Facing Death Threats and Police Checks, Women and Nonbinary Gamers Are Left to Protect Themselves
Female gamers are often under-recognized and discredited within their male-driven industry, despite making up nearly 41 percent of all gamers in the United States. That’s why this month, we’re highlighting the women who are changing the gaming industry with The Game Plan. Here, we’re diving into the world of drag queen gamers, the surprising ways gaming can affect your mental health, and so much more. Play on.
Video gaming can be anyone’s sport. Despite popular messaging and ideas about what a “typical” gamer looks like (think: a white, cishet, teen boy), a 2020 study showed that women make up nearly half (41%) of all gamers, compared to 59% of men. The Nielsen 2020 Games 360 Survey also showed that 10% of gamers identify as trans or non-binary. The overall gender breakdown in gaming is rather similar to the population of the world around us. When looking at professional gaming as an industry, though, it’s far from an equal opportunity utopia.
Last year, CNN reported that over 100 gamers, mostly women, publicly alleged that they were sexually assaulted, harassed or discriminated against on the basis of their gender by fellow gamers—and those were just the people who chose to come forward. A 2019 study by the Anti-Defamation League found that 65% percent of online gamers in the U.S. have been severely harassed, which includes “physical threats, stalking and sustained harassment,” and 74% reported experiencing “some form of harassment” while playing.
These forms of harassment occur because some male gamers still believe women are invading a space that belongs to them. Negaoryx, a 28-year-old female gamer and voice actor, has seen this behavior play out firsthand. Though she had been gaming since childhood, she began streaming on Twitch in 2016—a popular live streaming platform for gamers—and made friends with a male gamer who helped show her the ropes. “We got along really well at first,” Negaoryx tells HelloGiggles. However, things changed once her view count on her Twitch platform started increasing. “As soon as I started surpassing him, I’ll never forget the first conversation we had after that,” she says.
He said, ‘Must be nice to just be a pretty girl and sit there and get viewers.’
Negaoryx, who currently has over 119,000 followers on Twitch, says this is a common attitude among men in gaming. “[It’s] like, if you’re doing worse than them, that’s fine,” she says. “As soon as you start doing better than them, they have to blame it on the fact that, ‘Well, of course people want to watch you, they’re just watching a pretty girl.'”
Whether women gamers are successful or not, though, it’s basically guaranteed that they’ll be subjected to online harassment. SheSnaps, a streamer with over 66,000 followers on Twitch, says she experienced this when playing live multiplayer video games online sometime around 2008. “If I spoke up on any voice chats, I’d immediately hear the dreaded ‘Was that a girl?‘ and brace myself for whatever was coming next,” she recalls to HelloGiggles. While sometimes the responses were “just light flirtations,” SheSnaps says, “other times, it was immediate [sexual] harassment or threats. And sometimes, the [men] playing the game would immediately drop off the team so they wouldn’t have to play with a girl.”
SheSnaps endured enough instances of “horrific harassment” as a gamer that it led her to stop speaking on voice chats altogether and avoid using a gamertag online that clued anyone in on her gender. She also says she tried to keep a “great deal” of her life private when she started streaming in 2015, because she worried that trolls would use things like her older sister’s death as a way to hurt or get a reaction out of her—”which has happened.”
With a professional background in branding, SheSnaps went into her streaming career with the goal of creating a personal brand that reflected her identity, and ultimately, chose a name with her gender in the title. (As someone who was a more “angry gamer” at the time and did more photography, the name “SheSnaps” felt right.) In 2016, SheSnaps also started opening up about her personal life more online, after leaving a controlling partner who was adamant about keeping that information private. She has since garnered a large following, who come to her for thoughtful and often personal chats about mental health and grief. However, that doesn’t mean the harassment has stopped—for herself or any other women gamers. SheSnaps just feels more empowered now to deal with it, through the support of her followers.
In 2014, a series of events now known as “Gamergate” shed light on this deeply seeded culture of sexism and rampant harassment in the gaming industry. Gamergate started after game developer Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend publicly alleged that she cheated on him with several men in the gaming industry—including a writer for the prominent gaming site Kotaku—to get ahead in her career. Even though Quinn and the writer both denied the claims, thousands of outraged gamers targeted Quinn online, sharing her personal information, like her address and nude photos, and sending her rape and death threats so bad that she fled her house and called the cops. Several other women also became victims of similar harassment campaigns after reporting or speaking out about Gamergate online.
Negaoryx tells HelloGiggles that she experienced a similar instance of harassment, in which a troll used sexual accusations to try to take down her platform, early on in her streaming career. While she says she assumed back then that trolling came along with having a large platform, one particular troll developed a “fixation” with her at a time when she only had around 400 followers. The obsession started after she deleted the person’s comment in the chat of one of her live streams, since it was a spoiler for a game she hadn’t yet played, and the user “absolutely lost it.”
“They freaked out. They started threatening me,” says Negaoryx. “They made accounts on every single platform—Twitch, Twitter, Instagram—not just harassing me, but making posts saying that I would take my clothes off on stream and delete the VOD [Video On Demand] after and that I was selling myself on my stream.”
But here’s the real kicker: After doing some digging online, Negaoryx says she found out that the person behind the troll account was just a young kid.
“The fact that a child’s first instinct when they were met with even the slightest amount of discipline online was to jump to thinking of ways to try to sexually degrade me as a woman was pretty horrific to me,” she says. She adds that the child also made an account that would automatically message everyone who commented on her posts, urging them to tell her to kill herself.
Negaoryx says the child continued to make these accounts for months, so she banned and reported each one until the new accounts eventually stopped coming. However, the child’s “original account still exists on Twitch,” she says, “so it looks like they never got their account fully banned or removed from the platform.”
While there is a limited amount of research on online trolling, a 2012 survey of 125 gamers found that the most frequent online trolls tended to be younger and male. A 2018 study on internet trolling also found that trolling behavior can be “contagious” and can look like herding behavior, which is easily sparked and influenced by the surrounding online environment.
In the gaming industry, like any other, the gravity of targeted harassment often increases with every add-on of a marginalized identity. After only a year of streaming, ZombaeKillz—a gamer and racial justice activist—has unfortunately experienced this repeatedly. “I get so much crap in this industry,” she tells HelloGiggles. “I get a lot of it for being a woman. I get even more of it for being Black. I get a lot of it for being queer. So it all kind of starts to blend together.”
Some of the specific harassment against ZombaeKillz has involved hateful YouTube videos calling her the N-word, some of which she’s had to explain to her nephew and daughter who have stumbled upon them online. It’s also included “people sending me photos of my face superimposed over hanging bodies and photos of orangutans, telling me that’s what my body looks like, or my face photoshopped over pornographic material,” she says. “It doesn’t end.”
While ZombaeKillz has garnered a significant platform, with over 13,000 followers, her short amount of time in the industry so far shows that it doesn’t take much to become the target of online harassment.
A lot of the online hate ZombaeKillz receives, she says, is a form of misogynoir—a type of misogyny specifically targeted at Black women. She identifies the hate as centered not only on her Blackness but also her womanness because she believes some of the same people who harass her “will never attack” Black men who are in the same spaces and addressing the same issues.
They do that because I’m a woman and they feel threatened by me and they think that they can scare me, she says.
These fear tactics can pose serious real-life threats. ZombaeKillz says that some gamers have even malevolently called “wellness checks”—a requested police visit—to her house. Sending the police or even SWAT teams to another gamer’s house has become somewhat of a trend in gaming, sometimes done in the guise of a prank, but these kinds of visits can be dangerous and have been known to have fatal consequences for Black women. (The ADL’s 2019 study also found that “29% percent of online gamers have been doxed in an online game, meaning that their personal or private information was publicly exposed against their wishes.”)
So, nearly seven years since Gamergate—which largely exposed the rampant culture of gendered discrimination and violence in the industry—why is this still happening? ZombaeKillz has a pretty good guess. “[The gaming industry has] a vested interest in uplifting and protecting harassers and abusers at this point because they make them money,” she says. When streamers become official partners on Twitch and similar platforms, they can put ads on their streams, which make both the platform and the individual revenue. Twitch Partners can also charge subscription fees and accept in-platform donations from viewers. While Twitch just recently announced new terms of service in January, stating that there will be serious consequences for harassment both on and off the platform, ZombaeKillz says the jury’s still out on whether or not the terms will actually be enforced.
“I’m still sitting actively at Twitch with people who are both [official Twitch Partners] and able to earn on their platform who have had very large and very public targeted harassment campaigns focused on me,” she says.
While it’s easy to assume that streamers can simply “log off” to take a break from the digital hate, it’s not that simple—especially when your financial livelihood is at stake. As ZombaeKillz explains, time off from streaming means that her engagement numbers will go down, which can directly impact her chance to secure other business opportunities. Even a week offline is a risk she “can’t afford to take,” she says.
With few examples of institutional protection against harassers, many women and marginalized gamers also don’t feel safe speaking out at all. While some of the platforms implicated in the allegations, including Twitch, Microsoft, and YouTube, are investigating last year’s claims of sexual harassment and misconduct, many of the women who spoke out have been even more severely harassed by other gamers as a result of their public claims.
They’ve been victim to doxxing, hacking, rape threats, death threats, and more.
Despite this, ZombaeKillz hasn’t shied away from using her platform to speak out about systemic injustices and create spaces where marginalized gamers are protected. In fact, she’s made it a point to center her Blackness, womanness, and queerness to create curated, safe communities on Twitch. “I try to make my work around my lived experience and help my community be able to have equity in the spaces that I occupy,” she says, referencing her activist work surrounding Black maternal health. “In games, I’ve kind of moved in that direction as well, helping Black gamers start to have real and tangible opportunities at the same rate as our peers, starting to make sure that we have the same access and visibility and celebration that’s consistent.”
One of the communities that ZombaeKillz created for the purpose of increasing access is called Radically Kind Gamers, a team on Twitch dedicated to bringing other streamers in and offering support for better content creation.
For MermaidRoyal, a non-binary gamer who uses she/they pronouns, Radically Kind Gamers—which works to provide mentorship and support to gamers while also raising funds for charity—is one of the few spaces where they feel safe on Twitch. “I think there is a sense of calm in knowing that those spaces are all about protecting and preserving the vibes of marginalized folks,” they say.
Like ZombaeKillz, MermaidRoyal (who goes by the name Jude offline) is committed to creating more inclusive spaces for gamers in the industry. They are a lead on inclusive Twitch teams, like Rainbow Arcade, a community of LGBTQIA2+ streamers, and Emporium, a community dedicated to celebrating a variety of content and its creators on the platform.
“Inclusive spaces online mean centering marginalized identities, upholding those identities, and protecting those identities,” they say. “For me, it’s being a space that is queer-positive, fat-positive, trauma-informed, and more.”
Additionally, these types of spaces increase the visibility for women, non-binary individuals, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color in the gaming industry, which is a necessary step in creating a more equitable playing field.
“I think the current barrier [to higher earnings] is visibility,” MermaidRoyal says. “And I think it will always come down to that—Twitch was created as a cishet white man’s game.” (According to Twitch’s own data from 2018, 81.5 percent of Twitch creators and viewers are white males.) “The fact that there are so many of us [marginalized gamers] who thrive on here, either way, is so, so incredible,” they add.
As ZombaeKillz’s following grows, she aims to be transparent about the steps to her success with others in the space, sharing info about things like how she pitches to brands for partnerships.
“[We] gotta be putting a ladder down behind us,” she says. “Nobody, especially marginalized groups, do not want to sit at the top with white men alone. We do not; it is a lonely and not fun place to be the only one in the room. So making sure that we share that space and we share it well and responsibly is important.”
While the responsibility, ultimately, is on the industry at large to provide more protection, opportunity, and compensation for marginalized gamers, ZombaeKillz says, “I feel really proud of the fact that I have been able to be someone who’s trailblazing things in this space for other people and that other people see that.”
Most of all, despite the barriers, harassment, and hate, she says, “I’m proud of the fact that I’m still here.”
Read more stories in The Game Plan here.