Taunting and trash-talking are a regular part of the culture for online video gamers. Opponents tease and threaten each other to complement the violent clashes between the game avatars.
In a piece for The New York Times, reporter Amy O'Leary describes a series of incidents with female gamers over the past six months that have sparked a debate about sexual harassment in the online gaming community.
"You're starting to see the first kind of glimmers of call for change from gamers, some movement from some game manufacturers and certainly an increasing awareness among gamers themselves that this is a problem that needs to come out from the dark of anonymous play," O'Leary tells NPR's Tom Gjelten.
One particularly disturbing incident happened earlier this year when Miranda Pakozdi, a regular competitive gamer, entered the Cross Assault video game tournament. During the six-day fighting competition, her team's coach badgered her with questions about her boyfriend and her bra size, and trained the tournament's Web camera on parts of her body.
"Eventually," says O'Leary, "she found this so difficult to deal with that she committed kind of virtual suicide and forfeited the tournament by walking straight into a competing player so she'd be killed off."
Far more of these incidents happen with texting or voice chat, with players who aren't in the room. Players can use microphone headsets to communicate with anyone else who may be playing.
O'Leary explains that before the introduction of voice chat into online gaming systems, many women would use avatars or screen names that wouldn't give away their gender. Voice chat, which can make gaming more fun and interactive, takes away that opportunity for disguise and can make women targets for harassment right away.
"So, some women either don't use voice chat altogether and miss out on those features of gaming, or they find that these communities can be too hostile for them, and they stop playing in those communities altogether."
Some gaming systems in the $25-billion-a-year industry now incorporate reporting tools so that players can report abuse. "Many gamers say that they feel like it's kind of like that crosswalk button," says O'Leary. "You hit it when you're trying to cross the street. They feel like they hit this report button, and it's just there to make them feel better and not really to do anything."
Some in the industry are calling for the development of automatic muting systems, where gamers who are muted by other players at frequent rates would no longer be able to voice chat.
While awareness about harassment is growing, there are some female players who are unfazed. "There are many women who've been gaming for a long time who just kind of let all this roll off their back," says O'Leary.
"One of the things that is left out of that conversation is that there are women who really are truly uncomfortable with this. And if they're new to gaming, they may not know how to find communities or the kinds of games that are a little bit friendlier. And they may find themselves turned off from gaming altogether."
TOM GJELTEN, HOST:
Many online video games today give players the option of texting and talking to each other. It makes gaming more social and interactive. But for female gamers, it may bring harassment, sexual threats, taunts and come-ons. A series of incidents this year have sparked a discussion in the online gaming community about sexual harassment - real, not virtual. New York Times reporter Amy O'Leary wrote about the problem this week. With more women playing video games online, there's a growing debate over the gaming culture, who owns that culture and whether it needs to change. Amy O'Leary joins us in a moment.
Female gamers, have you been harassed? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Amy O'Leary joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program, Amy.
AMY O'LEARY: Thank you so much for having me, Tom. It's a pleasure to be with you.
GJELTEN: So are you a gamer yourself?
O'LEARY: Not for a long time. I think the last time I was playing games, I was probably 12 or 13 years old.
GJELTEN: Back in the Pac-Man days, I guess.
O'LEARY: Oh, even a little, you know, Nintendo. I bought my own Nintendo when I was 12.
GJELTEN: But female - women are playing more video games. Women are making up a bigger section of game players these days, huh?
O'LEARY: That's absolutely right. And while there's some debate around the numbers, you know, in all segments of gaming, people who are active video game players, you know, report more women at places like conferences and at tournaments and online.
GJELTEN: And, you know, one of the things that was interesting to me about this is that along with online video game playing, there's a whole world of communication between the players. Can you explain what that experience is like and what kind of communication is going on here?
O'LEARY: Absolutely. One of the things that has really changed how online gaming has worked is - in the last 10 years is the introduction of voice chat. So if a player sits down to play an online game with lots of other people, they put on a headset and a microphone, and they can start talking to anyone else they might be playing with. Now this can be great because it can add a lot of fun to a game. People can plan strategies together. But sometimes, you know, women who get on with voice chat find that the minute that their voice sort of reveals their gender, they then become targets for harassment or come-ons or threats or taunts strictly because they're female.
GJELTEN: Yeah, because otherwise, if they just went with a screen name, they could sort of keep their gender secret.
O'LEARY: And a lot of women do that. They will choose avatars and screen names that don't give away the fact that they might be a female player. But, you know, voice chat is one of those areas where you can't really hide your gender. And so some women either don't use voice chat altogether and miss out on those features of gaming, or they find that these communities can be too hostile for them and they stop playing in those communities altogether.
GJELTEN: But it's not just voice chat, is it? I mean, one of the women that you mentioned and the first woman that you mentioned in your piece was actually competing in person with teammates in a video game tournament. So she had her fellow players right around her in the room.
O'LEARY: Yes. This is a fairly disturbing incident for most people who've seen the video of it. But there's a woman, a regular competitive gamer, Miranda Pakozdi, who was playing in a fighting game video tournament where two characters battle it out with each other. And what happened to her over the course of six days at this tournament was her own coach began asking her questions about things like her bra size and her boyfriend. He threatened to smell her on camera and eventually did. And he trained the tournament's Web camera on parts of her body. Eventually, she found this so difficult to deal with that she committed kind of virtual suicide and forfeited the tournament by walking straight into a competing player so she'd be killed off.
GJELTEN: And the whole point of your piece is that these are less and less isolated incidents. You've identified a series of incidents that all reflect, in one way or another, sexual harassment of female gamers.
O'LEARY: Yes. And it's not to say that, you know, harassment in gaming and trash-talk in gaming has certainly been something that's been around for years. That's not new. But what we've started to see over the last six months is that - really beginning with that tournament I just described to you, there's been an increase in the public conversation around what this means for the gaming community. And you're starting to see the first kind of glimmers of call for change from gamers, some movement from some game manufacturers and certainly an increasing awareness among gamers themselves that this is a problem that needs to come out from the dark of anonymous play and to be something that's really dealt with as a serious issue.
GJELTEN: What's the culture, Amy, of game players? Do they, you know, is it a kind of subculture?
O'LEARY: Well, you know, gaming has really become a true mass medium. And I think it would be difficult to say there's any one culture for video games. There are wide variety of genres, each with their own kind of practices and rules and regulations. And so, you know, it's difficult to say there's just one kind of culture.
But the women I talked to who play games and experience harassment online say that the more difficult and aggressive communities where they feel the least welcome tend to be the most competitive games and the games that are most aggressive and violent in of themselves. So things like fighting games or first-person shooter games that's where more of it is experienced than, say, in a strategy game where there's less kind of aggressive competitive activity.
GJELTEN: Well, one of the big questions we have here is how prevalent this experience of harassment is for women who do play games. And Victoria is on the line now from Cincinnati, Ohio. Thanks for calling us, Victoria. What's your experience?
VICTORIA: I completely agree with everything that, you know, your guest has been saying. My husband and I play a lot of video games together, and I've actually gotten to the point where I don't use the headset unless I'm, like, in a private chat because it's just - it just becomes this disgusting, like the things that the guys say. Like one say, oh, my God. It's a girl that's talking. I just become a target, and it's just really disappointing because normally, you're playing with, like, younger 18-year-old guys. And it's just appalling. It's just out of control I think.
GJELTEN: And, Victoria, do you think it's mostly the younger men that are guilty of this?
VICTORIA: You know, no. I would say across the board, it's everyone. It's older gentlemen's voices, and it's younger voices. It's just all the time. Like as soon as put your headset and you try to talk, and you're not even trash-talking, you're just, you know, I'm going to get this, or I'm doing this and trying to be a teammate, it's, oh, it's a girl. And it's just out of control, and I'm really glad that there's a conversation about it.
GJELTEN: Well, thank you for calling us, Victoria, and sharing your own experience with harassment online. Amy, are there a lot of - I mean, you've found that this is actually - there are many incidents like this. Can you describe some of the other ones?
O'LEARY: Well, there's really two categories of incidents. Part of what's gotten this conversation going is there have been public incidents with that have occurred online where everyone can see them, and so that's things like this tournament that I was describing before where there's real video where you can really put a face and a name to what that harassment looks like.
But the real - the much more common story for women gaming is when they go online and experience it privately. There is a really interesting blog called Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which women gamers have put together themselves to - where every time they receive a threatening message or a come on, they record it either in audio, or they screen-shot the message, and they put it all on this blog to catalog the kinds of regular kind of micro aggressions that accumulate for women gamers that lead some to stop gaming altogether.
GJELTEN: And was this the Kickstarter project?
O'LEARY: Well, that's a separate incident, and this is the one that got the most attention. So a woman - a feminist media critic, Anita Sarkeesian, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 for a series of videos that would explore how women are portrayed in video games. Immediately, though, she received a torrent of hate-filled messages on her Facebook page, on her YouTube page, and it got pretty aggressive.
And what was so unusual about Anita was she took the step of documenting this harassment, recording it and putting it back online, which did two things. One, her supporters ended up raising - donating more than $150,000 beyond what she asked for to support her when she faced this harassment, but then another wave of really aggressive, you know, violent personal threats, her accounts attempted to be hacked.
And one man in Ontario took the step of making an online video game where you could punch Anita's image on the screen. And if you punched it multiple times, bruises and cuts would appear on her image. And that's a pretty shocking thing for people to see, that that's the level of kind of hatred and response that's out there.
GJELTEN: That's really horrifying. Are there any tools that are being built into these games so that women can report abuse or anyone who feels that they're being abused online? And what happens if somebody is reported?
O'LEARY: Well, there are certainly reporting tools in place today, but many gamers say that they feel like it's kind of, like, that crosswalk button. You hit it when you're trying to cross the street. They feel like they hit this report button, and it's just there to make them feel better and not really to do anything. But I talk to a man named Stephen Toulouse, who was the former head of enforcement at Microsoft for Xbox LIVE, which is the biggest online gaming community, and he said that that report button really does a make difference. And so first of all, gamers should understand the tools they have to control their experience. They can mute players who are aggressive. They should report players who are aggressive.
But right now, you're seeing yet another call from people in the industry who are looking for gaming companies to do more. They want to see a couple of different changes, and one of those would include automatically muting offenders. So let's say out of the, you know, one player gets muted on voice chat more than 10 percent above the norm, these advocates would like to see the gaming companies start that player off muted. That they don't actually get a megaphone to broadcast their hate speech and that only people who are friends with them can hear what they have to say. So that's one idea.
There are few others, but they basically are trying - the advocates behind additional change want to see more limits on messaging and that people have to earn the right to send messages or use the chat features, and then to see more kind of peer pressure to almost give groups of gamers scores that will reflect, you know, how comfortable and kind of safe and supportive their group of players is.
GJELTEN: Amy O'Leary is a New York Times reporter. And her article this week in The New York Times is "In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment is All Too Real." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go now to Jenna(ph), who's on the line from Raleigh, North Carolina. Good afternoon, Jenna. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION. You're on the air.
JENNA: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really thrilled to hear that you're talking about this subject. It is a big problem in the game community. But I just wanted to point out not only is it a problem with men, it's also a problem with some women as well. A lot of times, when you end up gaming with other women, there's instances where, you know, they start to attack you, saying like you're only doing this for attention or you don't have enough cred to be playing this game. So it - I feel like it goes both ways. Yes, there is a big problem with men, but there's also problem with women in the community as well.
GJELTEN: Have you heard any of that, Amy?
O'LEARY: I have. You know, it certainly seems like there's a larger proportion of those kinds of statements that come from men. But there are - certainly, women have mentioned that, you know, in general, when you've got large anonymous communities where everyone's in a competitive environment, it's just this extension of kind of the trash-talking culture which can get quite personal. And it's sometimes really aggressive.
GJELTEN: Well, thanks for the call, Jenna. And let's go now Edwina(ph), who's on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio. Good afternoon, Edwina. Thanks for calling us.
EDWINA: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.
GJELTEN: And your experience, are you a gamer?
EDWINA: Yes, I am a gamer. I do game online. I do agree with the last caller, it goes both ways. It's with the men and the women. However, there can be guys that when you do go online and they do hear a voice are overexcited or they make comments because they hear your voice, but that's not the overwhelming or overall response that I get. And I get a lot with guys, but I generally don't have any problem with them. Either I feel they're (unintelligible) respectful or I just won't talk to them. Of if I'm in a game where I don't have to play with them, if they're not respectful, I can always go find other people to play with who will be respectful. So that's only what I do.
GJELTEN: And do you use that report button that Amy was referring to?
EDWINA: No, I don't because I do have a respect for people's free speech, but I know I don't have to stay there and I tolerate it. So I don't see a need to report them. I just leave if I feel there's something I'm not comfortable with, but I rarely come across that.
GJELTEN: You rarely come across it. So you...
GJELTEN: By and large, your experience is OK, but you have experienced some harassment, but then you just leave it.
EDWINA: Yeah, if it's an issue for me. But normally, it's not in - and normally, I play first-person shooters or role-playing games so normally I play with a lot of guys, but I don't generally come across that problem.
GJELTEN: All right. Well, thank you very much, Edwina. I'm sure, Amy, that women vary a lot in their response to this and their level of tolerance.
O'LEARY: It's true. You know, there are many women who've been gaming for a long time who just kind of let all this roll off their back and say, you know what? This is just the Internet. People are nasty and say things nobody wants to hear all the time. But I think, you know, one of the things that is left out of that conversation is that there are women who really are truly uncomfortable with this. And if they're new to gaming, they may not know how to find communities or the kinds of games that are a little bit friendlier. And they may find themselves turned off from gaming altogether.
And I think as the video game industry keeps expanding and keeps increasing its footprint as a real mass medium, you know, it's one of things that you see the community wrestling with.
GJELTEN: Well, gaming industry, boy, that's the right phrase, isn't it? $25 billion a year in the gaming industry. And what's been the response of the gaming industry to these allegations?
O'LEARY: Well, you know, it's interesting because, you know, these are really the actions of individuals. And I don't think, you know, any of the corporate entities that, you know, are involved in gaming, you know, are quick to defend that. You know, we know that Microsoft is taking a serious look at this issue based on a series of - these series of recent incidents and that they're looking at ways to improve their tools right now. We know that there is, you know, an increasing presence of gaming conventions where this is being discussed. There's a panel, actually, at the end of this month at a gaming convention in Seattle called Ending Harassment in Gaming where people are going to examine this issue.
But, you know, it's - everyone who is talking about solutions really believes that solutions are going to come two places: one, the community of gamers who need to stand up against harassing or intolerant behavior, and two, the companies whose job is more provide the tools so the vast communities can police themselves than it is for them to police it on their own.
GJELTEN: Amy O'Leary is a reporter for The New York Times. And I'm sure that your article, Amy, on sexual harassment online is an important one and getting a lot of reaction. You can find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Amy, thanks for joining us.
O'LEARY: Thank you so much, Tom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.