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Women who play video games are often verbally abused or molested online. They've developed their defense mechanisms, and now the gaming industry is reacting too. But are protected spaces the right solution for women?
At the Gamescom, Europe's leading trade fair for digital gaming culture, which takes place from August 20-24 in Cologne, people are usually very civilized. But that can change dramatically when they're playing. Players not only shoot all over the place in their virtual worlds, they also fire insults at each other.
According to Ditch the Label, an anti-bullying organization and partner of gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA), nearly 60 percent of players have been bullied in an online game — whether for being female, black, gay or simply for showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The problem has existed for years, but it has escalated with the success of multiplayer online games. Over 2.5 billion people play digital games, according to the Global Games Market Report 2019, and the market keeps growing. Tech industry news site TechCrunch reports that the sector has obtained more than $43.8 billion (€39.5 billion) in sales in the past year in the US alone. In comparison, the US film industry earned just under $41.1 billion during that same period.
Bullying is one of the biggest issues in the gaming world today. "The proliferation of social media and online gaming has put the issue front and center and with more and more people engaging each day in these communities, it has become a daily reality," admits EA.
'You belong in the kitchen'
Lovi has experienced that abuse as well. The 19-year-old streamer — as people who live-stream their game play are known — plays Fortnite nearly every day and has hundreds of viewers who watch her and chat with her while she plays. "Why are you even playing? You're a girl. You belong in the kitchen," are some of the comments she used to get very often, she told DW. "Some people probably meant it as a joke, but others were serious about it." And the remarks haven't stopped despite her growing popularity. "I still get insults from my viewers quite often."
Just like other popular male streamers, she invests a lot of time in her stream and plays for hours to improve her skills. "It hurts to be told that the only reason I got where I am was because of a 'boob bonus.' I work really hard at this. You can't become good at a video game without doing anything." She's learned to ignore those frustrated viewers. She now has moderators to deal with them in the chat. "Most of the time it helps to simply ignore those people. Once they get our attention they keep doing it because they think it's funny."
The expression "gaming toxicity" is used to describe the abusive behavior found in online communities. "Sexism is still a structural problem in almost all areas," says Benjamin Strobel, a psychologist who works for the Grimme Institute, a research organization specialized in media.
"But in the games sector, the breeding ground for this may be even stronger than in other areas, because for a long time, games were mainly marketed to guys and gaming was a male-dominated hobby. That's no longer the case, but some people haven't accepted this change yet," Strobel adds. Some players also tend to attribute their own failures to others.
"I don't know of any reliable empirical evidence as to whether sexist behavior is a bigger problem in gaming than in other areas," says Strobel, "but there are studies showing the links between the use of video games and sexist attitudes."
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Strategies against toxicity
But how do female players deal with the problem? While some people like Lovi choose to generally ignore the insults, others have decided to publicize the situation. Whenever she faces abuse during a game session, player Spawntaneous posts a video of the game on social media channels afterwards.
Some pretend they aren't women, or play only with good friends. But other players prefer to leave online gaming altogether.
Another option is to report incidents to the gaming company itself.
Many game makers are now actively tackling the problem. In June, EA hosted a summit on building healthy gaming communities. The company, which is the publisher of games such as the Battlefield series, the football simulation game Fifa and the life simulation game The Sims, has hired more than 1,500 people to work on creating a good atmosphere in the online communities. The company aims to collaborate with the players and establish a "Player Council," hoping that the council's members will in turn influence other players.
Hurdles for women in esports
The strategy of hoping that the market will regulate itself hasn't worked so far. This is also noticeable in professional esports where women are massively underrepresented in competitions. Through exclusionary and toxic behavior, women have fewer chances of professionalizing, says Benjamin Strobel.
"Women are gaming more than ever and they represent close to 40% of the esports global viewership audience," says Fernando Pereira, president of Grow uP eSports. But, "even when they break through and demonstrate a high level of skill, most women are still denied joining a professional team due to concerns of creating instability among the team's communication and teamwork."
That's why Pereira launched the event Girlgamer, the first international esports festival for women. "We are firm believers that men and women are able to compete at the same level and should be playing together," says the festival director. But until mixed teams become standard, he adds, events like the Girlgamer esports festival offer an interim solution.
Benjamin Strobel also believes women's tournaments are a necessary step at the moment, but creating separate spaces for women cannot be the only solution.
Even though it is possible to report other players' toxic behavior, it often takes time before a reaction comes, he points out. "On a psychological level, punishment does not feel very effective if it is always delayed," says Strobel.
Pereira calls for stricter rules and more controls in chats and on gaming platforms. A referee watching every game and punishing inappropriate behavior immediately would be ideal, believes Strobel. But the scale of such control measures makes this nearly impossible, as it would require a high number of trained volunteers or additional employees.
Reward instead of punishment
There is another option to consider: encouraging positive behavior. "The Leagues of Legends developers have conducted empirical studies to determine which measures can improve the situation," says Strobel. They have found that highlighting the benefits of positive behavior on the loading screen before the game begins actually led players to reduce their levels of toxicity.