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Online Harassment Gets Real For Female Gamers

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 47 percent of gamers are women. Women over 18 are considered one of the industry's fastest growing demographics.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 47 percent of gamers are women. Women over 18 are considered one of the industry's fastest growing demographics.

Taunting and trash-talking are a regular part of the culture for online video gamers. Opponents tease and threaten each other to complement the violent clashes between the game avatars.

In a piece for The New York Times, reporter Amy O'Leary describes a series of incidents with female gamers over the past six months that have sparked a debate about sexual harassment in the online gaming community.

"You're starting to see the first kind of glimmers of call for change from gamers, some movement from some game manufacturers and certainly an increasing awareness among gamers themselves that this is a problem that needs to come out from the dark of anonymous play," O'Leary tells NPR's Tom Gjelten.

One particularly disturbing incident happened earlier this year when Miranda Pakozdi, a regular competitive gamer, entered the Cross Assault video game tournament. During the six-day fighting competition, her team's coach badgered her with questions about her boyfriend and her bra size, and trained the tournament's Web camera on parts of her body.

"Eventually," says O'Leary, "she found this so difficult to deal with that she committed kind of virtual suicide and forfeited the tournament by walking straight into a competing player so she'd be killed off."

Far more of these incidents happen with texting or voice chat, with players who aren't in the room. Players can use microphone headsets to communicate with anyone else who may be playing.

O'Leary explains that before the introduction of voice chat into online gaming systems, many women would use avatars or screen names that wouldn't give away their gender. Voice chat, which can make gaming more fun and interactive, takes away that opportunity for disguise and can make women targets for harassment right away.

"So, some women either don't use voice chat altogether and miss out on those features of gaming, or they find that these communities can be too hostile for them, and they stop playing in those communities altogether."

Some gaming systems in the $25-billion-a-year industry now incorporate reporting tools so that players can report abuse. "Many gamers say that they feel like it's kind of like that crosswalk button," says O'Leary. "You hit it when you're trying to cross the street. They feel like they hit this report button, and it's just there to make them feel better and not really to do anything."

Some in the industry are calling for the development of automatic muting systems, where gamers who are muted by other players at frequent rates would no longer be able to voice chat.

While awareness about harassment is growing, there are some female players who are unfazed. "There are many women who've been gaming for a long time who just kind of let all this roll off their back," says O'Leary.

"One of the things that is left out of that conversation is that there are women who really are truly uncomfortable with this. And if they're new to gaming, they may not know how to find communities or the kinds of games that are a little bit friendlier. And they may find themselves turned off from gaming altogether."

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