It is no lie that the gaming industry has been considered a boys-only space for an extensive amount of time. Whether players are on games that are known for their toxicity or have stumbled across it in streams, this has been a consistent problem that many players in games both large and small have witnessed and experienced.
Despite the connotations of gaming as a male-dominated space, female gamers have surged on streaming platforms, and personally, I’m finding myself in lobbies with more and more women every day. Now, the reality that female gamers experience waves of sexism and abuse in games isn’t a particularly new conversation. This being said, with technological advancements and the growth of streaming services, the celebrity status of gamers and streamers, combined with the growth and profitability of the games industry today, requires more of our attention if we’re to hold those we play with to accountability.
Chatting with a few gamers, I discussed some of the experiences we as female gamers have had in our favorite games and how they’ve impacted our comfortability playing them. The fact of the matter is the vast majority of women playing video games have experienced some form of toxicity in one way or another. Speaking to players of a wide range of games, from Valorant to Dungeons and Dragons, the consistent misogyny, both outright and casual that litters these games is more than clear.
The Normalization of Bullying in Gaming
It is often presumed that the games that exhibit the worst instances of this misogyny are known and obvious offenders. Games such as Valorant and Overwatch are known for being toxic, both in terms of casual and harmless insults, as well as the more intense sexism, racism, and homophobia. Chats between teams have slurs and insults hurtled back and forth, often vague insults about someone's ability to play well on their team, a comment about how few kills someone has gotten. Playful insults and jabs at the enemy team are to be expected in games like these, but the extremity of these insults can ramp up out of nowhere.
One female player I interviewed discussed the toxicity she had experienced in games as casual as say Minecraft. In the midst of playing, another player started throwing extremely harmful racial slurs at her, solely because they perceived her to be playing poorly. When discussing this type of toxicity the player said,“I have been called racial slurs that I will not repeat, which don’t affect me as a white woman, but it is upsetting to hear as there are women of color who play these games.”
The normalization of violent insults is perpetuating toxicity and cruelty amongst players. Racist and homophobic jokes are normalized in a perpetual loop of toxic players hurling insults back and forth, with very few commenting on how inappropriate the majority of these comments are. Time and time again I have seen other players with the mindset of it doesn’t matter, it’s just a gamer. This mindset negates the fact that there are always going to be players on the other end receiving this abuse, and when it gets ugly and charged, the damage can be rather real.
How Voice Chat Affects Female Gamers
Games such as Valorant, Overwatch, and Call of Duty require a degree of strong and clear communication for the game to run successfully. Many of the interviewees I spoke with mentioned their desire to be valuable team players in their respective games, but the difficulties they have faced when actually using a microphone in-game. Team members have an immediate shift in attitude once we begin to speak in voice chat, and it has proven multiple times to be difficult to play as an effective player to our full capacity because of the immediate shift in attitude that we often are met with once we speak. Using in-game voice chat can often feel to leave a target on your back as a woman, with every woman I spoke to for this article stating they themselves do not use in-game chat unless they’re positive it’s a safe crowd of people. If they do use the voice chat, they often witness other female players hold off until another woman speaks first.
Discussing their experience using coms in-game, one interviewee said, “Yes, I use a mic. When I tell people about the toxicity I receive, the first reply I always get is, ‘Well, why do you use a mic?’ I shouldn’t have to not be able to use certain aspects of a game because I’m guaranteed to receive abuse because of my gender. A mic is so useful for general coms in the game and without a doubt aids in winning games.”
Most female gamers have a story or two to tell outlining the unwelcoming and sometimes outwardly abusive environment they experience in gaming. One interviewee highlighted a particular instance of abuse they experienced in which another member of their team threatened the player with multiple acts of sexual assault after using the voice chat. To any woman in gaming, the extremities of these threats, while upsetting, do not come as a surprise. Another interviewee highlighted that their TikTok is filled with Valorant content, with a large proportion of it being other female experiences in the game. They stated, “With games like Valorant, it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or not there’s toxicity, but there’s so much more because you’re a girl playing a first-person shooter, which is generally targeted to guys. With TikTok and stuff, I see a lot of girl streamers who play Val [Valorant]. It's not a rare occurrence. It happens quite frequently.”
Casual Sexism Towards Female Gamers
Outside of the outwardly abusive and antagonistic interactions we experience while playing games are the casual comments that tear down female gamers as a group. One player stated that she often felt that her successes in-game, or the instances she played well, came as a surprise. They were belittled because of her gender, often met with, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d top frag” or “I didn’t expect a girl to be top of the leaderboard.” While not outwardly vicious and violent in the same way the above threats are, these little digs tear women down and remove the enjoyment from an experience that is meant to be fun for all parties involved. These passive insults are without a doubt a part of a wider problem.
The casual sexism and dismissive attitude towards female gamers, regardless of their undeniable presence in the games industry and streaming is being fueled by a subsect of players who are simply not being made accountable.
What Can Gaming Companies Do To Help?
Multiple games have made efforts to combat toxicity, introducing reporting systems of team acknowledgments at the end if you’ve been a team player. In Overwatch, a system was introduced in 2018that allowed players to acknowledge their team and the enemy team with accolades, such as communication, teamwork, and sportsmanship. While this proved to help the quality of gameplay and player experience for a brief period of time, it did not eradicate the pure hostility that can be found within the game.
One of the interviewees I spoke with sent me a screenshot of her Valorant game only thirty minutes after we stopped chatting. Just after our conversation, she had gone into a game of Valorant where another player singled her out for being a female gamer due to her crosshair and gun skins. They then proceeded to berate her over voice chat and force her into a corner so she could not play the game.
While reporting this player and others like them provides a sense of relief once the game has ended, it does not make up for the abuse women receive in-game. Companies can introduce extensive reporting systems but the issue lies with the player and the inability or unwillingness to educate and understand the consequences of their actions.
In gaming, the anonymity of an online identity can often lead people to feel free to speak in any number of derogatory ways. While this helps, and often aids the experience of future players, the system has flaws that cannot be fixed by the game industry itself. I’m tired of the anxiety before unmuting in games, and I’m tired of waiting to see where I am on the leaderboard before justifying speaking. I am appreciative of the efforts made by games to enable us as players to report, mute, and deafen, but more needs to be done. There is no denying the culture of casual sexism, racism, and homophobia in gaming, and this is only perpetuated by those with platforms who continue to treat these topics lightly. Do better.
The various anonymous players who helped me with this article, thank you.