“The guild leader threatened to tear my breasts into bloody shreds.”

- A gamer describing her own teammate’s threat while online gaming

Timelines #7, 2007 Leah Fredman

It is established that women are disproportionately targeted by online gaming sexual harassment (OGSH), suffering experiences such as name-calling, threats, and ostracization. Furthermore, industry apathy predicts OGSH female victims’ withdrawal, and the system’s negative attitudes towards female sexual assault victims promote psychological harm. In an ideal world, these findings would provide sufficient impetus for gaming companies to invest unlimited resources in redressing the issue.

However, as resources are limited, it must first be scientifically examined whether OGSH uniquely and seriously affects women. Resource allocation should be determined following an empirical investigation of whether OGSH is creating a hostile environment specific to women, thus uniquely disadvantaging them in the gaming domain.

To scientifically study the impact of OGSH on women, we must contrast the experience of female OGSH victims to the experiences of three other groups of players: male OGSH victims, female general harassment victims, and male general harassment victims. We cannot only examine whether OGSH is bad for women. Rather, we must examine how bad it is for them by comparing their experiences to men and women in an arguably similarly unpleasant situation (general toxicity), and men in the same sexually harassing, unpleasant situation.

Thus, one part of researching OGSH’s impact, is examining whether it is more harmful to women than general toxicity. We must examine whether general versus sexual harassment type — such as aggressively threatening a women’s head versus her breasts — produces different and potent emotional, psychological, and behavioral outcomes. If OGSH and general harassment produce similar outcomes, it would be hard to logically argue that redressing OGSH should precede fighting general harassment.

The second part of researching OGSH’s impact, is to understand its effect on gender; whether men are as psychologically and behaviorally affected by it as women. Thus, we might investigate whether violently threatening a man’s testicles produces the same level of distress as threatening a women’s breasts. If we find it does, we cannot argue that OGSH is asymmetrically deleterious to women as compared to men.

Although these questions are empirical, to my knowledge, no research has definitively answered them to date. Furthermore, a dearth of literature exists on women’s experiences in gaming — especially in the wake of sexual harassment. However, while it is unclear whether harassment type interacts with gender to affect women differently, or whether verbal OGSH produces real-world, deleterious effects, there is research suggesting it does.

Although not specific to online gaming spaces, studies have empirically demonstrated that hate speech affects victims emotionally and behaviorally, and technology based victimization (e.g. cyberstalking and virtual rape) produces a variety of long-term, extravirtual damaging outcomes (e.g. fear, depression, PTSD symptoms, and quitting a job). Furthermore, female cyberstalking victims engage in more protective behaviors than men.

Research on real-world violence finds a gender difference as well. Domestically abused women, but not men experience diminished control, making it more detrimental for women. Furthermore, female veterans suffer greater adverse effects following sexual assault, as compared to physical assault.

The literature on sexual harassment in public places lends additional credence to the idea that OGSH uniquely victimizes female gamers. Women in public places are considered “open persons”, leaving them situationally disadvantaged, and disproportionately targeted by gender-specific harassment. Women victimized in public places suffer both discomfort and fear following incidents such as hostile remarks and groping, compromising their right to equally enjoy public places.

Finally, research on general uncivil behavior by strangers, such as pushing in line, finds gender differences as well. As compared to men, women were more likely to experience psychological distress and engage in avoidance following a rude encounter — such as shoving or cursing — in public. Similarly, a small poll found women were far more bothered by rudeness and cursing as compared to men, and a study finds women are more fearful of general violence harm than men, driven by their fear of sexual assault.

Taken together, these studies support the idea that gender predicts different reactions to OGSH. Furthermore, these studies suggest that although OGSH may deleteriously affect women as compared to general toxicity — and as compared to men — general toxicity may also impact women more strongly than men. However, whether the nature of the gaming environment promotes similar, real-world deleterious effects is still an unanswered, empirical question (although, spoiler alert, I am already on it).

Thus, without further rigorously examining OGSH’s effect relative to general harassment, and how it varies by gender, we cannot claim to understand its true impact. To uncover whether women experiencing OGSH are uniquely disadvantaged, we must scientifically consider whether gender and harassment type are affecting one another.

Answering these questions generates an understanding of how impactful OGSH may be to gaming companies, and whether they should focus only on general toxicity, or on OGSH as well. These questions are important, as they scientifically help isolate whether OGSH is uniquely devastating, and to whom.

If, in fact, OGSH uniquely harms women, it is important to generate theoretical models explaining why it produces an asymmetrical impact, and especially why it leads female gamers to withdraw from gaming. Understanding why the impact occurs is imperative for tailoring theoretically sound, and likely effective interventions. Without unearthing efficacious methods to target OGSH, resources would be wasted.

Thus, although gender and harassment type likely interact to predict the greatest impact on female OGSH victims, we must still understand why this occurs. While a female gamer likely experiences greater harm when her breasts are violently threatened as compared to non-sexual parts of her body — or a man whose testicles are threatened — empirically validated theoretical groundwork must first be laid before constructing and validating possible OGSH interventions.

Thank you to Jack Reichert and Ilana Myer for their comments and kind words.

If you would like to discuss this post, a previous post, gaming toxicity, or anything industry related, please shoot me a message on Twitter.