Transmisogyny and My Experience in Gaming

I am a trans woman who has grown up immersed in gaming spaces and gaming culture. I’ve experienced an intense shift in perspective throughout my journey as a budding trans woman. The normalization of casual racism, transphobia and homophobia, among other issues, via friends, saying “n**ga,” “trap” or “r*tard” with no second thought, is readily apparent within many communities. This behavior was completely at odds with my identity. Further, my complacency in these scenarios, with regards to not having a space for self-exploration and in not questioning the bigotry, perfectly highlights the pervasiveness of this rhetoric if it is not stamped out. I was complacent, yet, I was the one being actively dehumanized by this rhetoric; what does this say about others? We find out far too late who we are, or spend too long being uncomfortable with ourselves, perhaps never becoming our real selves. For the sake of providing a space for women who are trans to explore themselves and grow, here is what needs to be done. Here is my story and what we can learn from it.

Misogyny, Transness, and Community

This shift in perspective, and by extension, my experience, has been influenced entirely through extensive interactions with other users in various online communities, including RuneScape, Smogon Competitive Pokemon, and Super Smash Brothers, as well as the speed running community. I’ll intend to analyze my experiences here, again, prior-and-post-transition, respectively.

My time on Smogon — Hoopa Girl :3

I’ll start with what I’ve gained from this fantastic crowd of people, for two reasons. First, I met my amazing girlfriend Samantha here from a silly leftist meme, and I’d like to start this off with something happier. Additionally, I’ve never felt a stronger sense of community among any of the groups that I’ll be discussing. Aside from meeting the greatest addition to my life among a crowd that loves a 30-something year old children’s game, spanning an age range of 12–30 year old’s all acting incredibly civil, it was inevitable for me to undergo a significant amount of growth and exploration at some point in my life due to the nature of my being, and I’m happy to have had it happen in this community.

My first experience with Smogon was in 2013. I attempt to play the most popular tier, OverUsed, where restrictions were placed on what Pokemon were permitted in battle, and all but a select few were legal. The sheer number of people in this tier meant that as a newcomer, who was merely starting to learn the game, I was a nobody.

The trio sadly known for their terrible-yet-common nicknames

At the time, I saw nothing wrong with an occasional Registeel nicknamed “Adolph Hitler,” a Kyurem-Black nicknamed “Kyurem-n***ga,” or a Mega-Gardevoir nicknamed “Trap” or a… you get the idea. I was far from the only one holding these views: the idea that this was okay. Content with being labeled as a cis white-passing boy — who was vaguely aware of the issues of our patriarchal society, albeit only in its effect on men — none of this bothered me in the slightest, I thought: it doesn’t affect me; it’s just a joke; freedom of speech is important; who even cares? Everyone around me echoed these thoughts, and, in turn, I spat out the same hateful excuses. I had no reason to question an environment that was accommodating for me, and no reason to ever feel danger when I was safe to begin with.

In early 2017, towards the end of a relationship, I started to explore my gender after extensive interactions with trans persons in leftist/socialist communities online. I’ve never identified as a boy or with the concept of masculinity. I’ve always hated having broad shoulders, not having any curves and the concept of masculinity in its entirety; am I trans? At some point in late 2016, I had the courage to do what I later learned was an incredibly standard thing for trans femes to do. I borrowed a basic dress of my then-girlfriend and tried it on in the bathroom, took a few pictures, sent them to a close group of friends, took it off, and pretended it never happened. With that group being incredibly progressive and informed on gender and sexuality, I was met with plenty of support and encouragement to explore myself; for the first time in my life, I truly felt beautiful — albeit only as beautiful as I ever thought I’d feel with my current body. I was confident, and I was trans. I finally had a new lens, through which I could review my entire life. I was trans by birth, socialist by the grace of god, and I was on this earth for a reason.

What does this have to do with competitive Pokemon? From the abuse suffered in the above relationship, I developed very intense ADHD-like symptoms. All my free time had to be spent with my girlfriend, with the threat of suicide should that not happen. Even after leaving this environment, I still have this maladaptive coping mechanism preventing me from focusing. I cannot stress enough how severe these symptoms are or how difficult they are to overcome. Though, while in that relationship, I was left with the ability to do two of my hobbies in my free time: Pokémon and RuneScape.

As I resurfaced in the Pokémon community, the competitive game had changed drastically with the release of a new title: Pokémon Sun/Moon. I’ve always been a competitive person, and with that in mind, along with my experience with gaming communities at this point, my selection on what tier to play had shifted towards one with a smaller community. I settled on one of lowest tiers for the smaller community size, and my competitive edge drove me to want to use a Pokémon that I had previously thought was very good (and cute), Hoopa. My mild and half-serious obsession with making this little gal work competitively let me make a name for myself and the sense of community I received from doing so was amazing.

The Little Fella that gave me a reputation

By some blessing, I stumbled into a group that was friendly to beginners that were actively looking to get better and was incredibly accepting of LGBT folk. At this point, I was very aware that I was trans, but had yet to come out, except to users on a very small socialist server I frequented. Constantly being around a group that was accepting of users that were open about being gay or trans left me feeling incredibly safe and comfortable. Ultimately, this was the first group of people I came out to, and I never experienced anything negative from the actual community. Occasionally, shitty users would spring up, but, ultimately, they were dealt with swiftly and appropriately to avoid poisoning the overall experience.

Amazing message my girlfriend got from one of the shittier people that is thankfully no longer a member of the community because of this incident.

From what I’ve dealt with, and felt, throughout my time at Smogon, I’ve learned the most important aspects of creating a more comfortable space for LGBT folk, People of Color, etc.: Punish bigotry, build close-knit community, and, the most crucial element, avoid a profit motive in a competitive environment.

The first aspect, punishing bigotry, is perfectly exemplified in the above-captioned image and the Smogon communities’ response to it. Smogon is still, ultimately, a gaming community, and there will always be bad apples as such due to the reactionary and often bigoted nature of mainstream gaming culture. However, through punishment, we can avoid their negative impact on our communities.

While retroactive punishments are a weak preventative measure, it is still a necessary one to uphold for the sake of supporting further preventative measures. Bigotry should be swiftly punished. Without doing so, toxic environments, like those present in the Old School RuneScape community or the communities of mainstream blockbuster titles, like Overwatch, are created. If you’re not going to be banned for using an incredibly racist Chinese accent, dropping the N-word in “a round with the boys” or calling the girl talking to you in team chat a trap, why would you stop any of these behaviors? It’s just a joke after all; it’s just free speech after all; it’s just banter after all; no reason to get triggered.

Some of the amazing messages I’ve received on reddit.com. Nothing to stop here right? This is just free speech after all.

To create an environment where being bigoted is actively discouraged, there needs to be an active attempt at making community members care enough about others user to punish someone else treating them like an asshole. With Smogon not being an ultra-large community outside of the OU tier (again, the most popular way to play competitive Pokémon, where all but a select few Pokémon are legal), these forms of personal connections are possible. It is very easy to be active enough to be known for something — in my case, the cute, lovable, but powerful, Hoopa — form personal associations and a strong sense of community. If you’re not an asshole, you’re well received. Through building these relationships, other users may worry about you if you go MIA, have inside jokes with you, tell you when they’re playing for a tournament. It’s validating, as someone who wasn’t in any other gaming community, to finally have this. Finally, I found a hobby where I could truly come out, be myself, and not deal with death threats or transphobia. Not only was there an authority, ready to ban bigots, but also the lack of profit incentive in a competitive community made people care about being respected among the community at large. With an environment ready to ban bigots, users were bound to be on closer terms with at least one marginalized person. We (at least me and others) felt comfortable enough to come out. We are good people with friends, and there is enough social attachment here to discourage bigoted behavior. Prominent users such as Pokeaim are openly Latinx with no fear of receiving hate for their ethnicity, and similarly, many users are open about being black, trans, or gay themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, high-level competition among hobbies — video games, specifically — can exist and thrive in the absence of profit. Smogon is my prime example of this, and it’s worth exploring to understand how something deemed so critical can be avoided.

Avoiding a profit motive in video games? How is that in anyway relevant? As is evident in our current society, prioritizing profits over people is not beneficial to the overall community. Before delving into the why, I want to clarify the how. If it hurts everyone the most, why does it happen? Pressure to generate profit in our day-to-day lives, coupled with an intense fear of death, influences our perception of every aspect of our lives, which undoubtedly leaks into our hobbies. If it’s not “worth your time,” then why bother?

There are a few aspects that set Smogon apart from other gaming communities, and these differences are what makes Smogon unique. Smogon avoided the influence of esports, and as a result, its slimy hand of profit-prioritization. Every Smogon tournament is free to enter in every way with no monetary prizes. This approach has created an environment where community interaction is encouraged and is the primary goal of community members.

Previously brought up as a rebuttal to the profit-prioritization in the competitive Pokémon community, Youtubers and other content creators using Pokémon to generate revenue are still largely doing so for the growth and entertainment of the community. They not actively looking to pursue a commodification of Pokémon as their vessel for their continued existence; for what other reason would people make content for pennies, use teams others have made for fun and entertainment, spend time analyzing matches and researching new strategies with a proofreading and editing process? People enjoy helping their community with the lack of a profit incentive and will act accordingly in ways that benefit others and that are enjoyable for them. It’s not human nature to be greedy, “human nature” is a result of the environment we exist in and this community is enough to debunk any attempts at an appeal to it.

Ultimately, I’m blessed to enjoy strategy games enough to have gotten myself immersed in the competitive Pokémon scene, and thankful for all those who have made my time in the community enjoyable. Further, I’m surprised that I was able to have this experience online in a predominantly male community.

Smash Brothers — Teachable’s Journey

Six years ago, I shifted away from online gaming (which is an environment that I have touched on enough for me to not need an explanation here) to the real-world gaming community via Super Smash Brothers. The entire dynamic of communication within the community changed, as a whole. Regularly getting cursed at or told to kill myself for making a single mistake online was a sharp contrast to my experience offline, where this kind of behavior was unimaginable. I thought I had finally found a safe space to enjoy my hobby. I loved the game, and the people I was surrounded by were funny, enjoyable to be around and shared several my interests. However, as I started identifying more and more with the label of feminist (helped by my girlfriend of the time), I began to see this community from the perspective of a woman — through the eyes of my girlfriend and later my own. The realization of what was wrong immediately hit me. During the pre-esports era of my time in the Super Smash Brothers community, everyone was close-knit and incredibly non-progressive, yet, I felt comfortable from the confusion of who I was; this doesn’t affect me right?

What does pre-esports mean? The winnings from tournaments in the days I started playing Smash Brothers was laughable, and as such, people did not regularly travel to attend tournaments. You couldn’t make a living in the same way you could a traditional sport. This environment was perfectly descriptive of the term “close-knit;” you mainly interacted with local players, cared about how they saw you and were there for the respect more than the money.

Although this exemplified a “close-knit” community, and apparently lacked profit incentive for players to enjoy and contribute to their hobby, the presence of these two traits could not culminate to anything meaningful with the absence of an authority figure to stamp out bigotry. Time and time again, we learn that if you aren’t making an active effort to punish assholes in a community then congratulations: you just gave those assholes a place to be comfortable. A prime example of this is the beautiful bastion of free speech that is Reddit; which has refused to ban neo-Nazis.

In sharp contrast to its grassroots roots, modern Smash Bros, and its substantial involvement in esports, has dampened the communal aspect of the game and replaced it with a much heavier focus on profit and commodification. People love their hobbies and want to exist while doing it; you can’t fault their actions. Instead, we should critique the motivation and the outcome. The motivation is obvious: it’s how things are in life; work or you starve; work, or you’re homeless. People want to enjoy their lives, so society forces us to make compromises. What does that commodification result in?

Albeit not currently a perfect comparison, we can see how commodification affects video games as the respective communities grow without a grassroots-level cultural shift and punishment for misogynists, racists, etc. by looking at any popular, mainstream game. Do I feel safe being Latinx if I’m a popular CS:GO player, while aware of the rampant racism in the community? Do I feel safe being autistic as a RuneScape player with words like “r*tard” being thrown around so casually? Do I feel safe within a community that is regularly racist but hides behind an excuse of “I have black friends”? No. I don’t.

The shift of a community towards profit means welcoming aspects of the profit-obsessed status quo that very much includes the associated bigotry. Profit means expanding your audience, making sure not to alienate members of your community, lest it reduces the celebrity status of anyone. Performative retroactive punishments are given to particularly awful cases of harassment where it is highly publicized, but how often are the random players at your local venue called out for saying “r*tard”? For telling the first girl at the venue “Wow, I never expected you to be good”? For calling someone a bitch for getting your homie “who was good at the game” banned? Without preemptive measures to prevent harm, (yes, this behavior is harmful because it creates an environment working to actively dehumanize me, which will justify physical violence to me) the empty platitudes of heavily publicized “justice” mean nothing. Authority is only useful if it serves and protects those who need it most and not merely aim to appeal to the status quo in its thirst for profit.

OldSchool Runescape — buying gf

RuneScape is an interesting game, as it’s a perfect example of everything not to do when creating a community. Refusal to punish assholes retroactively outside of rare cases, no preemptive measures to discourage people being assholes, and by nature of being a paid game, it is based entirely around profit. I feel like nothing beyond linking to their reaction to a simple gay pride event is enough to describe this community accurately; they have no care for anything other than new content coming from the developers, and no effort will ever be placed into criticizing oneself, especially socially. I hardly felt safe in this community as a woman, let alone being trans or autistic. Popular content creators like B0aty (who has amassed 380k followers on Twitch), as well as the official RuneScape stream, made it similarly impossible to feel safe as a Latina, by either using or not punishing racist “memes.” I’ve never been in a community more right-wing, hateful and conservative than RuneScape.

But from this awful community, I was blessed with finding a tight-knit group of individuals that let me enjoy (as much as possible, at least) socializing in this hellscape. I somehow always manage to find myself in these spaces, and I’m grateful to be this lucky. For any trans person experiencing issues finding a comfortable space for themselves: you’re free to contact me, every trans person deserves a comfortable place to socialize, and I’ll do my best to make that possible. Sometime in 2015 during my first semester of college, I got involved with a group of players obsessed with completing activities in RuneScape as fast as possible and was hooked instantly. I was heavily involved with everyone in this community for three years, eventually becoming one of many LGBT Admins within the community. The quality of this particular community, as well as the positive experiences I’d had by being a trans woman within it, slightly outweighed the large amount of negative feedback I’d gotten from the rest of the RuneScape community. Especially with the added context of beginning to transition in the middle of integrating into the community, this is an impressive feat.

But how was that possible, given the broader view we have of the community, given what was done in response to the gay pride event? Two traits were predominant amongst this group of roughly a hundred people. While profit was a motivator in people being a part of a group called “BA Services,” there was a clear distinction between the hierarchy present here and in traditional esports models of profit-prioritization. People “working” in this environment and enjoying their hobby weren’t at the mercy of a boss to do what was most profitable; the community managers were there to protect and serve members by being ready and willing to ban active and prominent members if they were being dickheads or stealing from users. Obviously, this didn’t extend to the extent I would’ve wished, but it was a massive contrast to the regular RuneScape community. A sense of safety created a comfortable environment for our little group to enjoy themselves doing their hobby while making some in-game currency along the way.

This is just people being upset about “politics” in their game right? Haha, they’re just joking

Ultimately, however, we could not entirely stamp out the shit without stricter administration, which is what is to can be learned from my experiences. The RuneScape community was still incredibly hateful, right-wing and socially backward. Lack of punishment for racist “jokes” and people actively misgendering me “outside of where the admins had jurisdiction” created a space comfortable and safe for racists and other bigoted individuals present in the game’s community. If this were not true, there would not be members of my clan “cosplaying” as the KKK in-game or attending the above pictured gay pride protest, where members were openly white supremacists.

Transmisogyny and What is There to Do??

Irrefutably, the further separated from profit a community is, the easier it is to make meaningful culture shifts. The act of prioritizing your fellow humans and stepping away from our society’s obsession with profit over anything else makes the shift towards a social experience that can make everyone feel comfortable far easier. It only takes a small glance at the American healthcare system to realize how profit acting as the motivator in activities based on improving the lives of our fellow humans works out. An environment based on profit and an environment centered on caring for others are not mutually possible.

Community managers detached from local relations to its members are useless in any attempts at social change. Again, banning occasional publicized instances of bigotry does nothing to aid my everyday experiences among gamers unless it is done on a local level, with the local community standing with me to throw away the trash. The esports communities listed above, and the analysis of such, show this on a large scale, particularly the token instances of “progressiveness,” but in a more isolated setting, like my RuneScape experience, we can see that this only goes so far. To fully exterminate any bigotry from the gaming community, it is necessary to establish a lack of a profit incentive combined with strong local community managers in tight-knit communities. Additionally, the willingness to ban bigots is essential, and, until that is done, nothing can be achieved.

Conclusions

This piece was ultimately way longer than I had planned, but I wanted my story and my opinion to be heard. Hopefully, there is something to take away from this, and my experiences aren’t dismissed with the statement that I’m “triggered.” I’m currently proud of who I am, and I can’t thank everyone whom I’ve met over the years enough for helping to make me who I am. Everyone deserves to have a safe environment to explore themselves, even if it’s not physical, and there are clearly defined steps we can take to make that a reality. I enjoyed writing this, so I hope that it was a fun read for anyone that has made it this far and I look forward to elaborating on anything in this piece that has left anyone confused.

edit: Thank you so much to my friend Erin Herbert (@Erin_Herbert) for editing this for me ❤.