Amber, or Nalopia as she’s professionally known to her 34,000 Twitch followers, reels off the list of online comments she gets on her appearance as one would list groceries they need to pick up from the supermarket.
”I always get comments about my boobs, my appearance, sometimes I get people messaging me privately a full sex story of things they would do to me,” she says candidly.
“I get sexual comments or harassment comments every stream.”
Anonymity seemingly grants permission for strangers to make these comments about Amber’s personal choices. Comments that if made to a woman in a modern workplace, a university or anywhere outside the online space could result in potential legal consequences.
In a space where technological advancement is celebrated, cultural attitudes towards women who play games, or ‘girl gamers’ as they controversially referred to, seem to lag significantly behind.
The phrase ‘girl gamer’ has become something of a stereotype, an ongoing source and complex mix of controversy, celebration and contention. A deceptively innocent title used often in the gaming community, to describe a female who plays games, be it recreationally or professionally.
A male who plays games is simply that, a female who plays games becomes a ‘girl gamer’.
As with any stereotype, it elicits mixed responses. Some embrace the term, while some see it as a needless insinuation that women are defined and treated accordingly based on gender and not as individuals.
For Assistant Professor of Media and Game Studies at the University of Oregon Amanda Cote, her academic explorations of the term have yielded a broad depth of findings based on real-life experiences of female gamers.
In her book, Gaming Sexism: Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games, Cote emphasises that gaming remains a male-dominated environment and outsiders who may not meet that demographic requirement can often be met with hostility.
“So one way to continue protecting the sphere of gaming is to push newcomers into those marginalised spaces…where if you’re a woman who plays games, you’re still not a real gamer, you still don’t have a full claim to gaming culture, and therefore you’re still not part of this central sphere that a lot of people hold tight onto.”
Cote’s communication is clear and direct, barely missing a beat from one discussion point to the next.
“I find the gamer girl stereotype really problematic because regardless of which side of the stereotype you’re looking at it, it functions to protect games as a space more for men and boys than for girls,” she says.
“It’s kind of got two sides. One is that girls who play video games are doing it to meet men, and they’re only good at games if they get help from them.”
“The other side of the girl gamer stereotype that I think is perhaps a little bit newer is the assumption that girls who game only play casually,” she says.
“I think if you choose to identify as a girl gamer, you have to be prepared to grapple with the baggage that comes with that.”
This dichotomy in Cote’s findings seems to mirror the contradictions in Amber’s experiences, that everything is done with intention and for attention, the idea that girls who play games can’t be simply themselves enjoying a hobby, but that they are inextricably linked, whether they like it or not.
“Sometimes I feel like I get the comments because I like fashion. I’m proud of my body I’m not going to hide it.” There’s an element of defensiveness in Amber’s tone, and perhaps justifiably. The reason she gets the comments is at the hands of the person behind the keyboard after all.
COVID-19 not only accelerated our reliance and usage of technology but according to a recent survey by computer hardware company Alienware, created 762,000 new gamers across Australia during July 2020; into the shifting parameters of what it means to be a gamer.
Registered psychologist and cyberpsychology researcher Jocelyn Brewe says gaming helps to provide shared experiences across generations.
“The stereotype of a gamer has shifted over the last several years to become much more mainstream and the opportunity of games to occupy our minds, manage stress and uncertainty while helping to ‘flatten the curve’ has accelerated this,” says Dr Jocelyn from Alienware.
“The divide is closing between the digital natives and those new to the digital community as adults build confidence to explore online space and play games.”
According to the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, the average Australian video game player is 34 and is just as likely to be a woman as a man. A statistic subverting the assumption that gaming is solely for teenage boys.
Age is also just a number when it comes to gamers, with 42 per cent of those surveyed over 65 identifying themselves as gamers.
In her book, Cote hypothesises that changes such as these can be a cause of hostility towards the non-typical ‘gamer’ an identity vociferously defended by those once humiliated for engaging in the activity.
Cote fondly relays an anecdote about her younger brother the year the Nintendo Wii first burst onto the scene.
“When I had asked for an Xbox, which is considered more of a hardcore masculine type of console for Christmas, I asked for it for a reason: that’s what all my friends were playing they had a big network together,” she says.
“And he called me and said ‘mum says you want an Xbox,are you sure you don’t mean a Wii?’”
Cote’s anecdote is deceptively more poignant that it first appears.
In isolation, this story could be considered somewhat endearing or amusing, a harmless mix-up between siblings, but in the context of ‘gamer girl’ and its stereotypes, it affirms some negative connotations that are all too familiar.
The introduction of the Nintendo Wii in 2006 was, quite literally, a game changer. Not just for its style of play, which encouraged physical movement and activity, but the new wave of gamers it inspired in its wake, regardless of age, gender or ability.
“You know they [study participants] when discussing games that they felt were marketed towards women, they brought up things like Nintendogs and Cooking Mama,” she says.
“I would potentially even argue that there are no real core games marketed towards adult women.”
Earlier this year, Electronic Entertainment Expo or E3 tweeted and promptly deleted a list of 25 online games that women enjoy. The article drew scathing commentary from those in the industry on the basis that reinforced divisive and isolating ideas about what games women should or shouldn’t enjoy.
Pressure to perform
Molly Owens has been playing games for the majority of her life on a variety of platforms. For her, it’s become something of a joint activity she and her partner can do in their spare time and enjoy recreationally.
“I like that it’s sort of a place where you can switch off and still feel like you’re doing something productive,” she says.
The majority of games that Molly plays are online ‘player versus player games’ and that most of the time her opponents assume she is male.
Cote’s findings again seem to mirror Owen’s sentiment, as she explains that one of her research candidates used a different account username depending on how she felt at the time.
One with a typically female-gendered username when she felt like she wanted to prove that women were already gamers and could play, and one that appeared more gender-neutral to avoid harassment and conflict.
Owens says she doesn’t have a problem with the term girl gamer as such, but felt that it was reserved more exclusively for streamers or those that play competitively.
“I probably wouldn’t prefer to refer to myself as a girl gamer because I’m not at a high level and I would sort of have a negative connotation to calling myself that.”
Computer programming student and champion Splatoon player Marianne Hade has taken her gaming skills to internationally competitive levels.
In 2017, after winning several rounds of online tournaments she and her Splatoon team flew to Melbourne to take part in the Australia New Zealand finals. After emerging victorious, they were flown to Los Angeles to play in the international finals at the E3 convention, one of the largest gaming expos in the world.
“My team was the only team with girls on so I think we got a lot of support because of that because gaming is often seen as this male orientated thing,” Marianne says.
Hade’s demeanour is humble as she explains the intricacies of the game and relays anecdotes about the trip. The room is adorned with Splatoon figurines, Pokemon plush toys and an alarmingly impressive life-sized Dalek.
She explains how she gained a significant following of fellow female Splatoon players, with one person even travelling from Mexico to watch her play in LA.
Female competitive Splatoon players are in short supply. Photo: Simone Grogan
“So I think like a like a lot of kids I got into gaming through Pokemon…but initially my mum was really reluctant to get me any games console.”
“But then when I was eight my mum got me a [Nintendo] DS with Pokemon Diamond on it so I could play it on the plane and also I’d been begging my mum to get me Pokemon.” She exclaims.
Marianne’s mum Gillian Hade is now her biggest fan and supporter, admitting that her initial reluctance was based on assumptions about gaming being an antisocial activity.
There’s visible glee from Gillian as she sings praises of her daughter, checking in on the interview as she brings in a cup of tea, asking if I’ve been shown all her memorabilia from the trip.
“Have you seen my team mum shirt?” she asks expectantly.
Unfortunately, even in a game that’s aimed at younger audiences, Hade isn’t exempt from unsolicited online comments.
“Definitely after the 2017 world championship I got a lot of messages on Discord which is my main social media,” she says.
“I had a lot of messages from guys saying like ‘you’re so cute’ or ‘do you want to go out with me?’ really creepy messages from people I’d never talked to.
“We’re really intolerant to that kind of stuff and we really want it to be friendly.
“With Splatoon and Nintendo, we have a lot more girls playing the game and a lot of LGBT players as well. “
Marianne discusses the term gamer girl. Video: Simone Grogan
Hade’s story highlights the humility and potential that clearly exists in young female gamers. Not only keeping up and earning a place with her male counterparts but asserting herself as a victor.
“I don’t think you should judge a person for their appearance. I think people shouldn’t be so judgemental about someone’s gender, they’re just someone who just enjoys games as you do.”