The abuse of women on the internet – and in gaming in particular – is an issue that has reached a tipping point in recent years.
A new documentary, The Dark Side of Gaming, is now streaming on the new online-only BBC Three, exploring misogynistic abuse encountered by women in gaming.
BuzzFeed UK spoke to six women in the gaming world about their experiences of headset abuse, Twitter trolling, Gamergate misogyny, and plain old clumsy sexism – and why they keep gaming regardless.
1. Lucy Gaster, longtime gamer, and director of The Dark Side Of Gaming
"I think a lot of women choose to avoid certain scenarios where they feel they're going to come under threat. So for example, when they're choosing their avatar name, they might deliberately choose something that is very gender neutral or even male-sounding, so that they don't attract that kind of initial attention. They might play with their headset off, so that they're not flagging up that they're female through their voice. They make all those sorts of decisions before they even get online, in order not to draw attention.
"Certainly some of the people who've got profiles out there, they've become a bit of a lightning rod for that sort of abuse: Women speaking out, and encroaching on 'male space', seems to be what really attracts that sort of vitriol. But it is a very, very, very small percentage of the community who are abusive, and they just happen to be the ones that shout the loudest."
"It was when I started working on a Bravo video game show called GameFace that I suddenly became very aware of people talking online. I figured there'd be some constructive criticism, which is fine – but what I found online wasn't really all that constructive. Straightaway there was this tone of 'Who's this blonde girl? What could she possibly know about gaming? How dare she be talking about it?'
"I started noticing that on Twitter and Facebook, people would send me really disgusting comments. They'd be quite aggressively sexual, although 'it's supposed to be a compliment'. It was like, this is just gross. Originally I used to get really cross, and I would comment and comment again, and generally I'd win, and sometimes I'd change people's minds. But I was spending so much of my time angry as hell, and it was just really not healthy.
"Everyone said to me, 'Julia, don't feed the trolls – just don't reply to them and they'll go away.' And so I did that for quite a while, but something never felt right about it. If women being quiet accomplished anything, then the world would be an incredibly amazing place right now, because we all tend to shut up about stuff like this and not talk about it. But all it does is breed more of it, because the men have a safe space to say what the hell they want and get away with it, effectively. It never really sat right with me, being quiet as a superpower – that's the worst Marvel comic you've ever read: 'The Quiet Woman! Who does nothing, and sits there and hopes for the best!'
"So I'm like, I've got to find a way of replying to these people where I don't get angry, and I thought, Well, I could just take the piss out of them. They'd say things like 'Oh, that girl moves my nob,' and I'd be like, 'Where to? Is it somewhere sunny?' You know, making really flippant remarks, just to show how stupid they were, and for my own sanity really.
"There are some guys who are outright misogynistic, just sheer women-haters, and they take that online. But there's this other group of guys who are just really ignorant. They honestly think that saying, 'Hey, I'd really like to fuck you in your mouth,' is an acceptable way of saying hello. Honestly, it's like men sometimes think that because they want to put their dick in you, it's a compliment.
"More women need to speak up and not put up with this crap, because this idea of not feeding the trolls is a lie. Block people, report people, whatever it is – you have to do it. I take it as a personal responsibility, because if I don't stand up to these guys, all I'm doing is pushing it on to the next woman.
"Here's the thing: It's a very, very small minority of men that behave like this, but these are the guys who ruin inter-gender relationships for everybody. You know that time when a guy comes up to you in a bar, and he's like 'Oh, hi there,' and you're like, 'Oh fuck off, you freak!' You're doing it not because this guy is a freak, but because the 50 guys preceding that guy have been weird or sexist, so naturally as a woman, you've learned to put a barrier up. Men should be just as annoyed, because these are the guys that make it harder for you to talk to women. It's literally all their fault."
"I'm a video presenter and producer. I've been working in the gaming world for about eight or nine years, and it's all born out of a childhood hobby, I suppose. I've been lucky.
"I'm fairly shy online, and I'm not so skilled that I feel like trash-talking people anyway, so I don't use voice chat. Maybe as a result, it's been a long while since I've had any abuse – I feel like I've dodged a bullet really, because I know a lot of people get it quite a lot.
"The thing I encounter most often is just people asking, 'Do you actually play games?' It's nearly always well-intentioned, but there's a mild undermining vibe, which is that they don't expect you to actually play games – like your interest is for show, or your enthusiasm isn't authentic because it's a job. I have a suspicion that they probably wouldn't ask that of my male colleague, even though we do the same job and we're the same generation. It's not intended to be rude, but it has a drip-drip effect of 'Oh, so a lot of people don't really expect you to authentically be interested in the thing that you spend every day writing about, talking about, and posting videos about,' which I find quite weird. Oh no, I'm really not that bothered about video games – I've just built a career around it."
4. Jenny Haniver, founder of Not in the Kitchen Anymore
"When I was a student in university, I had to do a project based on a social issue, and I chose harassment in online gaming. I set up an art installation where I recorded the type of stuff guys would say to me while I was gaming. It's always been kind of funny to me I guess, so when the art project concluded, I kept making the recordings so I could share them with my friends. I created the website to function as a point to upload all those recordings with transcripts, and share it around with the people I gamed with.
"The comments are all over the board – everything from guys whispering that they want me to take off my clothes and take a bath, or asking me what colour underwear I'm wearing, or calling me a cunt because I'm playing video games. Then there's more serious stuff every once in a while – you get death or rape threats. I'll always remember that one of my professors who was involved in the project was absolutely appalled. To people who don't really play games a lot, or just do mobile gaming, a lot of this stuff can fly right over your head and you have no idea what's going on.
"Personally speaking, I find it annoying and disheartening, but it's never dissuaded me from trying to communicate with other people, because that's how I like to play the game. I find that you're a much more effective player when you're working with the people you're playing with. That said, sometimes you do realise it's pointless and the person you're playing with is an idiot, and all they want to do is scream obscenities at people.
"The excuse is always, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of kids.' No. These dudes clearly sound like they're at least in their twenties, and there are some that are very identifiably thirties or forties. And you know, actually, the kids I do run into have more innocuous, stupid, middle-school jokes. And if you're 13 years old, you're an idiot by default. There's still time for them to make these jokes and be corrected and grow out of it. Whereas some of the older guys seem to feel genuinely threatened by the presence of women in what they consider the 'last bastion of masculinity'. I've also noticed guys making fun of women and being like, 'Well, I bet you're fat and lonely and you live in your mom's basement, and you're a cat lady.' Typically what I choose to do is laugh it off, or turn it around on them and just be like, 'Dude, what the fuck are you doing?'
"People who aren't really into gaming hear about this stuff and go, 'Well I don't ever want to try online gaming,' or 'I don't ever want to use the headset.' It's up to them, but the headset can add such a neat component to it. I've made a lot of what I would consider close friends on Xbox – I've seen their kids grow up on Facebook; I've met a few of them in real life. So people being scared off by hearing stories like this – you're potentially missing out on something that can be quite cool.
"It's 2016, and even my fricking grandpa plays Bejeweled. Anyone can game now."
5. Brianna Wu, game developer and co-founder of Giant Spacekat
"What I would like anyone reading this to understand is, in the game industry we have a problem: Our journalistic enterprises are so dominated by men, [and] it radically tilts what they consider game coverage. Throughout 2014, I saw these misogynistic forces that would come to be known as Gamergate go after my friends – Zoe Quinn, Leigh Alexander, Katherine Cross, and Jenn Frank. Women in the industry were being bullied out right and left, and because so many of our news organisations choose not to hire women, they just didn't think it was important enough to talk about or denounce. So it was 'see no evil, hear no evil'.
"I started speaking out against Gamergate and the criminal harassment that I saw them putting my friends through, and eventually they went after me. They sent me this really serious death threat: 'Guess what, bitch, I know where you live. I'm going to cut off your husband's tiny Asian penis and rape you with it until you bleed. Your dead mutilated corpse will be on the front page of Jezebel tomorrow. If you have any kids they're going to die too.' And you know, I knew that our game industry was not going to report this, so I went over their heads. I basically pushed through my fear and went on camera to tell the story of what was happening to women in the game industry.
"The truth is, it's tempting to think that this criminal harassment is the disease, but it's just the symptom. The disease itself is an industry that is wildly sexist in ways it's not willing to think about. Look, I am a software engineer. I love video games so much, I went out and started my own company to make them! No one loves games more than I do. But what I find is that when I talk to gamers, they lapse into this language like 'Well we think this, we want this', and there's this feeling that these white, straight men own gamer culture. And of course they feel that way, because the game companies have marketed to this very specific kind of consumer for 30 years now, and everything that they see in games says 'Women are here for your visual pleasure.' Playing games is not gendered. But from the beginning this space has been marketed as a men's space, and now that that's changing, there is a very predictable backlash. There are some gamers that genuinely feel put off, they feel abused.
"Something Anita Sarkeesian talks a lot about is asking us to examine the output of our industry. I work on the other end of that equation, so for me, because I work in the game industry, I started thinking about how the input is wildly imbalanced. I talk a lot about hiring women developers and women journalists. When you have women included on a development team, we influence the process like a magnet. I'll give you an example: Forza is a very popular racing game, and you've only ever been able to play as a male driver. Well, this year, for Forza 6, a female friend of mine on the team really advocated for finally letting you race a car as a woman, and create your avatar as a woman, and now that's a feature. That sends this very subtle message that Forza isn't a game just for boys.
"When I speak up on this, it has nothing but cost for me. I still get death threats constantly, I still get doxed constantly. I deal with organised harassment every single day. This has had a really high cost to me personally, but it really comes down to that next generation of women coming into this field. We have to change this. It's not acceptable."
"I've been playing games since I was about 5, and I've been working in the games industry for about five years now.
"I like to think it's a very vocal minority that makes things difficult for certain people online, but I also think it's the death throes of an old way of looking at gaming. In any industry, when things start to change and the status quo starts to shift, you're going to find that people who benefited from the previous way that things were, they're going to have trouble adjusting to the changes. When you come from a place of privilege, that's going to feel like you're being wronged, I suppose.
"You know, these were the same people who wanted games to be viewed as art for a very long time, and when you view something as art, you have to handle the critique that comes along with that. So now that a lot of games are being subjected to feminist critique, for example, a lot of people are finding that quite challenging. A revolution is never easy, is it? It'll take a little bit of adjustment. But I believe that discussion is good and healthy.
"I do think there are a lot of people who are just co-opting the Gamergate movement and using it for their own anti-feminist agenda. It's weird – I've actually had very civil discussions, both online and offline, with people who call themselves Gamergaters. The problem is, it's a hashtag. It's a maelstrom of all these people with so many different agendas.
"It's just a fact that if you are a woman and you like games, there are people who may choose to make life difficult for you. I'm an onscreen presence, and I am subjected to criticism that my male peers never have been. I could put my heart and soul into a video piece, and all that's going to get talked about is what I'm wearing that day or how my hair looks, or people are trying to figure out whether I'm sleeping with my male co-host, or whatever. What hurts me most, actually, is when people assume that I haven't written or edited or produced the thing that I'm talking in. It's really frustrating because I know what I'm talking about, and I've worked really, really hard – and in some cases harder than my male counterparts – to be taken seriously. So it's annoying when someone, with a sweep of their hand, just brushes all that to the side, just because you have blonde hair.
"Because I'm predominantly on YouTube, people tell me, 'Don't read the comments.' But part of my job is to moderate those comments – I have to read them. And I don't think not reading the comments helps anybody really, because it means not holding the users accountable for their behaviour.
"I think really what I've tried to do online is just to do my job as best as I possibly can. It's the best way that I can make online games a safer place for people, because when women are seen to be in positions of authority, just doing their job without their gender being brought into it, that has a normalising quality to it. And I think that's important.
"When you talk about stuff like this, it sounds like it's a constant thing. It really, really isn't. The vast majority of stuff on my Twitter is overwhelmingly positive, and I get to talk with people that just love the same things that I do. The only reason anyone gets into games – because trust me, it's not the money – is because you love it and you're passionate about it. I am doing my dream job, and I fucking love it. And so I do not want the people who go out of their way to be negative to think that they're on my mind, because they absolutely aren't. Certainly, in my experience, the negativity is just a drop in the ocean."