Sexual harassment in online videogames: What we found so far

Responses to sexual harassment

Pew Research Center (2014) reported that 60% ignored harassment whereas 40% responded to it, the severe harassments were responded to. Those who responded confronted the perpetrators, unfriended or blocked, reported them to the platform, discussed the problem with others, changed or deleted their profile, withdrew, or reported them to law enforcement.

In our survey with female players (Fox & Tang, 2016), we adapted coping strategies from the sexual harassment literature and added strategies related to the Internet, totaling to 31 coping strategies. Our factor analyses found that these coping strategies clustered into five factors, from most frequent to least (5-point scale, never (1) to always (5)):

  • Denial (e.g., acted like it didn’t bother them, tried to forget it, put up with it, told themselves it wasn’t important; M = 3.30, SD = .98)
  • Avoidance (e.g., avoid text/voice chat, left the game, play in single player, switch to different lobby/server/match; M = 2.89, SD = .95)*
  • Seeking help (e.g., talking to someone about what happened, asking others for help, reported the harasser, discussed about it in the game or outside; M = 2.53, SD = .85)*
  • Gender masking (e.g., using male avatars and name, avoiding female avatars and name; M = 2.16, SD = 1.07)*
  • Self-blame (e.g., felt stupid about it, blamed themselves, made excuses; M = 1.98, SD = .94)

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

Cote (2015) reported strategies we did not cover in our survey. Female players preferred playing with friends than strangers. Blocking and muting were used occasionally, but inconvenient when teamwork is required. They acted in a more aggressive personality, although it can backfire on them (Berdahl, 2007). Female players did not flirt with other male players because they think it perpetuated the girl gamer stereotype.

Another coping strategy is showing off their gaming prowess. For our survey, this responds to male players doubting female players’ motivations and/or abilities for playing video games because of their gender. The downside is that they have to keep their skills up to prevent harassment and it may not work with everyone (Kasumovic & Kuznekoff, 2015). I recognize this coping response to a psychological phenomenon called stereotype threat. Female players harassed about their motivations or abilities face psychological pressures in constantly proving to others which can be tiring (Hall et al., 2015; Kaskan & Ho, 2016). Furthermore, female players underestimate their gaming abilities compared to male players because of the girl gamer stereotype threat (Kaye & Pennington, 2016; Vermeulen et al., 2016; Ratan et al., 2015).

Confronting perpetrators is not easy

How likely people react with which strategies depend on the severity of the harassment with person and situation factors (Bergman et al., 2002). I’d like to focus on what prevents people from confronting harassers. In the heat of the moment, people are afraid of being called over-sensitive whiners or professional victim (Magley et al., 1999). For male bystanders, they fear of being called a “white knight“, homosexual, or emasculated among others (Dickter et al., 2012; Shelton & Stewart, 2004). However, confronters should realize that they felt better about themselves, others (besides the harassers) liked and respected them better and confronters are more effective if they are similar to the harassers (Dodd et al., 2001; Rasinski & Czopp, 2010). In many situations, it helps when you have allies standing up to sexual harassment.

            ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ and other common advices on online sexual harassment

The Internet has lot of advices for tackling online sexual harassment. These advices are quite common to have been categorised in the Geek Feminism wiki. These include “toughen up”, “laugh it off”, “turn the computer off”, “report and move on”, “don’t make a big deal out of it”, “called their actions were in good fun” was a behaviour included in our harassment survey. The sexual harassment literature identified these advices as least effective in that they do not communicate the consequences to the harassers (Citron, 2009; Knapp et al., 1997).

These advices have historical roots to domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace (Citron, 2009). These advices trivialize online sexual harassment as:

  1. Innocuous teasing, but the reality is that female players may stop playing altogether because they were deemed inferior by male players.
  2. Women have the ability to stop it on their own, but the reality is that ignoring, respond or even going offline does not erase the digital and psychological footprints of the harassment: What’s the ideal return time to gaming? Some never return.
  3. The harassment is in line with how things work on the internet, but this is based on false assumptions that whatever happens on the internet does not affect the physical world. This echoes past beliefs about domestic violence that whatever happens in the home does not affect outside of it.

The most effective means to reduce sexual harassment is seeking help from allies, especially from online platforms.

            Organizational response

To my knowledge, there is little academic information regarding online platforms’ responses to online sexual harassment. Organizations with clear sexual harassment policies and procedures and who act upon them have lower sexual harassment rates (O’Leary-Kelly et al., 2009). Although, companies have a legal obligation to address sexual harassment among their employees, some online neighborhoods do not have such legal obligations for their users nor do they take it seriously until it is too late (Kessler, 2015; McDonald, 2012).

On the other hand, organizations tackling online sexual harassment face numerous challenges (Matias et al., 2015). Perpetrators may use pseudonymous or multiple accounts. They may group together to harass a single person. Some online videogames may have from a few hundred to several hundred thousand concurrent players, which means in tackling a big volume of harassment reports and false reporting abuses. The large number of reporting would have significant health impact on the human moderators and decrease their effectiveness (Chen, 2014; Lin, 2015; Matias et al., 2015).

Consequences of sexual harassment

When people experience sexual harassment, they suffer physically and psychologically. Physical symptoms include headaches, nausea, respiratory, digestive and sleeping problems among others (Chan et al., 2008; Willness et al., 2007).

Psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, sadness, lowered self-esteem among others (Chan et al., 2008; Willness et al., 2007). Studies have linked sexual harassment experiences to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (Avina & O’Donohue, 2002). Rumination (e.g. “rehashing their experiences with harassment in their mind”) mediates the relationship between sexual harassment experiences and its consequences (Fox & Tang, 2016; Runions et al., 2013). Because sexual harassment focused on women’s bodies, it is linked to women’s sexual self-objectification which have similar psychological consequences (Davidson et al., 2015; Fairchild & Rudman, 2008).

Sexual harassment can create a stressful environment to people who are indirectly exposed, this is called ambient sexual harassment (Glomb et al., 1997). Bystanders are worried that they may be targeted next and such hostile environment resulted in similar consequences on their physical and psychological health (Miner-Rubino & Cortina, 2004; Hitlan et al., 2006).

The consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace is translatable to online videogames (Lapierre et al., 2005). First, players would find the online videogame and its players less enjoyable. Second, players would spend less time, money and effort in that online videogame given its toxicity. Third, players’ performance might drop, an infamous example is the Cross Assault harassment incident (video).

In our survey with female players (Fox & Tang, 2016), we found that sexual harassment have direct and indirect effects to withdrawal from gaming. As they experience more sexual harassment, they are more likely to withdraw from gaming (e.g., “If I’m being harassed, I quit in the middle of a game”), they ruminate more, and their perception of organizational responsiveness to harassment decreases (e.g., “To my knowledge, they [administrators, moderators, etc.] investigate harassment complaints no matter what type of harassment it is”). The rumination and organizational responsiveness also affect female players’ likelihood in withdrawal from gaming. The relationship for general harassment only showed a direct relationship to withdrawal from gaming. We noted that female players pre-emptively avoided experiencing sexual harassment through gender masking, but are still affecting by being bystanders of others’ sexual harassment.

A potential consequence is people’s identity as gamers (Grooten & Kowert, 2015). According to Pew (2015), fewer women self-identify as gamers than men do. Although there are a variety of reasons for the discrepancy, sexual harassment may be one of them. The hostility towards female gamers is a form of rejection which weaken their gamer self-perception. Furthermore, sexual harassment may reduce their gaming creds as they are pushed off from participating in forums, etc. However, this does not mean that they will stop playing, but rather disassociate their gaming from the gamer identity. This disassociation may include avoiding the social aspects of gaming, masking their gender and keeping their gaming activity to themselves. For bystanders, they may disassociate their gamer identity when it becomes associated with undesirable cultural attributes, such as misogyny.

Future research directions – We’re going need a bigger boat

I have covered the sexual harassment literature extensively with related videogames studies. But, this overview is not exhaustive as there are many issues needing attention and I can do only so much on my own.

Across the sexual harassment videogames studies, the majority of survey participants were white/Caucasian making analyses on racism in online videogames impossible. To my knowledge, Dr. Kishonna Gray (Eastern Kentucky University) is among the few who investigate the experiences of women and people of color in the gaming community (Gray, 2012, 2012a, 2013). Another issue is the social interaction between male and female players of different countries and cultures. I am curious how sexual harassment is dealt with in different servers. Some games have one server like EVE Online where players around the world are interacting in the same space, whereas other games have servers for specific geographic regions (e.g., North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Brazil, Russia, etc.).

The majority of sexual harassment targets are women. Nevertheless, there are sexual harassment studies of men against men, women against men, women against women and LGBT individuals (DeSouza & Solberg, 2004; Sibley et al., 2007; Waldo et al., 1998). There are sexual harassment accounts of female videogames developers, although academic studies are few (Hamilton, 2012; Jenson & de Castell, 2013). To my knowledge, there are no studies on live streamers (e.g., although it has some news articles (Hernandez, 2013; Grayson, 2015). Notably, people were focused female streamers’ appearance and their performance, which relates to research on female athletes and the media (Nezlek et al., 2014).

Most sexually harassing behaviours are aggressive and one of its driving personality trait is hostile sexism. On the other hand, there is a subjectively positive, yet pernicious form of sexism called benevolent sexism (Fiske & Glick, 1995; Fraser, 2015). Benevolent sexism is a view that men should protect and cherish women as wife, mother and caretaker (and virgin) limiting what women can do and be. They harass women who don’t turn out to be their ideal image of women. Men with such beliefs are known as “white knights”. In videogames, players giving female players unsolicited gifts, romantic affection, and protective companionship among others reflect such benevolent sexism (Linderoth & Öhrn, 2014).

The current climate in the videogame community pose a significant barrier for future sexual harassment research. There is hostility to researchers who study gender issues and skepticism regarding gender discrimination studies, in particular from men and people high in hostile sexism and I would not be surprised to see similar reactions to this piece (Kim & Tidwell, 2014; Moss-Racusin et al., 2015). This gendered skepticism extends to legislative efforts in curbing online harassment (Citron, 2009), such as how a congresswoman was swatted because of her anti-swatting legislative efforts (Machkovech, 2016).

Since the events known as Gamergate, several games scholars were attacked and harassed because of their work on gender issues (Chess et al., 2014; Ivory et al., 2014). People contaminated online surveys because they saw these surveys as undesirable or a threat to their social identity (Nauroth et al., 2014; 2015; Belmi et al., 2015). For example, a comic book researcher and a games researcher directly affected by the Gamergate events were harassed because they touched on gender issues (Allaway, 2014; Khouri, 2014). Luckily, we conducted our surveys long before Gamergate, but future studies will be more challenging as we must carefully guard against malicious responses and threats.

That is all for now.

I’d like to thank Jamie Madigan for his thoughts on an earlier version of this blog post.

Further Reading

Barak, A. (2005). Sexual harassment on the internet. Social Science Computer Review, 23 (1), 77-92. URL

Citron, D. K. (2009). Law’s expressive value in combating cyber gender harassment. Michigan Law Review, 108 (3), 373-415. URL

O’Leary-Kelly, A. M., Bowes-Sperry, L., Bates, C. A., & Lean, E. R. (2009). Sexual harassment at work: A decade (plus) of progress. Journal of Management, 35 (3), 503-536. URL

Pina, A., & Gannon, T. A. (2012). An overview of the literature on antecedents, perceptions and behavioural consequences of sexual harassment. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 18 (2), 209-232. URL

Pina, A., Gannon, T. A., & Saunders, B. (2009). An overview of the literature on sexual harassment: Perpetrator, theory, and treatment issues. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14 (2), 126-138. URL


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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