Katty Polyak on Women and the Gaming Identity

Most days I wish I could take you all out for coffee to pick your brains for the doc...but since I've neither mastered the art of teleportation nor mad-money-making, online coffee-date discussions will have to do. I'm very pleased to introduce you to this week's guest blogger, Katty Polyak.

Katty's a cool young lady living in the Big Apple. When she's not playing video games and board games, she's dreaming up ideas for her own documentary. I just know we'd get along.

So here's the big question: What exactly does it mean to identify as a "gamer"? And why is this sometimes so awkward for women especially online?

As a preview to this discussion, let's watch this fun YouTube video that some guys posted of themselves running into a girl in League of Legends:

Women exist in a rather nebulous space when it comes to gaming. Conventional wisdom tells us that there are far more male players than female ones, but is this really true? In fact current statistics state that women make up almost 50% of gamers. Yet we don’t see a lot of women talking about their interest in gaming the way men do. What can we attribute this discrepancy to?

I think a large part is due to the fact that “Gaming” is predominantly seen as a boys’ hobby.
Gaming has several qualities to it that are typically seen as male traits. Video games are usually competitive, can be aggressive, and are not always social. In addition, there are also some qualities that are seen as normal in boys and less normal in girls. This means that friends, coworkers, and parents may ascribe these qualities to women who express an interest in video games and make judgments because of it. 

To avoid these stigmas, a girl is less likely to identify to others as a gamer because of how it immediately shapes their perception of them. Better to not discuss that aspect of themselves than be ridiculed or ostracized for their hobby.

You might think then that girls would feel more comfortable revealing their gender online, however the problem is only worse there. Although online gaming offers a great deal of anonymity, the anonymity also means that it can be difficult to predict how another person might react to someone different than them on the internet. They are also more likely to “fill in” your personality with stereotypes.

I’ve seen a variety of different reactions upon mentioning that I was a woman while playing League of Legends. I’ve been told that we were losing specifically because I was a girl, been told that my boyfriend had just carried me to my ranking, and flat out been told that I wasn’t a girl or if I was a girl, I was unattractive and fat. Somehow, it becomes every girl’s responsibility to prove that female gamers can be skillful but each male is judged individually based on their merit.

On the other hand, I’ve also had positive interactions after identifying as a woman in-game. My boyfriend casually mentioned that we were dating. After some initial disbelief, another gamer said it was really cool that we gamed together and had been dating for so long. I liked chatting with him so much that I told him about how my boyfriend and I cosplay together and showed him a photo of our costumes.

Sometimes identifying as a female gamer or any other minority can lead to some interesting and rewarding interactions. Our physical characteristics don’t necessarily matter while in game but they can add an interesting element to the story of our online interactions. Unfortunately, we get denied these interactions because some women are afraid of being ostracized and some men don’t feel ready to share the world of gaming.  Like anything else, we need to allow culture to catch up with reality.

So what do you guys/girls think? Is this consistent with your experiences? What other gaming minority groups run into the same trouble? On the flip side, what are the social benefits of identifying as a female gamer? What kinds of doors does that open up?