How do streamers create inclusive spaces in the hostile landscape of online games?
Gaming is a historically toxic environment for marginalized groups like women, people of color, disabled and LGBTQ+ folks. Interestingly, however, on Twitch (the world’s largest video game streaming platform) there are thriving communities led by minority streamers and their allies that effectively create safe spaces for themselves while keeping the trolls at bay.
To learn more about how these groups have managed to moderate themselves, Neta Snook is launching an ethnographic study of the inclusive streamers behind this growing movement. We’ll be examining how marginalized streamers create and enforce new norms by leveraging and testing the limits of the Twitch platform. Our intention is to document and analyze the emergent governance and economy of the inclusive gaming community.
At Neta Snook, we follow a set of core principles, the first of which is open reflection. Because we prioritize public knowledge creation as well as transparency, we thought it would be worthwhile to open a window into our process and to document the progress of the study as it unfolds. In this first post, we’ll explain more about who we are studying, how the study will work, why we are interested and what comes next.
What inspired the study?
In 2017 we had the chance to conduct an extensive ethnographic study to learn more about the diversity of the audience of a public radio station. While the findings were fascinating, we grew frustrated that results were neither widely shared nor quickly acted upon within the organization. Disillusioned to find that this public media outlet seemed to function like any other corporation, prioritizing the opinions of the few over the will of the many, we often found ourselves venting our frustrations by playing video games.
Trying to escape in that virtual world, however, we were unable to ignore all the invisible electric fences of exclusion that folks like us encounter in those spaces. And so feeling hypocritical for being let down by our foray into public media when there was plenty of noxious behavior to be sad about in our home world of gaming, we decided we ought to do something constructive. Our first step was to start searching Twitch for examples of diversity and inclusivity.
What did we notice?
As Mister Rogers would recommend, we began by looking for the helpers, and we were soon fascinated by what we found. LGBTQ+ folks, women, people of color and disabled streamers seemed to be creating inclusive subcommunities outside the “mainstream” categories of current popular esport games like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, Defense of the Ancients, Fortnite, Overwatch, etc. Instead, many of these streamers were focused on a very specific subcategory of play: speedrunning Nintendo and retro games.
We were struck by how many of these marginalized streamers also participate in Games Done Quick (GDQ) or other similar competitive marathon events that raise money for charity. Beyond sharing the admirable value of using one’s unique video game skills to help others in need, streamers in this community seem to espouse other common beliefs including the importance of being “chill,” maintaining a “positive mental attitude,” and helping one another achieve “PBs” (personal bests). While some speedrunners try to cultivate a “PG” atmosphere in their chats, others can swear frequently or “get lewd.” Nonetheless, these streamers seem to agree that hate speech and harassment are not permissible, and many explicitly ban racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. from their chats.
It’s crucial to mention that not all of the streamers who value inclusivity have marginalized identities themselves. We noted several cisgendered, heterosexual, able, white men taking on the role of ally for their peers. The inclusivity of the group appears to rely on the support of like-minded fellow streamers for reciprocal acceptance, encouragement and community moderation.
Why is this important?
While toxicity in gaming has been well documented, the problems of extreme online harassment have broken beyond the boundaries of #GamerGate. All the world’s social media platforms are now battlegrounds where armies of trolls spread disinformation, spew hate and wage campaigns that drive their targets into hiding, online and IRL. To see a trans woman or a black man crushing their way through a speedrun on Twitch while mods, subs and viewers cheer them on, is to witness a clear example of how a community creates a safe space for itself in an environment known more often for its hostility than its inclusivity.
Though many solutions regarding the moderation of harmful or hateful speech on social media platforms have been proposed, the prevailing thoughts seem to turn around top-down regulations and policies that rarely take into account the experiences of the marginalized people who are most affected. Directly engaging with the folks who’ve already managed to cultivate safe online spaces seems like a more sensible way to look for insight.
How does the study work?
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reaching out directly to several streamers to invite them to join our study. If a streamer agrees to participate, they will take part in a one-on-one interview, where we’ll ask a series of informal questions about their experiences on Twitch. They may also be asked to share screenshots, photographs or other documentation during or after the interview. Finally, participants may be asked to join a follow-up interview, either individually or in a group setting with other streamers.
From the initial cohort we contact, we’ll also be asking participants to recommend other inclusive streamers they think would be interested in joining the study. Our goal is speak with 25 different streamers by the end of October. Once we conclude the interview period, we will analyze the data have we collected, and create a final report which will be published online upon its completion at the beginning of 2019.
It’s important to stress that participation in the study is completely voluntary and all data collected are solely for research purposes. We will take precautions to keep the identities of all our participants confidential and we will not publish their names, usernames or likenesses.
How can you get involved?
Initially we’ll be reaching out to women, people of color, disabled and LGBTQ+ folks who speedrun Nintendo and retro games on Twitch. Because we want to understand more about how these streamers form inclusive communities, our approach is to leverage and explore that network directly by relying on referrals from our first participants. However, if you haven’t heard from us directly but you’re interested in joining the study, you can fill out this form to let us know, and we’ll get back to you!
We’ll also be posting every two weeks or so to document progress and explore early insights gleaned from the study. Our aim will be to provide a variety of compelling vignettes as well as our own deeper reflections as the research unfolds. Thus far, we’ve been quite inspired by the inclusive streamers we’ve observed on Twitch. By regularly posting about our work, we’re hoping to highlight the fact that there are folks out there making headway tackling the trolls, and encourage our fellow researchers to take a closer look at how they are doing it.