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Women not welcome here? Female gamers and harassment online

On Oct. 14, 2014, feminist blogger and media critic Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a lecture at Utah State University. Both Sarkeesian and the university received anonymous emails threatening the “deadliest school shooting in American history” should she give her lecture. As an online gamer, Sarkeesian is vocal about sexism and misogyny in the gaming world. As a result, she became the target of many rape and death threats, like this one. But Sarkeesian is not the only female gamer who faces these issues.

While playing video games online, many women are forcefully harassed. This could include sexist comments, and even threats of physical or sexual violence. Women like Sarkeesian who choose to speak out about what they’ve experienced will often face even harsher intrusions. 

According to a study by the Entertainment Software Association, female gamers made up roughly half of all gamers in 2014. This represents a steady climb from 40 per cent in 2010. But even so, women are struggling for acceptance in the gaming community. 

Online gamers can communicate via headset with others, which leads to exchanges of insults and threats. (Photo © Ross Heale-Whittle)

Online gamers can communicate via headset, which may bring the onset of insults, even threats.
[Photo © Ross Heale-Whittle]

Most popular video games have an online component which involves playing with other people around the world. Popular games like League of Legends, Call of Duty and World of Warcraft often involve gamers fighting each other, or teaming up against computer-controlled bad guys. Players can set up profiles, and communicate via headset or instant messaging with other gamers. Communication can be one-on-one, or to a group. It is here that most harassment occurs.

Genevieve LeBlanc is an Ottawa gamer and “all-around huge nerd.” As someone who “cosplays,” she will impersonate story characters at comic conventions. She also writes for Nerd Reactor, a geek news website, and does video game reviews for Ottawa radio station Live 88.5. LeBlanc started playing video games when she was a kid. According to LeBlanc, she gets harassed every single time she games online.

“It is not the same kind of trash talk other people experience. It’s very specific threats of sexual violence,” she says.

LeBlanc notes that she will receive threatening and harassing messages, as well as inappropriate photos. This can occur in game, or via social media platforms and email. 

“I should be able to play these games without these kind of consequences, and without it being some kind of toll on my emotional and psychological well being,” Leblanc insists. 

 ‘It is not the same kind of trash talk other people experience. It’s very specific threats of sexual violence.’ Genevieve Leblanc, gamer and game reviewer

As a female gamer, game reviewer, and cosplayer, Genevieve LeBlanc is frequently harassed online. Here, she dresses as Jill Valentine from Resident Evil. (Photo courtesy of Genevieve LeBlanc)

Gaming enthusiast Genevieve LeBlanc (here dressed as Jill Valentine from Resident Evil) is routinely harassed online. [Photo courtesy of Genevieve LeBlanc]

In order to continue gaming online, LeBlanc has to take precautions to hide her gender. She will turn off her headset, and use a gender-neutral username. However, the continued harassment has largely turned LeBlanc off of gaming online.

“I know that it’s by far a small minority of players that are engaging in this kind of stuff, but a lot of the other players in the game will just kind of be silent about it,” she says. “It’s very unwelcoming.”

The silent majority

Stephen Langton is an avid online gamer and a third-year game development student at Algonquin College. He says that he has often witnessed gamers make sexist comments while gaming online.

“Throughout my gaming career I have met countless people who are misogynists. It’s always been there,” he says.

Langton says that while gaming, most players will be bullied at some point. But female gamers are targeted more often. In Langton’s experience, very rarely will someone speak up for the players being harassed: “Most players wouldn’t say anything. They will brush it off, and ignore it.”

Langton believes male gamers stay silent about this harassment to avoid becoming a target themselves.

“I think they’re afraid of the people turning against them instead of someone else,” he says. “It’s the internet, and people can act out without having any repercussions.”

This harassment has frequently been labelled as “trolling”. A troll is someone who attempts to hijack a discussion through harassment or an inflammatory comment. Trolling can be humorous, but can sometimes turn threatening.

Langton believes that harassment against women is not something specific to video games, but that video games provide a public platform for abuse that happens everywhere.  

“Because it’s on the internet, everyone’s hearing about it and it’s in the spotlight,” he says. 


Lately online bullying has been given a new dignity, under the banner of enforcing full-disclosure ethics in video game journalism. “Gamergate” is the online movement that unintentionally has brought sexism and gaming to the attention of the non-gaming community. Gamergate began when game developer Zoe Quinn was accused of having a romantic relationship with a journalist, which supposedly led to positive reviews of a game she developed. As a result, Quinn was harassed voraciously online. 

Supporters of Gamergate state that the issue is ethics in video game journalism. Critics of the movement say the misogynistic and aggressive comments made by those supporters point to the bigger issue of sexism in video games. 

Kaye Elling is a former game developer and a lecturer in computer games at the University of Bradford in the U.K. Elling says movements like Gamergate are dangerous for women in the game development industry. 

“Gamergate has set women back in the industry by a good decade, if not more, because of the very real threat of doxing, let alone the threats of violence, rape and death,” she says in an email. Doxing involves digging up personal details, and posting them online. Both Quinn and Sarkeesian have been victims of doxing. 

“It’s shocking, terrifying, and has wide implications for all kinds of industries and women’s rights in general,” Elling says.

Blogger and gamer Anita Sarkeesian chronicled her online harassment on her Twitter account, @femfreq.  [Photo courtesy of Twitter]

Tweets like these, aimed at blogger and gamer Anita Sarkeesian, are deemed acceptable by Twitter’s harassment policy. [Photo courtesy of Twitter]

Elling believes stricter online harassment legislation could be a start for combatting online bullying.

“It’s going to take better legislation and application of current legislation to make a difference.”

A fundamental problem

Currently, cyberbullying legislation exists in many countries. In Canada, most provinces have legislation which specifically address cyberbullying. If cyberbullying escalates into criminal harassment or uttering threats, the perpetrator could face criminal charges, including jail time. However, online anonymity can make it difficult to track those who harass, and some laws are still outdated in regards to how to handle cyberbullying.

Most video games have their own policies in regards to harassment. Functions in the game allow players to report players who use offensive language or make threatening statements. If a player is reported consistently, his or her account can be suspended, or in extreme cases banned permanently. Certain games, like League of Legends, have tightened their policies, leading to more players being suspended. 

Tighter harassment policies have also appeared on social media sites like Twitter. Recently, Twitter has started to increase its rate of deleting or banning users who post threatening messages. Features added in December make it easier for users to report threatening or abusive tweets, and block people from viewing those accounts. 

Rena Bivens, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, studies social media and gender. Bivens believes that while these functions may act as preventative measures, this isn’t enough.

“The block-and-report features only respond to the incident after it’s happened, which puts the responsibility on the victim,” she says. 

As far as Gamergate goes, Bivens believes the issue comes down to a power struggle between male and female gamers.

“There’s an idea that there’s one type of gamer, which is a young male. That’s not the case anymore,” Bivens says. “Male gamers have the power, and now they feel threatened, and like something is going to change.”

Bivens maintains that the only future solution requires addressing the real problems in gamer culture.

“It’s about changing our culture, and being intolerant of these assumptions of gender and power which are a part of it.”

[Front page photo courtesy of Genevieve LeBlanc]