"I never thought of it as being deceptive, because why should anyone care?"
A few years ago, I got into playing video games online with a former boyfriend. We played MMO's (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) with hundreds of other people from all over the world. They're very competitive in terms of skill and equipment, and soon I was playing at the top level.
But playing as a woman at that level soon became a hassle, because other players just didn't believe that I was a girl. They were always asking me to prove it, but whenever I did the response would be the same. If I made a mistake it'd be "You're shit because you're a girl", and if I did, well it'd be "You only have good equipment because people want to f--k you." After that I just played as a male character and had no problems.
I never thought of it as being deceptive, because why should anyone care? Besides, playing as a male character was actually more fun. Other players were way more competitive and didn't pull their punches, whereas [when I played as female] there'd be a lot of condescending gestures. They'd tell me you how to do things I didn't need help with. And when I did well, there was an undertone of "you achieved it because you got help".
Things went along smoothly until I started playing at the top level of WoW (World of Warcraft). To participate, you have to join a 'guild' -- a large group of people who can commit to playing for long sessions. Being allowed into a guild is like a job interview, and as part of that process (like proving I had access to voice chat) I had to reveal that I was a girl.
I got used to players in my guild being overly friendly, but one guy went a little bit further. Somehow he found out my last name, and I think he started monitoring my social media. He'd message me within the game with these really offhand personal comments like "I really like your new haircut". I think it was just a really awkward attempt at creating intimacy by acting as though we were friends, but it was creepy.
I tried to be sisterly about it. I told him I didn't remember telling anyone I'd had a haircut, and he replied that since my usernames were all pretty similar, it wasn't hard to find my accounts. Perhaps he thought I'd be impressed by his ardour?
When I told him what he was doing was inappropriate, the harrassment immediately escalated.
He found out more personal information and started sending me sexually explicit emails. Somehow, he also found out my home address.
All the communication within the game had been private. He'd tried to separate me from the group so no one else knew, but a couple of people in the guild were aware of what was going on. Opinions were divided; some thought the problem was best solved by simply not allowing women into the guild. One member suggested kicking the aggressor out. But in the end, I didn't want to be blamed for splitting up the guild – 'the Yoko'. So I kept quiet.
I know so many female players who've had to deal with 'creepers'. I think it stems from a genuine lack of understanding about how to approach women. Those who take it further are probably intimidated about talking to women in the real world. They start with friendship, and you don't think twice about it. Then they go for more, and when you say no, things can get aggressive.
While Gamergate was initiated by someone who couldn't deal with rejection, it morphed into something else, galvanising the undercurrent of anger towards women in the community. When these guys can't deal with something they subvert it, and online there are no consequences.
The letters to my home address became increasingly sexually violent. In my aggressor's threats, he'd refer to clothes I was wearing in photos I only shared with friends. I used to lie awake and think about what he might do.
Eventually I managed to find out that the guy harassing me lived in the States. It was a huge relief. I changed my email and blocked every social media account I didn't know, and eventually he disappeared.
Like many women, I looked for ways I may have contributed to the incident. 'If only I hadn't been nice,' or 'Did I give him false hope?' What makes me mad about Gamergate is that that too is all about victim blaming. Arguments like 'If she didn't want to be harassed, she shouldn't have said anything in the first place" completely shut down any meaningful debate.
Gaming culture has changed a lot, and there are a lot more women active in games. But I had such a bad experience that it's made me quite jaded. If I ever did go back to playing online I'd make sure any accounts I used in gaming weren't traceable to my online identity.
Alice Williams is a Melbourne author.