On a recent Friday afternoon, dozens of Pokémon Go players are swarming outside San Francisco’s Beach Chalet pub—rumored to be the best spot in the city to catch a Pikachu—and at least one-third of them are women and girls.
They’re playing by themselves, with male friends or in bigger, all-female clusters. As they’re leveling up, they’re discovering how much more welcoming augmented-reality gaming can be for female players, who are frequently the targets of trolling and harassment in other branches of the gaming universe.
Since its July 6 launch, Pokemon Go has been drawing millions of new players outside to catch Pokemon characters, collect gear from Pokestops and battle at Pokemon gyms. (It's also propelled Nintendo's stock to new heights and invigorated interest in AR.) Gamers who are used to sitting behind a screen are now interacting with fellow players in hotspots like the Beach Chalet or New York’s Central Park, sharing the delight of catching new critters.
It’s that change in gameplay that makes all the difference for women.
Even though the Entertainment Software Association says roughly half of video game players are women, they’re often perceived by male gamers both as in the minority and inferior. That has led to a barrage of toxic treatment, causing many female players to hide their true genders when gaming. Until recently, much of that misogyny went unrecognized. But in 2014, when hostile men under the Gamergate banner began harassing, threatening, and revealing personal information about outspoken women in the video game world—and doing things like sending SWAT teams to their homes—the reality began to emerge.
Men are more comfortable bashing women in online games largely because most of us were raised to view the Internet as an unreal place where everything is play and there are no consequences, according to Katherine Cross, an avid gamer and sociologist who has studied online harassment and behavior.
"It is the dissociative filter of the Internet, combined with a culture that reinforces the perception of virtual space being ‘unreal’, that makes harassment possible," Cross says.
Augmented reality takes that dissociative filter away. It forces players in games like Pokémon Go to remain aware of their real-world surroundings (in part so they don’t walk into lampposts while chasing a Clefairy). And men who might taunt a female player behind the shield of the Internet are less likely to do so when they’re at the same Pokéstop, swapping stories about their latest gym victories.
Games like Pokémon Go that blend the physical and virtual worlds tend to short-circuit that dissociative reflex, Cross says. "At that point you are forced to recognize other players as fellow human beings, not just avatars on a screen."
San Francisco resident Winona Tong, a seasoned online and console gamer who often hid her gender in those games, agrees.
"It's harder to be anonymous when players are standing on the street, out in the open," Tong says. "A lot of people who trash talk online would not do that in person."
Tong is also a veteran of the augmented reality game Ingress, which Pokémon Go developer Niantic Labs launched in late 2012. During that time, Tong says she’s seen many women players embraced as equals, and watched several rise to the top by organizing events or large, complicated in-game operations.
Indeed, I discovered that many women who play Ingress say the game’s structure and play style has made them feel more welcome and respected. In a demographic survey I conducted last year, I learned that more than a quarter of Ingress players are women. Pokémon Go likely has a higher percentage, but Niantic Labs isn’t giving out any statistics.
Pokémon Go is poised to bring that experience to a much larger population of women and girls, and not just because they’re nostalgic for cute monsters. Already, longtime female gamers who are having their first augmented reality experience with Pokémon Go say the gameplay environment is noticeably friendlier for them.
"I have interacted with players in the real world I'm not acquainted with several times now," says Leigh Ann Malloy, a longtime player of console role-playing and MMO games. "Most of the interactions have been great; as one woman announced, ‘I’ve found my people.’"
Another reason women are likely to find a groove in augmented reality gaming is that such games are designed to be played while you’re living your life—commuting, running errands, or taking a lunch break. Boys are often socialized to play video games in childhood—and many of those games require significant chunks of time spent in front of the computer—but women often come to gaming later in life, when they already have demanding schedules with kids, work, and other obligations, Cross says.
That’s what got Natalie Walschots, a longtime gamer and Toronto resident, playing Pokémon Go. "I take long walks every day anyway, and this is making that time being outside and moving my body even more enjoyable," Walschots says. "I’ve learned a ton about the murals in my neighborhood [through Pokestops], too, which is unexpected and cool."
She also enjoys the camaraderie among strangers. "There is something pretty magical and joyful about pausing to catch a Gastly and being cheered on by strangers across the street, and as you're walking, have several delightful people asking you in pure excitement if you're playing Pokémon too."
Not everyone who has studied gender and online harassment agrees that augmented reality is necessarily a friendlier space for women. Sarah Jeong, author of The Internet of Garbage, notes that the physical world has never been less misogynistic than the virtual one.
"Anonymity as a feature doesn't make it more or less likely that a woman will get sexually harassed," Jeong says. "I can get cat-called while playing Pokémon Go outside just as easily as I can get cat-called in-game."
So far, though, female Pokémon Go players are reporting plenty of positive interactions within the game, and few negative ones. As augmented reality evolves, it will be interesting to observe whether women and girls will continue to have a significantly different experience compared to their online-gaming war stories.
"I think Pokémon Go really bridged a gap in what games can be for both male and female audiences," says Sarah Wawrzynowski, a gamer and user-interface artist for a San Francisco Bay Area game studio. "The way I see, it, this game sees no gender, just players, and that’s how it should be."