All fun and games? Exploring respect and relationships online

I started getting into gaming when I was around 14 years old and it was immediately a form of escapism. I could put aside all the stress of school, bullies and home pressures and just be whoever I wanted to be for a few hours each evening. I’ve met some of my best friends in the online space, people I still talk to more than 10 years later. Some of my most rewarding and important relationships in my adult life were formed whilst we played games online, and I still play games to connect with them today.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only side of gaming I experienced.

It was exhausting joining new games and seeing a barrage of misogynistic abuse and being singled out as the only girl (as I identified at the time). I was called names because of it. If my team were losing, it was my fault. If my team were winning, it was in spite of my actions. Whilst I am the first to admit that I’m a mediocre gamer at best, there were times where the place I went to to escape was just as difficult to navigate as my offline life. The message I received repeatedly was clear:

You are not welcome here.

This is not your space.

You don’t have a right to be here.

It wasn’t only women who weren’t welcome. Homophobic and racist slurs were thrown around casually by players, including some of my friends at the time- before they understood the implications of what they were saying. It was just accepted as the norm. When talking about the culture in some of the games I played I was asked ‘Well, what do you expect?’ and it was frustrating to see that the young men I played with just weren’t having the same experience I was. I often didn’t speak up as I feared being labeled as ‘difficult’. I’d log off and cry.

However, when looking at the experiences of many women and marginalised people in online spaces, I was one of the lucky ones.

In 2014, ‘Gamergate’, as it was called, was a perfect example of the lack of respect in gaming coming to light. ‘Gamergate’ was a targeted campaign that profiled women who were actively highlighting and talking about the systemic misogynistic abuse in the gaming industry. From feminist commentators to developers, these women were subject to doxxing (releasing personal information such as home address and email address with the intent to cause distress), death threats and much more, for merely discussing the misogynistic culture surrounding games.

I’m friends with a few people that work in gaming, mostly people who write reviews, and whenever I talk about the work I do at Glitch they always say ‘we really need your work in our industry’.

The industry women I talk to are constantly subject to a greater level of scrutiny than their male colleagues, with their expertise and opinions constantly being called into question when writing reviews and opinion pieces. Comments on their work have to be moderated to a greater degree to filter out all the misogynistic comments.

Whilst ‘Gamergate’ was a particularly horrific example, almost every woman and person from a marginalised community I follow in online spaces has been a target of abuse. There is a demonstrated lack of respect for women in games at all levels: players, developers and even characters. This trend has continued into streaming, where people live stream playing games and chat with the community as they play, creating a community of followers and fans, as it rises in popularity with new forms of online abuse appearing all the time.

Black and LGBT+ creators have been particularly subject to ‘hate raids’ on Twitch, one of the most popular streaming sites, to the extent where some of them don’t feel safe. ‘Raids’ are instances in which another user can flood a streamer with lots of new people to watch their stream, a feature usually used to support another streamer who is a friend or has a smaller following. ‘Hate Raids’ use this feature to abuse, where Black or LGBT+ streamers are suddenly flooded with abusive comments. When this phenomenon was brought to the attention of Twitch management, many streamers said that they felt that their concerns weren’t taken seriously enough.

These trends in online gaming highlight why I think that, as we are hearing more about the launch of the Metaverse, we need to be seriously considering what lessons we can learn about respect and relationships online. The Metaverse is something I’m still struggling to believe is real and not something from science fiction. But it is real, and now we must use the knowledge we already have to build a better and safer online community. If you want to read more about what the Metaverse is and what it could be, this article is a great summary.

These are the reasons why I think the Metaverse as it is needs to be re-thought:

The Metaverse will be unsafe for marginalised communities and put the responsibility of action on those being abused, not Meta.

With the launch of one of the first Meta spaces, called Horizon World, in December 2021 , there have been a myriad of reports from women experiencing harms in these spaces, including groping of digital avatars. The current solution? Enter your safe zone. What is a safe zone? Essentially your safe zone takes you away from interacting with anyone else on Horizon World. This means the person experiencing this harassment not only has to be the one to take action, but they are excluded from the social space rather than the perpetrator.

There is a fundamental failure to foster safe and respectful digital communities. It feels a lot like telling women not to go out late at night and not wear certain clothes rather than educating would-be perpetrators and preventing abuse. It says that pathways will continue to be forged by perpetrators, that their criminal behaviour is acceptable and that the ones who they hurt will be censored. It says that sexual harassment is normal, expected, and to just get on with it.

I have a horrible and certain feeling this is going to lead to people being excluded from these spaces due to a fear of abuse because platforms in the Metaverse aren’t taking true responsibility for creating safe spaces. Working as Programme Manager at Glitch I’ve met hundreds of people who have been excluded from social media platforms and gaming spaces alike. Despite 95% of workshop participants saying they felt like they had the skills to be more resilient in online spaces, 61% said that they would still censor themselves online due to a fear of how others will respond. There is something fundamentally broken about our online spaces.

Of course, it isn’t just misogyny that will take place in these spaces without proper safeguarding tools. Without specific acknowledgements of the risks and impacts on marginalised communities, there will be incidents of discrimination such as racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism, and it will be up to those communities to advocate to companies, like Meta, previously known as Facebook, and explain why these spaces are harmful rather than platforms taking preventative action. Real harm has happened, and will continue to do so.

This doesn’t even touch on the point that each user’s avatar can be ‘any race.’ This is something currently promoted as a way to grow empathy with people outside your community and a topic that would require a whole new blog to explore properly, with a different author.

The Metaverse will exclude the disabled community

Videogames have had a difficult history of being ableist — with many games lacking basic accessibility features and a failure to recognise that disability is a very individual experience.

To be truly inclusive, the Metaverse will require a high level of customisation and a range of assistive technologies to meet all individual needs. This isn’t happening in Horizon World, which currently relies heavily on Virtual Reality (VR) systems to access its internal metaverse. VR systems rely on motion controls, require the user to be standing and immediately close off access to anyone with physical impairments. Additionally, Horizon World fails to integrate VR with current assistive technologies.

To create an online community that will thrive, inclusivity needs to be built from the outset, not added as an afterthought.

The Metaverse won’t be sufficiently regulated

As we have seen with the Online Safety Bill, regulation is often discussed and comes in too late, when harm has already occurred. We are constantly behind when it comes to legislation in online spaces. Governments across the world, including the UK Government, need to preempt what kind of regulations might be needed to keep this space safe, and even then they need to ensure that the regulations are fit for purpose. In the UK, we’ve seen how the Online Safety Bill fails to recognise the disproportionate impact of online abuse on women and girls (sign our petition here); marginalised communities cannot be an afterthought to any new regulations.

So, what can we do?

Hold leaders in Big Tech accountable for the spaces they create

When I talk about powerful forces in tech, I don’t just mean Meta — there are many other companies and organisations responsible for our online spaces. Whatever online community you are a part of, help hold platforms to account by reporting harm when you see it, starting conversations, both online and offline, about tech accountability with friends and family, and joining campaigns to hold platforms accountable. And it’s not just online activism that works. Governments, employers, civil society organisations and social media companies all have a responsibility when developing these spaces and making them safer for everyone.

In the UK, you can write to your MP (find them here), asking them to consider what regulations will be needed for the Metaverse, for example in the Online Safety Bill. Ask them to think about how this might impact their constituents from communities other than their own, each with their own unique lived experience. Start or sign a petition, sign up to Google Alerts and newsletters from organisations you want to follow, such as Glitch.

Be an Online Active Bystander

Whilst there are many gaps in current legislation and protections, we can all do our part as Digital Citizens to help out when others are experiencing online abuse. Digital Citizens are individuals engaging positively, critically and competently in all digital spaces. All individuals have a right to safely and freely engage in online spaces without discrimination. Digital citizenship is respecting and championing the human rights of all individuals online, encompassing three key elements: individual, social and institutional responsibilities. Digital citizenship requires everyone who engages with digital technologies to do so in a safe, responsible and respectful way that does not inflict or incite harm onto others.

For those of you that take part in the Metaverse, think about applying our Top Tips: report online abuse when you see it, ask the person experiencing online abuse what they need, and amplify the voices and experiences of marginalised communities.

We have free workshops available to help empower all women and non-binary people, from all backgrounds, to feel safe to use their voices online. If you want to support our work, become a regular donor to help provide free workshops to the community and help us to develop our work for women in the gaming industry.

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