mostly a numbers-game though, people assume that the “default” slashdot-user is under 40 and male mostly because that does, infact, match reality. So to some degree it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. People do *not* tend to make the same assumptions in spaces where age/sex distribution is different. My mother is part of a discussion-group primarily about knitting, a anonymous participant there would most definitely -not- be assumed young-and-male by default. Myself I participate in some groups about cake-baking, and I don’t think there’s any assumption there either that participants are young-and-male.

      2. makomk

        Except that it would seem that when discussing the lived experiences of men, it’s also statements by those living as women that hold the most value. In fact, people’s opinions on all topics related gender and society seem to be judged based on their gender, just like they are for technical topics! You could even argue that the two are related, that they’re part of the same old rational men/emotional women gender dichotomy.

        (Even more off-topic note: this probably also helps explain why transphobia within feminism took the odd forms it did, though not why it existed in the first place.)

    3. Mary

      General moderator note: many blogs and forums strongly discourage or ban actively using more than one name/nym on a site at any given time (for various reasons, including the potential for ban evasion and sockpuppeting).

      The Geek Feminism moderators are presently discussing how strong we’d like this rule to be on our site: publishing Eivind’s comment should not be interpreted to mean that we’re collectively fine with it or not fine with it. It’s under discussion. We’ll update when the discussion concludes.

      If you want to specifically discuss site policy on nym-morphing, please take it to an open thread, so as not to derail the discussion of online gender presentation-morphing in this thread.

    4. Angel H.

      I just wanted to say that I am incredibly offended by your little “experiment”. Geek Feminism is supposed to be a safe place for women, and for you violate that just to satisfy your ego is just another example of male privilege trying to assert itself in a female-dominated space.

      1. Eivind Kjørstad

        Isn’t that a little strong ?

        Several (presumably!) women in this discussion have stated that they’ve played online games as male characters and refrained from disclosing their own sex because they feel that women are treated badly in some online spaces.

        GeekFeminism isn’t a game, but my motivation the handful of times I choose to use a non-gendered identity instead of an obviously-male one was precisely the same: It was my impression that certain kinds of arguments are given less weight if coming from an obvious-male. I.e. I wanted my arguments to be given consideration, without being discounted as coming from a male.

        I never participated in the same discussion under more than one name, and I never deliberately posted even a single trollish message. And I particpate under my own full name in 99% of what I’ve ever said on GeekFeminism and am easily googleable, as such I’m more accountable for what I say than many here.

        Given this, I feel that being “incredibly offended” is a pretty harsh reaction. Assuming that all participants online are always biologically the same sex their name seems to indicate, is not generally valid.

        Nevertheless, it is not my wish to cause needless distress. I’ll stick with posting only under my own full name until the discussion about identity-rules concludes. And just for the record, I’ve not posted even once as any other identity than my own this year on any topic.

  2. H. A. Cautrell

    As an avid player of World of Warcraft for the last five years I can attest to this as well. Fortunately I’ve almost exclusively played on Roleplaying Servers, which meant that there was a better balance of genders among players. Though much to many male friend’s embarrassment, I could still kick their asses in pve. Despite a better balance there were still issues. Because roleplay was involved this eventually lead to romantic relationships both in character and out of character. Nothing wrong with that, I enjoy romance as much as the next person, but that usually tends to lead to drama and the mixing of in and out of character reactions.

    I’ve been lucky in that most of the time my gender rarely has anything to do with how I play the game. I stopped using my server forums, however, because it was inevitable that any woman who didn’t play along with the men or who was “too friendly” to the wrong men would get flamed to hell for it. And I avoid using Ventrillo or other voice software because inevitably harassment follows. That and people just can’t stand silence on Vent apparently and have to fill it with constant chatter. That annoys me to no end.

    1. Ella

      Mine was an RP PvP server too (though I find that overall WoW isn’t the best platform roleplaying), so I also experienced such RP-related issues/drama.

      An example that springs to mind is that often if a male character ended up flirting with a female one there would be the inevitable question of whether the player themself was also female (and sometimes a complete alteration of in character actions as a result of the answer; very unprofessional!).

      I’d also end up avoiding voice chat programs if I could for similar reasons to the ones you stated (and there’s always at least one person on Vent who decides to play their irritating music through it…).

  3. Nemi

    I can really relate to this. I’ve played a variety of games online, from WoW to Starcraft, to my current interest Rift. Being a female constantly means an uphill battle from unjustified stereotype or constant harassment. To the point when I started playing Rift, the first thing I did was look for the biggest, ugliest man character I could to portray my avatar. It’s not something as simple as ‘I’m ashamed of my gender’ or ‘I don’t want to be associated with other girl players.’ It’s really that I want to be taken seriously without having to work twice as hard to prove myself. As a serious female gamer, I constantly feel like my mistakes are more noticed and then written off as ‘well she’s a girl.’

    1. Ella

      Yeah, I can relate; I’ve done that when selecting characters before (going for “the biggest, ugliest man character”). That said, sometimes some of those characters are actually kind of cool and get chosen for that reason instead!

    2. CraftyGeek

      I don’t play online games anymore, mainly because of these issues and because at the time I was in the military. When I have to be work twice as hard to be half as good at work, I didn’t want to do more of the same when I’m supposed to be having fun. I’ve always hated the double standard that if a guy screws up, online or real life, it’s just him being stupid, when a female makes a mistake it reflects poorly on all of us.

  4. Loud.Blog

    Do you think that the practice of hiding one’s true gender online creates the possibility of a vicious cycle, in which the presence of women on the internet and in gaming fails to become “normalized”? From whence will come the pressure to address our bias and prejudices if we are always predisposed to assume that the Blood Elf Female to our left is, in fact, a G.I.R.L., and the real women do their best not to mention their real-life gender for fear of persecution? Does staying silent create security, or perpetuate ignorance and intolerance?

    What saddens me is that many anecdotes about gender discrimination come from games like WoW, which are nominally role-playing games. Players should be free to experiment with attitudes, behaviours and themes in their role-play without worrying that their character will be treated differently based on their real-life identity.

    1. Eivind

      I pondered this. It seems likely to me the assumption that the “default” user is young and male, is mostly a result of the majority of users, atleast historically, -actually- being young and male.

      It’s possible, I guess, that if the female participation rise, but invisibly, then that lets the assumption live on, despite declining real validity.

      But I don’t think so, not really. Because if you’re part of a community over time, you tend to get to know the real personalia of atleast some participants, it may be slower, but an assumption that everyone is male should be weakened gradually if your actual experiences tell you that plenty of participants are really female.

      Besides, it seems clear that there’s a large and growing number of online spaces where female participation is high, or even dominant, not so many technical/nerdy spaces though. Subjectively guesstimating it seems to me, for example, that a majority-fraction of Facebook-updates are from females. (one can discount Facebook, but it is *the* largest online interaction-space currently) Even arguably the larges online gaming-space, though I don’t think Farmville and friends really deserve to be called “games”.

      1. Mary

        one can discount Facebook… I don’t think Farmville and friends really deserve to be called “games”.

        You may want to clarify what you mean here, because it’s not clear (on the Facebook statement anyway) if you’re stating your own opinions and in both cases, on what grounds. There tends to be a chicken-and-egg problem with sites having high female participation and being perceived as not “real” Internet activity: LiveJournal and media fandom are prior examples of this phenomena. There were “real” blogs (on Movable Type/Typepad, later WordPress and ideally on their own domain name) and LiveJournals, which were unimportant and unserious. Guess which one had a huge number of women writing…

        I know there are other reasons to dislike Farmville, but refusing to call it a game seems to be buying into the hierarchy of “if it’s not designed for people like me, it’s not as legitimate”.

        1. Eivind Kjørstad

          GeekFeminism is primarily about feminism and geek. It was argued in this thread that there’s a default assumption online that unknown users are heterosexual males.

          I don’t think this assumption exists in online communities that are not male-dominated, such as for example Facebook. Facebook is sort of a bad example though, because most people on Facebook operate under their own full name, often with pictures, thus interacting with someone on Facebook without knowing their sex, is fairly rare. (so what your assumptions would be, if/when this happen, is perhaps not terribly relevant)

          I’m fine with calling Farmville a game. (I think it’s a -bad- game, but that’s a different discussion) But I don’t think it’s the kind of online game meant in this article, or most of the comments here. Indeed I think I’ve read that females are the majority of casual online games of the FarmVille-variety.

          It would be really odd if there was a default assumption of maleness, in a space that is actually majority-female. The demographics of FarmVille players is quite different from that of WoW-players.

        2. Mary

          Eivind, I’m really not sure how to reconcile “I don’t think Farmville and friends really deserve to be called ‘games’.” and “I’m fine with calling Farmville a game. (I think it’s a -bad- game, but that’s a different discussion)” both written by you, within three days in the same thread.

          Yes there’s obviously context around them both, but I don’t think it changes the meaning of “don’t … really deserve to be called [name]” and “I’m find with calling [thing] a [name]”.

        3. Eivind

          What I meant was, my first comment was flippant. Farmville definitely is a game.

          But I do not think it’s a game of the category that’s primarily discussed in this post or the comments, which seem to focus on WoW and similar multiplayer games. Thus I should have said, I don’t think Farmville is a game of a type that’s relevant to this discussion.

          I don’t think there’s much sexual harassment on FarmVille. Nor do I think there’s a default assumption of maleness on FarmVille, and so on.

          In short, I think that close to zero of the issues we’re discussing here — i.e. those issues that cause some women to play a male character, and perhaps hide their sex when playing online games, apply to Farmville.

          When I choose to say “don’t deserve to” as opposed to “isn’t really relevant as a game in this discussion”, my comment was colored by the fact that I consider FarmVille and similar games to be *bad* games. The same way you might hear someone say “I don’t think he deserves to be called an artist”, when what is really meant is: he’s a really *bad* artist.

    2. Ella

      Yes, I definitely think that the practice is counterproductive overall, but equally the bias is an incredibly difficult one to defeat and as such don’t see it stopping any time soon, sadly.

      And indeed; as I said in an earlier comment, WoW isn’t exactly the best place for decent roleplaying (or at least I’ve found).

      As my experience goes with tabletop RPGs (I’m a big fan of those, too), however, I’ve found the gender bias to be far less pronounced; none of my fellow traditional gamers seem to have any issues playing with women or taking part in games run by them (myself included). That said, some do still feel uncomfortable playing characters with gender identities different from their own… a topic for another time, perhaps?

    3. Mia

      OK, I rarely play online games (I prefer tabletop), so here is a maybe naïve comment.

      So, you decide to “hide” behind a male persona online in order to avoid the catcalls and derogatory remarks. I completely understand why, though I do also think that yes, you do then contribute to the fail of normalizing women in netgaming.

      Here’s my thought: can’t you write comments which help diminish the net hate against women? Can’t you — who will be perceived as a man — tell the macho commenters to shut up and stop bothering women? In the hope that when a MAN tells them that, they will listen more readily?

      Fifth column action to turn the tide, so to speak.

      1. Ella

        I usually don’t get involved in posting on forums (mostly they’re too full of flaming/drama), but there are definitely those with male personas – who may or may not be male themselves, as we know – who will intervene and defend women (although that then brings to mind the concept of white knighting, which is again generally frowned upon).

        However, that said I do tend to speak up if I encounter somebody experiencing unwarranted unpleasantness during play, regardless of apparent gender.

  5. Nicole

    I too can relate to this, currently my husband and I play WOW with real life friends but in the past I have never tried to advertise that I’m a female. I am a sports fan and post on the forums of some local teams, I use very standard names that can’t identify my sex. Sadly enough, I find myself discriminating againsts poster’s using words like chick or gal in their names because it both annoys me and because I don’t find that they know more about the team/sport than I do. I feel terrible about that, seeing as how it happens to me, I work in a male-dominated environment and my female co-workers and I deal with this frequently (not by our company or male co-workers). I may get my feminist card revoked for that admission. ;-) But anyway that’s why I choose to remain gender anonymous on the Internet.

    1. Ella

      I must admit that I may treat somebody who labels themself “xGamerGirlx” or similar with more initial caution than I might do somebody with a more gender neutral name. Perhaps I’ve picked up a little of the community’s casual misogyny via osmosis (which is quite sad, really)!

      1. AMM

        … I may treat somebody who labels themself “xGamerGirlx” or similar with more initial caution than I might do somebody with a more gender neutral name….

        Would you react the same way if it weren’t so explicit? E.g., “PaladinElla”?

        1. Ella

          Possibly, possibly not; it would likely depend on the accompanying post/s!

          That said, I guess the whole “gamer girl” image as a whole is often quite a problematic one…

  6. C

    I too play WoW, and am a woman.

    The way I’ve played over time has shifted – when I first started playing WoW, I didn’t want to step on toes, didn’t want to make waves, and didn’t really have very much fun when playing with people who I didn’t already know IRL. My main is a lady draenei (and I LOVE her!), and all of the characters I play are female. That said, my partner (who’s a man)’s main is also a lady draenei, because he didn’t like the male draenei animations (His former main’s a human guy).

    After getting sick of raiding guild drama, I struck out on my own with a few friends, and we have a very small non-raiding guild. I use my ignore list liberally (and the add-on IgnoreMore) when I have negative interactions in-game. I have trade chat turned off, so I don’t have to deal with the -ist stupidity that goes on there. And when I am exposed to it, I don’t shut up when people use language in a way that perpetuates oppressive social relationships. Sure, it means that there are a lot of people with whom I no longer play (and it’s limited some of my opportunities in game). But I’ve also found that my own experience as a player has improved, both as a result of the ignore list and the fact that I won’t take crap from anyone I play with. I’m a happier WoW player now than I was back in the days when I wouldn’t speak up, because I’ve made the game environment what I want it to be.

    I in no way mean to discount the preferences of women who choose to play as male characters, or who don’t call people out on their crap. I’ve just found that, in my experience, living out my beliefs about social justice, both in game and out, has helped to make my life better.

    In general, I find my gender to be fundamental to my understanding of who I am, and as such, even when I’m anonymous or pseudonymous, I personally can not imagine myself as anything but female. That said, when given the option I don’t reveal my gender (ahem, Facebook), and when given the opportunity I like to challenge the idea that the neutral assumption *should* be male. Back to the WoW context, I love correcting people’s pronouns when I’m tanking, since I’m constantly assumed to be a man. Every teaspoon helps.

    1. Susan

      Thank you for this comment – it says what I was thinking in a clearer way than I could have written. I also play female characters and like to think that by letting it be known that I’m female, there are a few more people in the world who understand that women are playing the game.

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