Your Community

Women talking video games online risk abuse, threats

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Community, Science & Technology

More women play video games than ever before, but women who talk about video games on social media face criticism, harassment, even threats, that men largely don't.  

Video games represent a huge global cultural industry. Global revenue from games surpassed 80 billion dollars this year, says market research firm Newzoo. 

But unlike movies -- and television, music, literature and other creative fields -- video games have only recently been the subject of a rigorous body of serious, academic research and criticism. 

When Natalie Zina Walschots started her PhD research on video games and feminism at Concordia University in Montreal, she found there wasn't a lot of previous work in the field. 

"When it comes to the intersection of feminism and gaming, this is something that's happening at this specific moment," she said. 

She has a passion for video games that goes back to her earliest memories.

"I've been gaming since I was a kid. It's something that I'm deeply, deeply passionate about," she said. "As I got older, I realized this isn't something people feel comfortable with me being passionate about."

When she writes about her work on her blog or on Twitter, the backlash she faces can be severe. 

"The level of vitriol, the number of negative comments that I get, particularly in the form of Twitter mentions, is really staggering," she said. 

"A lot of it is pretty intensely offensive and often threatening."

Zina Walschots isn't alone in seeing this kind of abuse online after expressing her thoughts about gaming on social media. 

Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic born and educated in the Toronto area and now living in San Francisco, has a YouTube channel where she has posted a series of videos about the stereotyped portrayal of women in popular culture. 

In 2012, she began a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to raise $6,000 to create a new series, this time about video games

"A subsection of the gaming community was extremely upset that such a thing would exist," said Zina Walschots. "Her Kickstarter campaign was repeatedly attacked."

"She also started receiving a ridiculous amount of hate mail that included not just messages in digital forms but in some cases graphic art depicting violent acts being done to her," she said. 

Someone created a mobile app game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian where the player could punch her picture as she became increasingly bruised and bloodied. 

After the online abuse Sarkeesian was enduring came to light, her supporters donated $150,000 to her Kickstarter, far more than she'd hoped for. 

Sarkeesian has released six half-hour videos in the series, but with each one she has posted to YouTube, the abuse has continued. A bomb threat was made to an awards ceremony where she was to speak this spring. 

Sarkeesian recently decided to leave her home and report some of the social media threats to the FBI after they became specific enough for her to fear for her safety. 

Many gamers denounce the threats against Sarkeesian, but for some, her criticism is seen as an attack on them personally. They consider it part of a conspiracy they've called Gamer Gate

It's difficult to understand why a series of videos on sexist portrayals of women in video games would bring about such an extreme reaction, but Zina Walschots has some theories. 

"Games are deeply immersive in a way that watching a film isn't because you are assuming the agency of the character," she said. "There's a deep sense of investment and identification that happens with a playable character that doesn't happen the same way in other media."

"For a lot of people, identifying as a gamer is a core part of their identity," said Zina Walschots. "A lot of gamers feel that any critique of any game or any critique of the community, is a critique of them and of their personhood and their humanity and their moral character." 

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.