Sexual harassment in online videogames: What we found so far

Sexual harassment is an important issue besetting our society, in particular to how the online and physical worlds are more and more intertwined crossing online platforms and neighborhoods (Citron, 2009; Guardian, 2016; Pew, 2014; Geek feminism timeline of incidents). Nevertheless, there are social scientists, including myself, who examine sexual harassment in that not-so-little online neighborhood called videogames. Thus, I offer a non-exhaustive overview of the sexual harassment literature and what insights researchers have found for online videogames.

There are upsetting language and details in this blog post.

What are the sexually harassing behaviours in videogames?

People were less likely to admit of being sexually harassed, but they were more likely to report experiencing specific sexually harassing behaviours (Magley et al., 1999; Berdahl & Aquino, 2009). Why the difference?  Some behaviours are hard to tell if it’s sexually harassing or not, such as sexual jokes, whereas severe behaviours are most obvious to report. Furthermore, they are less likely to report some behaviours when they think it’s a normal part of the environment (McCabe & Hardman, 2005).

So we asked 301 gamers to tell us their most recent harassment event, whether they observed or experienced it (Fox & Tang, 2013). We read these descriptions and categorized them. The following is from one player’s description of a harassing event:

A character started following me around, badgering me for nude pictures and sex and things. When I refused and said I had a boyfriend, he started “yelling” about what a tease I was for playing  video games and having a female avatar, and how I want special treatment for being a woman and it just wasn’t fair to him

We found 22 types of behaviours which we made them into a questionnaire format for our second survey. We asked 425 male gamers how often they perpetrated these behaviours and asked 293 female gamers how often they experienced them. Our factor analyses found these behaviours are clustered into two types of harassment: general (i.e., trash talking) and sexual. Female gamers reported a greater variety of harassing behaviours than male gamers reported in perpetrating (Fox & Tang, 2015, 2016; Tang & Fox, 2014, 2016).

The parentheses included an example used in the questionnaire along with which of the genders reported. For example, physical threat was clustered in general harassment for women only.

General Harassment:

  • Swearing (e.g., “fuck”; men and women)*
  • General insults (e.g., “troll, loser, jerk, douchebag”; men and women)*
  • Intelligence remarks (e.g., “retard, idiot, stupid, downs syndrome” ; men and women)
  • Comments about abilities to play (e.g., “noob, camper, scrub”; men and women)
  • Asking players to leave the game (e.g., “uninstall the game”; men and women)*
  • Physically threatened players (e.g., “get [insert disease name], kill yourself”; women only)
  • Threatened players’ relations (e.g., “hope your [insert someone you know] get [insert disease name]”; women only)
  • Threatened to report players to game administrators or moderators (e.g., “kick you out of the game, report you or ban you”; women only)
  • In-game harassment (e.g., “blocked, cornered, followed or killed your avatar using his avatar”, griefed you, teabagged you or made his avatar enact a sexual act on your avatar; women only)

*These behaviours have also been reported by Brehm (2013) and Ballard & Welch (2015).

Sexual Harassment:

  • Sexist comments or insults (e.g., “get back in the kitchen”; men and women)*
  • Comments about appearance or weight (e.g., fat, ugly, dressed like a whore, have bedroom or sexy eyes; men and women)*
  • Doubted players’ motivations for playing video games because of their gender (e.g., “you’re getting special treatment or free stuff because you were a girl”; men and women)*
  • Comments about players’ abilities to play because of gender (e.g., “girls can’t play” “could not believe that he lost to a girl”; women only)*
  • Expressed unsolicited liking or affection towards players (e.g., “asked you to be his girlfriend”; men and women)*
  • Asked about players’ gender (e.g., “are you a girl?” “Grill?”; women only)
  • Asked for sexual favors (e.g., “asked for your nude pictures, solicited sexual acts, sent pictures of his genitalia”; women only).
  • Rape jokes or threats (men and women)

* These behaviours have also been reported by Brehm (2013), Cote (2015), and Ballard & Welch (2015).

Other behaviours:

  • Homophobic comments (e.g., “faggot, dyke, lezzie, homo, gay, cocksucker”)
  • Racist comments, racist slurs (e.g., “gold farmer, go back to your country, ni**ger”)*
  • Called players cheaters or hackers
  • Made masculinity threats (e.g., “brony, virgin, kid, man baby, little dick, preb, pussy”)
  • Called their actions were in good fun (e.g., “just teasing you”, “it was light-hearted fun”, “it’s just part of the game”)

*These behaviours have also been reported by Gray (2012).

The other behaviours did not clustered with general, sexual nor as a third cluster. Perhaps these behaviours may be clustered for certain demographics, such as men on the receiving end, ethnic minorities or LGBT players.

How many are affected by sexual harassment in online video games?

The sexual harassment literature found that women experience sexual harassment more often than men do. Pew Research Center (2014) on online harassment found that young women experienced more stalking (9% vs. 6%), and sexual harassment (7% vs. 4%) than men whereas men experienced more name calling (32% vs. 22%), embarrassment (24% vs. 20%), and physical threats (10% vs. 6%). The picture is less clear for online videogames as Pew reported general harassment in which male players experienced it more often.

In our surveys, players reported harassment behaviours on a 5-point scale (never (1) to always (5)) in an online videogame they regularly play. We found that male players perpetrated general harassment in the ‘rarely-sometimes’ range (M = 2.27, SD = .91) whereas sexually harassed in the ‘never-rarely’ range (M = 1.23, SD = .56; Tang & Fox, 2014, 2016). On the other hand, female players experienced general harassment (M = 2.98, SD = .87) and sexual harassment (M = 2.77, SD = .99) in the ‘rarely to most of the time’ range (Fox & Tang, 2015, 2016).

An online survey of 151 players found that players experienced cyberbullying (e.g., name-calling, threats, teased, lies, profanity, hostility) in the ‘once or twice in the past 2-3 months’ range. Women experienced more sexual harassment, sexual pursuit, group exclusion and being kicked out of their group than men experienced. Furthermore, LGBT players experienced more lies, sexual harassment, sexual pursuit and group exclusion than heterosexual players do (Ballard & Welch, 2015).

A survey of 216 Second Life users found that female players experienced more sexual harassment than male players (38% vs. 13%). Female avatars experienced more sexual harassment than male avatars do. Further analysis revealed that female players with highly sexualised female avatars experienced more sexual harassment, name calling and obscene comments, in contrast highly sexualised male avatars do not experience them (Behm-Morawitz & Schipper, 2015).

Field experiments where researchers play either as a male or female player corroborate survey results. Researchers who posed as a female player received three times as many negative comments as male or silent players (Kuznekoff & Rose, 2013). Further analyses found that other male players who performed worse than a female player tend to utter more negative comments to her  (Kasumovic & Kuznekoff, 2015). Combined with our survey findings, it seems that people with certain predispositions sexually harass women under certain conditions.


2 thoughts on “Sexual harassment in online videogames: What we found so far

    • A pdf version? Seems like an informative blog post and something that many folks could make use of, but most people won’t read that much material from a screen.

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