Internet Anonymity and the Hard Life of Gamer Girls


The Times looks at the long-standing problem of women who dare to log on to gaming networks. The story begins with Miranda Pakozdi, who was repeatedly harassed by her own coach:

Over six days of competition, though, her team's coach, Aris Bakhtanians, interrogated her on camera about her bra size, said "take off your shirt" and focused the team's webcam on her chest, feet and legs. He leaned in over her shoulder and smelled her. 

Ms. Pakozdi, 25, an experienced gamer, has said she always expects a certain amount of trash talk. But as the only woman on the team, this was too much, especially from her coach, she said. It was after she overheard Mr. Bakhtanians defending sexual harassment as part of "the fighting game community" that she forfeited the game. 

Sexism, racism, homophobia and general name-calling are longstanding facts of life in certain corners of online video games. But the Cross Assault episode was the first of a series this year that have exposed the severity of the harassment that many women experience in virtual gaming communities.

Some of this is just old-fashioned sexism--Bakhtians harassed Pakozdi in person. But I think the sexism is compounded by something that internet has come to take as holy: anonymity. There is some sort of idea among people that you should have the right to say whatever you want, and to say so anonymously. 

To the extent that voiced sexism is held in check, it's held by social sanction. Barack Obama did not think it a good idea, for instance, to cheer on the guy who yelled, "Iron my shirt!" to his Democratic rival. Larry Flint incurred bipartisan wrath for his portrait of S.E. Cupp. The point here isn't that social sanction totally abolishes sexism, so much that it at least makes it contested ground and socially perilous. 

A Democratic senator can not, say, go on national television and tell Sarah Palin to go bake a pie, and expect the world to laugh along with him. But on the Internet, it is held that you should be able to express whatever you want, and it turns out what a good number of people most want to express is a hatred of perceived female power.

And this holds true for virtually all other -ism. I probably would think anti-Semitism was dead in America, if I weren't a gamer. "Dumb Jew" is a standard insult. So is "fucking nigger," but I sort of expected that. On my chosen game, Frozen Throne, proclaiming "RAPE!" is just what players do when they win. And there's no real way to check any of this. Except within communities--guilds, for instance, can decide to police standards. But that's precisely because in a guild anonymity is lost. You become your handle, and if you want to continue to use it, you are tied to it.

A culture of broad anonymity is a problem. People need to be accountable. If it were up to me, everyone here would have to post under their real name. It would likely cut the community in half. But it would double its quality.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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