Online Harassment Faced by Women in Gaming

Editor’s Note: Story contains explicit language

My first gaming console was an Xbox 360 that my younger brother and I shared. Excited as any fourth grader would be, I rushed to turn it on and create my Xbox Live account, the same one that would still be attached to me ten years later. Though gaming during the past decade has created some of the best memories of my life, there have also been cruel, disgusting and sexist comments that I have faced from various men in “Call of Duty.” Unfortunately, I am not alone — the scores of other women who have also been affected by online harassment in a predominantly male arena say that sexism, misogyny, and other issues continue to run rampant. 

As the concern for gender equality continues to grow in the United States, more and more women in the video game community have shared their experiences of online harassment. In 2020, a report on Statista found that 41% of gamers are women. Though this number is significant, women in gaming continue to face hostility from men. 

A study conducted in 2015 found that men who feel threatened by women who are outperforming them in video game lobbies are more likely to initiate female-directed aggression. This study was conducted on “Halo 3,” a first-person story-mode and multiplayer video game with the goal of eliminating players on the enemy team. The researchers who conducted the study played a total of 163 matches of “Halo 3.” During 82 of the matches a player with a female voice interacted with other players online and in 81 matches, the voice was male. During all of these matches, 189 players spoke to the researchers — all of them were male. 

The study found that the skill of a player determined the positive or negative statements spoken to either a male or female-voiced teammate. Men who were outperforming other men were generally less negative toward their male-voiced teammates. Men, however, behaved differently while playing with the female-voiced teammate and generated a greater amount of negative comments toward the female voice. As men decreased in skill, or found themselves stuck at the bottom of the leaderboard, they increased their negative comments toward the female voice, whereas a male player whose skill was already good, or who increased in skill throughout the game, showed an increased use of positive comments. 

The study took into account the different explanations for why these negative behaviors occurred the way they did. The researchers said that male gamers who responded negatively to the female voice may have been reacting this way because of the novelty of having a female teammate or that these players are more aggressive to those with a higher-pitched voice as dominance is predictable by voice pitch. However, these possibilities do not erase the studies’ finding that female-directed hostility comes from low-status, poorer performing male gamers. 

In the exploration for understanding male hostility toward females, this study dug deep into trying to analyze unexplainable behaviors. While it is difficult to measure whether or not someone is sexist, this study, conducted through the anonymity of the players in their natural gaming environment, captured the breadth of sexism and misogyny in the “Halo” gaming community as accurately as possible. This study is only a glimpse into one of the many first-person shooter video games. The harassment women face in the gaming universe does not end here. 

Vy Dao is a student who enjoys casually playing “Call of Duty” or “COD”, a bestselling first-person shooter video game that simulates the infantry of previous wars and future combat. Dao says being a woman in the gaming community has had its ups and downs as when she speaks in COD lobbies, groups where players from around the world are matched with each other to play a specific game mode, she is met with negative and hostile reactions from men.

“So usually if I just say something…immediately, I’ll get a comment like ‘Shut up, woman’ or ‘Go make me a sandwich.’ You know, really sexist stuff,” she said. “I get a lot of that throughout the lobbies.”

These comments, Dao says, are usually from men, but she has heard the occasional woman excuse sexism from another male player.

“I feel like girl code for gaming is ‘I’m not going to shit on you because you’re a girl’ or ‘You’re not going to shit on me because I’m a girl,’” she said. “But in COD, if this girl is playing with some other guy and their duo is shitting on me, instead of the girl defending…the girl would be like, ‘Well, maybe you should just play better and he won’t trash talk you.’”

Dao said that even when she does meet male counterparts online who say they are not sexist, they ultimately will prove otherwise by mansplaining the game she is playing or “babying” her even if she outperforms them. In Dao’s experiences, it is difficult to call out these behaviors.

“They get so defensive,” she said. “I have nowhere to speak because if I speak on issues or concerns as a woman, (they) will automatically think I am a social justice warrior.”

Dao said it is hard for her to make friends in this male-dominated arena. In her experiences with male gamers she has met, they have viewed her as a potential girlfriend or see her as different from the norm. “No, I’m like every other girl,” she said. “Don’t try to think of me as something special because I’m a woman in a male-dominated hobby…view me as a person rather than just my gender.”

Sheryl Lawrence, a Discord server moderator and casual gamer, says dealing with harassment from men has become embedded in her position as a moderator as well as a gamer. Her experiences with harassment have been mostly through Discord, one of the most popular platforms that allows gamers to create communities online through talk, text, and video.

“Depending on the night, I just won’t talk at all because I’d be talked over a lot,” she said. “Or when I do speak, they’d just be like ‘Shut the fuck up.’ Other nights, I am like, ‘No, you shut the fuck up.’ It really just depends on the night.”

Lawrence confided to me that comments like these sometimes make her leave chat rooms and not want to play anymore. Her job as a moderator, she says, frustrates her sometimes. She recalled an experience where another moderator pulled her into a chat room where he harassed her for an hour about becoming his girlfriend.

“Gaming helped me deal with the whole pandemic situation,” she said. “And so, having those things happen to me just because I’m a woman is…disheartening because men get to have this community of people, and then women jump into this community, and they’re trying to have a good time. But then, things like that happen…it’s like, where are we supposed to go?”

Lawrence said more inclusion could improve her experiences because while there are bad people, there are others who are just trying to have some fun.

“I’d just like to see more welcoming instead of bashing people that are new (to the community) for no reason,” she said.

Kate Sánchez is a member of the gaming community who has worked to create a welcoming community after experiencing hostility from men online. She is the creator and host of the “But Why Tho?” podcast, which covers various topics from movies and video games to anime. The podcast quickly expanded into a website where people could get together and share their experiences about these topics.

Sánchez does not have a memory without video games in her life. She started as a solid first-person shooter player who spent hours on COD, but now she reviews the franchise for her website. She recalled being harassed as a woman in COD lobbies and said she would only use her microphone if she was in a party with people she had played with before.

“The dudes suck,” she said. “Just the sexism of it all…specifically for COD, as it got more customizable, when I started including pink in everything that I had or like the heart reticles…my gamertag in general, people would usually know that I was a woman to begin with; the mic cut down a lot of the harassment.”

Sánchez has been harassed a few times from large scale campaigns such as GamerGate and ComicsGate. GamerGate was a cultural war in 2014 instigated by anti-feminist trolls from 4chan or 8chan who did not want more inclusion of women or minority groups in their gaming experience. ComicsGate, which came shortly after, was a campaign opposing diversity in the comic book industry.

Despite Sánchez’s negative experiences online with men, she takes pride in the community that she has made.

“I run a community specifically made up of marginalized folks, and that includes gender, sexual expression, race and ethnicity,” she said. “And so, the vast majority of the people that I personally hang out with are people of color and men of color. So, I do have positive experiences with my circle online, but I have also gone through great lengths to curate my circle.”

Sanchez has become better equipped to deal with harassment and focuses on building a community that is safe, productive and empowering instead of giving attention to people who are hateful. 

“I think I hear people say that it’s gotten worse, but as a brown woman, it’s always been this bad,” she said. “And while certain factions, like GamerGate, do still exist, they’re not nearly as impactful as they have been in the past. So, it’s kind of like, the bad is still there, but we have the tools to create good, too.”

Sánchez emphasized the need for companies to cut ties with people who are harassing others and people who are known bigots in the industry. She said that there are known harassers on Twitch or YouTube who still have partnerships and monetized videos. Without these companies taking the necessary steps against these people, she said, we will not be able to see any progress.

“I think the biggest issue has always remained that as a community, as people, as consumers, as writers, as critics, we have a piece of power, which is why we need to put our focus in uplifting people that deserve to be uplifted and empowering them,” Sánchez said.

As for myself, I have been targeted for my gender countless times on “Call of Duty.” Most recently, I had been called a “whore,” a “slut,” and a “libtard” by angry men who I called out for their racist remarks toward a teammate on the opposing team. While these comments infuriate me and sometimes make me want to quit playing, my love for the game prevails. However, these words of comfort I give to myself may not be the case for other women who have been harassed, and that is an issue we must focus on.

Women in gaming, or any hobby they find themselves interested in, should not throw in the towel because of hostile men. As bullying and harassment exists for all minorities on “Call of Duty,” the growing attitude of men who feel that they are untouchable or entitled to the game over anyone else needs to be dismantled. We must emphasize to those who have been harassed that these men do not own these spaces and that it is not their fault, but rather that of the harassers. However, hostile behavior from men toward women is not new. 

Women in the United States have always been subjugated to man’s decision on what is socially acceptable and what is not. In the early 20th century alone, women could be beaten and raped by their husbands and were not legally allowed to prosecute their husbands for assault, contraceptives were illegal, and women could not vote. Women’s liberation in the 21st century United States has come a long way, yet continues to find obstacles when it comes to gender equality, sexmism and misogyny. 

The rampant ideologies of the submissive woman still exist today, granted, not nearly as much as 50 years ago, but the people who perpetuated these beliefs have left a trail. It bleeds into the workforce, the gender roles in family systems, the beauty standards for women, and the hypersexualization or demonization of a woman who expresses herself. 

Most negative behaviors from men are the result of years of accumulated teachings from those who raised them or how they observed those around them treat women. The more we let these men feel comfortable in male dominated arenas, the more we disregard the individualism women have fought for for decades. 

Even though sexist or negative interactions in gaming lobbies may be a small example of the gender discrimination and misogyny women face, it is only one arena which some men have claimed impenetrable. To see progress, the social construction of the male hierarchy over women must be eliminated by teaching young boys that women are their equals.

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