Saloni Pawar, popularly known as 'Meow16K', has a lot of enemies on PlayerUnknown's BattleGrounds. The ones that roam around with bullets and guns. But the kind she hates the most are the ones who tell her, "Gaming is not your cup of tea, go make sandwiches".
India's mobile games market that's estimated to be worth $1.1 billion by 2020 is a part of the daily lives of more than one-third Indians — 40% men and 35% women play mobile games at least five days a week. However, the gaming world is still considered to be a 'boy's club' and harassment continues to crop up in different shades.
Saloni has nearly 8,000 subscribers on YouTube where she streams her gaming sessions of PUBG. Although she has been playing games on her computer since the age of 14, after being fascinated with her brother's favourite hobby, she has never owned a console. But the very enthusiastic Saloni now has her own setup-- where she regularly broadcasts her gaming sessions to thousands watching it online. "Too often the viewers leave comments are filled with sexual innuendos," she said. Saloni says that the harassment she faces through harsh, abusive and often patronising comments stems from the idea that people cannot accept female presence in the gaming world.
Neha Bajaj, who works at a telecom company in Hyderabad, plays PUBG almost every day to de-stress. Last year, after repeatedly being subjected to lewd messages, Neha decided to not take a chance in the online world without a female company. On one occasion, when Neha teamed up with a bunch of strangers for a multiplayer game, she could hear a man saying that women shouldn't be playing PUBG. Neha took to Facebook to write about that experience where she says that the 'shallow mindset of some Indian men' was out on full display. "Why are these girls playing PUBG? Don't they have any other work? Go and finish some household chores," she heard the voice from the other end telling her. Neha says she gave her a piece of his mind and then left the game. But this wasn't the first time. "Too often when they realise that a woman is playing as well, they start sending creepy messages."
"There's no equality in the gaming world," she said.
Since that day Neha always plays only with her sister, or if she just has to play with strangers, she mutes herself.
The rise in the popularity of gaming is not a surprise and the increased accessibility is largely responsible for it. Gaming is no longer limited to consoles and computers but has reached every individual's pocket via their smartphones. And while Candy Crush, Ludo, dressing up games are often thought to be the ones that are for 'girls', the stereotype was broken long back. However, with the advent of an increasing number of mobile games, young women who were told to take up art class by their 'sanskari' parents instead of playing FIFA, are now taking over, one 'chicken dinner' at a time.
"You'd barely have thought that a violent game like this, something that's supposed to be a 'game for the boys' would have such a huge female following," said Nishtha Kanal, a gamer and journalist based out of Mumbai.
To be a Woman... or Not?
The creepiness isn't limited to PUBG. In most of these games, you can choose a gender-specific icon. A male friend who uses a female icon to play Grand Theft Auto (GTA) on his PlayStation 4 often gets messages from men asking him for, well, "wanna friendship?"
When Neha started playing Clash of Clans, she introduced herself as a man. "If you are a woman in online gaming space, you will get creepy messages asking you whether you are married and where you are located," she said. Neha, however, says that she made some great friends eventually who also removed people with gender biases from the groups she was part of.
Mabel Mirza, an editor based out of Delhi, would earlier play online games using her real name, that she says, sounds quite 'feminine'. It would take a couple of minutes to connect to the server before the game began, and in that time, Mirza says, she would be inundated with "lewd comments, sexually-loaded requests, a lot of cussing". "It was the worse sort you would meet," she said.
Mirza isn't a big fan of PUBG, but she has been playing since the age of seven. First, back in the 90s, she started out with the AV joystick-console video game where she played games such as Contra, Super Mario, Speed racing, and Prince of Persia among others. Later, when she got her first computer, she started playing Age of Empires, Prince of Persia, Czar, Road Rash, Harry Potter EA, Need for Speed : Carbon city, Hitman by EA, FIFA 2000, and Counter strike.
Not having the best experience when using her own name, Mirza now uses a pseudonym when she plays Mini Militia, a popular action game. She calls herself 'Pablo Escobar'.
How Safe is Online Gaming for Women?
The safety rules for a woman in the online gaming space is pretty much similar to their offline lives. Don't tell your name, find a cover, don't let them hear/see you, only interact/play with friends, strangers are a big 'No' and pretend throughout to simply not exist.
"We can stay anonymous while playing online, we can choose a unique username for ourselves and we can always choose to not let the other person hear us so they don't know we're girls. Some people only start acting up weird once they know that a girl is playing," said Resha Rizvi, who started playing video games since she was 13. Though Rizvi plays WWE, FIFA, UFC, and Counter-Strike, she says, PUBG is her 'hot favourite' right now.
Rizvi, a lawyer based out of Delhi, has had her share of harassment on PUBG-- men who blow kisses during the game and send lewd messages, so she now mostly plays with her friends. "We coordinate our timings via WhatsApp groups," she said.
The need for women-only groups for playing this immensely popular game seems to be a global phenomenon. On Facebook, there are multiple exclusive groups for women who play PUBG and too often, they are discussing the daily harassment they face on the gaming platform. "Hey everyone, I wanted to know, do any of you ever get harassed in game? I do a lot, and most of my male friends don’t believe me or at least don’t think its as bad as I claim it is, so hopefully you guys understand.." posted a female gamer. The comments came in. Some offered her advise- "It’s sometimes hard but try to remember they’re just sad little babies". Some of them wrote about their own experiences, "I would generally not talk in squad just to save myself the inevitable TK or being called a whore." While others invited her to form groups with fellow women to play the latest mobile gaming sensation.
But it's often more than harassment. Mirza said that sometimes the 'creepy' gamers try and chat up with you, or have weird requests and bother you for your contact numbers. "These people often threaten women with tracking their IPs, and even rape them," Mirza added.
Last year, PUBG announced that every day, over 87 million players log on to play across all platforms. The recent number may be higher but it's unfortunate that women have to keep hiding their identity even in the online entertainment space. "As soon as they find out I am woman, they start blowing kisses," said Neha, referring to one of the features of PUBG.
"Somehow it is a lot more civil to play with a woman than men on online forums," said Mirza.