what’s it like being a black woman gamer in 2019?
A look at the rampant misogynoir of the global gaming community.
For many, the gaming world is a hybrid space. Not only can you escape reality, but you can create a new one on your own terms if you want to. With the rise of independent and diverse gaming platforms like NNESAGA and The Nerd Council over the past few years, the amount of Black women gamers has exponentially increased, seeing more women become content creators and gaming experts than ever before. But for many of those girls, the freedom of expression afforded to its mainly male, mainly white users has been weaponised: they will be subjected to vulgar racist and sexist abuse online. This misogynoir that Black women face daily in the gaming world not only risks ruining the Black girl gaming experience -- but also makes it unsafe.
From being called “monkeys” to being told they “don’t know how to play because [they’re] a girl” or to “Go back to the kitchen!'', toxicity within the gaming community is rampant. Some consider the toxicity surrounding in gaming culture as stemming from competitiveness. It doesn’t. Disrespectful attacks on other players’ race, gender, nationality, ethnicity or sexuality are worryingly commonplace.
With live video streaming services like Twitch.tv and Mixer attempting to connect gaming fans from around the world, the micro-insults and racial aggressions are practically designed to single out Black women gamers. You can see why in the statistics: 84% of teenage boys in the U.S. play video games. Like in the schoolground, some often seek pleasure in verbally attacking others online. “Being online gives people this false sense of power,” content creator and online gamer Katie, also known as “Pikachulita” explains. “I really haven’t encountered that problematic behaviour in real life -- minus the typical, sexist remarks where people try to gatekeep or act as if I’m a ‘unicorn’ because they don’t believe attractive women who game exist”.
On the off chance that it is reported, the punishment for racist online trolling is usually soft, often resulting in offenders being suspended for a couple of days before returning to attack. This year, Twitch has been faced with several controversies surrounding the treatment of its members. Streamer ExoHydraX has received several bans from the platform, one being for her choice of attire while online, another coming fresh off the back of her being mass reported by racist trolls -- who were hurling slurs at her for being a French person of North African descent.
Many of the companies are complicit in this behaviour too. Just last month, Turner “Tfue” Tenney -- one of Twitch’s most-followed users at over seven million followers -- appeared to use a racial slur while broadcasting his Minecraft livestream to fans. Twitch declined to comment on Tenney’s use of the slur, saying that it does not comment on individual streamers, even though it violates its community guidelines. This isn’t the first time Twitch has given Tfue a pass either; he’s reportedly racially abused other users in the past.
“It’s like navigating a minefield. Often, we feel like we can’t disclose our identity as a Black woman online to avoid harassment."
There wasn’t a safe space for Black women gamers to reclaim until 2015 when Jay-Ann Lopez founded Black Girl Gamers, also known as BGG: an online community that has accumulated more than 5000+ members. “When I was at university, someone had created a gaming channel that I joined,” Jay-Ann says. “When I started witnessing members on the channel intimidating Black people and making sexist jokes, I left and decided to create my own. I created BGG and abandoned my channel to focus solely on the community”. Since then, Black Girl Gamers has become a safe space. “We influence the culture,” she adds, “and we deserve to be seen, heard and found in this community just as much as white men are.”
Danielle, who uses the moniker Ebonix online, is a proud member of BGG. “As a Black Girl Gamer, you are already marginalised twice within the gaming community,” she says. “[Jay-Ann’s group] makes you forget all about that, and has given me a place to feel seen, heard, and appreciated, but most importantly -- safe.”
“It’s like navigating a minefield,” Katie adds. “Often, we feel like we can’t disclose our identity as a Black woman online to avoid harassment. It’s being surrounded by a sea of people who don’t look like us, so we often feel like the black sheep -- pun intended.”
Despite a report from Google Play stating that more women play mobile video games on a per-week basis than men, there are still many steps forward that the gaming industry needs to take to ensure those statistics reflect the ways in which users -- Black women in particular -- are treated fairly. Even now, Black characters in video games are still a stereotype: criminals or henchmen with tattoos, living in impoverished neighbourhoods, sporting cornrows and presented as intimidating. They are also, more often than not, mere side characters. The harsh reality is that Black women aren’t likely to be featured in spaces like this, and even when they are, they either playing a supporting role or aren’t imperative to the story’s progression. Characters like Elena from Street Fighter III, Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5, Nabooru from Legend of Zelda, Tanya from Mortal Kombat 4 and Lisa Hamilton from the Dead or Alive franchise are some key examples.
“We champion representation,” Jay-Ann says. “Whenever companies get it right, and we see [that], we celebrate it. When we don’t see any Black women characters, we ask questions and call them out. That’s not me saying that Black women need to be in every game, but the predominant protagonists in these games are white rugged middle-aged males, and this is all we see from a lot of franchises. A couple of years ago, there were only 14 Black women protagonist playable in games. And when I say ‘Black women’, I don’t mean elves that are brown or look like Black women. I’m talking about actual human people to play”.
The future of gaming, no doubt, belongs to a generation who have the power to reinforce a new approach. With the help of women like Jay-Ann and the platform she’s pioneered, diversity in that world may be more than a mere footnote in the priorities of those who make change. If we shout about it enough, the same way women of colour and marginalised communities have in the music and film industries, maybe the technological revolutions in the field will be matched by the much-needed social ones too. Before we know it, the next Lara Croft might just be a Black woman.