I haven’t always been the kind of man who plays videogames. I used to be the kind of boy who played videogames. We’re inseparable, games and I. If you cut me, I’d bleed pixels. Or blood. Probably blood, come to think of it.
Games get a bad press compared with, say, opera – even though they’re obviously better, because no opera has ever compelled an audience member to collect a giant mushroom and jump across some clouds. Nobody writes articles in which opera-lovers are mocked as adult babies who never grew out of make-believe and sing-song; obsessive misfits who flock to weird “opening nights” wearing elaborate “tuxedo” cosplay outfits.
On no account go to the opera yourself: you’ll probably run into a mafia boss. According to at least one film I think I saw once, mafia bosses love opera, because there’s loads of death and killing in it. Yet politicians don’t table motions solemnly condemning opera’s dangerous level of violence.
Opera – a three-hour unskippable cutscene and all-round cultural blight whose primary function in modern society is to be used as a backing music to slow-motion montages of sporting folk – gets an easy ride partly because it’s called “opera”, instead of “singy-sing-sing time”. This is gaming’s biggest image problem: that infantile word, “gaming”. Or rather, that was gaming’s biggest problem, until the arrival of “gamergate”.
If you don’t know what gamergate is, I’d suggest you Google it, because I’ve tried and failed to explain its roots in person to people I consider patient grownups, each of whom pulled a face like I was describing the plot of a terrible high-school teen drama. It began with a blogpost written by the disgruntled ex-boyfriend of a female games developer, and somehow ballooned into a bitter online culture war bristling with gruesome personal threats. Both sides of the argument have flaws and strengths, nothing that couldn’t normally be hammered out in a few hours of civil debate. But there’s something in the water: gamergate has dragged on for weeks, growing increasingly toxic. And now, in 2014, women have been forced into hiding – for voicing an opinion about videogames. That’s a sentence that should only ever appear in the opening chapter of an implausible dystopian sci-fi novel, moments before you toss it in the bin.
There seems to be a small yet vocal core of maniacs bafflingly resistant to the notion that women should have any say in the games industry at all. Even recent statistics indicating that female players now outnumber men can’t sway them, thanks to a lazy assumption that most of those women are playing Candy Crush or other, equally non-taxing “casual games” apparently un worthy of being called “games” at all. I don’t think that’s true, and even if it were, I wouldn’t blame women for voluntarily choosing to play something soothing and non-threatening in their free time, since they spend so much of the rest of their time being forced to play a terrifying survival horror MMORPG colloquially known as “The Internet”. Women are the hardest hardcore gamers there are, by miles.
You know those games where you get to choose your character class at the start, weighing up the pros and cons of picking a Warrior over an Archmage, or what have you? Never, ever choose “woman” on your first playthrough of The Internet, because you’ll face an immediate difficulty spike. Suddenly it’s a stealth game with nowhere to hide, one with hundreds of respawning enemies waiting to attack you the moment you make a noise or stand out in any way whatsoever. The enemy AI is sophisticated and unpredictable; it studies your weaknesses and moves to exploit them. Instead of shitting fireballs at you, your foes bombard you with unrelenting abuse. Reach the higher difficulty stages without dying (by your own hand) and this could graduate to blood-curdling death threats.
Sadly, there’s no easy way for male players to experience the hardcore “female” difficulty setting to the full – perhaps if The Internet was available in the form of an old-school text adventure, in which you play a woman on an epic quest to just go about her business, it’d be fun to try it out for a while.
I can picture it now. Black screen, white text. DOS style.
“You are a woman,” it reads. “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.”
There’s a prompt, blinking. You take your first step into this brave new world by typing OPEN MAILBOX, and hitting return.
DIE U FUCKN WHORE, replies the game.
Not one to be dissuaded, you try again. OPEN MAILBOX.
I SAID DIE U FUCKN WHORE says the game, accompanied by an animated gif of your head on a porn star’s body.
You decide to see what you’re carrying, by typing INVENTORY.
YOU HAVE: A LAMP, A ROPE, A FAT ASS AND SAGGY TITS, chuckles the game.
You try something else. You type GO NORTH.
The game thinks for a while, then distributes your home address and phone number and threatens to murder you and your entire family.
OK. That’s enough. QUIT GAME, you type, fingers shaking: QUIT GAME.
But it won’t quit. And you can’t be sure it ever will.