When Heather Knight joined her first formal gaming group, she thought she had found a like-minded community. The last thing she expected was what came next: unwanted, sexually harassing messages from her fellow players.
“I didn’t realize it until much later, but they harassed me horribly,” she said. “It was like having really rude brothers that I couldn’t beat up. It got hugely upsetting for me.”
Knight’s experience is not an anomaly. Two high-profile women in gaming have recently faced the ugly side of the Internet. Zoe Quinn, a game developer, was accused by her ex-boyfriend of trading sexual favors for receiving positive game reviews. Those false charges spurred a wave of rape and death threats online. Meanwhile, Anita Sarkeesian, who runs the video blog “Feminist Frequency,” which critiques games through a feminist lens, left her home after receiving similar threats.
Some very scary threats have just been made against me and my family. Contacting authorities now.
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) August 27, 2014
How did this harassment originate? Opinions from the gaming community are divided. Some say that the threats come from fringe users, a small and unpopular minority. Others suggest the backlash reflects gamers’ strong feelings about having developers such as Quinn disclose their personal relationships with reviewers. (This conversation is currently taking place on Twitter with the hashtag #GamerGate.)
A 29-year-old male gamer, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by the gaming community, said that the incidents stemmed from legitimate concerns over ethical journalism about gaming and not from the rejection of women from gaming.
“The majority of us are certainly against hateful behaviors,” he said. “I don’t think anybody wants to see anyone else’s lives ruined.” He referred to Quinn as a “catalyst” for a larger conversation among gamers about unbiased game journalism.
Dan Golding, director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Australia, offers a different view. He wrote in a post on his blog that the hate that some gamers have aimed at Quinn is the result of male gamers fearing they will become irrelevant to gaming culture.
“Make no mistake: this is the exertion of power in the name of (male) gamer orthodoxy — an orthodoxy that has already begun to disappear,” he wrote.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that threats like these have occurred in the wake of a demographic shift in gaming.
But adult women are playing video games in greater numbers than ever, with a recent study from the Entertainment Software Association describing them as the largest U.S. gaming demographic.
And more of them are also speaking out against harassment, according to Jenny Haniver, who runs the feminist gaming site “Not in the Kitchen Anymore.”
“An increase in the female gaming population means there are less of us afraid to talk about the way that we’re being treated, and we’re sick of it,” Haniver said.
A group of over 1,000 game developers recently signed an open letter launched by Andreas Zecher, developer for game studio Spaces of Play, that calls for an end to harassing speech.
“It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish,” the letter states.
Some people turn to harassing as a way to feel a greater sense of personal control, according to Amanda Hess, a writer for Slate whose essay, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” appeared in the magazine Pacific Standard in January.
The essay cites several studies showing that women receive a disproportionate number of harassing messages; 72.5 percent of the people who reported online harassing incidents to the group Working to Halt Online Abuse between 2000 and 2012 were female.
When trolls make a woman their target, attacks can often focus on her sexuality and body, Hess told the PBS NewsHour in an interview.
“I think online as well as off, women’s bodies have always been a site of attack,” she said. “It’s a way to cut women down, and it’s been that way for a long time.”
Hess herself has been subject to violent online threats in response to her journalism. “A lot of the harassment I get seems to be from people who I think feel pretty powerless,” Hess said.
What measures might help discourage sexual harassment? Gaming companies need to respond quickly to reports, Knight said. And if gamers who see harassment immediately condemn it, they could deter other people from harassing, David Auerbach wrote in Slate.
Thirty-four states have laws against stalking and criminal threats, which include online threats, wrote Hess in her article. But it is easy for law enforcement to dismiss threats that are made over Twitter, she said, and a long-term solution should involve more prosecution of people who make those threats.
A lasting, preventative solution will require a cultural shift in the gaming community, one that will make that domain uniformly safe for all people, according to Haniver.
“The gaming community can be so much better than what it is, and we need to stop making excuses about why we’re seeing this kind of behavior,” Haniver said.
For Knight, the love of the game should be enough to unify all gamers, no matter what gender.
“There’s this huge variety of people that get involved in gaming,” she said. “All of them are playing to enjoy the game.”