Gaming’s Endless Struggle with Abusive Men

BY COLIN CAMPBELL

The details differ, but the pattern is always the same. 

Here’s how it goes: A woman in gaming expresses an opinion. She is soon peppered with social media mansplains, insults and slurs. Some professional reactionary on YouTube leaps into action, dissecting the woman’s opinion – and often her appearance and professional reputation – with false equivalencies, phony outrage, and bad faith arguments. The YouTuber increases his audience, his traffic, and his income. 

The woman’s social media accounts are inundated with more hate; even threats of violence. She faces personal and professional consequences ranging from mental health trauma to loss of earnings, to going into hiding. In a horrible irony, she is then scolded for attention-seeking or grifting or having a political agenda. 

These are just a few prominent examples of women in gaming facing a life-changing torrent of abuse for simply going about their business. And although the 2014 hate campaign known as Gamergate now feels like a nasty piece of history – the media has certainly moved on – women who express an opinion in gaming are still being harassed online. The pattern never changes. 

Mary Gushie is a journalist whose credits include the Toronto Star, Gamesindustry.biz, and Comics & Gaming Magazine. She recently made a joke on Twitter. It represented four fictional women who are powerful player-characters in games. She poked fun at men who have said that they dislike being “forced” to play female roles in games. This is a not uncommon reaction among a certain section of male gamers. 

Gushie’s tweet was seized upon by men looking to belittle her, and her point of view. Their responses included insults, slurs, and threats of violence.

There were also men who angrily made the point that they never had a problem playing video games as a woman, and therefore her joke about misogyny in gaming had no validity – leading to the same distorted claim that every targeted woman before has had to face – that misogyny in gaming does not really exist, and is merely some leftist propaganda point or a financially motivated grift. 

“My mentions were filled with hate towards my writing, my beliefs and even my looks. Following an attack by a notoriously reactionary YouTuber with many subscribers, she received more harassment “claiming that I was attacking men, that I was a horrible journalist, and that I was taking my stance just to gain a profit.”

MARY GUSHIE, GAME JOURNALIST

Of course, anyone who listens to feminist media critics understands the depth of sexism that’s been a hallmark of games for decades. Anyone who has been paying attention understands that game developers are finally making an effort to represent women in games as characters with agency and depth, instead of their traditional roles as decorations, rewards, and foils. 

Those who study online culture, most especially toxic male online culture, understand the locus of all this hate. It’s patriarchy or, to put it in old fashioned lingo, it’s the way we’ve been raised. 

I reported on this back in 2018, and spoke to a number of experts. Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project told me. “For men, the idea of status and identity protection is rooted in the rejection of femininity and in the denigration of girls and women as feminine human beings.. As a society and as parents and adults, we have failed to educate them, and I think that we’ve left young men woefully unprepared in ways that end up being harmful, not only to women, but to themselves.”

Another explanation, posited by Dr. Kate Milner, a fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education, University of Edinburgh, is that some male gamers are afraid that their pastime is seen as unmasculine, and this makes them feel insecure. 

“Men who are seen as ‘nerdy’ are often persecuted for not adhering to [macho] norms,” she said. “However, instead of rejecting this traditional masculine construct and pursuing alternative forms of masculinity, it seems that some nerdy men are doubling down on the one bit of traditional masculinity that is available to them, which is technological competence. It’s where they see themselves as having dominance and control.”

Some male gamers are easy marks for YouTubers who whip up anger and outrage against women. “Many of these YouTube personalities are older men. I think they are narcissists,” said Dr. Jen Goldbeck,  Professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland 

“When they have a legion of loyal followers, it makes them feel really important. They use this power against the people they see as their enemies, who are often women. Their followers are attracted to this power, which is missing from their own lives. When these older men call out women, they feel like they’ve been given permission to harass and to do violence. They wouldn’t do it on their own. It helps that there are usually zero consequences for them, or for their permission-givers.”

The blame for “zero consequences,” falls in many places, including the law. But primarily, it’s on the social media companies that host all this abuse. They rarely react decisively or quickly (or even at all) when women are targeted by online mobs. 

“Social media and streaming sites need to do a better job when it comes to security measures,” writes Gushie. “Response rates need to be quicker when an attack is reported, and the banning of a user’s IP should become a consequence when the threat is severe.

“It can be extremely discouraging when the offenders so rarely face any consequences, which results in so many women suffering in silence, or giving up careers they were passionate about because someone was exceptionally insulting, slanderous, or ‘just joking’.”

If you’re suffering from online abuse in gaming, the Games and Online Harassment Hotline offers confidential support.