The ugly episode that has come to be known as GamerGate may have receded, but it left in its wake some unanswered questions. Why did a seemingly legitimate discussion of gaming journalism devolve into harassment and threats of violence against women journalists and critics? What triggered this behavior and was it a reflection of offline gender harassment?
The incident prompted TECHtonics to take a look at online harassment and the environments that facilitate it.
“Power and control are the biggest forms of gender violence in the United States, as well as around the world,” said Professor Elaine Davies of California’s Chapman University in an interview. “So the person needs to feel some sort of power or some sort of control over the person that they are harassing or victimizing. That’s what it boils down to.”
While there will always be issues of control, Johns Hopkins University’s Patricia Wallace, Senior Director of the Center for Talented Youth and Information Technology, says this is not unique to the gaming community.
“If people really stopped and thought about what it meant to send out a tweet or a vicious message and how… the Internet environment is actually facilitating that, I think that could cause people to slow down a bit.”
Johns Hopkins University
“But gaming is a big place for it, where there is quite a lot of harassment going on and … people assuming that if a woman is playing a game, then she’s not serious about it or that her boyfriend must have shown her how to play or she’s probably not very good at it and that it’s just not, you know, an equal playing field.”
“There are plenty of exceptions” in the gaming community, cautions Wallace. But she says that a “residual culture of the locker room boy’s arena that really is not fond of seeing women, girls get into their [space]” remains despite a gaming demographic, typically dominated by young, white males, that now includes more women.
But Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, Florida, says it is important to look at some of the issues that led up to the “outpouring of hatred and violence” in the GamerGate controversy.
“It is not a coincidence that so much of the first targeted harassment and abuse was directed toward Anita Sarkeesian, who was their critic, who was pointing out the fact that in many games there are certain sexist tropes that are probably damaging to the perception of women,” said Franks. “And I think that was really something that the gaming community or certain segments of the gaming community really found offensive.”
GamerGate supporters say those who threatened and harassed women online do not speak for the group, which was reportedly formed to defend ethics in gaming journalism.
Freelance writer William Usher, who tackles media corruption issues, says the GamerGate “consumer revolt” was about “media needing ethics policies to disclose relationships and monetary ties to those they cover.”
He says the media “conflated the issue of harassment onto GamerGate using fabrication and misinformation.”
Usher says a GamerGate harassment patrol was formed to stop trolls and harassers, including some who were sending out rape and death threats. But he adds that some of the victims did not wish to cooperate with the GamerGate harassment patrol.
Gurney Halleck, a writer and free speech proponent who goes by a pseudonym, says online harassment is just a new avenue for the same perpetrators who, “paralyzed by their fears, strike out anonymously” to project their insecurities upon their targets.
“It is a shame people involved on both sides of the GamerGate controversy have been the recipients of such actions, and unfortunate that this has prevented the very important topic of journalistic ethics from being properly discussed,” he said.
But Franks says going beyond discussion or criticism to threats of violence and physical harm taps into a “serious vein of hostility that is psychological, but probably not that uncommon” and reveals gender as a unifying force behind this hostility, not just in gaming.
“And we are … in kind of a disadvantage to try to figure out how many people really feel this way and how serious they are about the kinds of viewpoints that they are expressing because it could be a really small minority that simply happens to have a lot of time and a lot of vitriol.”
Whether the threats are ever going to be carried out is beside the point, says Franks. She worries that harassing women or sexually objectifying them based on their gender is becoming standard practice online.
And it is also affecting how women interact on the Internet.
“It is making many women … recalculate whether it is worth it to participate in online communities because of the sheer force of the harassment, the abuse which takes up so much time and so much energy, in addition to … real anxiety and distress about your physical safety,” said Franks.
A combination of locker room behavior and toxic disinhibition gives rise to this behavior, according to Wallace. She says disinhibition makes people on the Internet behave in ways that they wouldn’t in face-to-face encounters.
“When they get online,” she continues, “they are exposed to characteristics that often create disinhibition, particularly the toxic variety, where they’ll say just these vile things. And … you’ve seen that in GamerGate with people just shooting out these death threats and just gross type of messages. And the ingredients that we are talking about here are this perception of anonymity.”
While Wallace suggests that disinhibition may subside if the perpetrators are more easily identified, she says the physical distance between the perpetrator and his victim also gives the aggressor “a sense of safety.”
“The victim may not know who to retaliate against … It is being at a safe distance and shooting barbs where the person can’t … see who it is,” she added.
Things might be different were the perpetrator to see the hurt he’s inflicting in his victims’ eyes.
“That aggressor cannot see the actual face of the victim or [have] eye contact,” she added. “And that has been known to have an effect on aggression … Just being able to see the harm you are doing can inhibit your behavior. But on the Internet, especially in a venue like Twitter, you can’t see any of that.”
Davies’ research reveals online harassment and cyberbullying instill “great anxiety” in their victims and cause “huge health effects.”
“They lose a lot of weight,” she explained. “They gain a lot of weight. They have terrible insomnia. They have gastroenteritis. They have lots of other issues because they have such great anxiety.”
Davies says education is key to let people know that online harassment and threats of violence constitute “criminal behavior” and that perpetrators should be held accountable. And she suggests including more women in character development or game content, for example, to help start a shift in gender perceptions.
“The only way to combat that is by being a much more inclusive community,” she said. “And until we have that, you are always going to have issues of power and control.”