Is Toxicity In Gaming Culture A Gender Issue?

Is toxicity in gaming culture a gender issue? Photo of male and female gamers by Alena Darmel on Pexels.com
Photo by Alena Darmel on Pexels.com

Toxicity in gaming culture is a much more complex problem than I think is being currently considered. Studies and public conversations have remained fixated on toxicity experienced specifically by female gamers.

This has led gaming culture to be completely misunderstood. Issues surrounding negative social interactions have caused serious harm to the culture. It’s created a false and negative public image and opinion of gamers and the culture overall.

A wide range of factors that lead to research findings and public conservation is left completely undiscussed. This prompts those who are researching these unique social environments to misinterpret data and gaming experiences. I would say this is because they have an inadequate understanding of what exactly they are investigating.

I am not implying sexism and discrimination don’t exist at all in gamer culture.

It most certainly exists throughout the gaming industry, on all levels, among workers. Instances of sexism and discrimination exist for female/gamer girl streamers, who are subject to anyone on the internet (not just gamers).

BUT, looking only at gamers while playing online games, taking part in the culture, I’d say it’s not as big of an issue as it is made out to be. I also think it should be understood which environments, games, and communities toxicity is shown to exist in.

What Games Have Higher Levels of Toxicity?

It’s pretty well understood among gamers that toxicity is a norm in specific types of video games and their communities.

MMOs (massively multiplayer online games)
MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games)
MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas)

A report from a 2020 survey of American gamers, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, showed that:

  • 95% of the adult participants (aged 18-45) who played online multiplayer games had positive social experiences.
  • 81% of adults (also aged 18-45) who played online multiplayer games experienced ‘disruptive behavior.’
  • 41% of female online multiplayer gamers reported being targeted due to their gender.

And here is data to help visually breakdown each game from the 2021 survey in which players reported experiencing negative social experiences:

Is toxicity in gaming culture a gender issue? Data image of harassment by game by ADL.

Just like in any other part of society, social members understand the written and unwritten rules. People who are unaware can get blindsided by certain social experiences. Even in cases where interactions may not necessarily be malicious. Many also tend to perceive, feel, and internalize experiences differently than others.

Do people care about gender identity in gaming culture?

I hope you enjoyed the beautiful screenshots my husband took while playing FFXIV.

For quite some time now, I have been watching my husband play FFXIV. More than anything I have loved learning about all of the social dynamics of the game. It drastically shows in this MMORPG that no one truly cares about your gender.

Watching as he goes through social areas, it’s entertaining to just check out everyone’s ‘glamour’ and ‘cosmetic’ choices. It really is mainly about how well your “dolly” is dressed up. I’ve seen/read more discrimination against Lalafell’s (gnome-like characters) than anything else.

Feminist Critics Are Prone To Pushing False Narratives

“A male player who is more comfortable with experiences that center men can and will simply play as men in games that offer him the choice.”

Carolyn Petit & Anita Sarkeesian, Gender Breakdown of Games Featured at E3 2019

Sites like Feminist Frequency could share data that shows 1 in 3 male gamers prefer playing as a female character/avatar. But that doesn’t really help to further this view that gaming culture is inherently sexist and hates women.

Male players are also choosing to play as female characters for a wide variety of reasons. Not simply because they are viewing it as a sexual object to stare at.

Is toxicity in gaming culture a gender issue? "You play female characters because of ass. I play female characters because I'm questioning gender identities. We are not the same." Meme by r/Gamingcirclejerk on Reddit
Meme by r/Gamingcirclejerk on Reddit

There are feminists and outsiders to the culture who have been fixated on gaming media/representation. They attack a culture they are not taking part in and frame it incorrectly for the public. Then make it seem as if they are being victimized when the culture and its social members respond (#Gamergate).

Or they cause gamers to not take anything they say seriously. Instead, gamers turn it into memes because what is being said is not based on reality:

Is toxicity in gaming culture a gender issue? "This is why I hate video games. It appeals to the male fantasy." Meme/gif of Medic Wave Fantasy on Know Your Meme.
Medic Wave Fantasy on Know Your Meme

Gamers mock feminists and media critics who try to say only female characters are hyper-sexualized. I disagree with the aggressive approach many take in confronting misconceptions like this. On the other hand, I get why it’s scoffed at.

Now if I’m going to sit down and play a fighting game (e.g., Mortal Kombat) I’m stuck with male characters. This is because female characters have been made to look ugly, uninteresting, and basic. Yet, ironically male characters are still made to be basically naked. Make it make sense, please.

I also wish the new-age feminist movement would realize how its impact is negatively affecting female representation in video games. Or rather, how a male-dominated work industry is just simply erasing us altogether…

Game Choices differ between Male and Female Gamers

While female gamers, social activists, journalists, etc. say the industry is male-dominated but point out women make up about 50% of gamers, it’s obviously a bad look. It’s crucial that we also note what games and platforms women are choosing to play on compared to men.

“As female gaming audiences tend to enjoy casual games, and like to pass time playing games, it’s no surprise that the number of female mobile gamers has grown every year since 2016. In 2016 53% of women globally played mobile games, which increased to 61% in 2020.”

Sandhya Devanathan, Connecting the dots: The data behind women in gaming

I’m not saying mobile gamers aren’t gamers, my concept of ‘what a gamer is’ is much more relaxed than most. Female gamers also aren’t some rare unicorn among hardcore gamers. What I am saying is that it is a fact that certain genres and communities have more men in them. BUT, that is largely based on what gamers enjoy or are choosing to play.

Causes of Toxicity in Gaming Culture

Competitive Nature of Games

MMO and MOBA games are competitive in nature. However, gamers recognize the relationship between the industry and toxic behaviors within games and their communities. I would argue that toxicity within gamer communities is created and perpetuated through the industry’s design and development choices.

Research surveys and reports continue to show us that these experiences are most commonly existent in games and gaming communities across MMOs, MMORPGs, and MOBAs. It’s pretty reasonable to conclude that in competitive social arenas things like trash-talking are going to be present.

Trash-Talking

Trash-talking: The use of derogatory, insulting, and offensive language that is targeted at another person.

It’s a tactic found in nearly every sport. The main difference in gaming is that it’s not just used to play mind games or demoralize an enemy team. You can often see it being used by and against one’s own teammates.

Gender is certainly something that can be utilized to strike a nerve. Then it can turn into harassment if it becomes obvious it is affecting the gamer. When you react to a troll, you are essentially feeding it, giving it energy, making it stronger.

Instead, there is always the option of muting and then reporting later on. You could just stick to playing exclusively with friends or stop playing the game altogether.

As a female gamer, if you find yourself wanting to play a more competitive game just keep these in mind:

  • You may encounter male gamers who will treat you differently. Meaning, that they’ll go easy on you and help more than they typically would.
  • You might run into male gamers who are truly being misogynistic. Random individuals who are trying to get under your skin to actually force you out.
  • Trash-talk will be experienced. Learn to see where it crosses the line from joking – constructive criticism – an emotional reaction – to escalated vicious insults/harassment.
  • Most often you will be treated as any other gamer. No, that is not always going to be a positive thing or a good experience.

Virtual Anonymity

In a more anonymous social space, anti-social attitudes and behaviors can become much more random and offensive. It does not matter if you are a man or a woman.

If you were to view it from this perspective, then isn’t it pretty fair to say female gamers are not always solely being targeted because they’re women. The toxicity is experienced by most players, women are simply averse to dealing with it.

If they are, that might just mean they’re making it known to everyone that they are a woman. In other words, placing a target on their back, and providing ammo for a more personalized trash-talk session. This is a gross reality, but a reality nonetheless. I will always go back to this, “Don’t Feed The Trolls!

toxicity in Video Game Communication

It’s understandable how trash-talking or just the cultural communication styles in various games may sound targeted. But really, it is most generally not targeting someone’s gender. This small list below, while deplorable, I would argue are all pretty neutral in gaming. But, these examples can very easily be taken as gender harassment if a female gamer is on the receiving end.

Examples of things I’ve seen/heard said between gamers in a few MMOs, MMORPGs, and MOBAs:

“Slut/Whore”
“They’re sucking off top.”
“Bitch, no one asked you.”
“Are you a boy or a woman?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist.”
“Those windows open and close faster than your legs.”

Men and women have different experiences in their daily lives (professional/personal). We hold differing roles, perceive ourselves in different ways, have varying values, conduct ourselves differently in social interactions, etc.

High percentages of girls and women have experienced sexual threats, harassment, and violence IRL. Video games are meant to be a stress reliever, an escape from our realities.

So, it makes sense that female gamers are less likely to put up with toxicity. That they internalize and react differently to it, and report it at higher rates than men.

Sadly, however, this is just what toxicity looks/sounds like for ALL gamers, not just female gamers. In many of these male-dominated arenas, they have been dealing with it much longer. Most have taken on the ‘it is what it is‘ view in relation not just to gaming but online culture.

“I know some parties think that harassment is a prevalent thing and that most of it is targeted and malicious. But at the end of the day, most of it is just the way people communicate online. Male gamers do have more of a responsibility to create an inclusive environment, and we are capable of doing better.”

Ashten Gray

That does not mean all male gamers are okay with it. It’s wrong for women to have formed this assumption at all. It’s become more of a norm nowadays to witness male gamers be vocal against anti-social and disruptive behaviors. But I understand it is difficult to not become overly focused on the ones that are horrible on purpose.

Avoid, Ignore, or Report

Being a female gamer and stepping into a male-dominated scene you already stand apart from the rest. What does a bully do in any other social situation? They take advantage of something that differentiates you from the rest and they attempt to alienate you.

Stepping into a male-dominated game can be an added stressor for female gamers, I understand that. I worry myself sometimes hopping on a League game, especially since my name outright tells everyone my gender.

I stay out of ranked games (known for their highly toxic environment) and blind pick (encountered a lot of smurfs). Instead, because I’m trying to enjoy the time I get to play, I mainly play with people I know.

Is toxicity in gaming culture a gender issue? Photo of a man in a black shirt screaming.
Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

I have seen people in chat get tilted and type more than they’re playing. I’ve watched/heard gamers feed off of each other in sarcasm, frustration, and anger. I’ve played with those who afk, feed, etc. for the kicks or because they are simply having an emotional response.

I either completely ignore them, communicate as if they are not there, or report them. The more you feed a troll the more power you give to them. You cause yourself more harm mentally by giving that over to players who behave in that way.

When I’m with my husband he never hesitates to call others out and go back and forth with them. While I don’t necessarily agree with that approach, I get that’s what works for him. I also know he sees it as his duty as a male gamer to address toxicity. Many male gamers seem to want to build more inclusive and welcoming environments for newcomers, including female gamers.

I believe, more than anything, being self-aware and protective of self peace and enjoyment of the game is most important. Try to stop giving trolls attention or mental space, no matter the platform you are on (social media, gaming, etc.).

Stop Lumping Everything in Gaming Together

Researching and talking about games, the differences have to be pointed out more and better understood. If not, we’re just going to be left with this lumped-together view of such a vast topic and culture.

For example, back to my original topic pertaining to sexism in gaming. ‘Sexism in gaming’ as a topic is ALWAYS lumping female game workers, gamer girl streamers, and female gamers altogether.

This makes it look like ONE massive issue, but in reality, each of these is different from the other. They take place in different environments (physical/virtual), follow different norms/rules, and have a different culture attached to each of them.

When I read a headline or a research article/report that has that title plastered on it I’m already wondering which portion of gaming or gaming culture are they referring to, looking at, or criticizing. Instead, I’m just seeing it being constantly represented/discussed incorrectly, which does nothing for women or anyone for that matter.

It’s important that the responsibility falls on those who are the creators and maintainers of the games/communities attached to them. What researchers should be focused on is the video game industry’s role in gaming toxicity. Maybe get in there themselves and learn more about what they’re researching. We should stray away from only viewing things through the female lens.

Is toxicity in gaming culture a gender issue? A woman playing league of legends.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

No matter what we do, or where we go, there will ALWAYS be bad actors. It’s harmful and increases the divide to continue this idea (which is inherently sexist) that male gamers are all the same. That they’re the same type, the problem, and that none of them want women playing in the games they play.

Not all in-game social situations are straightforward cases and patterns of gender bias/misogyny. I think holding that view is very shortsighted and extremely tunnel-visioned when trying to understand toxicity among gamers.

Male gamers get perceived as being hostile opponents and perpetrators of sexism and harassment. This is especially true when they argue against, make light of, or straight up ignore female gamer experiences. Not saying that’s okay, but I can understand the eye-rolling.

If we look at it through the male gamer perspective, we’d see it’s something they’ve been dealing with in these types of games/communities for a long time. I think the majority of gamers agree that the overall toxicity is bad. That it would be better for everyone if it was gone.

As women, we should be encouraging men to discuss their experiences with us. Stop trying to compare or make it solely about us as women. Work with men and learn how to communicate in the culture. Realize that toxicity is a gamer issue, not a gender issue.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below. I could be shooting in the dark here, but in my time playing and researching, this is the conclusion I came to. Share your own experiences with toxicity while playing.

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