Bystander’s Guide – Combating Harassment in Online Multiplayer Games

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I used to play a lot of competitive Overwatch. Like, a lot. I’ve lost track amount of times I’ve been harassed in a game of Overwatch while the other four people on my team quietly listen to someone say absolutely vile things to me completely unprovoked. It feels awful that bystanders often don’t seem to bat an eye as they observe what is essentially verbal assault. It always makes me wonder, How can they listen to this and say nothing?

Correcting the toxicity in competitive gaming communities will be an ongoing, group effort. This guide will teach you how and why you can and should help when you encounter harassment in one of your games.

Partial solutions like Overwatch’s endorsement system and reporting feedback is helpful, but I want more. Gaming communities should consider what bystanding players can do to better support victims of online harassment.

Encouraging apathy with the tired, dismissive mantra of “just mute them” and “don’t feed the trolls” is simply not enough anymore and ignoring these situations can actually alienate the victims to the point of abandoning a game all together. 

Yes, mute harassers. Yes, report them. But, also please take a moment to consider doing a little more by showing support for the targets of harassment. Not protect, not stand up for, just support.

The content of this post can be applied to any harassment situation you see, but I am using female gamers as an example because it’s what I have the most experience with, being one myself. While women don’t deserve special treatment, they are a minority in most video game player populations and could use a little support to help the demographic survive and grow.

Why ignoring the situation is the wrong answer to harassment

Elie Wiesel, author of Night, wrote: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Speaking up is about dispelling the assumption that the harasser represents the majority. The win condition here is encouraging the victims to continue engaging with the community rather than eventually quitting the game from pure demoralization.

I wouldn’t say being silent is condoning the behavior, but it certainly doesn’t help, and it does make the harasser feel like they can do whatever they want. It’s my personal opinion (and I know many who share it) that if harassers encountered resistance from their peers every time they tried to attack someone, instead of silence that permits the behavior, we might see long term change in community toxicity.

What can you do to help?

Many gamers I know have told me they have no idea how to respond when they hear someone harassing a woman on their team, or any player for that matter. They say they do not want to be accused of “white knighting” or that they don’t want to suggest they think the player cannot stand up for herself. But they say they want to do something.

Do not be silent. Stand beside victims of harassment and support them!

Instead of “Mute and Report”, make your new method of operation “Call it Out, Mute, and Report.” It’s that simple.

Shut down the harasser and show solidarity with the victim. Even one sentence can help – Take your pick! Tell him you see him and you do not approve. Tell the victim that their harasser is wrong and no one else on the team agrees with them. Tell the victim you will report the harasser. Tell her she is not alone. Any one of the above, or all of them. What harm can it cause to at least try?

Why does gender matter?

“But, Angie,” you might say, “men get harassed too, so why should I care about women in particular?” This is a common sentiment that comes up in discussions about sexism in gaming communities and it’s a valid question.

Women are often targeted and harassed in video games because of their gender, something they cannot control, and this is prevalent in video game culture abroad. Men are almost never harassed because of their gender in gaming.

You never hear someone in voice comms exclaim, “OMG A MAN!” the moment a male player speaks in voice chat. You do not hear anyone saying, “Oh a MAN, you better play support because men are BAD at DPS,” and your certainly never hear, “We are going to lose because we have a man on our team and men are bad at games. They should go back to the garage and fix a car or something.”

If you do not believe this type of harassment occurs, I implore you to visit this eye-opening YouTube series called OMG A GIRL dedicated to documenting sexist harassment the streamer encounters in multiplayer games. If you have never seen this behavior in your games, then I envy you. This kind of harassment is real. It is harmful, and we as a community have the power to help fight back against it.

Statistics and Studies

The harassment of women in video games is a woefully under researched topic. However, much research has been done about the rates and types of harassment men and women encounter online in general, rather than specifically in video games, and any study you might stumble across via Google will confirm that women, especially the 18-29 age group are two to four time more likely to experience sexual harassment.

This study by the Pew Research Institute is particularly interesting in its results on how men and women perceive the seriousness of online harassment.

“Seven-in-ten women (70%) say they see online harassment as a major problem, compared with 54% of men. Younger women – those ages 18 to 29 – are especially likely to say this: More than eight-in-ten (83%) say it is a major problem, compared with 55% of men in the same age group.”

“[…]women – and especially young women – receive sexualized forms of online abuse at much higher rates than men. Some 21% of women ages 18 to 29 have been sexually harassed online, a figure that is more than double that of men in the same age group (9%).”

“Overall, 11% of women have specifically been harassed because of their gender, compared with 5% of men.”

According to the Pew study women also report more than twice the level of emotional distress as men when targeted with online harassment.

The most recent study I could find on women in video games specifically was in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in 2018: “Female Gamers’ Experience of Online Harassment and Social Support in Online Gaming: A Qualitative Study”

“Female gamers frequently talked (n = 23) about how they felt that other male gamers expected them to do badly and therefore felt pressure to prove themselves at all times. There was a common theme of other gamers acting as gatekeepers, expecting females to prove themselves worthy of playing.”

“The most common theme in the discussions (n = 29) was the belief that female gamers needed to stay quiet and hide their identity from other gamers, in order to be able to play online with others, which was suggested as the only option available to them, in order to protect themselves from the negative behaviour of others.”

“There was a significant theme of females disguising their gender through the use of neutral pseudonyms and avatars and in particular of not using their voice online. For the majority of the women, this was an ongoing strategy for them to manage negative behaviour they had encountered previously and anticipated occurring again.”

Survey Results about Voice Communication and Harassment
I won’t ask you to believe me and older studies alone. Believe the women in your gaming communities now!

For this article I collected over 100 responses from gamers available for review here. Participants were ideally female with microphones whom play competitive multiplayer team games, sampled from various girl gamer Discords, Facebook groups, and subreddits.

I’m going to go over about half of the questions for the sake of brevity and the results I thought were most notable. I am aware some of these questions could have been designed better, but I was initially unsure if I was going to pursue writing on this topic, so we are and it’s too late to change it. With that in mind, let’s dive in!

If you have a mic, when playing competitive multiplayer team games, how do you engage with your team in regards to voice chat? (Multiple choice, required)
Roughly 25% of participants reported joining team chat but not speaking or never joining team chat at all.

If you join team chat but do not speak, please explain the reason. (Optional, short response)
Of the 42 who chose to respond to this question, roughly 50% reported not speaking in voice chat for fear of harassment, many specifically citing the tendency of players targeting them based on gender.

How often would you say you typically experience sexist attention or harassment in your most played competitive multiplayer game? (Required, multiple choice)
35% of participants reported experiencing sexist attention or harassment “regularly”, “frequently”, or “very frequently”. 24% responded “sometimes”. Only 7% responded “never”.

Note: “Sexist attention” is admittedly subjective and could be anything from someone exclaiming “OMG A GIRL” the moment a female player speaks, to someone asking about someone’s bra size. Harassment (versus attention) tends to be ongoing and more aggressive, such as someone yelling at a women for wanting to play a damage dealing character instead of support and not leaving her alone about it.

What is the most common response of the others in your party when you experience harassment? (Required, multiple choice)
40% of participants answered in more or less words that their other party members ignore the situation and/or remain silent. More than I was expecting described supportive behavior, which is great!

What type of response to this from your team mates would make you feel supported? (Required, multiple choice)
The vast majority of participants in the survey, 82 out of 95 responses, want a show of support of some kind from their team. I would HIGHLY recommend reviewing the survey responses yourself.

A lot of answers said something along the lines of “back me up”, “call them out”, or “shut them down”. Some simply want their team to acknowledge to acknowledge the situation is happening in some small way.

Only a few participants (less than 5) said they prefer everyone ignore the harasser.

Have you ever stopped playing a game entirely or less than before, because of sexist harassment? (Required, multiple choice)
17% of respondents answered “Yes, entirely” and 34% answered “Yes, less than before”. I find this incredibly depressing.

Side note: White Knighting
For those unaware, “white knighting” is the act of standing up for women only because the player is attracted to her and wants to get on her good side.

There’s nothing wrong with doing the right thing. “White knight” is just an insult some people reach for when they feel insulted, corrected and put in their place. While this should mean little to you, supporting the victim can mean everything to that person.

Call to Action!

Victims of harassment notice the silence and it breaks our hearts. It’s disappointing and demoralizing. It leaves us jaded and it pushes us away from communities we want to love. Please, do not be silent. Be compassionate and stand up for what’s right. Stand by your fellow human beings in solidarity against toxicity.

Muting and reporting a harasser without also showing support for the harassed does nothing to bolster the morale of the victim. Don’t let victims of harassment be alienated from something we all enjoy by toxic players who do not speak for you. Use your influence to bolster the video game community!

As a wise Redditor over on /r/girlgamers said to me recently:

The answer to this problem is not, ‘Women, just learn to stop caring how society treats you.

The answer is, ‘Society, stop treating women like this.

Yes, a woman can learn not to care what to think, but it won’t change how she is treated, it is something men don’t have to expend energy doing and as long as these attitudes are directed at women in general, we will never have equality.

Thanks for reading!

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18 comments on “Bystander’s Guide – Combating Harassment in Online Multiplayer Games”

  1. Damn. Brilliant post. I hope I don’t undermine it with my trivial comment, just wanted to acknowledge the work and thought you put into this.
    Also, this is making me appreciate my single player games even more. Honestly, the thing I hate the most about online multiplayer games is that I have to play with other people.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you found it interesting. People are the worst but I just love competitive games, man. Winning against other people is the best! Pulling off coordinated team play so so satisfying. But sometimes you run into asshats. : /

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read and always find it enjoyable reading a well sourced article. Not sure whether it’s ‘part of the problem’ but just unable to see past viewing the issue as an experience neutering a primal aspect of human nature. As opposed to competitive activities that have physical exertion, training to be the best runner or fighter, in a digital world I’d propose psychology would suggest an individual in a competitive environment would use any edge ‘to win’, the survival of the fittest mentality.

    The end result presumably driving off entire large swathes of more moderate demographics. It seems destined to fail when the prestige, fame and fortune of the competition is there and so inviting but you try to remove the ‘competitive edge’ which unfortunately includes targeting your competitors where they are vulnerable.

    From a moralistic and I’d guess, rationale perspective to root this issue out is to find common consensus between the two polarised view points, which isn’t to given credence or merit to their arguments but to understand if competition or the desire to ‘crush’ your opponents is driving you to misogyny does that suggest the solution isn’t to silence one view point as a temporary fix that fails to resolve that mindset but instead shine a light on these types of games? Or question whether the behaviours shown are demonstrable of an audience not best suited to these experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I should clarify that I’m referring to team based multiplayer. Overwatch for instance is 6 vs 6 and you only talk to your own team so the harassment is from your team mates. That’s why it blows my mind that a lot of times bystanders say nothing. It takes so little effort to just say “not cool bro” to the person, you know?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Forgive the ignorance of the matter as haven’t experienced the Game directly but from what I picked up it was quite specifically targeted towards a younger user base? The ‘Fortnite’ crowd to draw a parallel. Just find it hard to believe the issue will be resolved trying to impose civility and discourse on an age bracket that by human nature is still developing and pushing back against societal norms and behaviours. Which isn’t a sleight on the games audience or meant to condescend, just seems a futile gesture to control the base nature of a certain age demographic which seems destined to fail without parental involvement, which usually is unaware or uninterested.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No worries! I’m less worried about fixing the issue as much as just reassuring the targets of harassment.

        Sure if everyone put in an effort there might be an impact but that will never happen because a lot of players just don’t care.

        However just a quick “ignore that guy, you’re playing fine” from a team mate can mean the world to someone after being told “all girl are garbage at games” for the umpteenth time in their life.

        I would say Fortnite is a different crowd than Overwatch. Fortnite is a free to play game with a much younger than average audience from what I’ve seen likely because it is in fact free so kids can download it without issue on their consoles. Personally I never experience harassment from kids. It’s always from men. It’s hard to tell exactly how old from the voice alone, but you can easily tell a kid from their voice. Those actually make me laugh rather than making me upset.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Overwatch is one of the most toxic player bases I’ve ever been in, and I’ve played a lot of GTA Online. In fact the two are right up there together IMO, which is ridiculous when you think about it.

    You’ll find that most people aren’t bystanders in this, they’re probably just not even signed in to the voice channels. I tend to stay in the the text channels and combat abuse there, but screaming idiots in my ears? No thanks. I’m trying to play a game here.

    My battlenet name clearly indicates I’m male, I get routinely abused in Overwatch no matter how well I’m doing. I stopped playing competitive almost immediately, I assumed people would play as a team and actually try and win. All that happens is people abusing each other even more than in quick play!

    The game needs a vote to kick option, if 5 people agree the 6th is being an asshole, then give us the option to boot them out. These people aren’t going to change, they’ll always be assholes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When I used Overwatch as an example the vast majority of the time I’ve experienced situations like this, everyone on the team is in team chat and can hear. A vote to kick would be amazing in Overwatch. I miss that feature from WoW.

      And honestly you’d be surprised. Sometimes a scolding from a peer can help to open the eyes of a player who says sexist things as a joke without realizing how harmful it really is. I’ve seen it in a few games here and there. Aggressors rely on silence to get away with things. It’s the same in real life. Creepers who cop a feel of a women on the subway are relying on silence to get away with it. If a scene is made by the target and witnesses they’ll think twice next time.

      Like

  4. What a wonderful post. Since I began transitioning, I noticed the harassment I got online has gotten significantly worse due to using feminine screennames, and it really opened my eyes to how bad cis women who’ve been gaming their whole lives have had it. It’s horrible.

    Your potential solutions for harassment, and how to push back against it and call it out, are vital steps that we need to take as a community – together – if we want gaming to feel safer and more fun for everyone. Thank you so much for writing this!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That must be very frustrating for you to start having to deal with. So many of us are just jaded and used to it. Wish we didn’t have to be. Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Like

  5. Despite that I do not play multiplayer games I agree that we need to be doing more to combat them. Blocking and muting is like putting a bandage over a bullet hole. You don’t feel like you’ve fixed the problem. I was once harassed in a fandom for a Swedish band I liked, not because I’m female but because I loved to fantasize about the band and talk about my experiences.

    Two assholes in that fandom would frequently tell me to shut up and one of them was worse than the other. She hated me to the core for no reason at all and didn’t stop even when I stood up for myself. I had to block her on all social media platforms and even started to document the incidents just in case. I’ve been silent about my status as a fan ever since out of fear of her resurfacing.

    But back to the subject at hand. We need to start calling out harassment in games and there’s stereotypes that need to be busted. Video games should be about having fun together, not alienating people.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah blocking and muting doesn’t stop the incident from happening in the first place nor does it make you feel any better. Sorry you had that experience. It sounds really frustrating. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You have a good article here. This is a call for the communities in games to support victims more, as it is needed to maintain a healthy user base.

    I personally have limited experience with competitive online games using voice chat, as I tend to play Nintendo games, which currently require a smartphone app to chat or hear other players. I lack a smartphone, so I have no idea what is happening with the other players on my team, and can’t help a teammate who’s being harassed. It is a shame that the technology isn’t up to par on that platform, I can’t even report any harassment without the app. Hopefully, when Nintendo gets their next console, whenever that may be, they get the online communications right, and can help foster a healthy community in the process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I agree of course.

      Yeah Nintendo has been living in the Stone Age in regards to online communication for ages. People just want to be able to play with and talk to their friends.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t have anything insightful to add, but I did want to drop a thank you for writing this up. Probably going to read it over a few more times over the next week to internalize all of what you’ve said here and be mindful of it in future. Hopefully I can do some good putting to practice your suggestions.

    Liked by 1 person

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