The moment I slipped my husband’s Xbox headphones over my ears to settle in for a game of Zombies in Modern Warfare 3, my mind slid back to the first (and last) time I used in-game chat.
It was the early 2000s, and every guy I knew was obsessed with Halo. As a girl who took pride in her Super Smash Bros skills, I wanted to be good at this game, too. I wanted to beat the boys because I wanted to prove I could be a gamer, too.
The trouble was, I wasn’t good at Halo. My early forays were local play with people I knew, who might laugh at my inability to hit a moving target but who were nice enough about it. Then, I decided to borrow my brother’s account and log in for online play. That’s when I learned what it’s like to have a female voice in the online chat for a first-person shooter.
Are You A Girl?
I can’t remember if I actually tried to start a conversation or if I made an offhand comment without realizing my mic was on, but it did not take long to learn that everyone in chat would lose their minds at the sound of my 15-year-old girl’s voice.
The instant I said anything on the mic, the chat erupted with a chorus of “Are you a girl?” To be fair, in a chat full of guys who haven’t hit puberty yet, it’s probably a valid question. But the tone beneath it, the fascination mixed with something else, felt… less than great.
If I said yes, one of two things inevitably came next. Increased interest and a flurry of unwanted attention or a barrage of pointed questions about what a girl could possibly be doing playing a game like Halo. Either way, it felt like a clear reminder that I didn’t belong in this space, that I was an anomaly.
I wanted to crush them with my gameplay so they’d shut up with their questions, but that would require me to be any good at first-person shooters, which I was not. So I endured the comments, the questions, the pointed remarks, all the while losing my interest in this game and anything like it.
Does this Space Suit Come in Pink?
There was a brief period where I tried to lean into it. I would be the most feminine girl gamer you ever saw running around your screen in this first-person shooter. I created a profile for myself, where my little spacesuit could be pink, where my avatar would announce what my voice would have revealed anyway. I’d be female all up in their faces, and I’d show them.
Except this just increased the “Are you a girl?” questions, and ignoring them didn’t make the messages and the taunting stop. It just pissed them off, earning me more rude comments in what I can only guess was an effort to force me to turn on my mic and confirm whether I was female.
I wanted to be the girl in the pink spacesuit who ran around the map, completely owning the boys. But I never got better at Halo because I was too busy navigating the onslaught of unwanted attention. So, I stopped playing Halo and any game like it for a very long time.
“Honey, How Do I Mute The Mic”
My first-person shooter hiatus went on temporary pause this week with the release of Modern Warfare 3. Admittedly, I’ve flirted with Call of Duty before. My husband plays Warzone with his buddies almost every night, so I’m subjected to the sort of things they like to shout at each other on the mic, whether I like it or not.
But a small part of me, the part that once dreamed of crushing my crushes at Halo, itched to pick up the controller again and see if I might get better with practice. So, I did. I took myself down to the basement and logged in to my husband’s profile to play a little bit of Zombies in Modern Warfare 3.
All this time, I thought I quit playing first-person shooters because I sucked at them. And, okay, that’s partly true. But I wasn’t ready for what happened in my soul the moment I put on those headphones and realized they were also a mic.
As the game loaded, I sent up a frantic shout to my husband. “How do I make sure the mic is muted?”
Silly as it was, I could feel my heart rate speed up. I am not a silent gamer and would for sure let loose some choice words when I inevitably got offed by a Zombie. I did not want these random teammates of mine to hear my now adult, still very much female, voice.
He reassured me that they wouldn’t hear me unless I pulled the mic down to talk. And yet, as I ran hopelessly around the map, remembering how bad I am at shooting things, I couldn’t shake the question that rang in my ears. “Are you a girl?”
What they were really asking, or at least what it felt like they were saying, was, “Why are you here?” What they were saying was the same thing I could read on the expressions of every GameStop employee who started at me from afar as I browsed the shelves or who asked me if I was shopping for a boyfriend or a brother. Girls don’t game, and if they do, they can’t be good.
I have no doubt there are girls who are amazing at Call of Duty. I also have no doubt they avoid the chat like the plague because of just how much women in games like these are still treated like an anomaly, an oddity at best, and a target for ridicule at worst. In forums, I’ve seen women recommend ways to mod their voices so they can play without this harassment, and it makes me sad to think how little these spaces have opened up in all the years since I first abandoned my dreams of getting good at Halo.
As for me, I might occasionally sneak in for a few rounds of Zombies, but I’m not sure these games are quite it for me. There were so many times it would’ve been a lot easier to work with my teammates if I was willing to talk to them, but my fear of what would happen when they heard my voice held me back. Hiding behind my husband’s name and avatar kept me a secret, but it also kept me from being able to step into the experience fully. I know I’m not the only woman who feels this way when it comes to Call of Duty and other games with similar online communities.