In late November last year, a South Korean female Twitch streamer was harassed on the streets of Mumbai, India, by a man who tried to grab her arm, kiss her face, and follow her on a bike along with another man all while she was live streaming on her Twitch channel in front of a 1000+ people.
The clip was eventually viewed by more than two million people. The police in Mumbai were tagged in the viral video and on December 1, they issued a statement to say that two men had been arrested in relation to the incident.
@MumbaiPolice A streamer from Korea was harassed by these boys in Khar last night while she was live streaming in front of a 1000+ people. This is disgusting and some action needs to be taken against them. This cannot go unpunished. pic.twitter.com/WuUEzfxTju— Aditya (@Beaversama_) November 30, 2022
Sadly, this isn't an isolated case. Campaign Asia-Pacific recently highlighted a social experiment by Maybelline to bring the issue to the forefront. Harassment of female gamers is so common that it's even captured on camera in live-streams, as was the case with the female Korean Twitch streamer.
According to Reach3 Insights, a market research company, 77% of women gamers experience gender-specific discrimination when gaming, including name-calling, receiving inappropriate sexual messages, gatekeeping and dismissiveness, to name a few. The problem is long standing and persistent, with some blaming, in part, a lack of diversity within the way games are marketed and sold as a reason for why the issue drags on.
"When it comes to gaming, years of marketing have automatically directed boys to video games – just think about what game BOY can imply in a child's mind. The unbalanced share of boys and girls playing video games has created multiple gender stereotypes," says Nathan Pillot, strategic planner & gaming squad leader at We Are Social.
Pillot adds that aside from the way games have historically been marketed towards male gamers, another part of the problem is the inherent anonymity of digital spaces.
"When people are protected by anonymity, they believe that they can say anything, and humans have always been keen to put the responsibility on socially or historically created minorities. Female gamers have been evolving in this hostile and toxic environment for years, pushing them away from gaming and therefore from the competitive scene."
He also points out that in the multiplayer and competitive gaming world, where it’s common to have an ‘it’s everyone’s fault but mine’, this attitude has degenerated into ‘flaming culture’ (deliberately making incendiary comments to get a rise out of people).
"In these games where voice chat and team communication are mandatory, female players are the first victims of this behaviour," says Pillot. "Wherein the responsibility of a bad game can be automatically charged to them, regardless of their performance."
How much does game marketing play a role in perpetuating the issue?
In Reach3's Women In Gaming report 2022, 75% of respondents agreed that women in video games are sexualised to some extent in order to appeal to a male audience. Furthermore, 50% of women who play games don’t feel represented when they look at characters in video games, compared to only a quarter of men.
"This can create an atmosphere where women are othered," says Kassie Kelly, senior research consultant, tech & gaming, Reach3 Insights. "If women in games aren’t depicted as seriously as men, it follows that men playing these games will treat female players less seriously, as well."
Gaming marketing has always been firstly directed towards male gamers, and this tends to shape how women are portrayed in games.
"There’s a lack of strong and brave women in leading roles. The character models sometimes are very sexualised compared to male characters," says Isa Pinheiro, senior visual designer, R/GA Singapore. "There are a lot of stereotypes, like the princess type, the one that is only there as a romantic partner, these sometimes don’t play a big role in the story."
Dr Robbie Fordyce, lecturer at Monash University's School of Media, Film, and Journalism in Melbourne, Australia, says that while parts of the game industry rely on sexist imagery in their marketing and their styles of play, the situation is more complicated than just the marketing.
"It would be easy to point to sexist imagery in videogames as an explanation, but it is far more important that the people who play games take a stand when they see toxic behaviours around them, and call out inappropriate attitudes and statements," says Fordyce. "This is something that everyone needs to take part in, but especially the guys who will find themselves in social settings where such language and behaviour will creep out. It's easy to let it slide, but being brave and speaking up is the right thing to do."
Is a lack of diversity within game developers and their marketing agencies to blame?
Sean Campbell, senior vice president, tech & gaming, Reach3 Insights, says that a company simply showing off PR releases about their diversity stats won’t change anything on its own.
"If developers and agencies have a more diverse staff and those diverse voices lead to the output (games, communications, marketing/ads) being more diverse and helping move the conversation forward, that’s the type of thing that will help improve things," says Campbell. "They need to avoid lip service though and put those diverse voices in positions where they can make real changes in the games and marketing campaigns."
However, the people who play and make videogames come from across all manner of backgrounds and identities already, and this has been the case for some time. Many of the people involved in making the biggest games today are women, and they have central leadership roles.
"Part of the problem is that those with the passion to make games aren't necessarily those who hold the purse strings," says Fordyce. "Those who hold financial control can sometimes push for more sexist marketing, which can have a big influence in shaping what kind of content ends up in a game – despite the best intentions of the developers."
Are gaming platforms doing enough to stop harassment of women gamers online?
Scores of women who stream on platforms like Twitch are still subject to regular harassment. Platforms like Twitch say that safety is an ever-evolving journey and that their North Star is to create the most consistent and safe experience for every one of their global community members.
"Female streamers experience disproportionate levels of harassment online, whether on Twitch or on other platforms, which is unacceptable," said a Twitch spokesperson. "We take action in all known and verified cases of sexual harassment or abuse, and are continually evolving the policies, technologies and reporting tools that protect the community. While we can’t singlehandedly tackle sexism and harassment across the gaming and broader internet, we take our responsibility as a service seriously and are fighting against all harassment in our community."
Campbell of Reach3 Insights believes that the key part in tackling harassment is follow-through.
"It’s one thing to make a strong public statement that harassment of women in a game won’t be tolerated, but the company needs to follow through on that," says Campbell. "Too often it feels as if the developers do honestly believe the messages about toxic behaviour not being welcome and want to do more, but there’s anxiety over upsetting a portion of players and losing sales. One could argue that losing toxic players would be a good thing, but I feel that’s where executives can get cold feet about anything that could negatively affect sales."
Fortunately, some organisations appear to be trying to change the status quo. Riot Games – publisher of popular League of Legends – recognised lack of diversity as a problem in their own company after they were sued by employees in 2018 for gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment.
"To their credit they have set up an internal diversity and inclusion team to recruit more females and underrepresented minorities and also publicly publish an annual report to show their progress," says Samantha Shuttleworth, product strategy director, R/GA Singapore. "As of their latest report published in 2022, women comprise 25% of their leadership council (up from 0% in 2018) and no significant difference in pay for women and underrepresented minorities."
Riot Games has also introduced their Game Changers initiative that started as part of Riot Games’ commitment to foster an inclusive environment for competition and create safe opportunities for women to compete without fear of gender-based harassment.
The Game Changers started with a North American tournament in March 2021 and has since expanded to the EMEA and APAC region.
"In Southeast Asia, we continue to work closely with FSL, a Singapore-based esports organiser, to provide opportunities for women to compete in VALORANT (a competitive game). Our support towards FSL has extended to League of Legends: Wild Rift tournaments as well," says Jem Loh, head of communications & channels, APAC, Riot Games.
"We believe that diversity and inclusion are key to a more vibrant and empathetic ecosystem," adds Loh. "At Riot, we have Rioter Inclusion Groups that bring Rioters together to celebrate diversity, enable authentic representation in gaming and our products. This is especially important in Asia Pacific, where we have a myriad of cultures, traditions and religions across our gaming communities."
Ryan Cunningham, CEO and founder of You Know Media, believes that one way to tackle the issue of female gamers being harassed is through the power of games IP.
"As gaming brands expand their resolutions to fight female harassment, an avenue could be to force streaming giants to abide by developers’ harassment safeguards when those developers IP is being used on their platforms," says Cunningham. "It's not without its trials, but IP usage is a huge currency in the world of gaming, and it would herald specific games as safer zones wherever they exist."
Game over: is the end in sight for harassment in games?
While there is still a long way to go, progress is being made towards tackling the issue of harassment directed at female gamers. Many games now have better reporting functionality to report problematic behaviour and ways to block people to mitigate harassment.
"Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 has a fairly robust reporting system," says Campbell. "That’s just a band-aid solution though, women still have to hear the abuse in the first place to then report it. What we need is a gaming culture that understands it’s not acceptable to begin with."
As for game content, some developers have also made good strides.
"Take the ever-popular Fortnite, the female presenting skins in that game do a good job of being both fun and respectful while avoiding being sexualised," says Campbell. "We’ve also seen strong female lead characters being more common in blockbuster games recently, such as in Horizon Forbidden West, The Last of Us, and A Plague Tale: Requiem."
But more can always be done, such as continuing to treat women gamers as equals and to work towards normalising that.
"Have zero-tolerance policies for harassment online towards women (and everyone), issuing suspensions and bans as often as needed both in-game and on a game’s social accounts and Discord," says Campbell. "Apply these standards equally and widely – if a well-known streamer breaks these rules, don’t give special treatment, give the same punishment to them."
And, most importantly, Campbell adds, that platforms shouldn't be afraid of the trolls.
"There will always be toxic players that make a lot of noise complaining when companies attempt to do the right thing and protect women players. Use appropriate moderation tools to shut them down. And talk with the executive team about these strategies so they’re on board with it and won’t back down if they see banned toxic players complaining and making threats towards the game."
Overall, with the rise of concerns being expressed on social media, editors have been forced to take concrete action, and we see new initiatives being developed every day. Whether it’s through marketing and communication or by improving the report system and making anti-harassment tools available to gamers, things are evolving.
"Gaming needs to be a welcoming and safe space for everyone and it starts with developers abandoning archaic marketing philosophies that have historically hindered women," says Pillot. "We’re in a game of catch-up at the moment, making it all the more important to hold developers accountable as we strive towards a future where gaming is truly a welcoming, gender-neutral space."