It’s no secret that when it comes to gaming online, women are often the subject of harassment. Gaming is an activity that can raise the blood pressure and for some gamers that involves taking their anger out on fellow players with (and we’re understating massively here) strong words. Sometimes this anger is intended to have a blast radius that insults the skills and/or mothers of as many other players as possible on a general level; it’s trash talk, an unpleasant part of the online gaming experience but one that it’s fairly easy to shirk off once you’re out of the game. However, sometimes the online abuse goes well beyond these kinds of general attacks and becomes much more targeted and sexualised, specifically towards female players with sexist jokes, gendered generalisations, and even rape threats.
A recent study from Ohio State University published in New Media and Society has found that these gendered and sexual forms of harassment are the most likely to push female gamers away from online communities, and the most likely to stay in their minds after they’ve logged off. How surprising.
The study involved 293 women with an average age of 26 who play online games like World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2 and Defense of the Ancients for an average of 13 hours per week. What was found was that whilst, like most people, these women didn’t enjoy general abuse like swearing or insults they were able to shake it off and forget about it. Though it made some of them tempted to quit playing, they said they didn’t really expect the game companies to do anything about it or blame them for not stopping it.
However, when it came to the kinds of abuse that targeted them specifically as women rather than just as players, things were understandably different. According to lead author of the survey, Jesse Fox, women players were disturbed that they were “being targeted simply for being a woman” and that “they don’t easily forget those comments and continue to think about them when they’re done playing.” It’s in instances of harassment like this that the women in the study felt the gaming companies had a responsibility to take action and that if they didn’t see an active stance being taken they were much more inclined to withdraw from playing.
You only have to look at this study which found that men who perform badly in games are much more likely to harass female players to know that this kind of gendered and sexual harassment is much more than just ‘trash talk’; it’s an act of deliberate aggression which aims to make women feel unwelcome in the gaming community, to belittle them for who they are in order to make men feel more secure as gamers.
One way the women in the Ohio State survey coped with this kind of online abuse was to mask their gender by not using female avatars or gendered usernames. In previous studies it’s also been found that as an alternative to stopping online gaming completely, some women will unplug their microphones and withdraw from the game’s social network instead, silencing their would-be harassers but also themselves. This is a problem and according to Fox it has its costs:
“It makes women invisible in the gaming community. Gaming companies assume that there aren’t many female players or that women aren’t interested in online games when they’re really just hiding their identity. Women shouldn’t have to do that.”
We completely agree that women shouldn’t have to hide their identities, and nor should players that find themselves subject to homophobia, racism, and transphobia have to either. This isn’t dismissable ‘trash talk’ (though some players seem to lack the capacity or the willingness to understand this) this kind of harassment is personal, it’s an attack on someone not as a player but who they are as a person. That abuse isn’t ‘part of the game’ and being affected by it isn’t a sign a person needs to ‘toughen up’, it’s something these people struggle against in their everyday lives and they certainly don’t need to hear it shouted in their ears in their own home whilst they try to take part in an activity they enjoy from some dude with an intense inferiority complex and an aversion to basic human decency. Like the participants in the survey we think this kind of harassment is something game companies need to recognise and tackle without mercy.
Image © iStock/gremlin