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November 20, 2017
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Should online gaming sexual harassment be combated?

by Quinn Poisson on 09/11/17 09:15:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


“Show me your tits and I’ll help you.”

- An unsolicited proposition while online gaming.

“The guild leader threatened to tear my breasts into bloody shreds.”

- A gamer describing her own teammate’s threat while online gaming

Imagine you are waiting to checkout at a grocery store. In front of you are two shoppers: a man and a woman. The woman, first in line, goes to pay for her groceries. When she realizes she did not bring enough money to pay for her entire cart, the man offers to pay her bill in exchange for showing him her breasts. We would never expect such an unsolicited proposition in the real world, nor would we expect either the victim or other shoppers to be plagued by silence. However, such sexual harassment occurrences are commonplace in online gaming — what Consalvo termed “a space apart where normal rules don’t apply”.

In the summer of 2014, a leaderless movement opposing the political correctness of gaming coverage gained traction. Gamers spontaneously rallied around the hashtag GamerGate to criticize gaming journalism supporting feminism in the industry. The movement quickly escalated to stalking and threats against female game designers, players, scholars, and anyone sympathetic to them. 

Although the majority of male gamers did not make violent threats against women, GamerGate may be emblematic of the gaming community’s zeitgeist. Both empirical studies and anecdotal stories demonstrate that sexual harassment is prevalent and acceptable in Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) and Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs).

A field experiment found employing a feminine voice while interacting with other players predicts receiving three times as many negative comments as when interacting with a masculine one. Similarly, already in 2012, an online survey found that it is very common for female players to be harassed during online game play. Over 63% of the women in the survey reported such harassment, being threatened with sexual assault and being called names such as “cunt” and “bitch”. Additionally, women frequently have their abilities questioned due to their gender. Sometimes women are not only verbally harassed, but are actively ostracized by male players, being kicked out of teams as soon as their gender is revealed.

A peer-reviewed, empirical study finds that 48% of women report feeling uncomfortable in online gaming because of their gender — most of them avid gamers. Aris Bakhtanians’ sexual harassment of his own teammate—Miranda Pakozdi—at a tournament until she quit, demonstrates that even seasoned female players are targeted and suffering. He later said at an interview: “Sexual harassment is part of a culture… If you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community.”Although Pakozdi quitting the tournament is an anecdotal example of online gaming sexual harassment (OGSH) forcing women out of gaming, empirical evidence demonstrates that OGSH prompts many women to withdraw. Yet if there is evidence that OSGH triggers withdrawal, there is little indication as to why it does so. Researchers admit they know little of female gamers’ experiences — and even less about their experiences with OGSH. However, evidence is amounting to support the notion that OGSH is severely affecting female gamers, incurring both psychological and financial costs.

In an ideal world, this would provide sufficient impetus for gaming companies to invest unlimited resources in redressing the issue. However, as resources are limited, it must first be scientifically examined whether OGSH uniquely and seriously affects women. Resource allocation should be determined following an empirical investigation of whether OGSH is creating a hostile environment specific to women, thus uniquely disadvantaging them in the gaming domain.

To scientifically study the impact of OGSH on women, we must contrast the experience of female OGSH victims to the experiences of three other groups of players: male OGSH victims, female general harassment victims, and male general harassment victims. We cannot only examine whether OGSH is bad for women. Rather, we must examine how bad it is for them by comparing their experiences to men and women in an arguably similarly unpleasant situation (general toxicity), and men in the same sexually harassing, unpleasant situation.

Thus, one part of researching OGSH’s impact, is examining whether it is more harmful to women than general toxicity. We must examine whether general versus sexual harassment type — such as aggressively threatening a woman’s head versus her breasts — produces different and potent emotional, psychological, and behavioral outcomes. If OGSH and general harassment produce similar outcomes, it would be hard to logically argue that redressing OGSH should precede fighting general harassment.

The second part of researching OGSH’s impact, is to understand its effect on gender; whether men are as psychologically and behaviorally affected by it as women. Thus, we might investigate whether violently threatening a man’s testicles produces the same level of distress as threatening a woman’s breasts. If we find it does, we cannot argue that OGSH is asymmetrically deleterious to women as compared to men.

Although these questions are empirical, to my knowledge, no research has definitively answered them to date. Furthermore, a dearth of literature exists on women’s experiences in gaming — especially in the wake of sexual harassment. However, while it is unclear whether harassment type interacts with gender to affect women differently, or whether verbal OGSH produces real-world, deleterious effects, there is research suggesting it does.

Research on women’s outcomes following real-world sexual assault finds that compared to other forms of assault, it is more likely to lead to PTSD symptoms, and a mechanism propagating the symptoms is rumination. Furthermore, female veterans suffer greater adverse effects following sexual assault, as compared to physical assault. Thus, it seems OGSH may affect women more than general harssment. However, as gaming occurs in a virtual environment, it is unclear whether these findings will generalize.

Although OGSH is only verbal or pictorial (when men send unsolicited nude photographs) in nature, research suggest it may be equally deleterious to real-world experiences. One study finds  hate speech affects victims emotionally and behaviorally. Furthermore, technology based victimization—such as cyberstalking and virtual rape—produce a variety of long-term, extravirtual damaging outcomes. These include fear, depression, PTSD symptoms, and quitting one’s job. These studies demonstrate that sexual gaming harassment may affect women similar to their victimization in the real world. These studies do not, however, assess whether men suffer similarly when victimized by OGSH.

Research suggests that OGSH negatively affects women more than men. For example, female cyberstalking victims engage in more protective behaviors than men, suggesting they are more fearful of the negative, virtual encounter. Furthermore, while women generally fear any form of violence or harassment more than men, research demonstrates that this fear is likely a product of their heightened concern of sexual assault. Taken together, these studies suggest that OGSH affects women more than it affects men. Furthermore, it seems that although OGSH impacts women more than general harassment, general harassment will impact women more than men as well. However, whether the nature of the gaming environment promotes similar, real-world deleterious effects is still an unanswered, empirical question (although, spoiler alert, I am already on it).

Thus, without further rigorously examining OGSH’s effect relative to general harassment, and how it varies by gender, we cannot claim to understand its true impact. To uncover whether women experiencing OGSH are uniquely disadvantaged, we must scientifically consider whether gender and harassment type are affecting one another.

Answering these questions will generate an understanding of how impactful OGSH may be to gaming companies, and whether they should focus only on general toxicity, or on OGSH as well. These questions are important, as they scientifically help isolate whether OGSH is uniquely devastating, and to whom.

If, in fact, OGSH uniquely harms women, it is important to generate theoretical models explaining why it produces an asymmetrical impact, and especially why it leads female gamers to withdraw from gaming. Understanding why the impact occurs is imperative for tailoring theoretically sound, and likely effective interventions. Without unearthing efficacious methods to target OGSH, resources would be wasted.

Thus, although gender and harassment type likely interact to predict the greatest impact on female OGSH victims, we must still understand why this occurs. While a female gamer likely experiences greater harm when her breasts are violently threatened as compared to non-sexual parts of her body — or a man whose testicles are threatened — empirically validated theoretical groundwork must first be laid before constructing and validating possible OGSH interventions.

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