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A refuge for women in a hostile game space

INTERNET

September 03, 2007|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Christa Phillips plays like a girl. And she's perfectly OK with that.

Known online as TriXie, Phillips serves as a goodwill ambassador for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox Live online game service. Her online group, GamerchiX, functions as a virtual Grand Central Terminal for women and girls who tread into the testosterone-steeped world of console gaming.

American society has evolved since the advancement of women's rights in the 1960s. But the world of video gaming has been largely stuck in a time warp with its frat house culture of sexual insults and put-downs.

"For some women, the minute they open their mouths, they get trash-talked or hit on or both," Phillips said.

The hostile climate has kept many women away from online gaming, she said. Microsoft says it doesn't track the gender of its players, but Phillips estimates that 10% to 20% of Xbox Live's 7 million players are women. The service lets players log into a network of gamers via the Internet to find opponents and teammates, and to chat using instant messaging or headsets.

Making women feel more comfortable makes good business sense: Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is trying to expand its audience and broaden its market reach.

"Microsoft wants to have the mass market console," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. "To get there, they need women."

Phillips, 38, has run GamerchiX since June 2006. She was inspired by PMS Clan, an online group of competitive female players. Many of them compete internationally for cash prizes.

"I've heard it all," said Amber Dalton, who founded PMS Clan. "They tell you to go to the kitchen and get them a sandwich. Or they ask you if you're hot. You can also be targeted just because you're a girl. They all just start shooting at you the second they find out you're a girl."

Phillips said the group was "awesome for empowering women," but she thought Xbox Live needed a group that made online life easier for pros and newcomers alike.

"I wanted to create a safe place for all women gamers," she said. "It's a place where you can go to socialize and not have to worry about being harassed or hit on."

Phillips didn't come to the games industry to start a feminist revolution.

She began her career in 1995 as a part-time writer for the in-house magazine of game developer Sierra Entertainment. When it offered her a full-time writing job, Phillips quit community college to write for the company's marketing department, penning such lines as "CyberGladiators: Warriors Reborn as Hardware from Hell!"

Microsoft hired her in 2002 to write Xbox product manuals. She also wrote articles for the Xbox website and started doing community outreach, writing a blog and posting interviews with Xbox gamers. After Xbox Live launched, she hit upon the idea of creating an online persona named TriXie.

"The name's a tiny bit naughty, but playful," Phillips said. "We knew our audience."

TriXie became Microsoft's female face in the gaming world. She reported on game events, answered questions from players and chatted with online gamers.

Through GamerchiX, the sassy mother of two has become part camp counselor, part sorority sister and part den mother.

While playing on Xbox Live on Wednesday night, Phillips fielded a message from a GamerchiX member who had been stalked with derogatory e-mail messages. TriXie fired off an order for the male perpetrator to be kicked off the service.

"You can't harass my girls," she said.

It's not just male aggression that Phillips monitors. Sometimes the nastiness comes from other women. GamerchiX members must agree to a code of conduct that she calls a "manifesta."

"You cannot talk trash about other women, ever," Phillips said. "Some girls make your eyes bleed, they're so nasty. The girl cat-fighty stuff brings us all down. But those girls are the exception. Most of them are amazingly supportive and cool."

Female gamers have formed several all-women organizations. UbiSoft Entertainment sponsors Frag Dolls, a group of nine women age 20 to 32 years who play professionally. PMS Clan counts 750 members.

Those who band together say they crave the support of a larger entity. "When you're a minority, it can be daunting and frustrating," Dalton said. "Having a unit there you can network with is an empowering experience."

That desire to bond is natural, said Louann Brizendine, director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic at UC San Francisco and author of "The Female Brain."

"The one question I always get from boys is why girls always go to the bathroom together," Brizendine said. "They do it because it's a safe and protected place they can go to exchange information.

"It's the one place where boys can't follow them," she said. "Microsoft is creating the Xbox version of the girl's bathroom."

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