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.

24 Responses to “TEDxWomen Talk about Online Harassment & Cyber Mobs”

  1. I was literally saying a week ago to a friend that you should do a TED talk.

    I’m really happy that your kickstarter went well, and can’t wait to see what you come up with. Let me know if you want a hand distributing your educational material north of the border (I’m in Toronto!)

    You’re really great at what you do.


  2. I literally cannot wait for this to be curriculum so I can use it, yay!


  3. Hello Ms Sarkeesian,
    hello friends and supporters of Feminist Frequency, and
    hello anyone else,

    thank you very much for sharing this video from the TEDxWomen 2012. Ever since your Kickstarter Campaign I am very eager and curious about what happens next on your blog or site. And I really enjoy watching the progress and results of your work, because most of the time I agree with your thoughts or ideas (most of the time) or at least am willing to accept the rational behind it.

    Ever since I learned about your activities for the first time, I have started to look at pop-culture from new angles or perspectives. And I am very depressed that I was not sensitive about the big flaws of the male-dominated schemes everywhere in pop-culture – regardless if it is about role-playing games, board-games, movies, (pulp) fiction, computer/ console/ online games etc.

    At the moment I am not in the position or situation to give you more then just emotional or ‘ideological’ (such a strong word) heads-up; but I will donate to your endeavour as soon as I have the funds to do it. Regardless of that I am very glad that you (and other women as well as men) work towards a better (pop-)culture for each and everyone of us.

    Thank you very much. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
    Clem Carlos Schermann
    – Germany –


  4. You are awesome Anita, doing the things I am to scared to, hopefully paving the way so that my future daughters wont have to fear the gaming community like I do! Thank you!


  5. What a great talk – as always, clear, entertaining and superbly reasonable. You’re a beacon of courage as well as a fine commentator. Here’s wishing well-deserved (if dearly-bought) success to the upcoming video series – there are many, many people who are looking forward to it.

    My hat is off to you.:-)


  6. Hi Anita, I’m new to your website – sent here via FTB and the article detailing your work at TEDx. I’d simply like to thank you for your tireless and courageous work. The world my daughter grows up into will be better for all you’ve done.


  7. You were so strong, sticking to your beliefs under all that hate and attack, that it makes me extremely happy to see you there, talking on TEDx and giving the best example of all: no matter what you stand for, speak up, don’t let anybody silence you.

    Thank you for that, there are many men and women out there who need to know that they don’t have to keep quiet.

    Can’t wait for the videos and the curriculum:)


  8. I just heard from The Mary Sue that, “Comments on the YouTube video of Anita Sarkeesian‘s TED Talk had to be shut down. (The Daily Dot).”


    16x9onglobal should really take a Note to do something similar or at least Showcase some kind of AWARENESS. Seriously, how much they do really care about women being abused on the Internet, when it happens right in front of them and don’t even use it as PROOF of the POINT.

    Even using the ‘Ratings’ says something to be acknowledged.


  9. Great talk. If your Tropes videos come out to be half as good as this (and I’m sure they will be), they will be a huge hit.


  10. Sorry to hear that that video got hit with the hate campaign as well.

    Looking forward to the series though. I’ve played games all my life [my first was Super Mario World], and I do think it’s time for a fresh perspective on their role in today’s world. Based on your previous videos, whether or not I fully agree with everything, I do find you present a well-thought out, perfectly reasonable position and I appreciate that you’re able to get it across so plainly for a major audience.

    Keep up the good work.


  11. Excellent talk… too bad about the youtube comments😄 jesus christ. Please don’t let the fuckers get you down.


  12. When those in power a threatened their weapon of choice is always hate. You have been the brunt of more of these attacks than anyone should expect someone to bear. You are a heroine of the feminist movement and pop culture commentator without equal. I hope one day to be as brave as you, as knowledgeable as you and as eloquent as you. The emotions you were valiantly holding back during your presentation have galvanized my resolve to be a force of good when I could just as easily have become part of the problem.


  13. you are very brave! and i love your work.


  14. Anita, thank you very much for doing this.


  15. Your handling of this whole screwed-up hate campaign has been truly inspirational. Bravo! Looking forward to the videos!


  16. Still with the hate comments. Good grief. Some losers don’t know when they’ve lost.

    “Listen to the fool’s reproach! It is a kingly title!”
    – William Blake.


  17. If only I could as brave as you are…


  18. I have TOTAL FAITH in the success of your new project. I seriously think that you handled this whole thing really well.


  19. Nicely done! Great job. I am so excited about this.


  20. Congratulations and very well done on the Tedx speech! A friend linked to it on facebook (also with high praise) and i had the pleasure of saying “i backed that project!” For every message of support you see, there’s at least five more people prasing you behind your back and raising awareness. The misogynists might be loud, but it’s a small clan of griefers compared to the rest of the server and you’re definitely the heroine as far as my clan is concerned!


  21. I’ve only just watched the video of your talk, after a friend posted it to Facebook.

    The abuse you’ve taken is outrageous, and it’s a symptom of a larger societal problem that the perpetrators of the worst of the abuse are not facing trial for hate crimes.

    That aside, I can’t believe your bravery (I’ve been threatened and abused online, to about 0.0001% of what you took, and didn’t deal with it half as well). Keep up the wonderful work.


  22. My son works for the video game company, Naughty Dog. After I sent him a link to your TED Talk video, he sent back this link about what Naughty Dog is doing with their upcoming game called ‘The Last of Us’ – http://www.vg247.com/2012/12/12/the-last-of-us-acting-out-the-end-of-the-world/. They’re one company that’s on your side and are committed to changing the image of women in video games. Please take a look.



  23. Although I’m an avid gamer, I knew nothing of Feminist Frequency until I learned of your TED talk via Upworthy.com. In my defense, I don’t really do multiplayer, too many jerks out there, but I guess you already know that. I just wanted to congratulate you on the success of your project, and add my voice to that of other gamers who would like to see meaningful representation of women in video games, as well as pop culture in general. Although the misogynists and cowards (one and the same, really) that attacked you can be the most vocal, the support you have received heartens me, and shows that the majority of gamers are ready to close the boys club.


  24. Found your Ted talk and project via upworthy.com. I can barely make it to the end of an entire Ted talk usually but I found myself in bravura agreement by the end of yours. Kudos on your courage and honesty.

    I wonder what a ‘gender conscious’ game would look like, or play like? Can you do a blog post that shows some examples of games that attempt to get it right?

    Looking over the sessions at next year’s GDC 2013 yesterday, I noticed Heidi McDonald planning to talk on NPC romance data in a session entitled Men are from Mars, Women are from Ferelden. I like the idea of using more player data to craft the experience. Is there a crucial role for data to play in evolving the state of games?



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,919 other followers