5 essential readings on sexual harassment and discrimination in games and technology


Microsoft announced on January 18, 2022 its intention to buy video game giant Activision Blizzard. The company, publisher of the best-selling video games Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush, has been the subject of a series of complaints of sexual discrimination and harassment. A day before Microsoft’s announcement, Activision Blizzard said it had laid off “nearly 40 employees” since July following an investigation into hundreds of reports of employee misconduct.

California sued Activision Blizzard in July 2021, alleging a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ culture” at the company and discrimination against women in compensation and promotion. The lawsuit prompted a walkout from company employees who demanded that the company fix the problem.

The turmoil echoes the infamous Gamergate episode of 2014 which featured an organized online campaign of harassment against female gamers, game developers and game journalists. The allegations are also part of a long history of gender discrimination in technology.

It’s unclear if or how quickly Microsoft will address Activision Blizzard’s discriminatory culture. Regardless of what happens within the company, the issue of sexual harassment in gamer culture involves the entire industry, as well as gamers and fans.

We’ve covered sexual harassment and gender discrimination in games – and technology in general – and selected five articles from our archive to help you understand the news.

1. Gaming culture is toxic – but community norms can change it

Things don’t improve steadily. The shift in online activities brought about by the pandemic has been accompanied by an increase in online harassment and a decrease in the number of women and girls playing video games.

More than a third of gamers have experienced harassment, and gamers have developed coping strategies like hiding their gender, playing only with friends and stopping stalkers by outdoing them, according to Amanda Cote, a professor at the University. from Oregon. These strategies take time and energy, and they prevent rather than oppose harassment. Difficult harassment is also heavy, as it usually triggers a violent reaction and places the burden on the victim.

Ending bullying is about creating and supporting community norms that reject rather than condone or encourage bullying. Gaming companies can adopt practices that go beyond banning stalkers that discourage behavior before it occurs, including reducing opportunities for conflict outside of the game, adding in-game acknowledgment of the good behavior and responding promptly to complaints.

“If esports continues to grow without gaming companies addressing the toxic environments of their games, abusive and exclusionary behaviors are likely to take root,” she writes. “To prevent this, players, coaches, teams, leagues, gaming companies and live streaming services should invest in better community management efforts.”

Read more: Here’s what it’ll take to clean up esports’ toxic culture

2. It’s not just the players – the fans are part of the problem

Go to any sports stadium and you will see that the atmosphere that energizes the players and the fans comes from the fans. For esports, the sites are streaming services, where fan reaction comes not in cheers and chants, but in the form of online chat.

Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, a professor at the University of South Florida, and his colleagues analyzed chats on Twitch, one of the biggest streaming services that offers live sports. They found a clear distinction in the language fans use when commenting on players, known as streamers, by gender.

“When watching a male streamer, viewers usually talk about the game and try to engage with the streamer; game lingo (words like ‘points’, ‘winner’ and ‘star’) and user nicknames are among the most important terms,” ​​he wrote. “But when you watch a female streamer, the tone changes: the game lingo drops and the language of objectification rises (words like ‘cute’, ‘fat’ and ‘boobs’ “). The difference is particularly striking when the streamer is popular, and less so when looking at comments on the activity of less popular streamers.

As with the games themselves, tackling harassment and discrimination on streaming services comes down to community standards, he writes. Streaming services “must examine their cultural norms to weed out the toxic norms that effectively silence entire groups.”

Read more: Can online gaming abandon its sexist habits?

3. Collegiate esports leagues don’t reflect the gaming population

Esports is becoming big business, with over $1 billion in revenue, and college leagues are a big part of the field. Just over 8% of college esports players and 4% of coaches are women. Low participation rates do not reflect interest: 57% of women aged 18-29 play video games that fall into the esports category.

Boise State esports coach Doc Haskell watches grad student Artie ‘N3rdybird’ Rainn compete in a game.
AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger

Players face overt hostility and harassment, which discourages participation, according to SUNY Cortland professor Lindsey Darvin. Varsity teams often engage in tokenism using a single player, and the vast majority of purses go to male players.

Professional esports organizations are beginning to address the gender gap. Colleges and universities must follow suit.

“Colleges and universities that receive U.S. federal assistance have an obligation to improve opportunities and access to participation based on Title IX policy, which prohibits gender discrimination in any educational program or activity. receiving federal financial assistance,” she wrote.

Read more: At colleges nationwide, male-dominated esports teams

4. Lessons from the Tech Field: Diversity and Equity Require Women in Power

The roots of toxic esports culture lie in decades of gender discrimination in technology as a whole. This discrimination has proven tenacious.

“In 1995, pioneering computer scientist Anita Borg issued a challenge to the tech community: equal representation of women in technology by 2020,” writes Francine Berman, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Twenty-five years later, we are still far from this goal. In 2018, less than 30% of employees at the largest tech companies and 20% of professors in university IT departments were women.

Reversing discrimination is a matter of culture change within organizations. “Diverse leadership is an essential part of creating diverse cultures,” she writes. “Women are more likely to thrive in environments where they not only have stature, but also responsibilities, resources, influence, opportunity and power.”

“Culture change is a marathon, not a sprint, requiring constant vigilance, many small decisions, and often shifts in who holds the power,” she writes. “My experience as a supercomputer center leader and with the Research Data Alliance, the Sloan Foundation, and other groups has shown me that organizations can create positive, more diverse environments.”

Read more: The tech field has failed a 25-year challenge to achieve gender equality by 2020 – culture change is key to getting on the right track

5. The myth of meritocracy is an obstacle to equality

The myth of meritocracy is a big part of the longevity of gender discrimination in technology. This myth says that success is the result of skill and effort, and that the representation of women is a reflection of their abilities.

In the United States, women own 39% of all private companies, but receive only about 4% of venture capital funding, according to Brown University professor Banu Ozkazanc-Pan.

“Yet the myth of meritocracy, which my research shows has a strong place in the world of entrepreneurship, means that women are constantly told that whatever they have to do to get more of those 22 trillion dollars or so in venture capital funding is to make better pitches or be more assertive,” she writes.

What the tech field calls meritocracy is actually gendered and allows most white males access to resources and funding. “By continuing to believe in meritocracy and maintaining the practices associated with it, gender equality will remain a distant goal,” she writes.

Adopting gender-sensitive approaches, including setting concrete targets for gender balance, is key to correcting the imbalances caused by the myth of meritocracy.

Read more: Women in tech are suffering because of the American myth of meritocracy

Editor’s note: This story is a summary of articles from The Conversation archives. This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 30, 2021. It has been updated to include Microsoft’s intention to purchase Activision Blizzard.


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