Fanboys Will Be Sexist Pigs: The Free-Fire Verbal Abuse of Online Gamers

No one signs up for World of Warcraft looking for the war-on-women version.
Numbers for female gamers are on the rise, although many still use male avatars online to avoid sexual harassment. (Photo: Getty Images)
Aug 10, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Last week’s New York Times story on the sexual harassment of female gamers in the online fighting gamer community has sparked a real world debate not only on how female players should be treated, but on the regulation of online abuse in general.

Here are some facts. Back in February, 25-year-old gamer Miranda Pakozdi entered the Cross Assault video game tournament. During play, she was repeatedly harassed by her own team coach, Aris Bakhtanians. Over the six-day tournament, Pakozdi was repeatedly asked by Bakhtanians for her bra size and told to “take off your shirt” while he aimed the team’s webcam on her chest, feet and legs.

Watching the video clips of the harassment (embedded in the Times story), it’s clear that Pakozdi isn’t welcoming the abuse. Bakhatanians tells her he’s going “smell her” and that he’s going to “do it for her boyfriend.” Ahe repeatedly says “don’t say that, don’t say that.”

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The response has been polarized. Many gamers have come to the defense of the community, calling the hazing part of its culture and citing free speech while noting that some women gamers are just as proficient at spouting vitriol as are the males.

On NPR’s comments page, female gamer “K. Becker” said: “Online gaming is ANONYMOUS. That’s also the beauty of it. I get to be someone else, and maybe say some outrageous things that I could NEVER say in public. Don’t take everything so personally, because it’s NOT about you. Again, just mute them, put them on the ignore list, whatever. Too much sensitivity going on these days.”

The targets aren’t just women; the barbs are just as often homophobic, racist, and ageist—anything that might elicit a pained or angered response.

Other NPR commenters, like “Tim Myers,” argues that crass, sexist, hostile behavior creates an inhospitable environment for female gamers and that verbal abuse is not a First Amendment-protected right.

“Tell you what, guys. I’ll come to your house and play misogynistic music outside at an ungodly volume, yell sexual comments at your wives and daughters, and leave racy photos all over your property. I mean, if you don’t like it, you can always move. Right?”

It appears that online gaming of any kind will always result in sore losers throwing verbal sticks and stones. The targets aren’t just women; as a number of commenters have noted, the barbs are just as often homophobic, racist, and ageist—anything that might elicit a pained or angered response. The abuse has become pervasive enough to spark sites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, which offer girl gamers a way to vent their frustrations by posting screenshots of abuse they’ve received.

But as the numbers of female gamers rise—according to the estimate cited in the Times, the proportion could be as high as 47 percent—gaming companies are increasingly conscious that their image is increasingly under scrutiny by a public that has an already-dubious perception of violent video games.

The traditional strategy for curbing unsavory online gamer behavior has been punitive—abusive players can have their voice chats muted and can be temporarily barred from playing. But with millions of users, there will always be some who slip through the safeguards, and community policing on the web falls short of stemming the tide.

One suggested strategy for enforcing civility is to hold people accountable by tying their words to their real-life reputations. Flaming on anonymous boards is generally presumed to be more prevalent and harsher than on sites where a Facebook login (and photo) is required. While trolls have so far survived and thrived on most Internet platforms, adding some transparency to a shadowy world where people can fling insults from the safety of online personae and avatars could be a step toward making the culture more hospitable for everyone.

Case in point: Shortly after the controversy, Bakhtanians issued an apology, saying “my statements don’t actually communicate how I feel” and calling the incident “similar to what people say when they get into an argument with their girlfriend.” It was a stunningly quick turnaround, especially for someone who had just days earlier gone on the record calling any attempt to rid the community’s undercurrent of abuse “ethically wrong.”

Of course, whether or not Bakhtanians says the same thing behind closed doors is a matter of speculation. Hopefully the incident, and its backlash, will give him and the entire community pause. Or at the very least, keep them permanently on mute.

Should verbal abuse be part of online gaming culture? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

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Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung