Contrary to popular perception, online gaming is no longer just a pastime for teenage boys. More than two thirds of Australians play video games, where the average age is 34 and the gender split is around 50/50. Unfortunately, many women experience online harassment while playing games that can cross into real life abuse. Women who choose to join online gaming communities should not be isolated from those communities because of online harassment. Additionally, survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking may have additional privacy concerns when engaging in online spaces. Fortunately, it is possible to increase privacy and safety when gaming online.
Online Gaming Basics
Games include sports, shooter, simulation, adventure, real-time strategy, role-playing, and educational games. Online gaming communities may use their own lingo in chats between players within the game.
Many games still use older-style hand-held game controllers, though increasingly games call on users to move their whole body, or to enter ‘virtual reality’ through the use of goggles. In addition to purely online gaming platforms, some games cross into the real world through ‘augmented reality’ which creates a filter or overlay of game-related information as the user moves through the real world.
The ability to remain anonymous online varies depending on the gaming platform. In some games, a user can make up any screen name and choose an ‘avatar’ or online image to represent them. Users may have a choice about what personal or contact information to share with other users through their online profile or chat conversations with other players. Privacy and safety concerns may increase with games that cross into virtual reality or into real-life with augmented reality. Augmented reality games may link a player’s online presence to a specific location in order to let other gamers interact with them at a shared location.
Privacy and Safety Risks
Young adults, and particularly young women, experience online harassment at a high rate. People who identify with other marginalised groups are also more likely to experience harassment.
#GamerGate brought online harassment in gaming to light in the media. Female gamers reported death threats, rape threats, stalking and doxxing (posting private contact information online). Harassment, threats, and abuse that happen ‘only’ online should be taken seriously. Such experiences can be traumatising and may include financial crime or identity theft. Victims report efforts to ruin their reputations and drive them from the online community. If enough identifying information is known, the abuse can quickly become an offline threat. While people of many genders and backgrounds experience abusive content online, women and survivors are more likely to find harassment ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ upsetting.
Potential Benefits to Survivors
Online gaming provides an opportunity for connection, particularly with people who share a common interest. Some games have vast numbers of users, some of whom have played for many years, building up a sense of familiarity or community. Some survivors who are wary of meeting in person or prefer to be able to choose the identity they present to the world, may find more flexibility and comfort online. As with any activity, online or offline, everyone should be able to participate free from harassment and abuse.
Strategies to Increase Privacy and Safety
Responsibility for stopping online harassment and abuse should rest primarily with those who misuse technology against other people online. In addition, game developers and companies can take steps to counter online abuse and to promote good behaviour in their spaces. As the International Gaming Developer Association says, “…The onus is on harassers and their communities to discourage harassment and report harassing behaviour when it is observed. You have a right to work, speak, create, and exist in a space free of harassment and the threat of harassment.”
Gamers and survivors may want to consider some of these steps to increase their personal safety and privacy online:
- When creating accounts and profiles, choose a username that doesn’t include your real name or other identifying information. Protect your privacy by not giving out identifying or contact information.
- Consider using different email addresses, profile pictures, and strong passwords for gaming, and for each game you play. Keeping this information separate from the rest of your life can help avoid doxxing, or other users being able to connect your gaming profile to your real life.
- Search for yourself online to find out what information is available about you online.
- Be careful about attachments and links which might install spyware or other malware on your devices.
- Trust your instincts. If you start to feel uncomfortable, it’s always ok to cease contact.
Some additional steps to consider when considering augmented reality games or meeting up in real life:
- Let a friend know ahead of time where you are going, and that you will reach out to them after the gaming session is done.
- Leave an address and some information on where you’ll be.
- Familiarise yourself with the meet-up spot ahead of time. Only meet where you’re comfortable.
- Watch out for people saying they want to visit but need a loan to be able to get to you, or who use other stories to gain your sympathy and then ask for money.
- It’s ok to cut a gaming session short if it doesn’t feel safe or fun. Trust your instincts.
Survivors of online harassment and abuse may choose to report their experiences to the gaming platforms and/or to the legal system. Because the technology uses both hardware, like computers or smartphones, as well as Internet providers and the gaming company’s servers, digital evidence may be available. In addition, survivors may consider taking pictures, screenshots, or saving other relevant information. See our handout Documentation Tips for Survivors of Technology Abuse and Stalking.
Online harassment and abuse may fall under a number of crimes, depending on what is happening. To learn more about the laws in your State on online harassment, visit the TechSafety.org.au Women’s Legal Guides here.