Exploring online sexual violence and misogyny in gaming at the Safer Internet Forum

On Thursday, 21 November 2019, the Safer Internet Forum (SIF) took place in Brussels, Belgium. With a theme of "From online violence to digital respect", it also celebrated 20 years of safer/better internet funding by the European Commission. Below, read the summary of a deep dive session on online sexual violence and misogyny in gaming, led by Lavinia McLean, Head of the Department of Humanities at the Technological University Dublin.

Lavinia McLean, Head of the Department of Humanities at the Technological University Dublin began her session by providing an overview of female gamers' experiences of harassment in online gaming. There has been a lot of research on that topic; an interesting statistic is that female gamers represent almost half of those who play videogames, according to a study carried out by United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment in 2016. The social aspects of gaming are becoming a significant motivational factor for both men and women, according to another study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association in 2018. The structural factors within gaming encourage players to increasingly seek social interactions. There are individual differences depending on the partners the player communicates with during gaming. The aim of this deep dive session was therefore to look into how negative social interactions impact women.

Social interactions are numerous and important in gaming. Gaming strengthens pre-existing relationships (for example, a female gamer is introduced to gaming by her father or brother), and emotionally sensitive players make more online friendships. Studies have shown that social support in gaming represents a significant motivation for female gamers. However, female gamers in particular also have many negative interactions in gaming, such as harassment and sexual harassment; sex role stereotyping; cyberbullying (which has been proven to be higher among female and LGBTI gamers); and linguistic profiling (hearing the female player's voice). Females reported being treated differently to male gamers in online gaming, often excluded, and they felt like their value is not recognised, even though they are doing well in the game. The threat of being stereotyped led many female gamers to underperform in games, and notably to avoid using their microphone to communicate verbally with other players.

After this presentation, Lavinia McLean organised an activity with participants, who split into groups. She presented three different female gamer profiles, and distributed a set of quotes to each group. Based on these quotes, participants had to describe the person's gaming identity: whether they are a serious gamer, a non-gamer, a part-time gamer, or a female gamer. They also had to consider the gamer's behaviour online, other people's behaviour towards them, and what impact this had. Based on this information, participants had to guess which female gamer profile the sets of quotes corresponded to.

  • "Isabelle is 19, describes herself as shy with a small number of friends. She enjoys gaming daily and spends a large portion of her free time playing online games with others. She has made some friends online but regularly leaves games and clans and changes the games she plays."
  • "Kate is 53 and plays games in the evening time and weekends online. If people ask what her hobbies are, she describes enjoying cooking, talking to friends on social media and going for walks. Her close friends do not know anything about her gaming hobby."
  • "Michelle is 25 and was introduced to gaming by her two brothers at age 4. She enjoyed playing games as a child and teenager with them online, even after they all moved away from each other. She has stopped gaming in the last year."

After this activity, a discussion on the outcomes of the game followed. Because of the toxic environment in gaming, the lack of social support and the impact of negative interactions, female gamers feel stress and anxiety, and feel like they have a new insecurity which they do not need. How do they deal with it? Many female gamers choose not to show they are females, and therefore put internal pressure on themselves, which creates a tense environment for women. This leads them to deny their identity as a female gamer. Women often feel that they need to prove themselves in gaming, as female gamers. What Lavina McLean wanted to emphasise with the three female gamer profiles described above is that none of the three figures have had a choice in shaping their identity. They are female gamers because their gender had a huge impact on their experience.

In general, female gamers are quite accepting of this situation; they take the burden of managing other people's negative behaviours upon themselves, rather than doing something to change this negative environment. But how do we change this negative environment? A first step is by preventing harassment and sexual harassment of women in gaming, but also by adopting a "netiquette", by empowering women and not accepting the current situation as normal. People with a wide audience reach need to roleplay appropriate game playing.

For more information about the Safer Internet Forum 2019 "From online violence to digital respect", you can read the full report on betterinternetforkids.eu and visit betterinternetforkids.eu/sif2019.


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