“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”
This old saying relates to the fact that, unless you volunteer information about yourself online, no one knows anything about who or what you really are. Up to that point, it’s all ones and zeros. So when each individual enters the Internet, they’re a blank slate to everyone else … until they choose not to be. So how does gender actually impact the ways an average person (at least in the West) might discover and use the Internet?
A TALE OF TWO INTERNETS
Recently I was going over the results of Pew Research Center’s 2014 online harassment poll, poring over a graph about how people perceived different genders to be accepted on various different kinds of online media.
I noticed an interesting division here. While majorities across the board considered all of these communities equally welcoming to both genders, the remaining minorities of respondents split on the question of which was “more welcome” than the other. The areas where women are “more welcome” seem to be those where traffic is heavily driven by mobile phone apps. When one also considers that the overwhelming number of women who play video games also identify as doing so through mobile apps, a more definite pattern begins to emerge:
Men are from Programs. Women are from Apps.
This observation goes to how most, not all, people are introduced to the Internet and thus its various communities. Since its inception, this has revolved around accessibility to the Internet itself. Prior to browsers, you had to learn how the equipment and software worked, such as the proper commands to open your email inside a Unix shell.
This was the era of “Programs,” to swipe a term from TRON (no, we’re not paid for that link).
Even the name was technical: “TRON” was a computer command used in debugging software, short for “Tracer On.” The world of TRON resonated with technical jargon and a focus on the value of problem-solving skills, including moments of thinking outside the box while under pressure. Geeky stuff, indeed.
It was not, however, particularly user-friendly, and neither was the real-world Internet, even as it slowly expanded from a DARPA project into a public utility. Email clients, and then browsers, opened the Internet up to the average home-computer user, which meant you still had to be a “computer geek” in order to use it. To most folks, this culture remained arcane, nerdy, and fringe.
Naturally, this led to much of early Internet culture being arcane, nerdy, and fringe by default—particularly when it came to computer gaming. Most games throughout the ’80s and ’90s included a booklet with step-by-step instructions on how to configure your computer to run it. Whether you wanted to or not, you were going to learn how your computer worked, at least on some basic level.
EARLY INTERNET GAMES: COVERING YOUR ASCII
When gaming first went online, it was through cultures that had already mastered computers and the Internet. At first limited to nothing more than ASCII (graphics created by using keyboard symbols on the screen), gamers nonetheless adapted popular titles, such as Risk and Diplomacy as “door games,” for the Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), which predated browsers. The first true “massive multiplayer online” games were Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) with thousands of live human players. These often were a pain to learn, but also allowed as much complexity as one was willing to code for … again, as long as it was all in ASCII.
Advancements in communications technology slowly began allowing more and more data, of a more and more complex nature, to be more and more readily accessible. Yet for the first thirty years of computer gaming and Internet development, you still needed to be a geek (and probably a nerd) to fully access it. Which, socially, was considered a bad thing more often than not.
Western culture commonly raises women to be more socially-oriented than men, creating complex personal networks of friends and acquaintances. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the stereotypical young American girl was glued to her telephone, constantly trading gossip with her friends from school, and deeply focused on interpersonal relationships in everything. Meanwhile, the stereotypical male of the same era was interested in more technically-minded subjects: the tactics and statistics of their favorite sports, the inner workings of their cars, and so on.
Both genders also generally expressed a distaste for each others’ core interests. Girls’ eyes would glaze over, trying to follow their boyfriends talking about jerry-rigging a four-barrel carburetor to some old jalopy. Boys would sigh with boredom, sitting with their girlfriends through a “chick flick” and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Bringing us to the outcasts: those who didn’t fit these preconceived ideas of what guys and gals “should” find interesting. These were the original “geeks and nerds,” terms that originated as insults and were applied by the popular cliques to the unpopular ones. Ostracized from face-to-face society, the latter readily entered the tabula rasa of online society … which, not so incidentally, also led to the stereotype of the “basement dweller.”
Enter the Nintendo Generation.
Some weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a guy named Phil and various of his friends via Twitter. Phil was offended when I said that females were relative latecomers to the videogame scene because, in its early decades, gaming had not been considered popular by high-school girls. He berated me with statistics about how Atari had become a billion-dollar enterprise with a family-oriented console series which girls (quite obviously) also played. His friends provided anecdotes about having to fight their sisters for the game controller. And so on.
All of this was, of course, absolutely correct. Mass-market video games had already been a thing since the early ’80s, divided between the pricey hobby of video arcades and the relatively primitive graphics of home console systems. Both, however, were infinitely more accessible to average people than trying to memorize lists of MUD text-line commands, and at least they HAD graphics. Girls who played either (or both) were hardly unheard of.
Phil’s arguments also missed the point: I’d been talking about computer games. When Phil and Company thought about video games, it was only in terms of consoles—the far more approachable technology. You turned on the power, plugged in a cartridge, and just played. The most technical thing involved was the instruction manual for hooking it up.
The world of gaming I’d grown up in had social dynamics that were completely alien to people like Phil. While it’s true that many girls played console games (the more so once Nintendo really took off), they made relatively few forays into computer gaming. It’s not that, as has been recently asserted, “games are a male-dominated space full of entitled whiners who don’t want to share their toys” … it’s that most females didn’t want to buy a home computer, let alone tweak and overclock it, in order to play the kinds of games that required a PC’s horsepower.
You know. “Losers.”
Like most forms of geek culture, computer gaming was ultimately a refuge from harassment. Only when “Geek Chic” became a thing did this begin to change.
PHONING IT IN
Which brings us back to the issue of gender: where were most women during all this technological development?
On their phones.
Most women never stopped focusing on personal networking. When mobile phones came along, women embraced the convenience of being able to continue conversations (or start new ones) without being tied to a land line. The addition of social-media apps meant that one no longer needed a PC at all to keep networking. It should therefore come as no surprise that social media is one area of online interaction where women play a dominant role, with nearly four times as many Pew respondents in 2014 saying social media was more welcoming to women.
What may surprise some is that fully 66% of Internet users reporting harassment, as polled by Pew Research, cited a social networking site or app as its source. Just 16% named online gaming communities. Despite popular media narratives of recent years that have painted gaming culture as toxic to women, it’s actually the environment most welcoming to women, which is also the most hostile overall.
Phones are also where most women are gaming these days, due again to convenience and accessibility. The kinds of games being played are suited to a busy woman on the move: a puzzle while riding the bus to work, a bubble-shooter to kill time before a meeting starts, something that can be picked up and put down with a maximum of ease.
Yes, that does mean most women who play games are “casuals.” That’s not a bad thing, it’s just different.
What makes the difference significant is that where access to computer and console gaming has generally run in parallel across the decades, mobile gaming access runs in parallel to both. Someone who plays mobile games doesn’t need to own a computer or a console, much less have any contact with the supporting cultures. Both types of gaming may well remain completely alien to their own experience.
What I’ve covered today are only a few of the ways in which the two genders tend to approach the Internet. There are exceptions to everything, but the main trends seem to be clear. Internet usage, particularly in social media and video games, is driven by our own choices in what we want to get out of it, and no one is trying to wall anyone else off from any other part of it.
Well, except China. Screw those guys.