Yes, Your Game Has Problems, Too: Harassment and Discrimination in Games.

“They only got that job because they blew the guy that hired them.”; “God, I wish I could have some of that ass.”; “Do you know where the ST for this game is? Oh, you? I mean the head ST.”; “Let me show you how to do a real rotation.”; “I’m sure you don’t really understand the mechanics.”.

That is a very small selection of what players in games I’ve participated in said directly to me or about me while I was in earshot. I’ve written professionally since my early 20s. I’ve written games for a little over five years now, with several published works under my belt. I’ve run successful games of over 200 people and continue to organize one of the most successful LARPs at GenCon every year. I’ve run panels in Berlin and written educational resources. My post-grad work specifically focuses in games, their issues, and how we address those issues with educational and technological resources. My BA is in Communications focusing on social media and my M. Ed thesis was on Harassment/Discrimination/Hostility. This is my field of expertise. People still ask my male colleagues questions about my work.

While that’s just a smattering of my personal experiences, I’ve witnessed PoC excluded from a conversation about their own work and success, as was the case with Chris Spivey and his incredible writing/production on Harlem Unbound. I’ve seen conversations where they were told they don’t understand their own experiences or the nature of racism, or someone tells them to calm down and look at issues “rationally” when faced with instances of discrimination: their characters are too outspoken, they don’t listen to authority, or they talk too much about oppression. I’ve been in conversations about how good a LARP is, “where we don’t permit harassment” while also having that same person identify a player as the “the big tittied one” or “the one banging the GM”. “Fag” and “Retard” are the most common insults thrown out in video games, over everything from a missed call to a team wipe. Marginalized creators and players regularly cancel events out of fear for their livelihoods or lives, and they are told hundreds of times over they pander to Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) when they create or play with concepts that aren’t white, able-bodied, male, and straight. In a similar vein, no conversation about games is complete without someone talking about giving in to SJWs and how they didn’t need to make a character black/female/LGBQT+/disabled.

Research into some of the issues in gaming is a relatively new field. I performed small-sample size surveys and interview about gaming and issues. In almost all of the surveys, people mentioned being a victim of, or witnessing, harassment and discrimination. The interviews supported this as well. Thankfully, we do have more knowledge about what occurs in video games and can use that peer research as a basis for some of what we might expect to find in all games. Researchers Wai Tang and Jesse Fox determined in a 2016 study that players who allowed gender, race, or ethnicity to leak into networked game play were subsequently targeted for harassment. Emily Mathew found that over 75% of the female population experienced some form of harassment or hostility in a 2012 study. One study that summarizes most of these issues, from an inter-sectional viewpoint, was done by Gabriela Richard and Kishonna Leah Gray- Denson: Gendered Play, Racialized Reality: Black Cyberfeminism, Inclusive Communities of Practice and the Intersections of Learning, Socialization, and Resilience in Online Gaming.

So, we have evidence these behaviors exist from personal experiences to peer-reviewed research. How do we recognize them when they occur in our games and then address them in ways that improve our environment and make it more welcoming for everyone?

The first step is recognizing what they are. Once we know how to identify what’s going on, we can find ways to step in and police discriminatory behavior in our own games.

Harassment, in its most technical form, is improper conduct directed at an individual in a space where the harasser knew or should have reasonably known it would cause discomfort or harm. It includes actions, intimidating actions/threats, commentary, or displays that demean, belittle, or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment based on traits such as ethnicity, race, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Discrimination is an overall category that includes harassment, along with other behaviors.

Things to Know:

  • Harassment is not only repeated events. It can be one comment. It can be a series of comments. If you make one comment about a player making their way on their back but back off once you’re told it makes that person uncomfortable, you still committed harassment.
  • Harassment is not about your intent. It’s about the effect it has on the target. You can intend to make a comment jokingly without meaning it and still be guilty of harassment. While we can all joke and flirt, we are responsible for owning when that impacts another person, even it’s unintentional.
  • Harassment can be physical, mental, and social. It can be touching a cosplayer (even bumping into them or pressing against them) without asking for their permission. It can be making comments about making sure people aren’t just being given handouts for their marginalized status. It can be pressuring a player to offer you sexual favors so you make their experience smoother.
  • Harassment isn’t just about obviously harassing comments. For example, sexual harassment isn’t solely about making sexual commentary or physical gestures. It is about any harassment made based on sex. So, if you assume someone is less capable because they are female and seek out their male counterpart instead, that is sexual harassment.
  • Discrimination can also include more direct actions, such as violence; making a choice based on someone’s race/ethnicity/sex/preferences/religion, such as always choosing cis (identifies as gender assigned at birth) gendered players over Transgender (does not identify as gender assigned at birth) players because you are uncomfortable; or writing a piece on how all PoC are snowflakes because they want representation.
  • Discrimination includes harassment, but is usually an overall behavior directed at an entire group. Harassment usually only includes one person or a small group of people.

Ways to Help

We’ve identified harassment and discrimination. What can we do now? We go to the proactive method of training in order to prevent instances of harassment and discrimination and then performs interventions to react to them when do they do occur.

Training: Most gamers have no formal harassment or discrimination training. Even content creators are often freelancers or members of small companies who don’t have the resources to pay for training or education. People who do have training usually received it in their workplace, with no way to apply it in the real world. How do we increase awareness?

  • Locate available resources and provide them to players as the basis of joining a game. There are videos (like the one in the available resources links), PowerPoint, and educational documents online that work for everything from rotating tabletop game to a blockbuster LARP or video game community.
  • Create workshops with real examples so people can see how harassment and discrimination work in their particular environment. These are particularly useful for LARPS, where you have everyone in place and you should already have some play workshops to help manage their experiences.
  • Constantly seek out new resources. It is kind of like homework, but assign someone in your game to handle bringing new resources to the table and to proactively handle issues that arise. Make sure they do this with a person first attitude– they aren’t there to “fix” the problem, but make sure a person feels welcomed and included.

Intervention: Most people, if they’re even aware of how intervention works, feel uncomfortable stepping into the role. No one wants to be the person that rocks the boat. In some cases, it comes with a lot of backlash from the community, organizers, and other players, making it easier to keep quiet. However, keeping quiet leaves many in a vulnerable position.

  • Companies or communities dealing with gaming need a simple to understand Code of Conduct which clearly outlines what is expected of their fans or membership.
  • All companies and communities need to have a secure method to report harassing/discriminatory behavior or other violations of the Code of Conduct, and they should handle this in a way that is transparent for the person reporting it. Whether you report to a single person in small troupe LARP, or through a form to a larger group, the process needs to be clear to everyone so they have some place to go when violations occur.
  • Use by bystander interventions– direct, delegate, and distract– by noticing the problem and determining how you can help. While you should never jump into a dangerous situation (such as a gamer knife fight), if you do this early in the process it can prevent a situation from escalating. You can also distract while someone else gets help, intervene or speak up directly in the situation, or delegate it to someone more comfortable with handling the problem
  • Create a policy for dealing with retribution and make damned sure you aren’t trying to shut reports down. One of the primary reasons people don’t speak up is they are afraid– they’re afraid the person’s friends might come after them, they might be punished, or find themselves in a more dangerous situation. Policies against retribution keep everyone on the same page and give you a prescribed method for handling the situation.

While standardizing information and getting into the nuts and bolts of harassment and discrimination can seem to suck the fun out of a game, nothing does that more than being on the receiving end of those behaviors. You don’t need a 100 page book, though. Sometimes, it’s just as easy as sitting around your table and establishing what is and is not okay for your group, or having your raid group watch a video to make sure everyone is on the same page. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It does have to be addressed.

Join us next week, when we throw ourselves around a (hopefully, maybe) shorter article on dehumanization in games. While you wait, why don’t you tell us tips you used to minimize harassment or discrimination or how you think dehumanization affects your game?

Some resources to check out:


One comment on “Yes, Your Game Has Problems, Too: Harassment and Discrimination in Games.”
  1. Raven Tidwell says:

    So, this is great. I just have one minor complaint. Cis is a term just like trans, based on the latin antonym of trans, and therefore doesn’t need to be in all caps.


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