Female Gamers Are Unfazed by Trash Talk

But sexual harassment is a different story.
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A still image from World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. (Photo: Stefson/Flickr)

A still image from World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. (Photo: Stefson/Flickr)

Being a female gamer and hearing sexist trash talk doesn't feel good. But is it any different from weathering the usual abuse that players trade in massive, multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft? A new survey offers evidence that indeed it is. Sexually charged comments, including unwanted come-ons and rape threats, linger in female gamers' minds in a way that the usual fare, such as swearing and belittling the other person's skills, doesn't, the survey finds. Plus, female gamers who receive many insults are more likely to quit playing altogether.

The study, which provides data to back the idea that sexual harassment is especially pernicious, supports recent arguments activists have made about the toxic effects of sexism in games, and shows that it behooves companies to reduce sexual harassment in their game interplay. Otherwise, they risk losing customers. Women represent a larger share of the game-playing market than stereotypes suggest: They're the majority of PC gamers and one-third of all participants in massive, multiplayer online games, a 2014 survey found.

The new survey, published in the journal New Media & Society, comes from two media researchers at Ohio State University, Jesse Fox and Wai Yen Tang. Fox and Tang took to Reddit, Twitter, and other online forums to recruit 293 female gamers (from 30 countries) to answer their questionnaire. On average, the survey-takers played 22 hours of video games per week, most commonly World of WarcraftTeam Fortress 2, and Defense of the Ancients.

It's not about encouraging new players; it's about making a fair environment for players who are already there.

The women answered questions about what type of trash talk they experienced; how they reacted; and whether they ruminated on the trash talk for a long time afterward, a behavior that's been linked to depression. The researchers found that gender-neutral trash talk didn't tend to linger in women's minds. Sexually charged comments, however, stuck. The more sexual harassment a woman experienced, the more likely she was to ruminate about the insults offline. In addition, women who experienced more trash talk of all kinds, including gendered and non-gendered insults, were more likely to quit playing that game.

Those who didn't quit responded in various ways. Some reported the harassment. Others left groups where they were frequently harassed. Most often, however, harassed women masked their gender by using, say, gender-neutral usernames and avatars, or pretending they were men. This practice may protect players from sexual harassment, but, as Fox and Tang write, it may also present a facade that few women play massive multiplayer online games, reinforcing the misconception that the games are male-dominated and that women don't belong.

Trash talk may be as normal a part of multiplayer online gaming as all-nighters and Mountain Dew, but that doesn't mean it's a healthy practice, or that the community shouldn't work to eliminate it. Considering how many women play games like World of Warcraft and Defense of the Ancients, it's not even about encouraging new players anymore; it's about making a fair environment for players who are already there.

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