Sexual harassment in online videogames: What we found so far

Factors of sexual harassment

The sexual harassment literature have identified many factors of why people sexually harass women (Willness et al., 2007). These factors are broadly categorized under person and situation factors.

            Person factors

Most people think that harassment in online games is the exclusive domain of young boys, but our findings say that isn’t so (Tang & Fox, 2014). The sexual harassment literature could not identify typical sexual harassment profiles, other than being a man. On the other hand, the literature identified personality traits predicting sexual harassment and here are some of them:

  • Hostile sexism (e.g., ” Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them”; Fiske & Glick, 1995)
  • Adversarial sexual beliefs
  • Rape myth acceptance
  • Attitudes towards sexual violence (Pina et al., 2009)
  • Hypermasculinity
  • Conformity to masculine norms
  • Adherence to traditional gender roles (Netchaeva et al., 2015)
  • Lack of empathy
  • Social dominance orientation (e.g, “If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems”; Russell & Trigg, 2004)
  • Right-wing authoritarianism (Begany & Milburn, 2002)
  • Dark personalities (i.e., Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism; Zeigler-Hill et al., 2016)

Our first survey examined personality traits related to videogame sexism (Fox & Tang, 2013, 2014). We developed a set of 16 statements reflecting sexist beliefs about videogames (e.g., “Women who call themselves gamer girls think they deserve special treatment”) from experts, scholars and female gamers (Fox & Tang, 2014). We found three predictors of videogames sexist beliefs: two aspects of conformity to masculine norms: Power over women (e.g., “I love it when men are in charge of women”) and heterosexual self-presentation (e.g., “I would be furious if someone thought I was gay”), and social dominance orientation.

Our second survey extended these findings to harassment behaviours (Tang & Fox, 2016). We found that both hostile sexism and social dominance orientation are significant predictors of sexual harassment. The same is true for general harassment in addition to game involvement and time spent playing videogames. These videogame variables are likely due to being socialized by other gamers, well you learn how to insult by observing others.

So far, our surveys have supported past findings in the sexual harassment literature. Other factors we have yet to explore is whether the gamer identity play a role in sexual harassment, given how women were less inclined to identify as a gamer (Pew, 2015; Shaw, 2012) I should point out that this section focused on the harassers, I have not examine how targets of sexual harassment might be more or less vulnerable to sexual harassment.

            Situation factors

The social environment play a role in setting the tone towards sexual harassment. The literature identified two broad situational factors: gender-context and organizational climate (Willness et al., 2007).

Gender context. The sexual harassment literature found that places where men outnumber women, the women experienced more sexual harassment than those in less male-dominated environments (Willness et al., 2007). When women are few, this puts a psychological spotlight on their gender leading to greater sexualised interactions from their male coworkers. Statistics by the ESA (2015) and Pew (2015) reported a roughly equal gender ratio of people playing videogames, but this is scratching the surface. The gender inequality varies when it comes to specific games. For example, 4.1% reported being female in a League of Legends survey (Ratan et al., 2015); 41.8% among World of Warcraft players (Brehm, 2013); 68% among Second Life users; 25% in our surveys. Thus, we’d expect a higher rate of sexual harassment in male-dominated videogames.

When something is traditionally done by men, seeing women doing the same thing can be jarring for the men. Some men see women as intruders and feel that their masculinity is threatened among other things (Berdahl, 2007). So, one of their reactions is sexual harassment. When people think that videogames is played mostly by men, well they’d tend to sexually harass female players (Taylor, 2006). Some games are more men-only than others, some genres like first-person shooters, fighting, action adventure, sports and strategy gamers are more macho than others, so it’s reasonable that there would be more sexual harassment in those games (Cruea & Park, 2012; Eden et al., 2010; Pew, 2015; Phan et al.,  2012). On the other hand, differences could arise from games in the same genre. The literature found that companies emphasizing work over personal obligations reported greater sexual harassment rates than those that balanced them (Timmerman & Bajema, 1999). Perhaps this translates to videogames with high stakes (e.g., ranking, scores, win-loss ratio) reporting higher rates of sexual harassment than games with greater social experiences. For example, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive  vs. Team Fortress 2.

Workplaces with a lot of sexual banter, comments about women’s appearances experienced more sexual harassment than those that do not (Berdahl & Aquino, 2009; Timmerman & Bajema, 1999). Given how female videogame characters are frequently hypersexualised, its links with sexual harassment is not farfetched. Studies found that highly sexualised female avatars experienced more sexual harassment than less sexualised female avatars (Behm-Morawitz & Schipper, 2015); sexualised female avatars interviewing for a job were seen as less credible and less trustworthy (Nowak et al., 2015); people who watched sexist media (e.g., sexist posters, sexist TV programs) were more likely to sexually harass and give sexist evaluations (Galdi et al.,  2014; Hitlan et al.,  2009; Mitchell et al.,  2004; Dill et al., 2008).

The organizational climate involve the social norms of how companies and the people within deal with sexual harassment  (Timmerman & Bajema, 1999; Willness et al., 2007). In videogames, this meant how game developers, administrators, moderators, guild/clans leaders among others deal with sexual harassment.

There are three organizational climate aspects that impact sexual harassment (Bergman et al., 2002; Hulin et al., 1996):

  1. The perceived risk in reporting sexual harassment. Some might be afraid of retaliation, especially when the harassers are in positions of power.
  2. The perception of sexual harassment reports not taken seriously. Some people might minimize its harm or dismiss it.
  3. The lack of meaningful punishment against harassers, including if the punishment was meted out too late.

The punishments include warnings, bans, shadow bans, suspensions, restrictions (e.g., chat). How some punishments are meaningful across platforms (e.g., Xbox, Steam, Playstation) or games (e.g., DoTA 2, League of Legends) is not reported, with the exception for League of Legends (if there are others I missed, I apologize in advance; Lin, 2015; Lewis-Evans, 2015).

An important situational factor for online sexual harassment is the psychology of internet communication (Barak, 2005). The social identity model of deindividuation effects is one theory that explains how anonymity and identity influence people’s online behaviours. First, anonymity does not make anyone equals. Men and women do not interact each other as equals (Postmes & Spears, 2002). For example, women were more likely to hide their gender if they think it puts them at a conversational disadvantage with men, especially when the online neighborhood is male-dominated  (Flanagin et al., 2002). They stereotyped themselves and others with what little knowledge people display online (e.g., redditors, gamers, girlgamers, etc.). Second, prosocial and antisocial online behaviours do not come out of a vacuum. They come out from the online neighborhood’s social norms and group membership (Postmes et al, 2001). For example, Starcraft players type “gg” at the end of match as a courtesy. Third, online actions and its consequences are not separate from the physical world. People’s real life presence on the Internet is displayed through social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Twitch). People have been physically and psychologically harmed (e.g., doxing, swatting and stalking; Citron, 2009). Thus far, I have only briefly addressed some parts of the psychology of internet communication relevant to online sexual harassment.


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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