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Gamergate and how Internet users think about gaming and harassment

I will have some more thoughts on the new Pew Research Center study on online harassment tomorrow. But I thought it was worth discussing the survey’s findings on gaming and harassment separately given the ongoing tsuris over Gamergate.

This latest “-gate” is ostensibly a movement dedicated to improving the ethical standards of gaming journalism. But its highest-profile accomplishment has been large-scale harassment aimed at women who work in game development or who write about gaming. The Pew report provides some data to back up the impression that online gaming forums are not a particularly safe space for women. But the researchers also found that the men for whom online gaming is ostensibly more friendly are also getting harassed in large numbers there as well.

The Pew report, overseen by Maeve Duggan, surveyed 2,849 Internet users between May 30 and June 30 of this year. Of those respondents, 40 percent said that they had experienced one of six categories of harassment online, including name-calling, threats and stalking.

Social media was where people were most likely to say they had been harassed, with comments sections coming in second and “online gaming” in the third spot. The harassment women reported was concentrated on social media, whereas men were more likely to say that they had been targeted in online comments or while playing games.

“Some 26% of those ages 18-29 who have experienced online harassment (and 31% of those 18-24) said that their most recent experience occurred within an online gaming environment,” Duggan and her co-authors wrote. “This is largely driven by the experience of young men—fully 34% of men ages 18-29 who have encountered online harassment noted that their most recent experience took place within online gaming, the highest of any age and gender combination.”

This is the case even though online gaming was the medium where respondents were most likely to say there was a sharp divide between the reception men and women received there. Fifty-one percent of the people Pew spoke with said online gaming was an equally welcoming space for men and women. But 44 percent said online gaming was friendlier to men than to women — just 3 percent said the opposite was true. No other medium had a gap that even came close to resembling that perception.

So what does this all mean? There is more to game play and gaming culture than online gaming, of course. But the Pew report suggests that gaming’s gender-related image problems are hardly a recent Birnam Wood-like decoy, deployed by feminists to slander a cultural bastion of traditional masculinity. Men were actually more likely than women to tell Pew that they thought online gaming was more welcoming to them.

The results also made me wonder if something rather sad is taking place. Could it be that men who play games online are becoming so inured to routine harassment that it is only extreme incidents, like a threatened school shooting at one of feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian’s planned speeches or the release of actress and gamer Felicia Day’s private email address, that register?

“When someone is losing a game, the opponent will abruptly leave but not without calling me or others a vulgar name or comment,” one of the survey respondents told Pew in an open-ended section of the study. “This happens too regularly in online games to remember a specific occurrence,” wrote another.

“When people think of ‘gamers,’ I want them to think of [charity fundraising drive] Child’s Play, and athletes who play competitive League of Legends, and all the normalization we’ve accomplished over the years,” the former NFL player and active game Chris Kluwe wrote in a frustrated post on Medium about his objections to Gamergate. “I want them to think of feminism, and games as an art form — something more than mass entertainment. I want them to think of all the amazing things that video games have done, and can do, because that means we get to keep playing more games.”

But the Pew survey suggests that when people think about online gaming, they are thinking at least in part about harassment and gender disparities — and that they were doing so long before the advent of Gamergate and the ugliest harassment incidents the movement has labeled the work of deplorable outsiders.