TEDxWomen Talk about Online Harassment & Cyber Mobs

December 5, 2012


I was excited to participate in this year’s TEDxWomen in Washington, DC, an annual event organized by the Paley Center for Media. I presented a 10 minute talk about sexist online harassment, cyber mobs and both the destructive and uplifting power of online communities. In this talk, I use the analogy of an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) to explain how these types of large scale harassment campaigns operate.

After my Kickstarter project began to attract a huge amount of media attention this summer, I made the strategic decision to try and use that as an opportunity to highlight the larger problem of online harassment faced by many women in gaming spaces and on the internet more generally. To that end, over the past several months I’ve devoted a substantial amount of time and energy giving talks (like this one) and doing dozens of media interviews as well as communicating with a handful of game companies on the topic. There have been many inspirational women speaking out about online and gaming harassment issues for a long time and my hope has been that I can use my personal story to contribute to this important and critical conversation. In some ways this was a difficult decision because it means I’ve become an even bigger target and also because I’ve had to take time away from working on my Tropes vs Women video series (which frankly I’d much rather spend all of my time on). Still, I believe the trade off is ultimately worth it if by sharing my experience it can be a small part of moving us towards systemic change and a more inclusive digital world.

Also don’t anybody worry, my Tropes vs Women in Video Games series is currently in production, we’re working hard make these new videos as comprehensive and expansive as possible. And I’m pleased to say that progress is coming along nicely! As always, project backers will be the first to know of updates and details on the project so if you are backer make sure to regularly check the Kickstarter page!

I’d like to share with you a story about how I accidentally become the villain of a massive online game, in real life.

For the past four years, I’ve been running a video series on YouTube called Feminist Frequency where I deconstruct the representations of women in the media. I try to provide the tools to give people the language to talk sexism and issues of gender using accessible language from popular culture such as tv shows, movies, comic books and video games. Now video games are really interesting because it’s actually the fastest growing form of mass media today.

This is a photo of me at age 10 playing Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo, so I’ve been playing games for quite awhile and in addition to being a lot of fun to play, games have lots of positive benefits as well. So again, I’ve been playing games for awhile but there’s something that’s always bothered me.

It is no secret that the video game industry boasts some of the most sexually objectified, stereotyped and downright oppressive portrayals of women in any medium.

So with that in mind I decided to launch a fundraising campaign on the crowd funding website Kickstarter, where I would create a series of videos to look specifically at the way women are represented in video games.

The idea being that if you were interested in the project you could donate and if you weren’t interested, you could choose not to donate.

It’s pretty straightforward right? I mean what could possibly go wrong?


Turns out that there are a bunch of male gamers out there who were, shall we say, not to excited about this project.

Now, I’m a pop culture critic, I’m a feminist and I’m a woman. And I’m all of these things, openly, on the internet so I’m no stranger to some level of sexist backlash. I’ve sadly gotten used to sexist slurs, and sexist insults, usually involving kitchens and sandwiches…

But what happened this time was a little bit different. I found myself the target of a massive online hate campaign.

Now the next couple of slides represent just a tiny fraction of the harassment I received and they come with a very large trigger warning.

All my social media sites were flooded with threats of rape, violence, sexual assault, death – and you’ll notice that these threats and comments were all specifically targeting my gender.

The Wikipedia article about me was vandalized with sexism, racism and pornographic images.

There was a campaign to report all of my social media accounts including my Kickstarter, my YouTube, my Twitter. And they would report them as fraud, spam even as terrorism in an effort to get them suspended.

They attempted to knock my website offline, hack into my email and other accounts. They attempted to collect and distribute my personal information including my home address and phone number.

There were images made, pornographic images made in my likeness being raped by video game characters and sent to me again and again.

There was even a game made where players were invited to “beat the bitch up” in which upon clicking on the screen, an image of me would become increasingly battered and bruised. You get the point, we’ll move on.

What’s even more disturbing, if that’s even possible, than this overt display of misogyny on a grand scale, is that the perpetrators openly referred to this harassment campaign and their abuse as a “Game”. They referred to their abuse as a game.

So, in their minds they concocted this grand fiction in which they’re the heroic players of a massively multiplayer online game working together to take down an enemy. And apparently, they cast me in the role of the villain. And what was my big diabolical master plan? To make a series of videos on YouTube about women’s representations in games. Yeah.

So, if they think of their abuse as a “fun game” then let’s examine this.

Who are the players?
Well, often when we talk about online harassment we think of teenage boys in their parent’s basements and while I was attacked by some teenage boys, I was also attacked by thousands of grown men.

And this isn’t entirely surprising considering the average age of the male gamers in the US is about 30.

Where is this game played?
Well, the perpetrators turn the entire internet into a battlefield. So, in my case they came after everything and anything that I possibly ever had online. They also have a home base where they coordinate their raids and work together and communicate and this usually takes place on largely unmoderated, largely anonymous message boards and forums. And these are places with no real mechanisms for accountability.

So what is the goal?
Well, the immediate explicit goal is to stop the villain and save video games from…me and my crazy feminist schemes. And they tried to do this by silencing and discrediting me and my project.

But the larger implicit goal here is that they’re actually trying to maintain the status quo of video games as a male dominated space and all of the privileges and entitlements that come with an unquestioned boys club.

So what type of Game is this?
Well, Its fundamentally a social one.

Now we don’t usually think of online harassment as a social activity but we know from the strategies and tactics that they used, that they were not working alone, that they were actually loosely coordinating with one another.

This social component is a powerful motivating factor that works to provide incentives for players to participate, or perpetrators rather, to participate and to actually escalate the attacks by earning the praise and approval of their peers. We can kind of think of this as an informal reward system where players earn “internet points” for increasingly brazen and abusive attacks. Then they would document these attacks and they would bring them back to the message boards as evidence, to show off to each other – kind of like trophies or achievements.

So, we have a general structure of a social game. We have players, we have the villain. We have a battlefield. We have this informal rewards system.

But the thing is…Its not a game. It’s an overt display of angry misogyny on massive scale.

Its not “just boys being boys”.
Its not “just how the internet works”.
And it’s not just going to go away if we ignore it.

Its really not a game.

So what is it than? Well, the usual terms that we use to describe online harassment such as “cyber bullying”, “cyber stalking”, even trolling, don’t adequately describe a hate campaign of this scale.

What happened to me, and sadly other women as well, can best be described as a cyber mob.

And whether it’s a cyber mob or just a handful of hateful comments, the end result is maintaining and reinforcing and normalizing a culture of sexism — where men who harass are supported by their peers and rewarded for their sexist attitudes and behaviors and where women are silenced, marginalized and excluded from full participation.

A ‘boys club’ means no girls allowed. And how do they keep women and girls out? Just like this. By creating an environment that is just too toxic and hostile to endure.

This is pretty grim and depressing stuff, I know, but there is another side to all this.

Do you wanna know what happened to my fundraiser after all of that? Well first, the cyber mob failed to silence me, as is evidence by me being here today. And it turns out that quite a few people are actually were interested in project that would deconstruct the representations of women in gaming and who are totally outraged at the harassment that too often plagues our gaming communities.

I actually raised 25x times what I initially asked for. Nearly 7000 individuals contributed to make my Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project bigger and better and more expansive than I could ever have imagined. Instead of just being 5 videos, it’s now 13 videos plus a classroom curriculum that educators can use for free. Feminist Frequency went from a part time side project to a full time endeavor.

I received countless messages of support and words of encouragement. People expressed their solidarity with me and my project publicly through videos, through fanart, through comics and blog posts. I’ve even been invited to speak at video game studios internationally.

The overwhelming support that I received is just a small manifestation of a larger cultural shift looming on the horizon. A growing cross-section of gamers and game developers of all genders are fed up with the way women are treated in gaming culture and they’re speaking up to demand change.

Now this change is happening slowly and kind of painfully, but its happening.

Everyday I am encouraged by the women who persevere, who continue to engage and who refuse to be silenced. I truly believe that if we work together, we can create a cultural shift where women, without fear of intimidation, without fear of threats or harassment, can be full and active participants in our digital world. Thank You.

Comments are closed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 678 other followers