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It’ll Take To Clean Up Toxic Culture

In day-to-day life, you probably haven’t had someone yell at you, “Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!” If you’re a woman who plays online video games, though, statements like this, and worse, are all too common.

As COVID-19 has driven much of life online and fueled a boom in online gaming, harassment in these and other internet spaces has increased. Forty-one percent of computer and videogame players are female, down from 46% in 2019.

Despite its digital nature, online harassment can have real-world consequences for victims, including emotional and physical distress. This has left online gaming companies and players scrambling for better community management techniques to prevent harassment. As a researcher who studies gaming, I’ve found that the right cultural norms can result in healthy online communities, even in the highly competitive world of esports.

The stakes are high. Competitive video gaming, or esports, now exceeds US$1 billion in yearly revenue. Professional, collegiate and high school leagues are expanding, especially as COVID-19 has decreased opportunities for traditional sports.

Recent stories from The New York Times, Wired, Insider and others have highlighted how pervasive sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination are in online spaces. However, these issues are hardly new. Similar problems arose in 2014’s GamerGate Twitter-based campaign of harassment of female gamers, designers and journalists.

Sexism was also common before GamerGate. For example, professional gamer Miranda Pakozdi quit her team following sexual harassment from her coach in 2012; the coach, Aris Bakhtanians, famously stated that “sexual harassment is part of [the fighting game] culture” and that it could not be removed.

Others have suggested that the anonymity of online game spaces, combined with gamers’ competitive natures, increases the likelihood of toxic behavior. Survey data from the American Defamation League suggests that at least 37% of female gamers have faced gender-based harassment.

However, positive online communities exist, and a study by lawyer and former Microsoft user experience designer Emperor123 Rebecca Chui found that anonymous online communities are not inherently toxic. Rather, a culture of harassment requires community norms that allow for it. This suggests that online bad behavior can be addressed effectively. The question is how.


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