Why I played games as a guy: The power of the online pseudonym

A very specific guy, in fact — a friend of a friend who'd given me his Steam login information because he didn't use his account. I didn't even realize that I was logging hours on borrowed time; around 2006, the account's owner changed his password and locked me out for good. After all, it had never really been "my" account – and as far as the Steam gameplay records were concerned, I was never even the one playing.

At the time, this type of login exchange didn't seem so strange; digital game marketplaces were relatively new, and I was used to loaning my friends physical copies of games and systems. Now that I had to create a Steam account of my own, though, I ran up against a brand new problem: did I have to game as myself?

Life in the dark ages

I didn't much like having to be myself in real life. My grasp on gender politics in high school and college could be summarized as "I don't want to talk about it," and that sentiment came from a place of deep shame. My guy friends often gamed without me, despite my begging to be included.

When I once asked a friend why he never invited me to his LAN parties, he told me he didn't want to "make things weird" for the other guys, or to make any of his female friends jealous.

"We really just want to focus on gaming," he said. "We can't have a bunch of girls there." I tried dressing in men's clothes, swearing more often, drinking whiskey, and wearing my hair short... but I was still a joke to them.

In the digital landscape of gaming, I could hide. No one knew I was a diminutive teen girl with acne and greasy hair. I didn't want to stand out or be an impressive hero – I just wanted to blend in, something that I'd never managed to do at school or even with my supposed guy friends. I wanted to be part of the group, to follow the crowd, to go unnoticed. So I became someone else.

Digital freedom

At that age, I didn't really get why I felt like I had to play as a guy in order to avoid notice. I only knew that women allegedly didn't play games — or at least, that I never saw them playing games. But since that time, I've met countless other women who admit they play off-mic only, with gender-ambiguous handles – thereby escaping the scrutiny they receive in public gaming spaces.

Gaming's virtual hangouts have a particular culture that revolves around a shared sense of identity, even though these identities are constructed and calculated. We all want to fit in, and many of us have struggled with fitting in elsewhere – so we follow the status quo of our chosen gaming environment. The result is an undulating ouroboros of outcasts, each of us approximating "coolness" for one another.

Anonymity gets a bad rap, but it also can provide a safety net for people who want to escape scrutiny and harassment. My fake identity allowed me to embrace the games that I really liked, even though they weren't the types of games that I was "expected" to play. What's more, I could enjoy these games without anybody claiming I only did it for the attention – especially considering I wanted just the opposite.

The silent price of anonymity

My lifelong project of fitting in to gaming's various online landscapes may have allowed me to play the games I loved, but it's largely left me feeling like an imposter, not a card-carrying member. I learned that the best way to fit into gaming spaces online was to be silent and invisible. That was enough to satisfy my friendship-starved high school self, but present-day Maddy? Not so much.

And yet, though I've been out of high school for over a decade, I still stay off mic in multiplayer games because I don't want to "make things weird" for the men who've felt free to talk on their microphones for decades. After all, I've seen what happens to the few women who do speak up in multiplayer matches: They get singled out, attacked, condescended, stalked... the list goes on.

Of course, the problem there isn't really anonymity: It's the lack of accountability for bad behavior, combined with the assumption that all online identities are assumed to be male unless stated otherwise.

Now, I'm not saying we should all go on mic tomorrow and have a Very Serious Conversation about gender in the Halo 4 multiplayer lobby (I mean, unless you all really want to).

But I'd like to remind the men of the multiplayer world that we never were the ones "making it weird" – that's on you. Every time you default towards using a male pronoun for your fellow players, every time you react with shock or condescension when you hear a voice or see a photo that doesn't match your expectations, every time you ask if we're really playing or if we're just on mic while a boyfriend plays, you imply that we don't belong here. You also make it clear to your silent teammates that they should keep their heads down.

Don't assume other players look like you. Tamp down your feelings of shock when you find out the truth. Just be cool.

Contributor emeritus at iMore, currently writing about games, movies, and podcasts at The Mary Sue. Former assistant Games Editor at Paste Magazine. Host of Isometric. Keytarist/singer for the Robot Knights. Follow her on Twitter @samusclone

24 Comments
  • What? Who makes their names gender specific on Xbox live, etc.? And I'm pretty sure you don't have to put your gender either. I have never used my name in a login for a public thing, I always use boovish, or something else from that book.
  • I've seen it often. I've seen names that include words like dude or man or He in it so you know it's a man. Or even a make name ItsMike or something. And the flipside is true. There's people that have Ms or a female name in the gamer tags. or they are in a clan that caters to female gamers so the clan tag infers it's a woman.
  • My usernames are generally some racist remake I grew up being labeled as. They're quite creative. I'm undecided if FlamingSwampninja or Blackychan251 is my favorite. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • Women struggle and fight to get into things at the same level as men and pitch a fit when they're not treated fairly. Guess what, guys don't treat other guys fairly. It's dog-eat-dog and if you want to be treated on the same playing field as men, they know that you're going to get harassed, back-stabbed and generally screwed by somebody who has something to gain from it. It's the world we live in.
  • So what you are saying is we should let things continue to be the way they are, because that is the way they are?!
  • The difference is that those insults & the segregation is specifically aimed at females. Therefore more harmful. True, males take jabs at each other, but are USUALLY generic name calling, not personalized attacks. Sent from the iMore App
  • No, it's not specifically aimed at females. Minorities get it from white people and white people get it from minorities. Everyone gets personally insulted in some form or fashion. I have a southern accent, If I had a nickel for every time I was called redneck online I'd own the servers we played on. No, you're not some special snowflake who's getting picked on for your unique brand of difference.
  • LOVE this! :-) Nice to see someone saying this stuff out loud for a change. I've always thought it a great shame that voice changing technology is not at the level where one can play different genders when using voice too. It would certainly change things for the better.
  • Yeah, unfortunately gaming is full of idiot kids that think something's fun about being racist, sexist and several other "ists." They need an ass whuppin'. I wish it wasn't so, mostly cause i like gaming with women. They tend to be less adolescent or d-baggish when online gaming. Not to mention i don't hear as much racist crap from them..
  • Yes but guys who have female toons freak me out a little :) Sent from the iMore App
  • Why does it freak you out? :) I have female toons, as a guy. Maybe because I like to change it up and not always play the male protagonist? Maybe because I prefer a smaller/slender character? Maybe it's even because I'm attracted to females? The reasons are many. I play male toons too. I like variety. And that's the point. It's fun to mix things up a little. What's there to be freaked out about? There really isn't more to it than variation.
  • All my toons are male (the very few I have left these days), but yeah, it's common enough to where in online games I generally assume that female toons are really guys until proven otherwise.
  • Pish, in MMORPG's many guys play as female characters. I did back when I used to play. My very first toon was a dude, and I deleted him after a couple days and had only female ones for as long as I played since. I realized that if I was going to be looking at a computerized buttocks for hours on end every day, it damn sure wasn't going to be a man's! And having had a female friend get into that game back in the day, I can say for certain that it really can get awkward when they find out someone really is a girl. People would ask for her phone number and stuff in private chat. Eek. I got out of the online stuff when I got back into college though, and I won't be going back.
  • I only use female toons/characters when given the option.
  • wooww!! thats just depressing to hear. Most men who do find it weird are weird outside gaming. As a guy I do apologize for other sexist gamers but of course this is not going to solve anything. hopefully conversation does start on issues like this.
  • The problem with the people you wanted to play with is they were assholes, not that they were male.
  • I soooooo agree with you!
  • I know several female gamers who play as "guys" with male toons just to avoid being stalked/harassed by guys in the game. So I don't doubt that this sort of thing happens all too often. But I would also add that like escapedrift just said, the problem lies with those individuals and their own issues, not guys in general. I play multiplayer online games on occasion (tho not as often as I used to), and in my guilds/fleets/wings, female players are always welcome. In fact I met some of my best friends (who happened to be female) while gaming. So you'd be welcome in my fleet/guild, which currently happens to be led by a woman (and she's awesome). I used to lead my own guild and would never exclude anyone based on gender. I just had 4 simple rules: 1. Treat others with respect and don't be a jerk (this should go without saying, but sadly such D-bag behavior is all too common). 2. Leave personal issues/religion/politics out of guild chat (for obvious reasons). 3. Don't take anything from the guild bank without asking (unless it's in the "free for all" box). 4. Have fun and don't take the game too seriously; after all, it is just a game and your life shouldn't revolve around it. That's it. I guarantee you that if one of my female guild members would have told me she was being harassed, I'd investigate it thoroughly and if I found it to be true, I'd give the offending member(s) a pretty stern warning. If they still kept it up, I'd kick them out. Anyway, thank you for sharing this and keep fighting the good fight. (^_^)
  • "Don't assume other players look like you." How about you don't generalise (especially since this article is entirely anecdotally based) and assume that all men who play online video games are as you have characterised. I don't treat anyone as you stated, everyone I come across is treated fairly and equally. Do I accept that all people are good, no, but the difference is that I don't generalise an entire gender or race, because we are all capable of malicious intentions, even if that may be difficult for you to believe. Your friends sounded like pricks, excluding you from such events, but that doesn't mean that there weren't other parties or people that were inclusive. We have plenty of nights throughout the year, we don't discriminate. However, I won't sit here and object to the idea that night out with the "girls" or "boys" is discriminatory or unacceptable. It may be unreasonable if you're getting such excuses all the time, but it comes back to my first point, your friends sounded like pricks and you should of stood up to them and if they still didn't want to include, then why would you consider them friends. I'm not going to condemn people for ignorantly using a particular pronoun, it's seriously a petty non issue that isn't contributing to the "problem" of online gender (female) discrimination. Without any evidence to back this claim, If you and other woman are willingly changing in game tags or selecting male gendered characters, you are then in fact inflating the perception of male player numbers, is it really unreasonable that some people may assume that the majority of players are male if more woman are simply avoiding selecting there own gender? It seems as though you may have also contributed to that problem, if we can really call it a significant problem. I'd be more then receptive and because I have faith in people, if you wanted to clarify your gender, we could use the appropriate pronoun. "we never were the ones "making it weird" – that's on you" I and many others never thought it was weird, you seem to be projecting your friends issues onto the rest of us as you state. "When I once asked a FRIEND why he never invited me to his LAN parties, he told me he didn't want to "make things weird" for the other guys. Tamp down your feelings of shock when you find out the truth that we are not all the conceding, patronising pricks your friends or others you characterise are like... The problem, that people can be malicious, especially when they're behind a computer screen, not because they were male. I want you to be who you want to be, tear down the disguises.
  • This was a longass way to say "not all men" wasn't it? "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • Not gonna lie the amount of times I've had to go on mike and chew out a guy from ragging on a girl is too damn high. I really only game with two girls, but they're Hella good at what they do and I care a lot more about that then the fact that they're women. As for guys, imma kick you if you're talking shit cus I ain't having in in my party/squad. It's also strange when you realize how common this is. But also, it's annoying as hell. I'd rather just "know" who I'm playing with and just game. It's irksome that people have to bring personal beliefs into a faceless environment. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • On a side note, when a girl admits that she games it is a bit of a shock. Like, this Wednesday I was talking to someone on campus, and we were bitching about this 20 page paper we just finished typing out. She said something about her hands hurting and asked about mine I replied "Nah, I PC game too much for my hands to hurt yet" She replied with a Spec list. It was bloody brilliant build by the way. I was jealous. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • I never realized playing as a girl was a big deal. As far as I know no one as left the team when they realize I am a woman playing. I laugh at the guys because they create female characters in-game but it is all good, we are on Xbox live to have fun and win sometimes. I will not apologized for being a woman who loves to play first person shooters wishing I could be as good as the guys. And some of the guys are extremely patient and will even help you and teach you a few tricks. All male gamers are not a**holes.
  • I remember the Lan party, Quake, Counter Strike days well. While definitely in the minority there were always girls and women players around (we pretty much always had one on our team) and I don't remember it being weird. In fact I recall the other players and event organizers going out of their way to help be inclusive without trying to make the outnumbered gals feel awkward. The male players that felt weirded out by "girls" either got over it or kept to themselves. Honestly it sounds like you ran with the wrong crowd. These days it's a bit different. People will spout crap online that they'd never have said at a lan party. Granted some will - no matter who you are - but most would behave differently if they could look you in the eye. Kinda killed online gaming for me.