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There are Women on the Internet: a Letter from a “Gamer Girl”

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pitt chapter.

In November of 2004, I was ten months old and not yet sleeping through the night. Conveniently, my dad was usually up late playing video games, especially the newly released mass-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft. So when I would wake up in the early hours of the morning, kicking and screaming, my dad would take me from my crib and bottle-feed me at his desk…while continuing to play World of Warcraft. 

In the following years, I would start to sleep through the night, but I would spend afternoons and evenings when my dad returned home from work sitting in his lap as he played video games. These varied from massive, complicated games like World of Warcraft, science fiction adventure games like Star Control 2 and even the odd round of Plants vs. Zombies. So it’s no surprise that when I was five I asked to make my own World of Warcraft character. Clearly, with all the time I’ve spent watching my dad play, I know how to play on my own, right?

The short answer was no. I don’t even remember the name of my first character, but I do remember she was a Draenei (think Avatar-like alien but with hoofs and horns) priest. I would run around the introductory zone healing both random nonplayer characters (NPCs) and actual players. I would also mess around with some of my dad’s characters, which usually involved me spending all their gold and absolutely destroying their armor beyond repair, sorry dad. 

I started playing Warcraft in 2009, a year or so after the release of the game’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. It wouldn’t be until the release of the game’s sixth expansion, Legion (2016), that I truly started to play Warcraft the way it was intended. I made the character I still use to this day (a Night Elf druid, for those curious), and fell even more in love with the world of Azeroth and the stories of its inhabitants. In addition to Warcraft, I dabbled in several other MMO games. Some of my favorites were (and still are) Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Rift and DC Universe Online. I adored the ease with which I could make my own, unique characters and follow them on their exciting adventures. 

Although at first I usually kept to myself, MMOs are built on the fact that they are multiplayer. Eventually, I would have to interact with other people playing the game. And when I did, I was confronted with something I never (but perhaps should have) expected.

I usually made female World of Warcraft characters. This is simply personal preference, there is nothing inherently right or wrong about the expressed gender of your avatar in a video game. However, in reaction to my female character, I often got one of two reactions. People either assume I need assistance because a woman could never successfully play such an intricate game without assistance, or they would act outright hostile at the notion of a woman infesting their raid group. This is also all based on assumption. I never stated my real name, age, gender, etc. But for some, the mere implication of a woman in Warcraft is outright absurd. 

This led me down a rabbit hole. Were there really no other women playing the game? Was I one of the few? Why such hostility? Shouldn’t people be excited that one of their favorite things is increasing in popularity and recognition? Things have certainly changed drastically in recent years, but seven-ish years ago there was this weirdly popular suggestion that no women play Warcraft or even video games in general. In fact, I came across a weirdly popular suggestion that there are no women on the internet. 

The “there are no women on the internet” meme first emerged in anonymous multiplayer games, many of which are considered precursors to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The stereotype of the typical gamer being male led people to believe that anyone playing a female avatar must just be a man in disguise seeking unfair advantages or free gifts. This assumption increased in prevalence as the accessibility to the Internet increased in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s no surprise that some players brought this attitude with them to World of Warcraft’s release in 2004, which continued to grow and evolve as the game did. 

This is not to say that I never had positive experiences with World of Warcraft. I joined a wonderful guild full of understanding and supportive players. I’ve had plenty of positive interactions with other players in group settings, and have enjoyed my thousands of hours in Azeroth. However, the “there are no women on the internet” assumption has also made some of my experiences playing World of Warcraft uncomfortable and unpleasant. 

It should go without saying that women should be allowed to play video games without being ridiculed and/or excluded on the basis of their sex. But the unfortunate reality is that many women are harassed, some to the point of giving up on playing video games at all. A study conducted by Ohio University found that when women used voice chat in Halo 3, a first-person shooter game, they were almost three times more likely to receive direct negative commentary than a male voice. Another study conducted by Audrey Brehm of the University of Colorado analyzed World of Warcraft forums and chats that reflected attitudes toward sex and gender. The results are jarring. Women sent in a variety of testimonies, but the majority are incidents of blatant sexism and harassment. The study officially concluded, “sexism in gaming can be a strong deterrent for females in an already male-dominated medium.” The conclusion also goes on to discuss the fact that online sexism has real-life implications, just as any form of cyberbullying. Also, if we can’t eliminate sexism in online communities, how can we expect to eliminate it in our “real-life” communities?

So, what can we do? Unfortunately, this is a problem that cannot be fixed with the flip of a switch, but it is something that we can all be more cognisant of. For my fellow video gamers, I believe we have a duty to acknowledge this stuff at the source. If you’re playing a game and someone makes a sexist (or other bigoted) comment, even just a simple, “hey not cool” is better than the usual and expected ignorance. If you are the leader of a group, guild, etc., make it a point to not tolerate this type of behavior. The reason these attitudes continue to persist in online communities is that they are not acknowledged and dealt with at the moment. 

For those of you who do not play video games, it is still important to acknowledge and critique these behaviors in other online communities and in our daily lives. Do not tolerate sexism amongst your friends and peers, acknowledge harassment online and make an effort to foster communities where women feel safe and accepted. And please, be sure to remind everyone that there are in fact women on the internet.

Alison is a second-year student at the University of Pittsburgh, and she is currently serving as an editor and writer. Her favorite things to write about are video game/pop culture commentary, music recommendations, and mental health advice. Alison is majoring in Communication Science and Disorders, minoring in English Literature, and working towards a certificate in American Sign Language. In addition to Her Campus, she is a member of the Honors College and National Student Speech Language Hearing Association chapter at Pitt. She is also a research assistant at the Brain Systems for Language Lab at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. In the future, she plans to attend graduate school for either Audiology or Speech-Language Pathology. In her free time, Alison loves to read, play video games, listen to music, and hang out with her cat, Peanut Butter.