It’s time to stop minimizing what harassment is and start holding people accountable for their actions online.
The American Psychological Association defines harassment as “threatening, harmful or humiliating conduct based on race, color, national origin, sex or disability” regardless of intent. Harassment creates a hostile environment that interferes with or limits a person’s ability to participate in an activity. Harassment can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or felony if the prosecutor can prove specific intent, “which is intending the specific act that one is charged with. This means that the prosecutor must show that the defendant did or said something with the intent that the communication would harass the victim. The person may intend to annoy or intimidate the victim, or the words may be designed to provoke a fight.” Why, then, do we allow online harassment to grow into a toxic culture in the gaming community?
As gamers, we have to have thick skin, especially when competing in games such as Counterstrike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, and other games where you communicate with people. That is not, however, an open door policy for harassment, and it shouldn’t be considered normal. Unfortunately, harassment is becoming the norm in the online gaming community because we allow it. There is a fine line between typical gamer trash talk and harassment. When a gamer talks trash, it’s generally about gameplay and/or strategy. Harassment delves into a much nastier conversation intended to mentally and emotionally cause harm. Stanford University alumnus Kaitlyn Williams wrote an award winning research essay, “When Gaming Goes Bad: An Exploration of Videogame Harassment Towards Female Gamers”. Inexperienced with the online gaming community, Williams’s research found that
For female gamers in online settings, harassment generally includes sexist or misogynist comments, threats of rape and death, as well as demands for sexually-related images or favors. According to a survey conducted by Emily Matthews on Pricecharting Blog involving 874 respondents, “63% of women reported being called a “c*nt, bitch, slut, and whore” while gaming. Others reported they were threatened with sexual assault, asked for sexual favors, and bombarded with stereotypical comments regarding female gender roles”. Comments related to female gender roles range from “go make me a sandwich” to “get back in the kitchen and make me some pie”. Generally, the content of the harassment does not relate to gaming, and unlike trash-talk, harassment is solely intended to mentally wound or silence female gamers.
While men definitely experience harassment in the gaming community, women are more often the targets of gender-based harassment. Overwatch player Glisa recently recorded her gameplay as she was being harassed by her teammates. She uploaded it to Youtube and, unfortunately, it’s harassment that many women gamers—including myself—have experienced. So why is it so prevalent? Harassment in video games is rampant for a number of reasons, the biggest being people’s perceived safety behind the anonymity of an avatar. Anonymity means no consequences for actions that, outside of the online community, would warrant confrontation and/or legal action. Most of the people—predominantly young men—who find entertainment in harassing others would not do so outside of the online community.
Another reason for the continued growth of harassment in the gaming community is the “just ignore it and it will stop” mentality. This is the same tried and not true method that parents would tell their children who would come home from school after having being bullied. And lastly, probably one of the saddest reasons that harassment continues to grow like a poisonous weed, is that we, as a community, continue to reduce harassment’s severity to “just trolling”. Trolling does not sound as severe as harassment. Trolling sounds like a joke. This is where we learn that words really do have power in how they are used. No one wants to use the word harassment because of the stigma of being seen as someone who whines, complains, cries wolf, or is called a feminist. Remember the backlash known as GamerGate, that Anita Saarkesian faced for exploring stereotypes of women in video games?
Unfortunately, combating harassment in the gaming community is not easy and it never will be without help from game developers themselves. The gaming community is filled with countless forums and groups that offer support for specific games or general gaming. When someone posts in one of these groups about being harassed online, the likely response from other community members is to “just hit the ignore/block” button. The problem with simply ignoring the problem is that it does not go away. It moves onto the next person and the next. And sometimes, the harasser will be so bold as to create another character in order to continue to harass the person who blocked him/her. As Laura Carruba explains in her article “Why Reporting Offensive Players in Online Games Is a Losing Battle”, “…reporting a bad player can take longer than playing a game session with said bad player, the path of least resistance is to put up with” the harasser. One Twitch streamer gives an example of how to handle mild harassment in the video below.
How, then, do we combat the plague of harassment in the gaming community when ignoring it and just putting up with it is clearly not helping? We don’t have to stoop to anyone else’s level in order to defend ourselves. If you are streaming, record it. If your harassment is via text, screenshot it. Report that player and keep reporting the people who think that the culture of being as offensive as possible is acceptable because there are no consequences while being online. Petition game developers and platforms to update their policies on harassment and to hire staff to specifically deal with harassment. And if you see someone being harassed, don’t just sit there and watch. Do something! At present, Halo 4 is the only online gaming platform that takes a “Zero Tolerance” stance on harassment. It’s not impossible just because people don’t want to put in the work. We do not have to foster a culture of harassment. We don’t deserve that. We can do better. We all deserve better.