Harassment, silencing, and gaming communities

Sheelzebub has some information on how a tech blogger named Kathy Sierra is being stalked, harassed, and threatened. It reminds me of the time that I got a threatening letter sent to my house because I had banned someone from this blog. It frightened my dad (whose house my domain was registered to) enough that I thought he might make me stop blogging. Instead I ended up convincing Dreamhost to offer privacy protection services — apparently getting a threatening letter sent to my house was a good enough reason to overcome their reservations about the idea — and life continued on as normal.

Sheelzebub hits on another point that I have thought of before, especially when I used to get all those “you’re censoring my freedom of speech!” complaints [emphasis mine]:

This is silencing. For all of the whining about freedom! of! speech! what these morons in this case, what the sniveling twits over at AutoAdmit don’t get, is that harassing, stalking, and threatening someone silences them. When someone’s too afraid to speak at a conference thanks to some graphic and nasty threats she got, she’s been silenced. And for any jerkoff who wants to go on and on about how she’s “letting them win” (because I know the concern trolls out there folks) get it straight–you’re not the one dealing with this.

I also think that flaming someone silences them. Bringing it back to Kotaku for a second (and then I seriously don’t want to think about those wankers again for a long time) — you can add sites like Destructoid, though it’s not nearly as vicious in terms of editorial content as Kotaku is — these sites silence women.

I. Silencing through Content

All too often these sites begin the process of silencing with the content that they post. Kotaku is, of course, the worst; the editors not only constantly make sexist “jokes” that demean women, inappropriately comment on women’s appearance and make other sexual comments about women who appear in their posts, but they also have in the past and continue to target women with harassing posts, often with the result of flooding the target blog with trolls.

The harassment happened with Faith and it’s happening again with Guilded Lily, who has had her banner and site linked when they discussed The IRIS Network and that post was linked again, by a different editor, with the text “many of which hate our guts”. Guilded Lily, of course, is one of the few feminist gaming sites that did not offer any real comment on Kotaku’s posts on the “where are the women bloggers?” debacle.

The editorial content on these sites are “official” which, especially when we’re talking about sites with a certain amount of popularity, gives them more weight than a personal blog or a comment in the post. What this means that, when women read these sites — and if you’re a woman interested in gaming you will come across them, most likely long before you find any woman-positive sites — you are shown time and time again that your perspective and your opinions are not only lesser than that of men’s apparently pressing need to drool over boobies, but that if you speak out against it (and even if you don’t) you set yourself up to be an object of ridicule — and who is going to be taken more seriously, the bloggers at these popular sites (many of whom have some sort of journalistic training behind them) or you and your personal site?

II. Silencing through Community

In the above section, one of my complaints was that the editorial content of these sites often inappropriately comments on women’s appearances. The belief that it’s always appropriate to comment on women’s looks is such that many people who read that complaint probably dismissed it out of hand, especially because there wasn’t anything blatantly misogynist in the post, just the offhand comment that the model “looks more like an alien now and more like a regular person before”, which people might argue is pretty tame compared to what many female celebrities get.

But consider the doors that comments like that, heck, posts like that (because it’s a post devoted entirely to this woman’s looks) open. A scant two comments down, we have the first commenter fetishizing Asians and basing his entire comment about what kind of woman he’s attracted to. The comments on her looks continue (some nicer than others).

Other kinds of comments that we see appearing on the thread are borderline sexual threats (“I’d hit her/that” is objectifying, but the “anal probe” comment pushes it into sexual violence territory, at least for me), blatant sexual threats, and if all that wasn’t bad enough… well, let me just quote the relevant bit: “I bet she cries when you bang her too. I love that!”. And in all this, those who spoke up were very, very few and completely ignored by Brian Ashcroft (the post author) and any other editor at Kotaku. And, just in case you were thinking that maybe this was an old post and that Kotaku might have gotten better, well, the article is from March 16 of this year.

And, of course, it’s the women (excuse me “girls”) who get blamed for being “attention whores”. Take this article by Florian Eckhardt, Why Do Gaming Guys Hate Gaming Girls? in which he linked a piece about misogyny in gaming communities. The article itself, while short, isn’t bad, though it didn’t generate much commentary. But, even then we have variations of the “women are attention whores” theme cropping up.

A scant four comments down, we get this:

I think its the smugness that girl gamers pulls out of their hat. Those girl gamer sites are annoying really. Hard to find someone who is attractive, who can play a good game and is at least humble about it.

In a similar vein, we have complaints about women “who feel the need to remind us that they are girls” and another commenter turns the issue into some kind of hilarious social experiment.

Kotaku isn’t the only mainstream site which has users that talk in sexual threats and otherwise degrade and threaten women. Take this post by Faith on Destructoid, Tetris is keeping women in the kitchen (update). Since Destructoid doesn’t allow for links to specific comments, I will excerpt some here.

Husky Hog apparently thinks that the supposed opinion of one feminist is responsible for the continued oppression of women when he says, “Fucking way to go women… way to keep yourselves down”. And then we have Doro minimizing all women with his “LOL. Chicks.” comment — as if the post in question is problematic not because of the analysis but because of the gender of the poster in question. And to top off the not-so-bad comments, we have Pangloss and his hilariously funny “joke”:

This article was interesting, until I realized that it was written by a woman. She could have easily spent the time it took to write that making me a sammich.

Not to be outdone by Kotaku commenters, though, we have nerpin offer up the usual sexual threat when a woman offers an opinion that doesn’t please misogynist men: “That girl could use a hot dicking.” On the only slightly less creepy side, we have puppetpallmich who says, “fuck women” and then behive01 following it up with, “Literally.”

This is, of course, on top of various insults to Mighty Ponygirl’s personal site, her name, and various iterations of calling her crazy (“crazy bitch” makes an appearance, as does “dingbat broad” and “Silly broads.”).

With comments like that, not many women are going to feel safe in posting their opinions. They may be “just words”, but the words used and the frequency with which they show up gives them power, and one of those powers is in discouraging women from posting their comments. This, of course, leads to fairly one-sided discussions where it’s only the males’ point of view, with some token women who generally agree with the majority opinion (lest they lose their “honorary guy” status), being presented in the comments. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where women are silenced by the misogynist atmosphere, which allows the men to say increasingly sexist things without anyone calling them on it, which normalizes sexism and makes it look “okay”, which just serves to further silence women and drive them away from the site.

III. Silencing Through Trolling

Another powerful tool that mainstream sites, if not employ then at the very least are party to, is having their members troll sites that are negatively highlighted. I first encountered this with the website Something Awful, which would have the Awful Link of the Day. At first I thought it was funny, until I noticed that highlighted sites would be bombarded with e-mails and other hateful comments. The line was finally crossed for me when one woman shut down her website because of the harassment she received due to the SA goons’ trolling. Her only crime? Being highlighted as an ALOTD because she was transsexual.

But I’ve seen that pattern over and over again elsewhere. The only time I ever got it here, that I am aware of, was when I said something nasty about Vox Day because of a post he made about rape. And with my discussion policy that I have now, if something like that happened again, it wouldn’t affect my readers. But that’s not the case for many sites who don’t have moderation, and even for those who do, I know from personal experience that getting hateful comments calling you names and saying you’re worthless does take an emotional toll.

So, whether they mean to employ them or not, trolls are a very powerful tool for silencing those who hold differing opinions to the ones employed on mainstream sites. Going back to the post on Tetris that Faith made on Destructoid, not only were comments made on the original post but Feminist Gamers got trolled as well. Even though she specifically asks her readers not to do that, Faith is aware that her post encourages harassing comments (“…please don’t post an nasty messages on her blog. You can post them here for us to read instead.”) and therefore it is quite unsurprising that those comments did, indeed, spill over to the original thread.

As the above case shows, the site in question rarely has to sic their readers on other blogs, but rather the method of criticism that’s employed in the originating post encourages harassing comments, which (especially on large, unmoderated sites) inevitably will spill over into trolling other sites. What put Guilded Lily, who I mentioned in section one as being harassed, on Kotaku’s radar was her post about Gender Politics in Tamriel. In this case, it wasn’t a direct attack but rather that the subject matter was already being treated as ridiculous, and in an effort to bring a better understanding one commenter linked her post. It was that attempt at creating an honest and respectful debate which lead to the trolls discovering her site.

Most of us will just adopt some sort of discussion policy and start moderating comments. Sometimes we do what Guilded Lily did, and use the trolling to foster debate and discussion on the issue. But there are times in which women get discouraged and stop speaking up. The Kotaku trolling problem was actually one of the driving factors in the loss of a wonderful feminist blog called The Geeky Feminist. The loss of her voice was felt by the feminist gaming community, and because of the rampant trolling (which were the same kinds of comments that I highlighted in my previous section) encouraged by a post that mocked and misrepresented an issue raised by several people in the gaming blogsphere, Kotaku bears some responsibility for chasing away one of the unique voices in the gaming community. Exactly the kind of voice that Brian Crecente claimed he was having trouble finding.

IV. Conclusion

There are people who could read all this, and still offer up to the solution that the women experiencing harassment should “grow a thicker skin” or “just ignore it”. And there are women who do just that; any of us who have even a modicum of popularity need a pretty thick skin to continue posting, and there are also people like Faith — a vocal “just ignore it” advocate — who has to put her theory into practice practically every time she blogs. But, consider this: there are farther reaching consequences to the rampant online harassment than just the question of hurt feelings, and more reasons than not wanting to face a torrent of harassment that might give a woman pause before speaking out online.

One of them, as the personal anecdote I shared in the beginning of the article illustrates, is personal safety. For the most part, what happens online stays online, but someone could always look you up and start sending you threatening letters or otherwise begin stalking you. Especially if you’re blogging by your real name.

Another thing that might happen is that a woman who gets harassed by a popular site will have as one of the top hits for her name the post where the harassment originated. As Jessica Valenti describes in her article, this could have possible consequences on finding or maintaining a job:

And for young women applying for jobs, the reality is terrifying. Imagine a potential employer searching for information and coming across a thread about what a “whore” you are.

This is on top of all of the potential implications for the men and women who absorb and regurgitate the misogyny and other bigotry that is found on these sites. Yes, there is a certain degree of hiding behind the anonymity of being a commenter on the internet that allows some of this harassment and bigotry to flourish, but it isn’t confined just to the internet; it’s in popular culture and is beginning to creep into the way that we talk to each other and treat each other in real life.

There may not be much difference between talking about giving women “hot dickings” online to saying it to your buddies in real life, even in front of other women. But, if that line can be so easily crossed then I’m not so sure that I can confidently say that the line between saying and doing is one that won’t ever be crossed.

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29 thoughts on “Harassment, silencing, and gaming communities

  1. Good points. I usually just point out, though, that the freedom of speech isn’t as literal as it sounds — and things like obscenity, libel (possibly including defamation, I can’t remember at the moment), and “fighting words” are definitely not protected. Most of those comments very likely fall in one or all three of those categories, ergo, no complaining about freedom of speech.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I am so fucking sick of the rampant and violent misogyny on the web, particularly in tech communities, and of the catch-22 that Karen mentions in her post: that responding to that misogyny often seems to create even more appalling backlash. You’ve done a marvelous job of addressing the issue in no uncertain terms. Were this post required reading for everyone who posted material on the internet, it would be a much, much better place.

  3. What cracked me up the most about my trolling was that I was being trolled for an April Fool’s prank. It was so obviously not a real post, and yet the dipshits at DToid were so afraid of feminism — even blatantly tongue-in-cheek feminism — that they came after me like I was the biggest threat to their manhood since Queer Eye gave them naughty thoughts about two dudes doin’ it.

    It really does speak to just how fragile the egos of these online trolls are — that even the suggestion that a woman stands up and speaks her mind against patriarchy has them clutching their balls and launching all-out assault.

  4. Thanks so much Tekanji for addressing this larger issue, and for clearing up the Kotaku generated confusion that has been associated with my blog of late. What bothered me most about the recent issue there was that their agenda of putting my blog in a bad light was taking away from the real information, The IRIS Network launch and the Girl Gamer Awards, and was purposefully creating confusion that detracted from the work others are doing to put forward women gamers. I do think about what I am going to post about in terms of what kind of harassment it will invite, and so I know firsthand what kind of censoring goes on in the background. Sometimes I am just too tired to put myself out there. It took me a while after the Kotaku inspired Trolling following the Oblivion post to get up to speed again, and I was very sorry about the loss of The Geeky Feminist blog in the wake of that mess. I do feel that there is much more support now for women writing about these issues, and I hope that things will continue to improve. Thanks for doing your part!

  5. Pingback: Guilded Lilies
  6. Faith: Yeah, your other post was completely lost to the wiles of the intarweb; I didn’t even get mailed it, so it must either have gotten erroneously put into the spam catcher or just not posted at all.

    Destructoid is definitely better than Kotaku, which is why it had a lot less examples, but it still has a long way to go in a lot of areas. I would highly recommend you reading through this post on the TIN forums if you haven’t yet, because people are sharing their views on how gaming communities can become more inclusive and less hostile to non-privileged groups like women. If Destructoid is really serious about catering to all gamers, then I think it would be a good idea to think about what was said here and what is being said over there, and honestly consider incorporating these ideas and themes into Destructoid’s community.

    He didn’t even talk to me once while I worked for him, except to tell me that he wouldn’t remove a dirty picture of me which they had to right to post without my permission.

    Um, how did he get said permission, since it obviously wasn’t from you? (And why do I get the feeling that I won’t like the answer… fucking A, Crecente is classically trained, he should know better than all the shit that he pulls. And even if he was in his legal rights, which I seriously doubt, then it’s still in seriously poor taste to not only post a dirty picture of a woman but to not remove it when she requests that you do so… and the editors over there had the nerve to throw a fit when GL called their material misogynist. Jeez.)

  7. I only read this because of the link from Guilded Lilies; for which I only added the RSS feed because of the Kotaku link; so, indirectly, some good came from the Kotaku mention. It’s easy as a male to miss or blow off some of the sexism (and I usually don’t even read the comments on the more tasteless posts)… I’m glad to be reminded that I shouldn’t tolerate it. Thanks for writing this.

  8. Actually the last post didn’t even post – crud.

    I agree that Kotaku is mean towards women. They never seem to post anything with a few cheap shots at someone’s expense.

    Destructoid may have a few idiots readers, but all and all the staff at our site tried to cater to all gamers. We now have 4 female writers on board and our boss, Neiro is the nicest guy to work for, unlike Crescente who was a pain to work under. He didn’t even talk to me once while I worked for him, except to tell me that he wouldn’t remove a dirty picture of me which they had to right to post without my permission.

  9. A very interesting post. It helps me express my impression of many rpg discussion forums, such as rpg.net, therpgsite, and so on. “This site is for the thick-skinned only, it’s not anti-women! It’s just anti-pussies!” Yeah, okay…

    Unfortunately, expressing it as clearly as you do won’t help me improve the cocksmocks out there, but at least it keeps things clear in my mind. Thanks!

  10. I don’t really know about all this. Don’t get me wrong, I consider the people that objectify women on the internet uncultured boobs. However, criticism of internet culture won’t get any change accomplished.

    Really, the only way for that to happen is for more women to get involved in internet communities and to make their presence obvious. This might prompt some male members of these communities into holding their tongues. As I see it, the problem is rooted in the fact that the internet is a predominantly male “culture.” Often the issue is that males are the vast majority of members in a community, and it just opens the door for testosterone-induced stupidity. I really do hope this happens, because it’s apparent that most internet communities are very male-heavy.

    On another note, I don’t think “flaming” someone in online posts can really fall under defamation of character. That’s just ridiculous.

    Steve P

  11. Hi Tekanji. I like what you write, alot, along with http://rachel-edidin.livejournal.com/71433.html
    The last months has it been many small and big incidents on a gaming forum and it has been many arguments like those Rachel-Edidin points out with lots of irony. The same with the things you mention in this thread and other threads.

    I am rather sturdy in this topic, but I must say that it does get to me, very hard, when I notice how friends ends up feeling after some of guys are through with them on the forums. At that point do I get angry, but at the same time do I notice that it IS tempting to just be quiet to avoid what is now a real and intimate feeling of loathing. Much of the loathing is from frustration, I understand that, but much of it also seems to come from a deep distrust in all things feminine/female/feministic and the thought that women should also feel the need to equally promote thoughts, sites and ideas as an alternative to the mainstream (read: male) masculine thoughts, sites and ideas.

    You mentioned http://blog.shrub.com/archives/tekanji/2008-02-06_693 and Kotaku, but honestly, after reading much of that, do I wonder if it isn’t rather common all over.

    Fortunately is the moderators on forums.ageofconan.com trying hard to do good and help promoting everyone’s good ideas. I imagine that they also can feel somewhat unprepared (without me actually being told that) on some hostility and use of techniques that you mention in this blog.

    I don’t think all the “hostiles!” are even aware of how it intimidates, hurts, corners, or angers, when you and/or friends get those things used against us. I really doubt they even know the emotional and conflicting intellectual source of their ways when they act like that.

    Shrub and other sites like this has helped alot on my own motivation, just as it has made me understand that this isn’t such a rare problem. That it isn’t rare doesn’t really make it better, but more intimidating and hostile. Well, thanks 🙂

    -V for Vilje the Vile

  12. While what IMReader above me writes probably is true, that you can’t use forum “fights” under defamation of characer, has that as technique been used quite often. This isn’t not just a female problem of course, but one can’t completely ignore the attitude (as described in this blog and this thread) against women making it easier to try such techniques and creating a rather impossible sitation for solving situations together (together as men AND women).

    -V for Vilje the Vile

  13. First off let me say that as a guy I feel slightly like I’m walking into the lions den here. I also feel slightly blind sided because I’ve never even thought of the possibility of sites like Kotaku or Destructoid as being sexist. I guess it comes with the territory since I read Kotaku for the reviews and I just don’t general care about that sort of thing. As a person, sexism just generally doesn’t effect me. It’s easy to accept that I’m blind to that sort of thing mentally, it’s a whole new beast to get that emotionally.

    having stated all that I feel to the need to explain the normal male mind set when it comes to attacks on people over the internet(or at least my personal experience). Most young men (including myself way back when) do not see personal attacks, such as trolling, flaming, sexual threats, or other such one time(or a small number of) comments as attacking a person. I’ve always tried to keep my mouth shut on the internet (mostly because I used to spell door as doar), but it’s taken me a long time to emotionally accept that there’s a face on the other side of this monitor. More importantly, there are many faces.

    There’s also an element of shop talk to all of this. To put it simply, young men tend to be mean. I’m not saying we’re right, I’m saying we’re stupid. My best friend told me to my face today that I can’t dance because “you’re clumsy and lack dexterity.” that’s not insulting to me. I’m not trying to make a statement saying you need to thicken your skin or something like that, when most young guys find things insulting it’s offensive and they hate it just as much as the next person. I don’t really know how to articulate this point, the best thing I can come up with is that it’s similar to taste. Everyone has something they enjoy and dislike, and a lot of those reactions are cultural. When you taste something you don’t like you know it right then and there, but when someone says they don’t enjoy a taste you find delicious it’s hard to understand why they feel that way. that’s a real shitty metaphor because flaming is nasty and attacks someone personally, but I hope you get what I’m attempting to say.

    Stalkers, really anyone that takes the time to look up your IP, is a different issue though. These are people who have taken more then 5 minutes out of the hour to track you down. that’s really the crux of it by the way, most comments or flames take no time and there’s no one to make you feel guilty. Sending a letter to someone or finding out where they live takes serious effort.

  14. Alex said:

    First off let me say that as a guy I feel slightly like I’m walking into the lions den here.

    In a way, you are.

    For the most part this blog is for anti-oppression activists and our allies and I don’t do a lot of 101 stuff. If you haven’t already, though, I would highly suggest reading up on the various 101 links I have on my sidebar (feminism, race relations, privilege, etc). Having a solid base of understanding about these issues helps a lot with the feeling of being out of place commenting on a blog like this.

    As a person, sexism just generally doesn’t effect me.

    I think it’s more fair to say that, as a man, sexism doesn’t affect you. (Not criticizing your word choice, by the way; I realize you were saying that it doesn’t personally affect you, but I’m rather trying to communicate that it’s important to make the distinction that it is because you are a male person that sexism doesn’t personally affect you.)

    As for the explanations you offer, I have heard them before 😛 I don’t have the time to get into that part of your argument, but I would recommend looking up some feminist critiques of male stereotypes. I think that Feminist Allies in particular would probably be a pretty good read for you.

  15. wait wait wait, hold the phone.

    “I think it’s more fair to say that, as a man, sexism doesn’t affect you.” Takanji

    If you’re talking about only me you’re mostly right. I’ve never had a major discrimination made against me that I can remember. If you’re talking about my father though you’d be dead wrong. I live in Washington state, where woman are awarded child custody almost 90% of the time – a statistic which isn’t far off from the national average (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/parenting/2008/10/child_support.html or 81%). It was legally possible up until a year ago for a woman to file a sexual harassment charge during a custody case and have that submitted as evidence during the custody case. Washington state has a no amendments policy even if evidence used during the case is found to be under contempt (the concept is to keep parents from bouncing a kid like a ping-pong ball). You can only change custody if you bring up a new case that first has to prove there has been a major change from the original case.

    Which is exactly what happened to my father, he didn’t even know he had a daughter until she was five years old and her mother dropped her off at my mom and dads house. In Washington State, if they are not married woman do not have to report who the father is. Now it’s here I have to tell you that my sisters mother is criminally insane. I don’t me she’s [I] insane [/I], I mean we the judge and the jury find the defendant. in Washington state the primary means of determining custody is stated as, “The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent, including whether a parent has taken greater responsibility for performing parenting functions relating to the daily needs of the child (this factor shall be given the most weight).” (http://divorcesupport.about.com/od/childcustodylaw1/qt/WashCusSup.htm). Basically the stay at home parent, the problem with this is that I personally know two stay at home dads who lost their children.

    if you want to look up the court case it’s filed under Paul Lord and Joanne Lord, should be easy to find since there’s nothing else there in the public Washington criminal records.

    As to my explanation I wouldn’t mind hearing you’re personal opinion on where I strayed rather then brushing it off.

    P.S: this made headlines a couple years ago http://www.aph.gov.au/HOUSE/committee/fca/childcustody/subs/sub1675.pdf

  16. Alex: I’m sorry about what happened to your father. It’s wrong and it’s certainly unfair, but it doesn’t make him a victim of sexism. A victim of a patriarchal system that can harm its privileged class when it tries to step outside the prescribed boundaries for masculinity, sure, but sexism is more than just being a victim of a system that reinforces sex-based stereotypes.

    I really don’t have the time to get into this subject, but I would recommend reading up on the following links:
    FAQ: What is sexism?
    FAQ: What is male privilege?
    Post on child custody and sexism
    Comment thread regarding child custody laws in the US

    Also, in regards to your use of “insane”, I would like to remind you that this is an anti-oppression blog and that includes anti-(dis)abilism. I’m not sure if your sister’s mother is mentally ill or not, but either way it’s inappropriate to refer to her as “insane”, which is a highly hurtful and stigmatizing word for those who have mental illnesses. I suggest that you read up on some of my Ableism 101 FAQs (found on the sidebar). Thanks.

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