Playing with women’s boundaries

2010 February 9

Trigger warning: contains mentions of implied sexual assault.

Between around 2000 and 2005, mostly during my second and third attempts at tertiary study, I racked up substantially more than one year’s worth of time in a text-based RPG. The particular one I played was a very heavily customised CircleMUD and had been going for quite a number of years at that stage.

Back then, I was an environment geek, or so I thought. It was during the second tertiary course that I learned the uber-basics of how The Internets worked, mostly from trying and (given my inexperience) largely succeeding in creating a website for a class project. The site was to document the species found in an ecological restoration site.

I learned HTML in the space of a weekend, and continued on to create the entire umpteen bazillion HTML files over the following few weeks. By hand. In static HTML. And frustrating the hell out of the teacher who could not get over my use of Notepad as my preferred way to edit HTML files. You really do not want to know what she wanted me to use.

All the while I was doing this, I was spending my spare time smiting the living daylights out of textually represented orcs, goblins, trolls and so forth, doing quest tasks, and generally having a fun time. So much fun that I started contributing to the game by making zones — new lands full of things to smite to shit, and be smited by.

I was prolific in my zone building. I tidied several orphaned zones up to start with, then I earned the privilege of being able to add completely new zones and expand one of the adopted zones to be a whole new area which was richly scripted. I moderated the communications channels, and helped form policies. I had a penchant for running weekly quests and all this meant that by the time I left, I ranked moderately in the deity hierarchy and knew how to code.

There was a small group of regulars who were women. That is, women in Real Life. To say we were “sought after” would be an understatement. To say that some of the dudes didn’t know boundaries is probably a larger one. At least once I had someone attempt to enact a caveman mating ritual. For real. Using a knock-out spell and the “R” word and everything. It was awful, but thankfully my protests were heard and the asshole was banned for a significant period of time and learned from his mistake.

Unfortunately, there was not always this level of understanding.

Years later, towards the end of my playing days, there was an individual who developed an obsession with myself and one of the other deity women. He abused the messaging services within the game, and when he realised that we had set him to ignore on all fronts, he proceeded to abuse scripted things within the game such as the florists, and out-of-game contact methods like email, to send us things. Awful things. Like links to pictures of hysteria machines saying how fun they would be for us. The higher deities were aware, and some of them did their best to spare us from the harassment, banning him when things got bad. At one point, the individual even posted a hate website to try slut-shame our characters.

Then, one day, the asshole appeared online as a deity himself. We could no longer avoid him, as he too was now a deity and impervious to ignore filters. What the hell was happening?!

It turns out that this little freak had befriended the administrator’s fiancée, and then the admin. They had decided that since we’d never taken our complaints to the admin himself until the promotion — just the deities above our own rank — that they didn’t have to care. We were told that we were just making stuff up for the sake of spite, then we were reprimanded rather fiercely by the fiancée for getting angry at her for defending the asshole.

I tried to hang around for a while, and even tried to continue playing under the guise of an alternate character. Alas, the fun was no longer there.

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This post was written by melissa.

Melissa is a Linux and web geek who goes by the nick "elky" in IRC land and occasionally rants at She is currently in love with fountain pens. Because they are awesome. Just like her. Infatuation is subject to change. Melissa's awesomeness isn't.

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11 Responses
  1. Lampdevil permalink
    February 9, 2010

    This… hurts. I read the whole thing with my jaw clenched, just KNOWING that the end was going to be some kind of “and then some wack and awful admin-thing ruined it all” problem. Yeah. It hurts. And it hits close to home, right now.

    I’m in a hard spot right now where I might have to abandon an RP that I like very, very much because of problems with the storyteller. I’m not the only one with said problem, but the other folk have problems of the “I don’t like his decisions and he administers badly” sort, while my problem is “his game world is uncomfortably sexist in many ways and I am unable to make it clear to him why this is a bad thing.” The matter is still in arbitration, things are up in the air, procedure has been followed… I’m still upset. And I have nowhere to go about this and nowhere to rant about this and no one, other than one or two close friends, who really GET what my problem here is. I could be losing something that I love because ‘our problems’ are irrelevant. We shouldn’t HAVE to lose the things we love because of crap like this!

    I may be projecting and I’m sorry… like I said, I’ve had nowhere to go that I can vent this. Geek spaces are rarely feminist. Feminist spaces are rarely geeky. Forgive me if this is a derail.

    • Jacinta Reid permalink
      February 11, 2010

      Just from my perspective as a reader of this blog, let me say that I want to hear what you have to say.

      Stating your situation does not seem like a derail, more like a supporting data point that indicates that the kind of thing discussed in the article is a real, live, ongoing problem.

    • Melissa permalink
      February 12, 2010

      Sorry for not replying earlier.

      I agree with Jacinta. That’s the entire point of why I wrote that — it’s something that deserves recognition, especially since it is still an issue.

      I’m certainly not so naive to think that a mere 5 years later this is a thing of the past — the internets continually prove to me that it isn’t.

  2. S. Miller permalink
    February 9, 2010

    It seemed like MUDs always had cultures that were dominated by men with weird social issues. Not only would they treat women badly, but they would pick on each other as well. There were certain guys that were constantly getting mocked for reasons that were not clear.

    It seemed like the ones with stricter roll playing rules did not fall prey to the drama as often.

    • Melissa permalink
      February 9, 2010

      I was reluctant to let this through because it kind of smacks of PHMT. For reference:

      I think it serves well as a reminder. This stuff doesn’t just affect the women — it affects all of us.

      • S. Miller permalink
        February 12, 2010

        I wondered if you would let this through. I am sorry that what I was trying to state was not well worded. I am new in my attempt to learn more about feminism, and I thank you for explaining by PHMT.

        I guess that I was wondering if the issue is bigger than an issue of patriarchy. Are multiple issues at play? For example, when people are given anonymity on the internet, the temptation to be mean is there. Not everyone caves into that temptation. But some people do. Is this an issue of patriarchy, or are all people prone to be mean when given anonymity? In addition to anonymity, you have the issue that arises within small organizations where people take the little power that they have and use it to create as much drama as possible.

        Now that I think about it, many of the MUD issues are like Society of Creative Anachronism issues except with the SCA people are not hiding behind a computer screen, but sometimes they can still be fairly anonymous and hide behind a given persona. I didn’t notice a large gender imbalance within the SCA as I noticed within the MUDs. But the type of drama seemed similar.

        • Lampdevil permalink
          February 15, 2010

          If this sort of things happens in MUDs and the SCA, it happens in D&D groups and LARP troupes and MMORPG guilds and anywhere that gamers gather to game. It’s not a symptom of the setting, so much as a manifestation of the worse parts of the overall culture. A woman’s “no” just means “try harder” and a woman’s “go away I don’t like you” is entirely disregarded. And that’s if the pressure to live up to one’s socialization to “be nice” and not hurt anyone’s feelings doesn’t silence that “no” entirely. The anonymity or pseudo-anonymity that the Internet grants gives different tools to work with, but the end results are much the same.

          The “temptation to be mean” that you’ve cited means that some otherwise sedate folk will become nasty trolls. This cuts across gender lines. I’ve seen plenty of female trolls and hatemongers in my time. Though it’s interesting that Standard Nasty Troll Vernacular seems to contain a lot of mysogynistic stuff, even when they’re not specifically setting out to be sexist. If the Internet can make people manifest the worst bits of themselves because they think no one is watching, then I’m really scared that so many people have inner thought processes that contain this stuff.

  3. Laughingrat permalink
    February 9, 2010

    Butbutbut…he’s not a bad guy! He’s nice! He’s friendly! …At least, he’s friendly to the right people. And that’s all that matters, right?

    How many times have we heard that? I recently had a male neighbor corner me and threaten me while I was in my car, for instance; when I mentioned to someone else that the guy had repeatedly behaved aggressively and finally escalated to violence, the person said, “Yeah, but he’s not a bad guy or anything.” Just what does it take for violent men to be recognized as “bad guys,” anyway? What has to happen before people in their social networks drop them and stop protecting them?

    To keep this all in one comment–re: your “this doesn’t just affect women” remark, above, I am concerned that you felt obliged to capitulate to a PHMT argument. Men don’t have to be the victims of harassment or abuse in order for harassment and abuse to affect ALL of us. We’re in a situation where roughly 50% of the population abuses, or has social, legal, and economic latitude to abuse, the other 50% of the population. That sounds like “all of us” to me, but I can say that without undermining the truth about women’s marginalization under patriarchy.

    • Melissa permalink
      February 9, 2010

      The second part of your comment — was that to S. Miller or to me?

  4. Eivind permalink
    February 9, 2010

    Seen similar stuff on Ancient Anguish, a mud I used to frequent. The thing is, most muds don’t really have a system of government, much less a thought-trough way of dealing with trouble-makers, particularily not those who create trouble that cross over into the real world.

    So, instead, it comes down to something approaching random chance; it depends on if the top deities are sane, or not.

    If they know what’s good for the mud, they refuse to accept succh behaviour though, because as you point out, most muds are heavily male-dominated, which again means that the muds who -do- manage to have a female-friendly atmosphere, and thus more female players, get a lot more players of BOTH sexes.

    More females, because of the friendlier atmosphere, and more males because many males will prefer playing in a more mixed environment. Win-Win if you ask me.

  5. Emily permalink
    February 16, 2010

    Yeah, I usually just play as a male and largely keep to myself in such environments to avoid all that shit. When I do play with others, it’s usually those who get very into character, and I’ve encountered little if any obvious sexism/harassment in those circles, as opposed to people who suddenly start asking me about my bra size (who are probably mostly 12-year-old boys who don’t have a clue what that would mean IRL anyways).

    Incidentally, you said we “didn’t want to know” what your teacher wanted you to use for HTML – but if that happens to be Microsoft Word, did you know that Word is actually factory-set as the default HTML editor in the last couple of iterations of Microsoft Windows that I used? I don’t want to sound like a Mac/Linux fangirl or start an OS war, but that was the tipping point for me…

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