I've got to admit that my last serious foray into the world of computer gaming was a long time ago, in sixth grade, when I became addicted to a game called "Pipe Dream." You had to race against the clock to build piping to contain oozing toxic sludge, and I just couldn't get enough of it. (Remember, I never said I played cool computer games.) But it turns out that as a woman who just doesn't get why adults would spend hours, you know, playing poker on their cellphones, I'm not alone -- Christa Phillips, who works as a "goodwill ambassador" for Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming service, estimates that only 10 to 20 percent of Xbox Live's 7 million users are women.
That's part of the reason, reports the Los Angeles Times, that Microsoft hired Phillips in the first place -- communicating through her online persona, TriXie, her job is to make online gaming a friendlier environment for women. Phillips/TriXie is the head of GamerchiX, which she describes as "a safe place for all women gamers ... where you can go to socialize and not have to worry about being harassed or hit on."
GamerchiX was partly inspired by PMS Clan, a group of female competitive gamers who play professionally for money. Phillips wanted to come up with a community that would be friendly to, as the Times put it, pros and newcomers alike, and Microsoft was receptive, since more female players would mean more customers. As TriXie, Phillips now helps field user questions, chats with players and reports on gaming events. She has also written a code of conduct that she calls a "manifesta" for GamerchiX members. Among other things, it forbids female members from "talking trash" about one another.
The fact that GamerchiX has a reason to exist highlights a paradox of the Internet: By allowing users to hide behind online names and personas, it makes it more difficult to judge people based on their real-life appearances (and in the case of gaming, it erases natural differences between the sexes, like strength or speed) -- both things that should, technically, make the playing field more level. But as has been pointed out on Salon before, this same anonymity also frees people to express biases and hostility that propriety insists they conceal in their day-to-day lives.
To be fair, many people online seem to enjoy using their anonymity to be hostile toward men and women alike (hence what Phillips saw as a need for a "manifesta"). I think it's human nature to be much more hateful and rude toward people who aren't physically present, regardless of their gender or appearance. But as online gaming (not to mention Broadsheet's comments section) suggests, the Web definitely brings out misogyny that's usually kept, more or less, under wraps. The Los Angeles Times says Phillips expects that "as the ratio [of online gamers] becomes more even, the tone within online games will become more civilized." I don't know if I believe that, but I still hope she's right.