From GamerGate to #MeToo: Gaming in the Age of Consent

Greater accessibility of technology has created an interesting digital landscape. We each have the ability to connect with more people from around the planet than ever before. Our engagements with a diverse range of people always hold the potential for incredible benefits. But that’s certainly not to say that all our online exchanges are positive. 

We only have to look to the example of GamerGate to see how destructive misogynistic actors can be to the online gaming community. Harassment and abuse targeted at women — from doxing to threats of sexual assault — shined a light on an insidious right-wing, anti-feminist element. Men who felt their “gamer” identity, and indeed the violent and male chauvinistic gaming elements they enjoyed, were threatened by a more progressive direction. While this was by no means a universal attitude, it was certainly widespread enough to be disturbing. Though this harassment campaign began more than 5 years ago, abuse of its nature remains a prevalent aspect of the industry. 

Women and minors have frequently been subject to unwanted and illegal sexual attention in gaming spaces. There is a distinct skew toward female gamers receiving NSFW material without their consent, and there have been multiple examples of how toxic masculinity affects gaming communities. So how can we make these online environments safer for minors, women, and indeed us all? What steps can we take to ensure multiplayer gaming is ethical, enjoyable, and positive for those who wish to be a part of it? 

Recognizing Harmful Behavior

One area in which the GamerGate controversy was particularly enlightening was the sheer range of forms of abuse that can be employed in gaming spaces. By 2014, we had already become all too familiar with social media trolling, but there was worse to come. We discovered that online gamers were subject to “swatting” — harassers placing hoax calls to emergency services, resulting in SWAT responses to victims’ homes. Large-scale harassment of women in the industry coordinated through anonymous message boards became commonplace. 

This does, however, provide us with a valuable tool. Part of our arsenal in tackling abuses which occur in gaming environments is wider education on recognizing what constitutes online abuse, and how it can escalate, so that we can act on it effectively. Abuse is intentional, often repeated, and intended to cause harm — psychologically or physically. Because trash talk is common in gaming, victims are often made to feel uncertain about the intentions of their harasser. We must each take responsibility to place more emphasis on the clarity of boundaries so that we can empower victims to act confidently when seeking recourse or protection. 

Sexual behavior is also not unusual in online communities, and is not necessarily negative. However, gamers can benefit from better education that allows them to behave in more informed, appropriate ways. Alongside the more obvious forms of abuse and harassment, gamers need to understand the importance of consent when it comes to their communications online. This also extends to comprehension of the legal definitions of consent, and their responsibility to insuring they are interacting appropriately within the confines of laws and ethics as they define consent. 

A Friendlier Environment

One of the more toxic issues that needs to be addressed is that of how victims are treated. Among the reasons victims of abuse are often reticent about coming forward is that we have nurtured a culture of victim blaming. Sometimes this is due to the approach of investigations, fully dubious queries of whether victims might have acted in such a way as to “encourage” their abusers. A common aspect of GamerGate was a tendency for harassers, commentators and celebrities to erroneously deflect reports of abuse as political misinformation and outright fabrication of evidence

“We must also address the widespread tendency toward victim blaming, and how women are represented in the gaming industry”.

We must therefore make concerted efforts to empower victims and provide education on consent. This should include greater efforts to insure that the information provided by victims is treated in a way that protects them from further harm. Victims are often not always afforded sufficient identity protection when reporting crimes. Maintaining confidentiality must be central to a victim-centric response to sexual abuse, wherever it occurs. A system in which privacy breaches are prevented helps to build vital trust with victims. Which in turn sends a message that their continued safety is of paramount concern. 

The gaming community also has a responsibility to ensure that all players have access to information and assistance when abuse occurs. Organizations such as Victims Choice have been instrumental in drawing attention to resources available to those who have experienced the gamut of online abuse. Whether commonplace trolling, or more disturbing grooming, victims must be empowered to feel that they have some recourse. 

Improving Gender Representation

It is no secret that women are more likely to be victims of online abuse, with this extending even to those whose usernames appear to have feminine qualities. The events surrounding GamerGate demonstrate to us that there continues to be systemic damaging treatment of women in gaming communities. Not just as gamers, but also as developers and journalists in the field. This problematic backlash against progressive attitudes illustrates that serious cultural changes are long overdue. 

Can we go so far as to say that video games are inherently sexist? Whether or not misogyny is intended, there is certainly a strong case to be made. Historically games have been dominated by toxic, violent masculinity. Depictions of female characters are usually hyper-sexualized, with costume options tending toward the minimal. There has also been a disturbing history of games which include options to commit violence against women, that continues today.

A proportion of the cultural change, then, must come from developers, and there are strides being made to shift this toxic culture from within. As technology becomes more accessible, more diverse talents are having an influence upon the gaming landscape. More progressive work is being produced, often by women, with the intention of creating a more inclusive, positive gaming space. 

What Now?

While multiplayer gaming has offered new opportunities for gamers to connect, it has also become another platform for online abusers to operate. The events of GamerGate show us that serious systemic harassment extends beyond the act of gaming, and deep into the heart of the industry itself. Many of the challenges we face can only be addressed with cultural changes. Alongside placing greater emphasis on education about consent, we must also address the widespread tendency toward victim blaming, and how women are represented in the gaming industry.

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