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Anti-bullying advocates assess what's wrong in games

There's a cultural problem that isn't going to fix itself overnight, but behaviours can and do change with the right support

The games industry is facing an uphill battle when it comes to gender diversity. There are numerous barriers preventing women from joining the games industry on the same scale as men; whether its societal expectations that gaming is an inherently mascluine pursuit, communities hijacked by toxic behaviour, the wage gap, or sexist work cultures, the games industry is not always a welcoming place for women.

According to research from market intelligence firm Bryter, one in three female gamers have faced abuse or discrimination. When playing online, this figure increases to one in two, with 30% of respondents saying they don't reveal their gender for fear of receiving abuse.

Perhaps most damning of all however, is that of those who have experienced abuse, just 33% feel there are adequate process to deal with such behaviours. While this figure has improved from 19% the year prior, it's clear that gaming environments don't feel safe for a lot of people , and that cultural problems within gaming present a substantial barrier to women considering a career path in the industry.

Speaking with at the European Women in Games Conference, Jenny McBean from Bryter and Katrina Scaife from anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label outline some of the challenges facing equality in the games industry, how bullying and harassment is holding it back, and what can be done to tackle the problem.

"At Ditch the Label we've carried out research into bullying behaviours and found that they often driven by people basically being unhappy in their own lives," says Scaife. "And there is a disconnect between how people behave online and offline; thinking you are anonymous, thinking the impact isn't as great online as it is offline, and then just being unhappy about something in your own life.

"Happy, well-adjusted people do not make other people's lives a misery"

Katrina Scaife, Ditch the Label

"So in the case of children who bully others, often they've suffered stress and trauma, or they've been bullied themselves. Happy, well-adjusted people do not make other people's lives a misery. And so there's normally something else going on... The reality is we know online bullying impacts young people's mental health, leading to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, I don't think people realise the consequences of online abuse."

The sheer scale of mass social media creates extensive problems for managing the issue, and despite companies like Facebook and Twitter having countless moderators, it's simply not enough. Earlier today, the BBC reported that researchers at Binghamton University have developed an algorithm that can detect accounts that engage in bullying with over 90% accuracy.

While this is a positive step forward, it's not one that Twitter has taken itself, and there's no indication when or even if such an algorithm could be applied. However, according to Scaife the responsibility doesn't lie solely with social media companies, but with everyone, from schools to individual users.

Education around harassment is a recurring theme in these discussions. Not just online literacy and safety, but also emotional education, and helping people understand why their behaviour is hurtful, rather than just banning them and moving on.

"It sounds really silly, but when people get banned they still don't really know why," says McBean. "They say, 'I don't get it. I didn't do anything wrong.' So they just do it again. So I think there has to be something, either before they start playing the game, or [after a ban] in order to educate players about what is/isn't acceptable behaviour. Ideally before."

Katrina Scaife from Ditch the Label, and Jenny McBean from Bryter

Considering that online abuse is a wider social issue, and extends beyond just the games industry, it raises questions around the limited influence of gaming companies in tackling these problems. However, as both McBean and Scaife note, there are cultural problems within the hobby and wider industry that can and should be addressed.

"The games industry has a responsibility to ensure that the behaviour on their platforms is acceptable and that harm is not happening on that platform," says Scaife. "They do have a responsibility to stop that and actually, if you have a culture where people think it's okay to use racist language or be homophobic, then it becomes not just about behaviour, but about cultural norms.

"So I would say that game companies always have the responsibility. It's collective with individual responsibility, community responsibility, but the same for social media. Platforms have a responsibility to make sure harm isn't happening."

As McBean adds, it might not be possible to change a person, but if a gaming company can temper abuse on its platform, "that's one less place for it to happen, and one less person for it to happen to."

Anyone embedded in the games industry likely sees the bullying and harassment problem it faces more so than people from the outside looking in. Just consider how certain consumers react to a lukewarm review of a hotly anticipated AAA title -- with a lot of vitriol directed at the critic in question -- and it's difficult to look past the problem.

But is the games industry simply more prone to this behaviour than other sectors? And if so, why? What are the constituent parts that make gaming spaces more problematic?

"[What] female gamers' experience isn't just 'trash talk,' it's a lot more hateful and sometimes scary"

"It's the fact that it's in that online format," suggests McBean. "We see it all over social media where the same things are happening, but it's also the fact that it's been a long culture... A lot of male gamers will say, when they are pulled up on it, 'Well that's what gaming is. It's just banter. If you can't take it then don't play.' And it's been instilled that that's the culture of gaming, that ribbing people. And it's not the types of abuse we hear about; [what] female gamers' experience isn't just 'trash talk,' it's a lot more hateful and sometimes scary."

Comparing the harassment and bullying issue to #MeToo, Scaife notes how much of the toxic behaviour was justified as being "a different time back then," and suggests the games industry runs a similar risk of excusing behaviour as normal.

"When you look at it objectively, it's clearly not okay," she continues. "So I would agree that it is more of a cultural thing, where it's been allowed to happen, and now is the time for things to actually change."

Changing culture isn't entirely straightforward, and as Scaife notes, drawing attention to a problem can easily see someone become associated as part of the problem. This is made worse in traditional male-dominated environments that lack diversity. No one wants to upset the status quo, and sometimes the issues aren't evident unless you're facing them directly.

But there are things that can be done, and both Scaife and McBean support education in schools and in games, with clear messaging about what is acceptable behaviour. Additionally, game companies should look towards education and rehabilitation rather than blanket punishment when presented with abusive behaviour.

On a wider cultural level, Scaife suggests better representation in games is "crucial" to moving forward, despite the distasteful backlash that often accompanies the announcement of diverse characters in games.

"I think over time it will become normalised, and that's when I hope diversity won't cause a fuss any more," she continues. "Because it's old news to have a diverse range of characters. And I think the worst thing actually the industry can do is withdraw those characters, because then they've given into that small minority who are being very vocal."

Perhaps most importantly of all though, as Ditch the Label sees it, people aren't simply bullies and victims; these are complex behaviours and, with the right support, behaviours can change.

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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