Fear of online abuse has made female gamers change their behaviour. Photograph: OcusFocus/Getty Images/iStockphoto
In an extract from her book, Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the Fight for the Future of Videogames (co-authored by Dan Golding), Leena van Deventer writes candidly about a time she was sexually harassed online.
She was playing Team Fortress 2, an online multiplayer shooter, and one of her favourite games. Van Deventer had just “splurged” on a new headset with headphones and microphone with an exciting feature: voice modifiers “that made me sound like a cool robot or a huge giant”. Once she began speaking in-game, however, there was what she calls “the reaction”:
“Omg are you like twelve, dude?”
“I’m not a dude.”
“OMMMGGGG YOU’RE A GIIIIIIRRRLLLL! We got a girl in here, boys!”
Van Deventer writes that she did her best to shrug off the comments and keep playing. One man, however, continued to “stalk” her avatar in the game.
“Then came the questions: What are you wearing? Have you got any pics? Have you got any NUDE pics? Do you fuck guys who like games?’”
Before long, she writes: “I could hear him masturbating on the voice chat, while playing. He would ask breathy, laboured questions. Other teammates found it hilarious … I wished I could focus on my objective in the game, but I knew I had to leave this server … My mouse was hovering over the exit button when I heard him climax, moaning my username into his microphone.”
Recalling the incident, Van Deventer – an award-winning game developer, writer and lecturer at RMIT – tells me she put her prized headphones in the drawer and “couldn’t really look at them for a while”.
Eventually she decided it was time to get them out again. “I didn’t want that guy to run the show,” she says. “I’m a loud-mouthed feminist woman, so I like to push back. But I don’t always have the energy for that.”
Van Deventer is far from alone in experiencing this kind of harassment from men online. The website Fat, Ugly or Slutty, for example, is an archive of the many kinds of abuse directed towards women who game online. “Every message is the same,” one woman writes, “I’m always either fat and ugly, or a slut.” Posts are archived into one of these three categories, and women come together on the site to find humour in insult.
Women in online gaming communities engage in a variety of these creative resistance strategies to continue to, as Van Deventer puts it, “love the [gaming] world even if you don’t love the community … to hold on to it and know that it belongs to you as well”.
Sometimes, says Van Deventer, she will play incognito and let other players assume she’s male. In another game of Team Fortress 2, for example, her teammates assumed she was a 15-year-old boy – and Van Deventer decided to play along, in a game that lasted several hours. “One of the guys who was the main aggressors, who I’d identified as a threat if I was playing as a woman – he took me under his wing,” she says. “He was like, ‘Here you go grasshopper, I’ve got your back, I’ve got your health … ’
“I was like, ‘Look at that! You think I’m a boy, and I still don’t belong, yet now you’ll look after me.’”
Liliana Braumberger is a 32-year-old who works as an IT analyst. Like Van Deventer, her favourite online multiplayer is Team Fortress 2, a game she admits to sinking 700 hours into over the past decade. Although she doesn’t have stories as explicit as Van Deventer’s, she describes the implicit sexism she faced in-game.
At first she was hesitant to jump into multiplayer, and practised by herself before going online – something she says is “such a female thing to do”. “Once I was online, I’d generally have a good time and dominate the public leaderboards, but the gamer is almost universally assumed to be a ‘he’,” she says.
“People would compliment me, like, ‘Hey well done bro, hey dude, do this.’ Just using male language. I never bothered to correct it because when you did, it would spark a whole unwanted conversation.
“There was one time I did, and I was like, ‘Thanks, I’m a girl though, probably old enough to be your mum’ – and then someone else was like, ‘Me too,’ and then another one said, ‘Me too’ – and it turned out the whole server was full of women. We had just all assumed that we were dudes.”
Part of the invisibility of women gaming online, says Braumberger, is the fact that men feel entitled to online space in a way that women don’t. “One thing I’ve noticed, is that men feel a lot more disposed to general chat. They feel like they can go into these spaces and just talk it up,” she says. By contrast, Braumberger observes that women generally “don’t use voice” because those who did go on mic would get “lots of negative attention”.
“It’d always detract from the experience. It was enough to convince you not to want to participate in that way yourself, so I never went on voice.”
Caitlin McGrane, who recently completed a masters thesis entitled Being a feminist online is exhausting: the effects of anti-feminist rhetoric in online spaces, says such experiences contribute to women feeling unsafe in online gaming environments. For her thesis, she interviewed women from communities such as Widget (Women in Development, Games & Everything Tech). One of her key findings was that “people didn’t have to witness something in order to be affected by it”.
Gamergate, says McGrane, was identified as a watershed moment for most. “Lots of women talked about feeling affected by Gamergate; not wanting it to happen to them. They were genuinely frightened by the idea, because what happened [who was targeted and why] seemed so random.
“What I found was that fear made them change their behaviour, or employ energy-saving conservation efforts to protect themselves.”
As examples, McGrane says a lot of the women she spoke to would either opt out of multiplayer online gaming altogether, preferring single player, or they would go into servers with other women or trusted friends only.
“Often women would get together in groups to build emotional resilience and resistance to seeing this stuff,” she said. “So part of emotional resilience is saying, ‘I’m not going to get drawn into an argument.’ As one of my participants said, ‘It’s so futile to try and get involved in this, we just need to look after each other.’”
McGrane, however, shies away from describing these incidents as trolling. “Often when we talk about trolling what we mean is online harassment. By calling them trolls, we diminish the impact that it has.”
One of the key issues with multiplayer gaming online, says McGrane, is that the abuse is rarely taken seriously – even when women report it to moderators.
“Women felt that the reporting mechanisms available were useless,” she says. “They felt that it wasn’t going anywhere and it was a waste of time.”
Van Deventer has a similar take on reporting mechanisms available to women who game. “I try and use the report function when I can,” she says. “But it’s hard for women to know anything is going to happen. You lose faith in them because there’s not often follow-up.
“Some games have an algorithm that can pick up if they’re using a slur, and they can be banned on the spot,” she said. “But things like, ‘Get back to the kitchen and make me a sandwich,’ don’t get picked up, because sandwich isn’t a slur.”
As a game developer, Van Deventer argues that improving reporting mechanisms would be insufficient alone, and that cultural change has to be built into games from their inception.
“As developers, we often think of the player as singular but we have to think about the culture we want to encourage around the game when it comes out, and that can inform the kinds of moderation tools we develop, so that we’re developers of the culture as well as the game.”
Robbie Fordyce, a video games researcher in the Melbourne Networked Society Institute at the University of Melbourne, agrees that focusing on culture is key – starting with the way games are marketed and sold.
“There’s a well-documented, particular kind of person who plays games: an easy-to-brand, consumer subject that you can throw flashy, misogynistic, hyper-masculine content at and they’ll swallow it without being particularly critical.
“In terms of solving the problem, I don’t know that games can do it,” he says. “I wish it was possible, but gaming is simply a hyper-intensified expression of a more general problem with toxic masculinity.”[“Source-theguardian”]