I interviewed students about online gaming.

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Investigating the world of online gaming. Pixabay

The results are going in my cringe compilation.

A few weeks ago, I wrote half of a two-part op-ed (with what was probably my most attention-grabbing title yet – let me know how this one compares) about the increased worry that video games cause violence. I wondered whether, while the argument is definitely an oversimplification, there might be an element of connection between gaming culture and the alt-right. After all, gaming figureheads are almost always straight white men, and the ones who aren’t are often snubbed or outright ridiculed. Further, it’s uncomfortably common for those figureheads to themselves be crypto-fascists or to engage in white supremacist and Nazi apologia (Pewdiepie – need I say more?).

The reception to that op-ed included a very welcomed and helpful suggestion that I follow it up with tangible steps to, as I wrote, “strongly align ourselves against fascism” in gaming circles. After all, it isn’t enough to know something has to be done; a person has to know and plan out how to do it for anything to change. I sat down that week with Krystal Lewis from the Regina Public Interest Group to talk about some of the avenues this deeper exploration and call to action could take. When it comes to everyday incidents of harassment IRL (“in-real-life,” for the not online-savvy), people can train in bystander intervention, taking action to protect the people involved. I wondered if those tactics could be applied in cyberspace too.

This question in mind, I interviewed several students at the U of R who had experience with online gaming. I asked them two main questions: one, were you ever the target of, or did you witness, harassment while gaming that was accompanied by hate speech? Two, when this harassment happens, what do you do about it – or wish you could do? I was hoping to draw out some strategies that people may already be using to intervene, and get a sense of how easy it is to engage with these events as opposed to ones that happen in-person. As someone who doesn’t play a lot of online games, I also wasn’t sure what reports were going to come up.

I wish I could say that after these interviews I felt like I had gotten closer to understanding how to deal with – or even productively talk about – this problem in video games. Truthfully, though, I feel like it seems more bleak than it did before. The consensus of the students who had encountered this toxic environment (all of them) was that it was a fundamental part of the hobby and something that couldn’t be avoided. Further, there was a common thread between two students of being entirely pushed out of gaming as a hobby due to the constant berating of their identities. This shows not only that bigotry in gaming is still a very visible problem, but that it’s actually constructing boundaries for people that dictate who is and isn’t allowed to play games while feeling safe. In short, it turns out that the whole situation is really freaking depressing and, although I don’t really have a ton of interest in online games, I definitely wouldn’t want to take them up now.

One student said that she used to enjoy the online game Fortnite, arguably the most popular online game among young people right now, but she now only plays with local friends. She got tired of being harassed, mocked, and outright kicked from play groups as soon as the other people playing heard her voice and identified her as female. She said the same was true of any woman who wanted to play nearly any MMORPG.

“If you’re a woman, people will be okay with it if you play a healer character, or if your character’s design appeals to men. But if you want to look like anything else or play any other role, you’ll get made fun of just for being a girl.”

This is the kind of thing that I would expect to happen in a Grade one class at recess – maybe even that is giving six-year-olds not enough credit. I can’t imagine being treated like that as a university student while I’m trying to have fun.

Another student, Tannor, stopped playing online when he said he was called homophobic and transphobic slurs whenever he mentioned being gay or transgender. He and the anonymous female student agreed that “slurs are just words” to most people online. Tannor was especially frustrated because he knew young people looked up to popular livestreamers, and he had seen them pick up this language first-hand when neither he nor the children’s parents had ever used slurs around them.

Kristian Ferguson, The Carillon’s own former news editor, is a great fan of online gaming and said that although he doesn’t want to give up the hobby because of what he hears on voice chat, de-escalating (a form of bystander intervention) can be next to impossible.

“The barrier of . . . a voice chat in a video game [and] the anonymity it provides doesn’t allow for these kinds of people to connect with what I am trying to say.” He plays online with voice chat muted, but when he goes to in-person events, “having that personal connection of sitting directly beside your opponent . . . I’ve actually felt really safe and welcomed.”

So it may be, as people in the video games debate often claim, that anonymity is what makes people particularly vile.

When asked what to do about this problem, though, Kristian also made a point that circled me back all the way around to the beginning of this investigation. We can’t develop a gaming-specific strategy for dealing with bigotry because the problem doesn’t lie within gaming, but in the unfortunately very deeply entrenched societal structures of racism, misogyny, transphobia etc. that people are taking into cyberspace with them. Those systems, Kristian suggested, are what allow young, white men to feel safe behaving this way “with the [added] safety buffer of the internet.”

Kristian and I do agree on one final thing: it is never a bad idea to support and create gaming groups (on Facebook, in discord servers, in-game or in person) that are anti-oppressive, positive, supportive, and actively care about whether or not marginalized people are able to have just as much fun as everyone else. Kind of messed up that something like fun can be a privilege.

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