Harassment, Trolling, and Mass Hysteria

“Some people are very sensitive to sexual harassment, and some are a little more used to it. But when you feel that prickling feeling across the back of your neck, you know that some boundary has been crossed.” ~ Jan Johnson

So despite the fact that some of us have been commenting on the issue for years, every so often incidents occur that bring sexual harassment, bullying and trolling in gaming communities into outside focus. It baffles me that everyone pretends to have amnesia to how this state of affairs came to be. I have no tolerance for hand-wringing and designated victim mentalities. As a woman who has been gaming since I could turn a pong knob, it offends me when someone tries to turn me into a victim of an environment where I choose to participate. What happened to Miranda Pakozdi in the Cross Assault situation has no defense. It’s down there with crap like Bum Fights as the low water mark of human behavior, but it’s also way more clear cut than most online harassment.

To be frank, the easy harassment is the stuff that crosses obvious lines with hate language and boldly inappropriate behavior because that is the kind of stuff that is easy to shut down and walk away from. It shouldn’t happen, and it shouldn’t be tolerated when it happens. The whole “sexual harassment is a fundamental part of the combat gaming community” mindset is a bullshit line from a bunch of scared boys who are threatened with anyone judging their behavior. They have the intellectual integrity of NAMBLA and should be treated as such.

But that kind of harassment isn’t going to last long. The gaming community is being thrust into the light of day more and more. Most hardcore gaming girls are not easy to intimidate and they’re not going anywhere. So this creepy and gross truth will out process is just that — a process. However, there are other kinds of gaming community harassment that isn’t as easy to identify and weed out and it’s worth understanding how all of these behaviors weave together across gaming communities.

So, before all the nannies congeal into a sissification movement, let’s go over a few things.

I. Bullying != Sexual Harassment != Trolling.

Bullying is not always sexual harassment and trolling is not necessarily either of the two. It’s important to call things by their name so we can identify why they happen before we even start to discuss preventing or changing them.

Bullying happens when a person in a position of power abuses someone who is vulnerable to them. The two big questions are how much power the bully has and how vulnerable is the victim. Online bullies are rarely going to be in a position to physically bully another person, so they are relegated to the arena of emotional and verbal abuse. While no one has the right to abuse another person, it is important – even crucial – to remember that online bullies have only as much power as they are given. Rejecting them outright when they are encountered might make for a few unpleasant or unfair moments, but taking a stand and shutting them down, or simply walking away is usually easy. If an issue escalates to the point where someone begins to threaten a person’s physical realm — including harassing them at work, stalking, etc, then that crosses into a danger zone that absolutely needs to be addressed on a game provider, game community, and/or authorities level.

Sexual harassment, when it is male based, is almost always about power, but it’s mingled with uncomfortable and inappropriate sexual elements. It’s bullying, only with more references to rape and vaginas. Female sexual harassment is almost always about attention seeking, but mingled with uncomfortable and inappropriate sexual elements. Think Snooki meets Sad Panda. Although ranting on this issue is nearly always focused on male behavior sexual harassment, it is important, as a community, for us to admit that female behavior sexual harassment takes place nearly as often: it’s not about power and socially it’s more embarrassing as opposed to threatening, so no one talks about it. But it’s a double-standard that it doesn’t get addressed.

Trolling has many different varieties but there are two main trolls that you encounter in gaming. The first and the more reviled comes in the form of someone trying to shock for attention or sick amusement. This is where people will do things like link to disgusting images, use abusive/racist/sexist language to get a rise out of others, or simply start a political discussion in a general chat area to incite people to fight each other. This kind of troll is difficult to avoid and most experienced gamers regard them as those bugs you get all over your car on long trips – they’re annoying and no one likes them but they’re short lived and you just have to scrub once they’ve gone splat.

The second kind of trolling is why we tolerate the first kind. This type of trolling is about standing up to power, declaring something honestly that might not be practical under a known gaming identity, and/or keeping things in perspective. Most trolls claim to have these motives, but few do. When this type of troll is appropriate, however, they generally provide a community service that is both cathartic and necessary and unable to be delivered in any other format.

II. Where & Who

While these things can happen in all gaming environments (or all general online/offline environments for that matter) they are, in my personal experience, far more prevalent in different corners depending on which kind of abuse we’re talking about.

Male dominated sexual harassment, bullying, and trolling is most rampant in pvp-heavy environments and other combat-focused situations. You just don’t get a lot of “I hope you’re raped and killed” comments in puzzle, crafting, sim, or strategy games. I’m sure it happens, but it’s not the norm. If you’re looking for the very worst of boys behaving badly, you’re talking combat. Further, this kind of behavior is generally only a problem in PUG (pick-up-group) situations where you are encountering a group of unknowns where a person has little control over choosing the other people they’re playing with.

Contrary to popular belief it is rarely, if ever, young boys responsibe for this behavior. Although packs can make them brave, pre-teen and teen boys do not generally exhibit this sort of confidence in gaming communities. The most vulgar and hostile behavior will come from 20-something men, with the more casual or underhanded style of harassment coming from older 35+ men. From 17 – 30 you’re looking at the “I hope you get raped and die” variety of idiot. After thirty, you’re looking at the “Boy, you have a sexy voice, I bet you’re a hottie. Here, let me give you some gear” type jerkwad.

Female dominated sexual harassment is far more likely to occur in slow-paced games or areas of game play. You see it in crafting games, sim games and MMO PVE environments. In my experience female sexual harassment is most likely to be one-on-one and under the radar, but it’s not unusual for these women to feel comfortable enough and lack self awareness to the point where they do things openly, especially once they feel validated. In most cases these are either inexperienced young girls who are socially awkward and flirting inappropriately or older women with attention-seeking problems.

In my experience, female-dominated harassment is more difficult to deal with socially. There isn’t the immediate revulsion of tactics. If a guy says “I hope your husband beats you,” the average person is going to be offended and the community will respond by rejecting that behavior. But a woman flirting inappropriately with a man is more likely to get the guy teased once she’s gone rather than have the woman be addressed as inappropriate. Female sexual harassment garners very little outrage and like the older guys who patronize, the older woman is likely to be tolerated, even in “friendly” communities. This creates a validation loop for these individuals that can be far more intimidating and difficult for victims to address and stand up to, especially when harassers position themselves as mentors.

A community will rally around a victim if a bully is overtly abusive, but is likely to take the “oh, that’s just so-and-so” way of looking at it when things are less obvious.

III. Why

So why are these very different behaviors exhibiting in corners of gaming communities? I’m sure the complete answers are complex, but the short answers are pretty simple.

Gaming has, in many ways, replaced traditional rights of passage for young men in our society. Male bonding and rites of passage have, throughout the development of our species, been both violent and sexual in nature. A hunt. A fight. A sexual conquest. These are the things that have trumpeted the evolution from boyhood into manhood in most human society for, oh, ever. This is why so much gaming is based on survival. Gathering is a survival skill. Problem solving and crafting are survival skills. Strategy is a survival skill. Killing is definitely a survival skill. So you have a bunch of young guys bonding over skills that have traditionally hallmarked macho rites of passage. This is going to be about as girl friendly as a fight club basement. Unless game designers are unfathomably stupid they have figured this out — which explains why so much of their marketing, development, and mechanics focus on it.

Don’t get me wrong — girl gamers have our share of bloodlust. Anyone who games with me will tell you that I turn into a foul-mouthed, hostile creature when I’m in PVP mode. But female bloodlust is generally different. I don’t know enough about the science or biology to make an educated statement, but I would guess it’s even different on that level. Which is why outside of inner city gang initiations, most girls do not bond or experience rites of passage with violent or primitive rituals. Our brand of “I must kill” is an outlet with a different purpose and flavor than a masculine “I must kill” mindset.

I’m not saying we should all just shrug and go the “boys will be boys” excuse everything route. I am saying, understand where it comes from and what purpose it serves when trying to break it down. I don’t have any problem with macho bullshit happening in private rooms. This is about making it clear these and other behaviors cannot be imported into the larger social environment.

The condescending older male sexual harassment, like the older female sexual harassment is entirely different. It’s all about attention. It’s a mistake to think these people are always unattractive, lonely, or pathetic. Some people are just addicted to attention: they need it and yet they lack self awareness of that need. This manifests into attention-seeking behavior which is learned and adjusted to be just acceptable enough to allow them to fit into a social environment. That forty-something married guy who hits on all the young girls after his wife goes to bed has figured out that guilds like that he gears up lowbies and so he basks in being a mentor with a revolving supply of targets. Likewise, the older women who behave like this tend to figure out that if they keep the guild banks stocked with raid mats no one is going to say anything about their awkward flirty creepiness.

Understanding why these types of situations occur is key to figuring out how to avoid and diffuse them.

IV. Situational Awareness & Nature Of Language

I cannot stress enough that situational awareness is mandatory in any community, including, but certainly not limited to, gaming. One of the places where these issues get muddied is with ridiculous blanket statements. Social environments create the foundations for different social behaviors and there is nothing more obnoxious than a person who expects every environment to conform to them. Some of us like to behave badly when we find a group we’re comfortable with and you’re never going to change that about human nature. So, if you enter a room of swearing, laughing, barking 20-something guys and you’re expecting a girl-friendly environment, then you’re an idiot. Maybe, you don’t deserve to be bullied or harassed, but you are, nonetheless, an idiot. You’re just as big an idiot as a 20-something fuck-mouthed guy wandering into an old granny farming game and looking for hardcore game action. If you’re one of those people who walks into every situation expecting it to be gift-wrapped and custom-tailored to fit you please cut that shit out. Defending morons like you is getting in the way of identifying and helping people who need it.

Further, it’s obnoxious to assume that just because certain language is being used that bullying or sexual harassment is taking place. Gamers challenge each other socially as much as they do in play. What can seem abusive to one person is a show of respect to another. “You’ve got some balls” might offend one woman, or it might be a friendly exchange for another. The same is true of phrases like, “don’t be such a fucking girl.” Even extremely vulgar or hostile-seeming language can be very friendly in nature. “If you let that huntard kill me again I’m going to chop off your head and rape your skull” sounds horrible to some people, but among the people I game with it’s neutral, friendly banter. If you’re one of those people who believes it’s always wrong to use such phrases no matter what, please exit the ferry. Not all of us are in favor of homogenizing the world.

Lest you think that all trash talk is negative female oriented, there are at least three other forms of which to be aware.

Positive female harassment can be just as annoying or offensive as anything involving graphic language. A simple “good girl” can be delivered with as much ill-intent as any *inert body part here* statement.

More than derogatory language about females, however, homophobic language is tolerated in most gaming to a far greater scope. I personally encounter this more often and consider it more sinister and difficult to stomach. I have heard “fag,” “gay,” and “dyke” used rampantly and freely in nearly every game I’ve ever played and often these words are casually accepted behavior by so-called “family friendly” guilds who would otherwise lecture a player over cursing.

Finally, there is sexual harassment that is both positive and negative male oriented. This is less rampant, but still not uncommon. I’ve heard plenty of women comment on guys using big swords to compensate for other things, or otherwise joke about the size of a man’s “equipment.” When you run into a situation where a guy has a bitchy in-game girlfriend, I assure you the location of his penis and whether or not she lets him have it back will always be a subject of discussion.

V. Personal Responsibility

Taking all of this information into account, let’s all agree that there can be a great deal of personal responsibility taken to ensure a person doesn’t open themselves up to becoming a victim. Here is the list of ways a gamer can, and should, behave to prevent becoming a victim.

A. Don’t reveal personal information to strangers.
This is a no-brainer for anyone of my generation but we’re living in the Facebook age where people seem to have gotten willfully stupid. Do not go around splashing your personal location, workplace, or anything else about yourself for general consumption. It makes you vulnerable. If you’re walking through a busy airport or mall you should know to keep close track of your purse or wallet. Your personal information should be treated the same way around strangers in gaming or any virtual community.

B. Don’t treat personal information as currency
Just because someone shares something about themselves doesn’t mean you are obligated to share back. And if that makes you uncomfortable, learn to be vague. If someone tells you they live in Cleveland and you feel socially obligated to respond in kind, keep to things like “yeah, I’m in the midwest, too.” And do not be afraid to say things like “I don’t talk about that” or “I don’t give that information out.” An up-front statement like that will not alienate you from any reasonable person and it establishes you as being less vulnerable to predators.

C. Don’t trade dignity for game play

I’m looking at you, loot whores. If you are willing to be spoken to like trash by an abusive person in order to raid a dungeon or get some make-believe sword, I have zero sympathy for you. You are rewarding an abusive person and you are the bigger problem of the two. If bullies weren’t tolerated they’d stop having power. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard variations on: “I know Bob’s a dick, but he leads a good raid.” You know why Bob’s a dick? Because people demonstrate to him that it’s allowed so long as they get a chance to roll on the loot they want. They’re whoring dignity for gaming objectives and that means Bob isn’t the only idiot in the mix.

D. Don’t assume what you don’t know
Don’t assume a person is safe just because they’re in a position of authority. Don’t assume someone’s a thoughtless jerk just because they trash talk during PVP. Don’t take something personal that isn’t directed at you. If you have a concern, ask. If you haven’t put in the time to learn the territory then shut up about the dragons.

E. Don’t think silence and outrage are the only options
No one will know if you don’t speak up, and no one will care if you just start trying to impose your values onto others. Speaking up will earn you respect if it’s done right. People worth playing with that want to play with you will make an honest effort. You don’t have to sit quiet when something offends you, and you don’t have to be sneaky or loud about confronting it, either. Don’t go running to a moderator or leader if you haven’t had the guts to speak up when the bad behavior manifested itself.

The best way to address things is calmly and openly on a human level and avoid making it personal right off the bat. Saying something like “guys, the X comments make me uncomfortable” will work in many, if not most cases. You’re not demanding a change, you’re not calling anyone out individually, you’re just making a statement about how it makes you feel. The atmosphere of the group may shift temporarily, but most average people will try to accommodate. And if the behavior doesn’t alter then you shouldn’t be playing with that group — they’re not right for you.

By the way, it is never too late to speak out. Never. If you think because you’ve let something slide (for hours, days, months, years) that means you don’t have the right to speak up, you’re wrong. It means the people who’ve been gaming with you should have come to like and respect you enough to not want you to feel uncomfortable and should make a better effort to accommodate you. Again, if they don’t you shouldn’t be playing with them — it’s bad chemistry.

F. Don’t surrender power
With a handful of exceptions, a bully can only make you a victim if you let them. You almost always have the power to remove yourself from them. If someone is wildly inappropriate, stop playing and to walk away. That is an important personal power that all too many victims refuse to employ. That voice in your head that says “I shouldn’t have to stop playing just because this guy is a jerk” is called entitlement and it’s the cause of most human misery. Change that voice to “my dignity is more important to me than playing this game this minute with this jerk.” You are not validating a bully by removing yourself from them and you are not losing anything of value. It’s not about running away — it’s about the fact that sometimes the only winning move is not to play.

On the other hand, if you are in a position of authority and taking a stand matters, don’t let the opportunity pass. Even if it means the group has to wait another few minutes to replace a team member. Using this sort of position responsibly is important for group leaders. Just avoid going into nanny or god modes with it, or else you might wake up and realize that you’re the bully.

G. Discomfort is not always harassment
Part of being in a free society is that everyone is entitled to their own points of view. Comfort is not a guarantee or an absolute and behavior is incredibly subjective. Just because you are uncomfortable does not mean you are being harassed. Think before you act or allow yourself to froth. Part of multiplayer gaming is being exposed to people you might not otherwise encounter and their behavior might be brash without being offensive. Establish a metric for yourself of behavior you can and cannot accept before your own fun is impacted and strive to game with individuals who fall within your comfort zone. At the same time, accept that other people have different thresholds and it’s possible that someone making you uncomfortable is not necessarily doing something wrong.

VI. Social Pressure Where It’s Due

A. Privacy
A big part of taking away the power of bullies is DEMANDING privacy features within gaming circles. If a bully doesn’t have your personal information the worst they can do is blow hot air until you turn them off. There is an ever-growing incentive for game platforms to include social tools that do not meet privacy standards. Don’t bitch about it on message boards – find out who to contact and write, petition or call until your concerns are registered to the proper place.

B. Dangerous Incident Procedures
There are bullies who take things beyond the realm where someone can protect themselves. When those bullies occur there should be tools and procedures to deal with them. These procedures need to be established within all gaming communities and formats. If you can’t find them, then it’s time to lobby the developer as to why they’re not in place. If someone takes things outside of the game, do not hesitate to contact the authorities. Ever. That’s always crossing a line.

C. Management Tools
While I frequently find ExtraCreditz videos to be obnoxious in their boil-issues-down / shiny-happy-people presentation, their video on Harassment offered one good idea (and a lot of bad ones). The notion of having new accounts and frequently muted accounts to start on auto-mute is something many players have been floating for a long time. Maybe now there’s the traction to get it done. Please ignore their moronic notion of guild-wide ethical ratings in that video. I’d apologize for linking to something with such a ridiculously out of touch notion in it, but there’s no way to mute only part of a video.

D. Game Development Issues
On a deeper scale, it’s time for game developers to realize that some things they do are enabling this behavior and there are unused possibilities available to allow people to play together other than forcing people to play with new batches of strangers over and over.

Two faction games should be over — almost all current MMOs create an us vs them mentality that invites primitive behavior tropes. This concept is played out and lazy. When battling factions are necessary for a game there needs to be more than two and there should be some sort of complexity beyond us vs them that is presented in the actual play and not in the boring lore that only 5% of players are aware of.

Cooperative play is more than just roles or 5-person dungeon groups — when a game makes you work together, bonds form and communities evolve; respect is earned among peers. Creating us-vs-the-game outlets are a good way to diffuse the us-vs-them mentality. There is a huge gap in the market right now for small group play. By small group I mean 2 or three people. Gaming together should be like a conversation. Two or three people is a good conversation, five is the limit of too many. Big raids and even the 5-person raid formats obligate people to group beyond a good bonding circle. Diablo III handles this well, making adventure difficultly dynamic based on the number of players, allowing for single play that scales to group play. More of this, please.

Spectator modes are long overdue — in early console gaming, some of the fun was in being in a group of friends and watching the one or two best players do their thing while you cheered them on. Or, handing off play back and forth with a common goal. My favorite early games were all collaborative efforts between friends or family members. Taking turns watching and then playing Super Mario 3 with my little brother is an experience I haven’t been able to find in modern multiplayer gaming. There is so much creativity and art that goes into our game environments, there is a lot of possible value in allowing people to take turns driving, not just in learning to play games better from experienced players, but in enjoying the game on multiple cooperative levels. The biggest complaint I heard about Skyrim was that people wanted to be able to play with a friend — even a split screen mode where friends could have done the same things on their own single-player games together for certain phases would have been enough.

Karma metrics — for a long time I’ve said that it’s not as simple as PVE vs PVP servers. PVP anything-goes servers can degenerate into vile places and it sucks that the only options are carebear lands vs bully lands. The answer isn’t separating gamers into different places, but in giving gamers the options to play their own way. There are creative ways of keeping people out of lowbie areas or penalizing people who camp, or even people who are constantly attacking others that don’t want to engage in PVP. As for how to socially penalize abusive behavior in combat or PVP areas, the concept of Wuffie has been around for almost a decade. Get with it already.

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  1. Posted August 7, 2012 at 6:52 AM | Permalink

    “I’d apologize for linking to something with such a ridiculously out of touch notion in it, but there’s no way to mute only part of a video.”

    Actually … http://www.tubechop.com/watch/467119

  2. Sassy
    Posted August 7, 2012 at 9:47 AM | Permalink

    As a mother of two teen boys, and MMO player myself I read your post and links with great interest. While you’re points and those of the other women are valid, I think it’s fair to say that ill behavior in PVP based games is any more or less disgusting or frequent based on gender.

    Hostile games attract and breed hostile players. I didn’t read anything on FatUglySlutty that could not be matched my messages and chat I overhear when my sons are in LIVE matches.

    A troll, bully in PVP will exploit any knowledge they have about the victim of their attacks — regardless of gender.

    While I think a number MMOs and gaming attracts a number of sane, socially functional people I think all of these theories ignore the fact that a huge portion of people that get consumed by online gaming are not necessarily skilled at social interaction — otherwise they’d spend less time online and more time offline than they do.

    As a result, I avoid such games that foster this kind of environment and encourage my children to do so as well.

    If you want change in any industry, the best thing to do is turn to off. Don’t buy it. Don’t subscribe.

    At the risk of sounding trite, “If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The PVP environment is a competitive, trash talking, idiot attracting quagmire. If you want to play in that environment then put on your big girl panties and play the game for what it is, or find something that is more suited to your desire. Mounting a campaign to make PVP friendly for any gender is akin to saying, “I want to play football, but please don’t bruise me.”

    ~ Sassy

  3. Posted August 7, 2012 at 10:37 AM | Permalink

    Sassy I’m a little confused by parts of your comment, so just a few points:

    1. PVP is never going away. Ever. It started with Pong and people will always want to compete against each other. Paddles, tanks, swords, magic missles, guns, lollipops — it doesn’t matter. Hell, even two guys racing against each other in a car game is PVP. And competition is never and should never be removed from gaming. PVP games don’t inherently breed anything any more than any other RL sport. However, more idiots and asshats will be drawn to PVP, of course. It’s an outlet. I PVPed hardcore for years and I can count on one hand the number of times I had a problem with guys I gamed with. Granted, I have a high tolerance level (it’s pretty hard to offend me) but I also don’t allow my game goals to dictate my ethics. If someone was behaving in a way I didn’t want to tolerate either they stopped or I left. In nearly every situation the result was the other person being banned by the community and me being asked back. As I used to explain, if I don’t tolerate my own parents speaking to me that way, I’m certainly not going to accept it from some guy in a make-believe world just because he thinks he has power over me.

    2. PVE breeds a lot of bullies. A lot. Most of the big asshole examples of abusive people in gaming are raid leaders with god complexes. I gave up raiding for a long time because I couldn’t find a guild that wasn’t held hostage by a belligerent raid leader. If you think this issue is just a PVP problem, you’re mistaken.

    3. I don’t necessarily agree that time in game establishes a lack of skills at social interaction. Most of the quality people I’ve met in gaming have been gamers who spend a lot of time in the medium. We spend a lot of time with our hobbies. It is no more dysfunctional for a guy to spend hours gaming than it is for one to spend hours golfing or fishing or knitting. Most gamers spend more time being social with their hobby, not less, and as such, often develop healthy social skills.

    4. I agree that any girl going into a PVP environment should be prepared to put on her big girl panties. But that doesn’t mean accepting across-the-line behavior. It just means knowing how to judge when such behavior needs to be reined in or addressed and knowing how to handle it in a way that improves the situation.

    Thanks for your comment.

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