‘They stab you, they shoot you, they bind you in ropes.' Rebeca Figueiredo Amorim/Getty Images

February 26, 2024   5 mins

Until recently, I did not consider myself a “gamer”. I still flinch at the term, probably because the reputation of gaming is impossibly, incorrigibly lame — adolescent, feverish, and with the stale whiff of the teenaged bedroom. I, conversely, am 25, and I have friends, relationships. I go out, I can hold eye contact with strangers, and though my flat is small, it is decidedly not a basement. But despite all this, I have been suckered in. It can happen to anyone.

My obsession is with the cowboy game Red Dead Redemption 2. Its world is a microcosm of a late-1800s America, in which you play a gunslinging outlaw — hunting for animals and bounties, robbing trains and rustling horses in the malarial swamps of Louisiana and the lush heartlands of Oklahoma. It is a utopia of sorts, and one of the prize assets in the stable of independent publisher Rockstar Games, makers of the Grand Theft Auto series. More than anything, it is innocent fun. After all, the victims of my blood-soaked bank jobs aren’t real. Or, at least, I thought they weren’t — until I went online.

I played the main, offline, “story” version of this game for a year, becoming so fixated that one friend tried to stage an intervention to stop me banging on about it. But by then, I was too far gone. I could no longer resist shelling out an extra £6.99 a month for the online iteration, with its expanded plotlines and features. I expected more of the same — though in this version, other gamers play with you.

In the main game, you play as a man. In the online version, you may choose a female avatar — and you can create her in your own image (in my case blonde, overly made-up and probably quite vain). I called her Martine Horsese, and her steed would be Hoof Hefner. Take note, “gamer girls”: a dose of irony is needed to retain a modicum of cool when diving into dorkdom. But the smirk was wiped off my face the moment I started playing. In this new world, all the worst things women fear men would like to do, were there no consequences, happen — all the time, and to you.

As you go about your business, posses of male characters — almost certainly men, given their gamer tags: fightclub247, meatgrinder2001, bitch_flayer — lurk behind you. They stab you, they shoot you, they bind you in ropes and carry your hogtied, still writhing body on the back of their horse. They dump you in abandoned houses, where they take turns to jump on you — the closest simulation of rape the system will allow. Someone called Messi69 will “emote” by spitting at your body. On the voice chat, or in your message inbox, you will be told they can find you, that they will rape and kill you, that you’re a whore.

In a world where players can do almost exactly as they want, why do men keep choosing to rape? Until the 2010s, online gaming was still a niche. Then it exploded: Call of Duty launched online in 2012, GTA in 2013, Red Dead in 2018. We are now living, one critic said last year, in the “golden age of the online multiplayer”, where players have never been more connected. You can now have unscripted conversations with other gamers, and, rather than being PacMan or Mario, you can play as yourself — or an idealised version of yourself — and act beyond the strictures of a heavily enforced plot. You can do, in other words, almost exactly what you want. It is this, the plugging-in of fantasy to real-life social networks, which has created a space for the darkest human urges to be played out, over and over, with wearying predictability, on the usual victims and by the usual suspects.

“In a world where players can do exactly as they want, why do men keep choosing to rape?”

Our flourishing incel culture arguably has its roots in a brutal online civil war in 2014, known as “Gamergate”. In this woman-hating frenzy, forums of men and boys mass-coordinated harassment campaigns against female players and developers, from doxing to rape and death threats. It was a response to the perceived suffocation of gaming culture by diversity proponents, worst of all feminists — and an explosion in the proportion of female gamers, which by then had reached up to 48%. One critic wrote: “For a campaign that wanted to take politics out of gaming, Gamergate has injected gaming deep into the veins of our politics.”

I am lucky that in my real life, in which women hold court at dinner parties and are at least as witty as the men, equality seems a given. But the incipient misogynists of the next generation cut their teeth on games which allow them to attack and intimidate anything even purporting to be female. You can block, you can report, but the next time you log on, it will happen again. And I’m a grown-up: I hate to imagine how a 13-year-old girl must feel shutting her laptop to a dark bedroom, having been debased online by knife-wielding strangers —perhaps those very same boys who suffered through double maths with her that morning.

There are many who think that the explicit content of video games encourages this. In GTA, players can drive close to prostitutes to engage their services. An encounter boosts the player’s health, but costs money; luckily, you can kill your prostitute afterwards and rob it back. But if studies are to be believed, these virtual acts have no bearing on our real urges. Gaming is no more likely to spawn a generation of sex-buyers than it is to nurture gangsters. It seems unlikely, therefore, that it would encourage in-game abuse between real players. Games are a mirror for an increasingly brutal male sexuality, not a cause.

The trials of the “gamer girl” matter far more than we realise, for this is what boys and men do when they think society isn’t watching. The next generation — already buffeted towards extreme misogyny by Andrew Tate, incel culture and society’s utter saturation in porn — are living out these ideologies in cyberspace; 76% of boys in the UK aged 12-15 game online. It is a training ground, and a virtual arena for roleplaying abusive tastes.

We should, therefore, understand gaming as a prism to see something much larger, much more horrifying — that certain corners of male sexual culture have mutated into a febrile arena where there are no women, just whores; no sex, just rape. In this world, female characters become cyphers for the women of real life — those who dump you, laugh at you, ghost you on Hinge. And while you know nothing about the players behind the screen — not even whether they are in fact women — you are allowed to hate them, and to act on that hate. The world of gaming is a petri dish in which gender relations play out — the worst fears of feminism, in pixels.

Recently, the real world has started watching. In January, British police opened an investigation into a virtual “gang rape” of a girl under 16 in the Metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg’s VR utopia. Since then, online sex attacks have become enough of an issue for Interpol to issue a report urging police forces to “define what constitutes crimes and harms” in the Metaverse.

All these are serious concerns — and we should welcome higher scrutiny. Yet I do not believe that we should censor, ban or fret about games themselves beyond the usual, reasonable restrictions on harassment and bullying. After all, the unreality of it, the freedom, is why we play, and why I will continue to game. So, ladies, dust off those controllers and cancel your plans — for there is a deliciously guilty pleasure to shutting out real life and becoming utterly absorbed. But remember that the fascination of virtual worlds is that they are never entirely so; as strange and untethered the universe of a game may be, the shadows of our own dark realities always creep in.

Poppy Sowerby is an editor and writer covering politics and culture.