“Don’t feed the trolls” is a veritable internet mantra. Deny them outrage and anger and you deny them their “lulz” — if the unsettling depths of 4chan get a whiff of something, it’s usually best to leave them alone until their invasion of whatever they’ve latched onto blows over. But earlier this summer, the torrent of abuse launched against feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian catalyzed a closer examination of sexism present on the internet — more specifically, in the video game world.
In May, Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a project examining portrayals of women in video games. For some reason, this was offensive enough to send a horde of anonymous internet users after her spewing all kinds of vitriol, quickly escalating into rape and death threats. This particular incident got the most publicity, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket of unacceptable behaviour directed at women involved in video games. And rather than telling everyone to get over it or ignore the “few idiots” causing problems, it’s time to do something about it.
The “don’t feed the trolls” logic doesn’t apply here, because this isn’t an isolated incident, and ignoring the underlying issues at fault is no longer productive. Sites like “Fat, Ugly, or Slutty” catalogue gender-based abuse in online gaming arenas like Xbox Live, where women record their experiences with gamers sending them threatening messages or requesting sexy photos. And the problem emerges in more subtle ways than livid online bashing. Last month, in a much-publicized poor choice of words, lead designer for development company Gearbox referred to an easier setting of the game Borderlands 2 as “girlfriend mode,” thoughtlessly implying that the serious gaming audience must be male while their less-skilled and less-interested counterparts are their girlfriends. This doesn’t mean the entire gaming industry — or even Gearbox itself — supports institutionalized sexism in game development. However, it points to underlying assumptions about the nature of gaming that are incorrect, and yes, sexist, even if they don’t mean to be.
The argument can be made that the people behind the abuse of female gamers will harass anyone, regardless of sex — they’ll still berate and bash anyone they feel like targeting because they’re trolls. But the sexually-explicit, gendered vitriol that keeps popping up is more than idle trolling. It’s meant to reinforce gaming as an institution that excludes and alienates women, whether or not the majority of the gaming community wants it that way. The industry has changed dramatically since it began, and as it continues to change, new issues arise — while the way it’s been discovered is unsettling, it’s nice that this is finally being talked about, and solutions need to be found.
At the end of the day, incidents like this make everyone look bad. People who work in the gaming industry or include themselves in the gaming community at large aren’t all this terrible. But a pretty sizable group of people is making everyone else look awful. The more incidents like this emerge in the public sphere, the more gamers are painted with unfair, offensive stereotypes about being “losers” with “no life,” or being accused of being deadbeats obsessed with a useless and idle pastime that has no relevance to the “real world.”
If video games are meant to be recognized as the complex, interesting storytelling and entertainment vehicles they are, there’s no reason they need to be tainted with blatant disrespect for half their demographic. And for gamers to prove they’re not all just a bunch of overgrown 12-year-old boys with no lives or social skills, everyone needs to stand up against needless abuse.
The remnants of chivalry still linger today, especially in the dating world.