What parents need to know about sexism, misogyny and harassment in online games

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In May of 2012, Anita Sarkessian announced the start of her Kickstarter campaign to produce a new web series Tropes vs. Women in Video Game series, which aimed to highlight the stereotypical ways in which women are often being portrayed in video games. While many saw this campaign as a wonderful opportunity to extend the scope of her successful work with her website, Feminist Frequency, a good handful of others took it as an instigator of offense.

In fact, almost immediately after announcing her campaign, Sarkessian became the subject of a series of terrifying verbal attacks by members of the gaming community, including threats of rape and murder. The aggressors went so far as to construct a rudimentary video game titled Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian, which allowed players to physically assault Sarkeesian by virtually punching her in the face with the ease of a mouse click and watching as she became more bruised and bloodied with each passing click. The extreme online harassment directed towards Sarkessian continued for several years, and to some extent still continues today. Since this incident, many parents and educators have wondered whether online video game cultures condone, or even promote, sexism and misogynistic acts.

As video games become increasingly networked, this concern continues to grow. The most recent research in this area found that 60 percent of female game players experienced in-game sexual harassment of some kind. In the same survey, 80 percent of all game players reported that sexism is prominent within online gaming communities. 

Sexist, misogynistic and other gender-based harassment behaviors occur frequently enough in online games (as well as other online spaces) that your children have likely been exposed to some form of this behavior. A 2013 study by Audrey Brehm (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) found 60 percent of female game players reported they experienced sexism or misogynistic behaviors from other players. Women are more likely to experience gender-based harassment on the Internet, as well as more severe forms in real life such as stalking.

Websites such as Not in the Kitchen Anymore and Fat, Ugly, or Slutty archive some of the offensive, sexist and misogynistic comments that have been directed toward female video game players specifically. A browse of these websites reveals that the majority of comments are sexual in nature, such as requests for sexual favors (“1600 [in-game] gold for nude picture”) or verbal sexual assaults (“How did my genitals feel on your face?”). There are also numerous instances of gender-based insults ([I hate losing] especially when it’s a bitch, whore,” “slut”). It is also common to accuse female players of not being capable of being real “gamers” (“…did you get those achievements or did your boyfriend?”). There are many additional explicit comments that depict or threaten bodily harm (“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? You don’t need to tell her anything because she’s already been told… twice.”)

While there is ample evidence that sexist and or misogynistic behaviors exist in gaming culture, researchers have found no evidence to suggest that these kinds of behaviors are cultivated within or magnified over time among players who do not already have existing sexist beliefs to a certain extent. A recent study examined the influence of video game exposure on sexist beliefs and attitudes over a three-year period and found no evidence of cultivation (video games cultivate sexist attitudes or beliefs) or a selection effect (more sexist individuals choose to play video games). 

So, what gives? Why do online gaming spaces seem to be hotbeds of sexism and misogyny if games neither cultivate this behavior nor attract an inordinate amount of people particularly prone to this kind of behavior?

Recent work from researchers at Ohio State University offers some insight into the potential reasons for gender-based harassment in online games. The researchers found that social dominance orientation, hostile sexism and high levels of video game play predicted harassment behavior in online games. When taken together, these results suggest that some male players may see female players as a threat to their “gamer” identity and, therefore, attempt to demonstrate their superiority to defend what they consider to be their domain by insulting and harassing female players.

It should be noted that sexist and misogynistic harassment of females is not unique to online games. This kind of harassment also occurs in other online spaces, such as Twitter and Facebook. In fact, harassment via Twitter has become so rampant, that many prominent female users have stopped using the service because of it (for example, Chelsea Cain). Of course, many scholars, such as Art Markman (University of Texas at Austin) note that the visual anonymity provided by the internet, combined with the geographical distance between users, illusion of anonymity and text-based communication combines to make a space where people feel more inclined to behave in deviant ways, such as harassing other users.

Speak with your children about discrimination toward women, and let them know that they may be exposed to sexist and misogynistic behaviors while playing online. Encourage your children to report all kinds of discriminatory behavior or harassment through the various in-game reporting features. In online games, these are typically built into the game itself or the gaming platform (for example, reporting harassment on Xbox Live). Twitter and Facebook can be contacted directly through their support centers should your children experience harassment through these social networking websites.

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