In light of Gamergate, I wanted to write something about what gaming has meant to me over the last 16+ years and what we are losing by making the gaming community so exclusive.
When I was 10 years old, a friend of my father’s bought me my first video game. It was a little pet simulation game called Dogz and it was pretty much what it sounds like: players could “adopt” their own little on-screen dogs, feed them, play with them, pet them by holding down the mouse button and sliding the mouse back and forth, even throw little Frisbees and balls across the screen for them to chase down. My animal-crazy self fell instantly in love.
It wasn’t just about the simulated pet ownership, although that was definitely enjoyable. No, it was about what that game opened up for me. I had recently discovered The Internet, and there was a thriving online community of Dogz fans (and later Catz, so then it was just “Petz”). There were forums and chat rooms and “rings” of personal websites devoted to pictures of players’ Petz. Later editions of the game allowed for breeding (scandalous!), which produced all sorts of unique offspring that people were able to trade back and forth through email and download links.
That first game opened up a brand new world to me. To be part of the community, I had to learn how to interact online. I still remember the first time I saw a paragraph of text littered with “=)” and wondered what on Earth “equals parentheses” meant. Someone eventually explained to me that it was a sideways smiley-face – Mind. Blown. I learned how to communicate with others on forums and in chat rooms and I made friendships with people all over the world. At the time, I lived in Australia, but most Petz players were living in the United States or the UK.
I wanted to show off my own Petz, which meant I needed a website. A family friend named David showed me some rudimentary HTML, which I patiently typed into the Notepad program, saved as a .html file, and uploaded to the internet (I can’t even remember where I was hosted now – I think GeoCities, as much as it pains me to admit that!). I learned how to build a website, how to change the background color or image, how to insert and position my pictures, how to manipulate the color and size of the text. Later, I researched online to teach myself more. I learned how to use CSS and how to create my own graphics. Lissa Explains It All was an invaluable resource for me and I can’t even describe the ridiculous glee I am feeling right now because that website is still online. Talk about a blast from the past.
It didn’t stop there. Soon, I learned about “hexing.” See, Petz game files were written in hexadecimal code and could be opened up with any number of free software programs. Clever Petz fans had found out how to open these files and find the section of code that controlled the size, color, and arrangement of the spheres that made up Petz’ bodies. They posted online tutorials and links to hexadecimal color charts, they created their own textures to replace the ones that came with the game, and they created hundreds and hundreds of unique “breeds” of Petz that could be downloaded and added to our games. Forums ran competitions for the coolest hexed Petz and I wanted in, so I learned to code. I downloaded the software and opened up those game files and I learned how to hex. I made my own textures in Photoshop and learned through trial and error not to mess with the numbers outside of certain sections of the file.
At some point, I followed some friends from the Petz community into other types of gaming. Some of the other Petz fans were into chat room role-playing games. These simple games existed in pop-up chat rooms, the old kind with the scrolling screen of text. Players would create online personas and role-play by “posing” through text. The particular game I played was set in a wildlife refuge where we all pretended we were wolves. I would log in there every afternoon to just hang out with friends. This was the game I was playing when, at 13 years old, my family moved from Australia to Michigan, USA. The friends that I made through this little roleplaying game supported me through that move while I made new friends at school.
From there, I followed a couple of friends into more serious text-based roleplaying games called MOOs, short for “MUD, object-oriented,” which doesn’t actually tell you anything about what a MOO is, I realize. A MOO is a text-based roleplaying game where players interact with each other by posing (describing what their character is doing), but more advanced than the simple scrolling chat room in that MOOs generally have coded rooms and objects with which players can interact. The MOO I played, Harper’s Tale, is based on the Dragonriders of Pern series written by Anne McCaffrey. Once again, there was a learning curve while I brought my writing abilities up to par with the other players. In a text-based game, your adventures are only as good as your ability to dynamically describe what is going on and to engage others through your writing. Playing on Harper’s Tale broadened my vocabulary, forcing me to consult a thesaurus so that I could describe my character, her outfit, other objects, her surroundings. I learned not to “powerplay,” which is to pose in a way that forces other characters to go along or to disrupt the scene (e.g., it’s not okay to pose that your character makes another character do something, because it might not be okay with the other character’s player; you should either ask permission first or pose in a way that leaves the other character free to respond as the player wishes). I am grateful to Harper’s Tale and other MOOs for developing my creative writing skills, because I am sure that I would not have the vocabulary or the writing voice I have today if not for the lessons I learned there.
It was through Harper’s Tale that I made some of my oldest friends. I started playing that game… oof, sixteen years ago, and to this day I am still friends with at least five women I met through HT, amazing, wonderful women who live all over the country but who would not hesitate to open their homes to me if I happened to be in town, and I would do the same for them (actually, that would be totally awesome – HT reunion at my place sometime!).
The final chapter (for now) in my gamer history is my move to “MMORPGs,” massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. By the standards of most who take the “gamer” identity so seriously, MMORPGs were probably my first “real” games. A friend of mine was an avid World of Warcraft player and had been begging me to play with him for years, but I kept putting him off. Finally, I started dating a guy who played and made my own account. That relationship crashed and burned, but my love of the game survived. I enjoyed finally playing a roleplaying game with graphics and things to see. The beauty of the game art amazed me and I loved running around and just exploring. I did everything backwards at first (or so I feel now, now that I know better), but I didn’t mind. I quested, killing the beasts and bad guys, gathering up loot, enjoying the satisfaction of filling up my quest log with “complete” icons. Sure, the chat channels were toxic and full of hate, but they were easy enough to mute. I pretty much kept to myself, sometimes chatting with my friend and his other friends who played, but never really engaging in the “multiplayer” aspect of the game other than staying out of the way of enemy players.
Until I finally – finally! – hit max level. Now the real fun begins, my friend gleefully told me. The game begins at endgame! At max level, I could finally start to go on “raids,” big (at the time, recently decreased from 40-player to 25-player) group dungeon instances where the goal was to kill the really, really big bad guys. The problem was that I couldn’t do it alone. To get ready for raids, you had to group with other players, and grouping with other players meant… wading into the general chat channels.
I will spare you the details of what happened there. Suffice it to say that after loving the game while I played by myself, my attempts to interact with the general population of WoW-players left me in tears. I stopped playing for months. I felt that I would never fit in, nor did I really want to, if that was what it would be like.
Time went on. Another WoW expansion was released and I ventured back, again reveling in the questing and leveling-up but crashing and burning once I got to endgame. Trying to experience endgame content meant being in a group, and – in my experience – being in a group meant putting up with vile, misogynistic, homophobic language, watching others being harassed or being harassed myself. It was hard to organize the group raids through text chat, so many groups liked to use add-on voice chat programs. Female voices were instantly called out, and I noticed that women, if they were in the raid at all, rarely spoke up on voice chat. The overall feeling I got was that this was a male space and that women, if there were any others there at all, had the good sense to stay quiet and just try to enjoy the game.
This went on for months until I stumbled, quite accidentally, into a guild (an organized group of players, with their own chat channels and some other perks) of a different nature. I wanted to raid, I wanted to fully experience the WoW endgame content, but I wasn’t getting anywhere trying to group up with strangers and put up with such hostile environments. I found a guild that seemed to be a good fit. They advertised themselves as a group of adults and their guild rules included strict rules about harassment and oppressive language. I had to apply to get in and I held my breath, waiting for a response. I was admitted on provisional status and my gaming experience turned around.
I played with that guild for the next few years, until my increasingly demanding schedule (I was finishing my PhD) forced me to step back from my high levels of involvement. With them, I saw endgame content and had access to parts of WoW that I thought I would never see. I was able to develop my skills not only as a player, but as a team member and eventually a team leader. I was responsible for scheduling my group for raid nights, assigning tasks, looking up fight strategies and thinking about how to best use our group members to our advantage, and for resolving conflicts between players. I look back on that time with such overwhelming fondness that I am frequently tempted to reinstall the game and start playing again, but I know that I would quickly get in over my head and want to devote more time to it than I currently have to spare. Maybe someday… maybe.
I write this not as a boring autobiography of my gaming history, but to illustrate a point. My involvement with computer games, from that first simulation game at 10 years old to raiding in World of Warcraft with 24 other players, has been about more than just enjoying the games. I have skills today that I would not have had I not been introduced to gaming. I learned how to communicate effectively online, I learned how to build a website using HTML and CSS, I learned how to interpret and manipulate hexadecimal code, and I learned about graphic design. I expanded my vocabulary and my typing skills while writing 100-200 word poses that had to describe what my character was doing in enough detail that other players could pose their characters in response. I worked on teams with other players to review player applications and to build dragons (HRW SearchCo forever!), and then I worked on teams with other players to bring giant demons to their knees. At every step of the way, I learned new skills that I apply every day in my professional life: how to work with others to solve problems, how to resolve interpersonal conflicts, how to read, write, and code, and how to share my work with the world. At every step of the way, I made friends, lifelong friends I treasure dearly with a strength of feeling to challenge anyone who draws a distinction between “online friends” and “real friends.” There is no distinction for me.
This is what gaming is about to me, and this is what is being lost when women are made to feel unwelcome in the gaming community. When gaming is considered a male activity, when gaming creates and enforces male-only spaces, it means that all of the benefits I reaped from my gaming experiences are not available to another generation of curious young girls. Women are robbed of these experiences and the chance to develop these skills when they are made to feel unwelcome in gaming circles. When I think about the joy I experienced in my years of raiding with my wonderful guild, I am filled with relief that I didn’t let others take that from me (for more than a few months, at least), but I’m also filled with anger that I ever thought that they might. I don’t place the burden on women to “tough it out” or to keep bashing their heads against a wall the way I did. I place the burden on male gamers to be inclusive and not put women through that experience. I commend the players who are already creating friendly and accepting spaces and I encourage them to keep fighting the good fight.
If you’re a WoW player looking for an inclusive guild, I can’t recommend Keine Neuen enough. In my (limited) opinion, you won’t find a better group of folks to share in the joy of WoW. If you’re a guildmaster looking to put together your own inclusive group, I encourage you to check out Keine Neuen’s Guild Behavior Policy to see how they manage to stay so awesome.
Finally, I want to thank all the gamers I have met over the years who have encouraged me, supported me, befriended me, taught me, put up with me – I appreciate it more than you will ever know. Thank you for representing what the gaming community should be, could be, can be, and don’t ever stop speaking out against those who would poison it for others.