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Gaming’s toxic men, explained

Experts tackle the phenomenon of angry men, trolls, racists and misogynists who hover around the video game industry

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This story is not another attempt to chronicle the activities of racist and misogynist men who harass women and people of color on social media and in multiplayer games.

Nor is it an existential inquiry into their particular niche in the video game community. Rather, this story asks: Where do they come from? Why they are here? And what allows them to stay?

What follows are interviews — under a variety of rubrics — with 11 writers and academics who have studied and published useful work on the problem of misogyny and racism in gaming and in popular entertainment. Most have experienced harassment and abuse from toxic gamers.

How did we get here?

Gaming has attracted (or spawned) many angry young men who are comfortable with harassing and abusing women. How did that come about?

Kate Miltner (Miltner is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, specializing in technology and culture.):

I’m a feminist media scholar, and as such, I don’t believe in gender essentialism. While sex is biological, gender is a social construct. We are trained from childhood to behave in certain gendered ways.

There’s an often promoted belief amongst certain people within the worlds of gaming and tech that technology is naturally, even biologically, the domain of men. This is usually based in the idea that men are naturally logical and women are naturally emotional. It completely negates the fact that computer programming was originally a feminized profession.

With the first computers, hardware design was considered to be the big challenge, and therefore was considered to be in the male domain. Programming was seen to be menial labor, like secretarial work. It was boring and repetitive, so they decided it was work for the women to do.

In the 1960s, when it became clear that programmers actually had a lot of autonomy and were really in demand, employers started to emphasize the fact that programming was creative work, and so men started to come into the profession. A lot of stereotypes about who was “good” at computer programming went into the hiring process, and that largely contributed to the computing culture we see today. The women who’d been working in programming were edged out. Not only were their contributions undervalued, but the culture they were working in was unwelcoming to women.

Anita Sarkeesian (Sarkeesian is head of Feminist Frequency and best known for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, an examination of misogyny in games. She is a frequent target of harassment and abuse.):

The games industry has catered to men and boys for so long. But it wasn’t always that way. In the early days of arcades, whole families would go together. Women were involved in the development of early games. But that shifted in the ’90s with the super-sexist advertising that took place both in print and and commercials.

I remember a commercial for PlayStation 1. There’s a man playing and he locks his girlfriend in the closet. He’s sitting on the couch with Lara Croft. I mean, what? I wonder, who are you targeting with that kind of shit?

So there was a massive shift in the marketing, targeting boys and men, and a shift in the games targeting boys and men, very specifically. This massive industry was targeting one demographic with hardly any pushback or resistance.

And all of a sudden you have some women who are saying, “Hey, wait a second. We’ve been here. We’ve been here this whole time, and we’re fucking sick of this.”

Dr. Kishonna Gray (Gray is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago):

Women have been devalued in games. We see the sexualization of them in games. Sometimes they’re subject to rape and abuse. Or they’re there just as a focus for the main character to have something to do.

That devaluation translates to the real world, where you have very few female game developers, where they are subject to a harassing, toxic environment.

The silence of the games companies when women have been abused and attacked is another message that women don’t matter. They see what’s happening and all they do is put out these stupid, meaningless statements.

They don’t answer any of the real questions. How many women have you hired? How many women have you kept and promoted up? How many women have you not relegated to making games for girls? Tell me about characters of women that you make? Are they actually real or do they have huge tits?

Gaming culture and games companies have been complicit in the abuse. There’s no way that GamerGate could have had the power that it did have without that historical practice of diminishing women. The game industry weaponized GamerGate.

A lot of people said, “Well, we’re not doxing women, so we’re not complicit.” Fuck that. Yes, you are.

Soraya Chemaly (Chemaly is director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and organizer of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition. She is a writer and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media.):

For men, the idea of status and identity protection is rooted in the rejection of femininity and in the denigration of girls and women as feminine human beings.

Even a small girl can intuit in the culture around her that boys and men don’t want to be like her, and that being unlike her actually gives them status.

The patriarchal norms that inform misogyny and sexism don’t do boys and men any favors. A lot of the issues in gaming are tied to sexual objectification and denigration of girls.

But we should likewise be talking about what it means to dehumanize boys and men. We don’t really talk about boys and men as violence objects. Those things are interrelated, especially as they are manifested in gaming.

As a society and as parents and adults, we have failed to educate them, and I think that we’ve left young men woefully unprepared in ways that end up being harmful — not only to women, but to themselves.

If you start talking about what it means to separate violence from masculinity, you really have to accept the fact that maybe feminists have some good ideas, which people are not that willing to do.

Mattie Brice (Brice is a game designer, writer and speaker whose work focuses on the central role of individual experience in art.):

Game playing is so ubiquitous. If you’re a young man right now, you’ve probably played games. If you talk to any sampling of young men, it won’t be a surprise to find that video games align them all.

As gaming — which was once seen as nerd stuff — has become popular, so have other nerd subcultures, including nerd humor and the way we talk on the internet, as opposed to how we talk in offline interactions. It’s snarky and ironic. So internet culture is a part of games culture, in a way. The feel of the internet lends itself to gamer culture.

It’s been said before that games as an art form understood the internet first, and better than any other art form. That’s because the people on the internet understand games and games culture. So that also becomes a focus for people who are disenfranchised to gather.

They have a space online to create symbols for what they are against. Gaming, which was once a loser activity, is an obvious focal point where they can feel like they are being oppressed. They can be radicalized by people who understand the power of blending into gamer culture on places like 4chan.

Bridget Blodgett (Blodgett is an associate professor at the University of Baltimore. Her recent publications include “Hypermasculinity & Dickwolves: The Invisibility of Women in the New Gaming Public.”):

Games marketed themselves into a corner by talking about themselves as being something for dudes, by dudes. If an industry segments itself to white dudes of a certain age and a certain income bracket, it’s going to reach a saturation point.

But that marketing message, for a long time, was that this is the most important group, and those consumers have largely bought into that. Now [that] those companies are looking at other markets, there’s a pushback from that group.

They are saying, “If we are the most important people to you, why are you suddenly worried about these other people?” If that’s important to how you see yourself, if you’re being told you’re actually not that important, it’s going to create some emotional backlash.

You are going to start looking for confirmation for your anger and your beliefs, and you’re going to start organizing. And in our era of social media and online connectivity, it’s a lot easier to find others who agree.

Thom Avella (Avella is a YouTube creator whose work focuses on the intersection between politics, games and online toxicity. As a teenager, Avella sympathized with GamerGate.):

My experiences with video games as a kid were positive. I made some of my best friends through our shared interest in Pokémon, Mario Kart and Call of Duty.

When I was confronted with people on YouTube telling me what Sarkeesian was supposedly all about, and what feminism supposedly wanted to do to video games, of course I was outraged.

Gamers are afraid of change.

I had come to view video games as a core part of myself. The prospect of people like me — straight, white and male — being run out of the shop seemed very real. Later, of course, I realized I was making a mountain out of a molehill. As an ironic bonus, I also realized I’m not straight or even all that male.

No matter how many times GamerGaters vociferously deny it, video game culture has been a boys’ club for a very long time. It’s not too different from older forms of media. The only difference is that older forms of media have had more time to diversify and include narratives and experiences which are more reflective of the experiences of a wider variety of people.

Video games are on the event horizon of a similar transitional period, yet we’ve seen this unprecedented pushback from self-identified gamers at every turn.

Gamers are afraid of change. They seem to believe that any attempt to amplify the voices of marginalized people in the game space must also come with a suppression of their own voice.

illustration of black woman holding a megaphone encircled by the cable of a video game controller held by a white person

Why are objectionable opinions so common in gaming spaces?

Gaming’s toxic men are often keen to display offensive opinions about women and people of color.

Carolyn Petit (Petit is a prominent transgender woman working in games journalism. She is managing editor at Feminist Frequency, where she offers an intersectional feminist view on games and gaming culture.):

When I first started at GameSpot, there were men, readers, who responded with comments literally saying that women should only exist in the games media to be attractive to men. And [that] by [me] not fitting into their definition of attractive, GameSpot had betrayed this idea by hiring me. They had hired a woman who fell outside the narrow purpose of women in this space.

Those people who complained are not interested in our perspectives, our experiences, our opinions, but just to be “hot” for them.

They can say that these are “just games,” and that they have no impact beyond themselves. But the attitudes about women, and the roles women have in the world, are influenced by the fantasy that games offer.

They have this idea that gaming is like a magic circle that they enter, where they enjoy a fantasy, and then they come out of it into the real world without having been influenced at all. It doesn’t work like that.

Kate Miltner:

Hegemonic or traditional masculinity is often constructed in terms of physical strength, good looks, cognitive hardness, minimal emotion. This is the sort of masculinity that is often portrayed in the media: the strong and silent hero who rescues the girl.

Men who are seen as “nerdy” are often persecuted for not adhering to these norms. However, instead of rejecting this traditional masculine construct and pursuing alternative forms of masculinity, it seems that some nerdy men are doubling down on the one bit of traditional masculinity that is available to them, which is technological competence.

What I think is happening with this line of thinking is that if technology becomes the domain of women, that puts their masculinity at risk. This is why they are so intent on keeping technology as the purview of men. It’s where they see themselves as having dominance and control.

Soraya Chemaly:

There is in the United States such an undeniable mutual construction of sexism and racism [that] it’s possible for high-status white men to play off white high-status women and black men in very complex but persistently effective ways. We see that over and over again.

I think their perceived loss of status is very threatening to their identity, and that is what motivates a lot of this behavior. But there is a difference that they do not perceive between a loss of privilege and actual oppression; those two things actually get confused in very unhelpful ways.

illustration of a black woman sitting at a computer, with the screen throwing out a red reflection of a mob of angry men

Why is online gaming chat rife with overt and casual racism?

People of color who venture into gaming spaces are often assaulted with vile insults or tired cliches.

Kahlief Adams (Adams is the owner and producer at Spawn On Me, a popular podcast that investigates games culture, society and politics.):

I’ve had people call me every name under the sun. People often ask me how I deal with terrible people. I point out that I’m black in America and I’ve been on the internet since forever. Those things have given me the tools to be able to deal.

If you look at gaming circles and the gaming industry, it is a fairly white industry — both in development and publishing, and press. They don’t necessarily speak for us.

Adding blackness to anything will upset people. Every time black characters are given top billing in games, you get an uprising from, I’m going to assume, young white dudes or folks who feel like they are losing some kind of exposure.

There are a lot of people in the gaming establishment who are afraid to speak up. Game companies don’t want to alienate what they think is their base.

When EA pushed out the Harlem Hellfighters front and center on the cover of Battlefield 1, we had all these accusations that they were black-washing World War I. But why can’t you have a black protagonist be the main storyline in a Battlefield game, when 99 percent of all protagonists in most of the Battlefield series have been white?

There’s a story mode in the latest Madden game. When it turned out that the main character was a black guy, we had a whole bunch of white folks on the internet who are like, “Well, what if I wanted to be me? Why can’t I be a white dude in this game?”

My answer to that was: Why can’t we have a story about a character who just happens to be black? Then if you want to compound that with the actual statistics of who is in the NFL, then we can have that conversation as well. But people don’t like statistics, and they don’t like truth.

Kishonna Gray:

Dominance and supremacy is still what’s happening in these spaces. I could go online right now and immediately I’ll be profiled by how I sound. I’m going to be interacting with mostly males who see me as an intruder into their digital locker room.

They feel that this is a place where no girls are allowed, no people of color are allowed. “What are you doing in here?” I hear this absolutely every time.

I played Friday the 13th and saw how African-American characters were targeted to be killed, while white characters were left alone. I challenged someone for calling me the N-word, and I got banned.

The game companies’ focus is really on white males first. So whenever I reach out and say, “Hey, what are you doing about the toxicity in the space?” they’re like, “Oh, well, you can just isolate and segregate yourselves” in places like Xbox Live. They’re not really doing anything about it; they’re just keeping people separate and segregated.

For the most part, those pockets are free of the toxicity on Xbox Live, because a lot of them are invite-only. However, it creates this insulated and separate culture.

When everyone started this whole multiplayer thing, I was excited. I thought we’d be able to go beyond our small borders, we’d be able to connect. But I’ve been gaming with the same folks for the past five or six years.

People have this assumption that the expansion of digital technology and internet technologies will make us more connected to each other than it ever has. It’s not really doing that. We’re still interacting with the people who look like us.

I don’t want to say we’re going backwards, but this utopian myth that people had — that we would see a breakdown of barriers — that’s just not happening.

Mattie Brice:

We saw in Charlottesville that there are people who just want to have a white nationalist nation away from everyone else. They think that America is that place. That goes back a long time, but I think it’s also wrapped up in a lot of other narratives, including the internet and games.

Toxic people know who to abuse. They find the people they want to abuse and do as much damage as they can. We know that. But we can’t talk about that without also talking about how non-harassers are also disenfranchising people of color and women.

These things aren’t somehow separate. It’s a whole system of who it is that we support and who it is that has some foundation of power, and who are easy to abuse and exploit.

I feel a lot of frustration about the weak response of the game industry to harassment and GamerGate. It feels like they don’t see anyone as fully human if we aren’t generating money for their platforms. I feel at odds with these companies for failing to provide a counternarrative. I feel less at odds with the abusers than I do with the people surrounding them who have the power to do more, but do nothing.

Look at the narrative around GamerGate. There’s hardly any mention of people of color. It’s all about three people who are either white or white-passing.

Why are gaming’s toxic men so enraged?

Women and people of color are beginning to appear in games as powerful characters with their own agency. Slowly, women and minorities are starting to hold senior positions in game development and game criticism. Why is representation — within and outside the art — so offensive to gaming’s toxic men?

Soraya Chemaly:

There’s a lot of sociological research about hierarchy and status in the gaming space, and the misogyny and aggression that comes out of that.

We know that the dynamics of women’s visibility online, particularly in what are perceived as competitive situations, can often result in lower-status men feeling threatened, and then dogpiling on women who have more prominence, status and visibility.

We see that in gaming, and we see it in the same way on Twitter where they have a two-tiered verification system that makes women extremely visible in prominent ways.

Jen Golbeck (Golbeck is an associate professor at the University of Maryland. Her books on internet and entertainment culture include Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach.):

The mythos of heroic, powerful men who are in charge — who are respected, successful and dominant — is a narrative that is really changing. The status quo in video games is adapting, which feels threatening to white, conservative men, even younger ones.

It can be hard if you’re in the position of privilege to feel like something is being taken away from you. To fail to see that this is really about stopping other people being ignored or abused. I don’t like it, but I understand where that feeling comes from.

Paul Booth (Booth is an associate professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul Univesity. He researches fandom in new media and games. His books include Crossing Fandoms: SuperWhoLock and the Contemporary Fan Audience.):

When one is used to being catered to, and then suddenly other people are being catered to as well, it feels like you’ve lost something, even though you actually haven’t. So privilege absolutely plays into this, both male privilege and white privilege.

Carolyn Petit:

For these people, white male is the default mode for humanity. The more deviations from that, the farther away you are from default human. Anyone who isn’t a white man is less human. The media reinforces that to the nth degree by placing white men at the center of games, TV shows and movies, instead of showing the shared humanity of us all.

Anita Sarkeesian:

They’re starting to freak out because they feel deeply entitled to this space. They talk about it like the last bastion of masculinity. Like, ‘These feminazis have taken everything from us, now they are coming for our games.’

This sense of privilege is tied to patriarchy as well. It’s not just games. Men are told in our society that they should get fast cars and hot women and good jobs. And when they don’t get those things, they attack women they perceive as being successful.

One of the ways they attack me is by saying that I’m rich. Because I had a successful Kickstarter, they claimed that I was loaded and I was a trust fund kid. They concoct these wild conspiracy theories as a way for them to demonize women because these men don’t have what they think they should have.

illustration of three white men — one in a VR headset, one with headphones, and one muzzled by the cable of a game controller — being protested by women

Why do so many men in gaming exhibit a persecution complex?

White male gamers often defend their own toxic behavior by claiming to be marginalized.

Jen Golbeck:

[Harassers] see themselves as the persecuted group. But when you challenge anyone who feels like that persecution is part of their identity, it just makes them angrier. They’re like people who believe in conspiracies.

They pull out all kinds of facts and figures about why white men are the most persecuted in Western society. They really believe it, and will jump on anything that allows them to embrace that persecuted identity more fully.

Psychologically, I understand that. It’s easier than saying, ‘Oh, I’m part of a privileged group and still things suck for me.’ Because that makes you more of a loser. ‘I can’t get anything I want and also I’ve got it better off than anyone else’? That’s not a comfortable thing to have to accept.

Soraya Chemaly:

Young men who are high school students feel as they are on the receiving end of oppression. That is a failure of our education systems to explain why sexism is an institutional systemic problem.

The fact is, if you’re a young man and you’re in school, you look around a see a lot of smart young women who are competing with you as equals, and the idea that they’re being discriminated against doesn’t make any sense.

A young man just doesn’t understand sexual objectification as a form of systemic sexism. I don’t find it very surprising that these young men feel oppressed.

Bridget Blodgett:

The current discourse about the alt-right in America is showing that these aren’t social outcasts, but people in the neighborhood. It’s Joe who always picks his kids up from school, whose wife makes the best cookies.

It’s no longer useful to paint these individuals as a kind of Unabomber hiding out in the woods. They’re your boss at work, or the guy that you go to lunch with.

They seem like regular dudes, but they are holding this mentality that comes out when they’re on the internet.

Kate Miltner:

Marginality comes in many forms, and economic marginality is one of them. This is something that we saw a lot with the U.S. election [in 2016].

It’s really hard to get people who are making minimum wage and struggling financially to understand that they have structural privilege compared to other groups. Some people see programs like affirmative action and attempts to create gender parity, and they think that they are being unfairly excluded.

There’s an adage that says, when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. When you’re used to being able to do and say whatever you want, being criticized for saying racist or misogynist things comes as a shock. This is why you see all of this anger over so-called political correctness.

There’s a lot of anger amongst certain groups that people who they perceive to be inferior to them are telling them what to do and say. Because gaming and other spaces have been traditionally dominated by white men, the idea that they couldn’t behave as they normally did because outsiders were coming in caused a lot of anger.

How much is corporate and cultural collusion to blame?

Entertainment companies, social media platforms and the media are ignoring and even abetting online toxicity.

Kate Miltner:

Media has a lot of power to reflect back to us a particular view of the world. When the woman is always being rescued by the man, when the black person is always the token friend or the sidekick, that gives people, especially children, a skewed perception of how the world works.

A couple of years ago, there was a Barbie book about computer science. Even though Barbie was the lead character, Barbie’s male friend was the one who was doing all the coding, and Barbie was the designer. It was this very gendered labor divide. People rightfully got really upset about that, because it teaches little girls that computer science is for boys and designing is for girls.

Media stereotypes have power to influence how people perceive themselves and the world. When the man is always the hero, when women are valued for their looks and their relationship status, those stereotypes are doing a lot of teaching.

Carolyn Petit:

Whenever I criticize the humor in games like Grand Theft Auto, the responses I get say, ‘Well, it’s satire.’ But how is it satire if it’s punching down all the time? It’s showing these stereotypical sex workers who are there to be beaten up and killed, and players revel in it. They upload YouTube videos talking about how much fun they had murdering trans sex workers.

You’re just feeding into the most violent, misogynistic and trans-misogynistic fantasies. That’s not satire.

We see so much of this in shows like South Park, which insidiously wraps itself up as a challenging satire yet always reinforces the status quo by punching down.

Thom Avella:

Many of my friends and I all gained our middle school sense of humor through Newgrounds animations, crude CollegeHumor sketches and Angry Video Game Nerd series, among others.

Looking back, a lot of those jokes didn’t age very well, and I’m sure if they were being made today, we’d have culture critics calling out their problematic tendencies. I wallowed in a sort of politically incorrect nirvana through much of my early teenage years, in the absence of anyone to steer me in a better direction.

Kishonna Gray:

Look at the way games and tech companies treat women. Look at Googlebro and his manifesto. I was like, don’t fire him. If you fire him, y’all need to go too, because all of you are thinking the same thing about women.

Of course they put out their little statement. They’re all, ‘We value everyone.’ No. Your practices show us that you don’t.

A lot of men in power will say, ‘Well, we don’t say women are inferior,’ but their practices say something else. Not having a woman as a lead, not having women at the table to talk about this product development, not having an adequate harassment policy.

Girls like doing math, girls are into computer science. But they have to expend this emotional labor, this energy, just to prove that they are equal. They have all these different layers of validation to go through, just to be seen as credible.

We don’t shine a light on the hidden things that a lot of women and people of color have to do in these spaces just to be seen as equal to their white male counterparts.

Soraya Chemaly:

As it grew, we saw a migration of certain communities into Twitter, which was not interested in any form of moderation initially. That’s why I think we saw GamerGate explode the way it did. It was a natural evolution of small-network harassing communities from spaces that became more restrictive into the open space of Twitter, where it was more visible to the broader public. Now, of course, Twitter has to consider what that means. No moderation actually being a form of moderation.

Paul Booth:

The people who are upset about the new Star Trek: Discovery are the same kinds of people who were upset with Captain Sisko and Captain Janeway. For many years, people have been trying to limit the visibility of women and people of color in our media. But until they had access to social media and YouTube, their voices weren’t being amplified.

There’s an empowerment with social media, that no matter what you believe or how you think about the world, you’ll be able to find other people who think or feel the same thing. There’s no discernment or filter. And that can lead to great things, but it can also lead to immense hostility.

Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are going to have to find a solution. It’s not always easy to decipher what is hateful versus what is free speech. But I think it’s going to have to happen. It’s going to have to be where a major change comes from.

Kahlief Adams:

Twitch needs to do better about how they give people tools to moderate and how they market themselves as a platform for people of color. They really aren’t doing that yet.

I get emails all the time about which streamers are going to be promoted this week, and it’s always four or five white dudes and maybe, like, one white woman or an Asian woman, or maybe one Latin dude or woman. You’d get this sprinkling of color here and there, but it’s consistently white dudes.

Why is it these are the only faces that are getting all the love? It was always really weird to see that was always their thing. It’s getting a little better now, recently in the past couple of months, but for a long time it was really weird.

illustration of a video game level in which a woman has to make it past all kinds of red obstacles

Why do so many of these men labor under a delusion of heroism?

Serial harassers and men who display toxic behavior often portray themselves as heroic defenders of a noble cause.

Paul Booth:

I’ve researched toxic fan activity, which I call “protective fandom.” These groups are not merely forming around a particular text or a particular medium. They see themselves as the protector of it. They see themselves as the line between what they want it to be and what other people want it to be.

Anita Sarkeesian:

Games have created a very distinctive fantasy where you, as the white dude, are the only person that can save the world. It’s always ‘you are the great, amazing person that will conquer all.’ So as a white man, you are always seeing that person reflected as you, and you’re always seeing yourself as the hero. This entitlement to a very specific type of identity, coupled with the challenge of voices asking for a change in that narrative, is such a huge part of why they feel like it’s OK to harass people.

Kate Miltner:

They’re deeply invested in the texts that they identify with. Star Wars and Ghostbusters are two recent examples of this. When the lead characters became women, there was a sense that geek men were being erased from stories that are about them and that they believe belong to them. ‘What do you mean? That’s not how it’s supposed to go. That’s supposed to be me on that screen, not that girl.’

Bridget Blodgett:

Where does this concept that geek men have, that they are the cultural losers, come from? The viewpoint hasn’t kept up with the reality. We have nerds in positions of great power in Silicon Valley. Nerd entertainment is at a point of cultural dominance.

And yet there is still this viewpoint that the individual nerd is a loser. That tends to set up a psychologically defensive mindset, particularly for those who use being a gamer or a nerd as their central identity touchstone.

Anything that challenges that key point of their identity becomes something to be fought back against.

Why are cults of personality so powerful in gaming’s toxic swamps?

Men with large social media followings or with many YouTube subscribers are often the root source of online campaigns, even if they don’t personally participate themselves.

Thom Avella:

I hadn’t really heard of feminism before I started watching YouTube. I was exposed to the straw feminist version of Anita Sarkeesian, as she was being framed by YouTubers.

The way skeptics framed it, she was a con artist and a left-wing version of those right-wing people that wanted to censor video games for being objectionable. Of course, this is all a fabrication, but there was no one around to help me see through the bullshit.

Anita Sarkeesian:

You have these personalities who make endless videos about me and other feminists online. When these videos are released, I get waves of harassment.

They say the hate is not coming from them, but they know what they’re doing. They are not unaware that whenever they post a video about me, my mentions are flooded with harassment and abuse.

They say they are not sending me death threats, but their followers are. They also know that when they say to their followers, ‘Don’t do that,’ it’s still going to happen.

They thrive on it. It’s a cottage industry. These men are making money off of hating me and other women. They have Patreons and they have advertising revenue and they have hundreds of thousands of followers, because it’s easy to rally around rage.

Jen Golbeck:

Many of these YouTube personalities are older men. I think they are narcissists. They believe they are better than other people, and that maybe no one appreciates their genius.

And when they have a legion of loyal followers, it makes them feel really important. They use this power against the people they see as their enemies, who are often women.

Their followers are attracted to this power, which is missing from their own lives. When these older men call out women, they feel like they’ve been given permission to harass and to do violence.

They wouldn’t do it on their own. But they’re angry, and once this man they respect calls them out, they decide it’s time to act. It helps that there are usually zero consequences for them, or for their permission-givers.

Soraya Chemaly:

Harassment has a lot of emotional resonance. Some people enjoy the ugliness of piling on. Some people enjoy the messages of misogyny and racism. That pleasure generates a lot of traffic, which generates a lot of money.

High-status YouTubers and social media verified accounts use dog-whistle tactics to catalyze, which becomes a ‘moment,’ which creates a product that is profitable. It becomes part of the sponsored curated product for companies like Google and Twitter. It can be sold.

The very visible personalities on YouTube are really important network nodes, but they engage in a much broader system of institutional cultivation.

Kahlief Adams:

There’s a lot of money being made in conservative media. A lot of money being thrown at people who are shouting things that are not good. They pretend that this is conversation between equals, but one side is getting paid for spewing their vitriol, and the other side is just asking for a space to be heard.

We see people who are attracted to certain ideas — maybe because they have genuine beliefs — so they become followers. But they end up using the language of harassers to get their message out.

If they had real concerns, why would they align themselves with folks who are the worst of the worst? Like, why would you align yourself with people who don’t give a shit about you and will turn on you the second you turn your back on them?

illustration of woman climbing a ladder while a line of men takes an escalator up

How did organized brigades of harassers come to be formed?

Leagues form in social media spaces devoted to trolling or a deep hatred of progressive aims.

Anita Sarkeesian:

The internet is great for connecting people. So in the same way that a queer person in a rural area can find a community online where they can share and experience things together, so can these dudes who have internalized misogyny.

But the thing that’s really scary about that is that in these spaces where these men congregate, they are used as breeding grounds and recruitment grounds for white supremacists and men’s rights activists. They realize that there are all these boys who are disaffected by life.

And I understand why they are disaffected: Their lives aren’t great or where they want them to be. What they don’t understand is that we, feminists, are fighting for the liberation of everyone. We’re trying to solve the problems that make their lives so difficult. But instead they go right to ‘it’s all women’s fault.’

And these young men hear arguments that sound so right and so pure; they hear a lot of talk about freedom of speech. But it’s a straw man argument.

Look at GamerGate, the actual thing itself. Fighting against corruption and for ethics sounds great on the surface but that’s not what GamerGate was about at all. ‘Game Developer Zoe Quinn went and slept with a bunch of dudes to get a positive review of her free game.’

It took two seconds to do a Google search and see that there was no review on Kotaku for Depression Quest. But it didn’t matter. It sounded good to them, because it’s easy to hate women. There have been years of cultivation in this space for hating women.

Bridget Blodgett:

The group is defined by by creating a persecution mindset. It’s the same argument used by Christian groups in America which say they are the most persecuted religion, when Christianity is clearly the dominant religion.

You have individuals who feel insecure, even though they are actually part of a very powerful group.

We know that charismatic leaders succeed when a person feels desperate and cut off from other avenues. They are told by these leaders that the world works as a zero-sum game — that if one group begins to advance toward parity, that must mean another group is losing.

It works on the same dynamics as a cult. If you look at 4chan, anyone can go there — that’s the whole point of it — but to get to the inner circle, you go through a lot of gatekeepers. To get to the center, you learn the right things to say.

Mattie Brice:

Gaming and nerd culture are often group activities, ways to connect with other people.

In these snarky online spaces, gamers found a place where they could “be themselves” again, uncensored, as they had when gaming had been separate from the wider culture — when it was just for outsiders, instead of for everyone. But they are also places for radicalization, as has been shown in various papers on this subject.

We shouldn’t forget that GamerGate was propagated by mercenary trolls from 4chan, who easily blended in with gamers.

Paul Booth:

Freedom of speech is always a hallmark of these spaces, but this tends to be a cover for both male privilege and white privilege.

It stems from a misunderstanding of what free speech means. Free speech doesn’t mean I can’t argue against what you’re saying. It’s about the right of every person to be represented and to have a voice. Their argument is less about free speech and more about trying to shut out other voices.

Kate Miltner:

A lot of these men, like [“Google bro” James] Damore, hide behind the language of science and logic. They’ll say there have been studies that prove that women are more emotional. These are the same tactics that were used to justify the scientific racism that gave us slavery.

Sometimes they will persuade people to interact with them, but it’s always on their terms. They want to be legitimized by the illusion that they are connected to academic norms.

Journalists often help perpetuate this by taking their arguments bit by bit and refuting them, as if the arguments that these men are putting forth are worthy of rational debate. But they’re not being rational; they’re using the language of rationality to put forth racist and sexist ideas.

It’s important to make people aware of these traps. They’ll just exhaust people who are trying to reason with them, because most of them aren’t interested in being persuaded.

How important is internalized misogyny to this dynamic?

Are young men and boys who experience difficulties with women and with girls turning to misogyny, either as a phase or for life? Or are we just dealing with a bunch of assholes here?

Kishonna Gray:

A lot of toxic people just want to be free to be toxic. I remember one time I asked a gamer — he sounded like a white dude and he was using the N-word towards another player who sounded black — so I asked him in a private chat, “Are you a racist?” He said, “No, I’m not racist. I’m just being funny. I just say that to get under people’s skin, to get a rise out of them. I’m really not being racist. My best friend is black.”

He was using all this language and really just being toxic online.

It didn’t matter to him that he harmed somebody. I don’t think he’s really focused on the real world around him, or the ramifications of what his speech is actually doing. He’s just having a good time.

I hate it when people say, “Oh it’s just some fat kids in their mama’s basement.” No. These are college students; these are people in the office. These are regular dudes that I would see at Applebee’s and Starbucks. I hate whenever we try to profile and label them so we can other them.

They are regular-assed average white dudes. I wish people would stop saying it’s just children. These are co-workers, these are people who make our coffee, people we go bowling with.

Kahlief Adams:

There are still people in this country who are like, “You shouldn’t interracially marry,” or, “You shouldn’t live in my neighborhood.” Others are racist in ways they don’t know they’re racist. All those things bubble up in various ways, and gaming has been a cipher for that.

You see people that have all these misogynistic or racist or discriminatory beliefs, and they reflect that through the art that they care about.

Black women get a lot of the harassment in video game spaces. There are multiple things for racists to try to pick at. How do you speak? How do you look? Not just the color of your skin, your hair. For women who are streaming, that is compounded tenfold. It happens all the time.

You’ll see a lot of streamers of color who don’t put themselves on camera. If you talk about your blackness or your experiences as a woman, or as a person of color or someone who is LGBT, it puts a huge target on you.

Thom Avella:

At the time I was being outraged by feminism’s so-called attack on gaming, my friends all fell for this stuff too. Most of the people I associated with during that time never really moved on.

I haven’t spoken with most of them since high school, but I remember them having uncomfortable beliefs about social justice and feminism. I drifted out of that friend circle when it fully devolved into an echo chamber of political incorrectness. I don’t mind a bit of un-PC behavior in the right circumstances, but it needs to end at a certain point, or else people will think you have no decency.

I’m thankful I got myself out when I did. I’m willing to bet that if I was a few years younger, or simply took longer to develop a political consciousness, I’d be in a much different place.

Soraya Chemaly:

A recent study by Pew showed that an overwhelming number of women think that sexism affects their lives regularly. An overwhelming number of men think that’s nonsense. This is especially true among young men.

The older men get, the likelier they are to accept that sexism is a problem for women. I think that comes with experience. For a lot of them, it comes through parenting.

Sure, there’s certainly a cohort of older conservative white men who tend to be gender-conservative and who deny the existence of misogyny. But among younger men, that belief is more rigid, not less.

We have a double whammy with the millennial generation, because girls and women in this generation believe in egalitarian sex roles. That is not the case for boys and men. Their opinions about the gender roles are much more traditionalist.

Kate Miltner:

I think it’s unwise to generalize about these men and boys as a group. Some of them will turn to misogyny, others won’t. Some may be racist at some point and then realize the error of their ways.

Because our culture is fundamentally racist and misogynist, it’s not that difficult for people who have had unfortunate personal experiences to extrapolate those feelings into bigotry. It’s easy to write these people off as racist misogynists and lay the blame on them individually, but the problem is much bigger and more societally based than that.

Jen Golbeck:

It’s common, especially for some younger men, to have this aggressive turn against whatever this thing is making them feel bad. You see it in reactions to authority figures, but you also see it in reactions to women. If a woman shows up and makes him feel bad, instead of going, “Yeah, that woman was a jerk,” they go, “All women are terrible.”

These men think of themselves as supporters of women’s rights. They call themselves feminists in person, right up until they proposition you and ask you out, and you say no. Then they suddenly revert into this whole other space.

Carolyn Petit:

He might have a few isolated bad experiences with women. But everything he sees in pop culture is telling him that women are deceitful and women are manipulative, and he’s been hearing that forever.

Anita Sarkeesian:

I get emails from dudes sometimes where they are justifying their hatred of me. They’ll be like, “My mom was mean to me and then my girlfriend dumped me and my boss is a bitch, so women suck.”

Is it a phase? Yes and no. I speak to male friends and they say, “Yeah, I was a shitty 15-year-old,” or, “I was a shitty 19-year-old, but I’m not anymore.” They’ve grown up.

But some of my biggest harassers are adult men. Like, in their 40s. Is that a phase? Probably not. But they are figureheads for these boys who are growing up.

The common thread among harassment, especially in games, is that they don’t think it’s real. They think their behavior isn’t real because it’s online, and online is not real life, right? Which isn’t true. This is real life. It impacts us.

You’ll often see them talk about these harassment campaigns as if they are a game. They will come together to talk about strategies and tactics, and they’ll talk about me like I’m a final boss that needs to be taken down. They literally use the language of gaming.

illustration of a woman holding up a red flag on a wargame board while social media platforms are closing in

How can real change be effected?

Gaming’s toxic men are often hostile to progressive change and inclusion. They deny the existence of societal injustice or unfairness. How do we address this?

Soraya Chemaly:

This is a generation who were born and grew up through a period of real conservative backlash in the culture. From 1992 to 2010, there was a huge backlash to the progress of previous years. We saw a whitelash against racial change, and an anti-feminist backlash against women’s liberation and sexual revolution.

You can’t separate the culture that this whole generation grew up with from their attitudes, especially when you add in media like gaming and mass marketing that leverage stereotypes over and over again.

Sexism doesn’t happen in a vacuum; neither does feminism. Growing up in a backlash culture is going to impact the way people think about these things.

Kahlief Adams:

I don’t shy away from calling myself a “social justice warrior,” whenever people use that as a negative. Like, what’s the opposite side of that? That you’re trying to champion social injustice?

The harassers are conservatives who don’t have a multitude of end goals, while progressives are from many different sections of humanity who are asking for representation.

A lot of people are saying, “Let’s talk about getting representation into games. Let’s talk about how that might happen.” A lot of wonderful work is being done to promote this idea. But it gets diluted, because for everyone to have their grievances aired, everyone needs a seat at the table.

But then there are people who just say, “We don’t want to have any conversation about any of the subjects that you guys want to talk about. We don’t care about your intentions. We don’t care about your stories.” And that’s been mind-blowing to me, how folks won’t address what we see in games culture and what we see in fandom in general.

Anita Sarkeesian:

If you watch one of my videos and you’re new to feminism, you have to come in with an open mind. Because I’m challenging everything you’ve ever thought, and that’s complicated. It’s so much easier to go with the ideas that you’ve always heard. It’s easier to go along with the status quo.

We’re asking people to examine themselves and how they exist in the world, and that is a much bigger ask than accepting the status quo. Feminism is not “oh, women are cool” and then you go about your day. It’s about examining your relationships, how you talk and how you move through the world.

All of us who went through this transformation lost friends in the process, and changed our lives in significant ways, because it’s not easy to say, “Well, the world is not at all what I thought it was.”

What’s next?

Gaming’s toxic men are a result of cultural confluences. Is this something that will pass? What can be done to diminish toxicity? Where do we go from here?

Anita Sarkeesian:

Developers have come up to me and said, “You talked about my game in your video series — I messed up back then, and I’m never going to do that again.” That’s the best praise I can hear about my work. It means that real shifts will occur in the industry as more developers start being aware of the overt and subtle ways they are perpetuating oppression.

Things are already changing. Tropes came at the right time. It exploded. The industry and the press all saw that they were contributing to this problem. It’s not solved, by any means, but you can see a clear shift.

If we released Tropes now, people wouldn’t care as much, because all those conversations are so much more commonplace in a way that they weren’t five years ago.

Bridget Blodgett:

We need to be addressing societywide viewpoints about what equality actually means, so it’s no longer viewed as a zero-sum game.

We need to allow people to have outlets for their frustrations that are more productive than internet harassment, that will reduce the power of charismatic leaders, be they on YouTube, 4chan or Twitter. We know that charismatic leaders thrive when people feel desperate, when they feel cut off from other avenues.

Games companies can also take a lead from indie developers, and create more games that don’t focus entirely on violence as a solution for every problem.

Carolyn Petit:

Compassion is essential for thinking about these issues. When I think about the boy who feels like a social outcast at school, that’s hard, and I have sympathy for him. I understand his yearning for connection.

But the problem is that the forces that contribute to him feeling lost are tied up in patriarchy, which is making him feel disaffected. And then he finds these places online where his feelings are hardened and weaponized against women and against feminists, rather than being brought into a place where there is compassion and empathy. They don’t even look for healthy and validating ways to illuminate and understand each other.

Kahlief Adams:

Hate speech is a thing. YouTube, Twitch and Twitter have to deal with this.

A lot of folks in those spaces have been harassed, and are asking for action. If social media companies want to offer a space that is welcoming to everyone, they can’t stand by while people are being being harassed and hurt.

They can be doing a lot more to squash that stuff, so hateful bastards are no longer being verified or being given a platform. It needs to happen way sooner than later.

Soraya Chemaly:

I’ve been involved in doing this for a number of years, and I think it will get worse before it will get better. If we’re serious about treating the problem and not just playing whack-a-mole, we really need to restructure childhood education.

We need to be talking to children about compassion, empathy, dignity and digital citizenship. We need to do it in age-appropriate ways. There are some good movements in that direction, but it’s a very long play. I don’t see any quick fixes coming from any sector, and certainly not from large corporations or from the government. It really has to come from community. We have to connect the dots.

Kishonna Gray:

To give them hope, I tell my students that yes, they can be the change they wish to see in the world. But knowing the history of this country, this isn’t anything new we’re talking about.

So if I have to go on record, I’d rather be on record saying that yes, things are getting better — yes, the new technologies can help us to call out and see these injustices. And yes, we can be better informed and educated, and we can treat each other better.

But I can’t say that with confidence. I’m sorry.

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