For about 2 months now, the gaming industry has been up in arms over a female game developer who has received some horrific threats to the point that she felt she needed to leave her home. Another women in the industry felt the need to leave her home this past weekend after she, too, received threats.
I’ve seen this kind of stuff happen for years, both in gaming-related circles, and on the Internet in general. I have been extremely lucky that I have not received anything close to what one might call harassment. People disagree with me, sure, but I’ve never received an email or comment that I considered problematic, and I’ve been blogging for ten years. But I’ve had friends who have, and I’ve seen other, more prominent women bloggers shut down their comments or switch to heavy moderation because they receive terrible comments.
I don’t think most men realize the difference between the kind of comments women get online vs. the kind of comments men get. Mr. Geeky once had an article that made it to SlashDot. The most threatening comments he got suggested that he be fired (for trying to make CS more appealing to women). Contrast that to what many women get when someone disagrees with them. Commenters often suggest that women with whom they disagree should be raped or killed (often both). Descriptions of exactly how that should happen are common. When Kathy Sierra was targeted back in 2006, people photoshopped pictures of her to show what they were going to do to her. She shut down her blog and left the speaking circuit for a few years because she no longer felt safe. And she just wrote about web design, not about women’s issues. Ditto for the two women involved in this latest gaming controversy.
Some people are talking about why this happens and what’s to be done. Many say that anonymity is part of the problem, that people feel free to say what they might really be thinking when they know they can’t be found out. In the gaming industry, there’s certainly a locker room culture that includes putting down women, sometimes to the point of harassment and physical threats. That culture is not just inherent in online games but carries over to blogs, online journals, YouTube, etc. Despite more women being involved in games, both as players and developers, the industry still caters to 15 year old boys (either in real or emotional age), making it a petri dish for the kind of disgusting behavior one sees in this particular situation and elsewhere.
But not all of the blame can be place on the industry itself. They’re working on making it better . . . slowly. It’s also up to us, to not ignore the offhand sexist comment that maybe hasn’t crossed the line yet, but could. If you’re in a comment thread where the conversation is about harming women, you have an obligation to step in and/or report it. We create the community online, and if we allow the crazies to take it over, then it becomes a crazy, unsafe community. Ideally, laws would be strengthened, so that the veil of anonymity cannot be a protection from hateful conduct. The Internet is still (more than 20 years in) a bit like the Wild West still, and I think it can be tamed without it losing its spirit. But that’s in part up to us.