All Alan Ashalley-Anthony wanted to do was reach the grandmaster level on the video game, Overwatch. That is until he found himself, a person of colour, being racially attacked by random users in an online lobby. When Ashalley-Anthony’s parents found out about the harassment, they forced their son to stop playing his beloved game. They didn’t want the online toxicity to influence Ashalley-Anthony’s behavior nor damage his self-identity.
The story, recounted by Alan’s older sister, Annabel Ashalley-Anthony, is just one of countless situations in which video game users have been subjected to some form of toxicity and harassment in the online sphere. The experience left her disturbed and frustrated. It wasn’t fair for her brother to put down his controller because of racist remarks made by other users.
“My brother [said] to me, ‘Who wins if I stop playing?’ Those words really rung true for me,” said Annabel.
Discrimination has become the prominent issue in the gaming industry as the online portion of video games, known as “multiplayers,” grants all players – including the toxic ones – the ability to be totally anonymous. This makes it near impossible for game moderators to track down and discipline the culprits. In turn, gamers new to the scene are watching toxic players go unchecked as they harass others in the online community, and soon believe it is acceptable to follow suit. From there, the toxicity spreads and infects an entire multiplayer network until it’s rendered impossible for many consumers, especially people of colour, to enjoy the game.
While there are a handful of video games that are already overwhelmed with toxicity, many content creators feel that the game, Call of Duty, is by far the worst.
CREATION OF GAMING WATCH DOGS
Watching her brother be subjected to online harassment and bullying motivated Annabel to make a difference in the gaming community. This is why Melanin Gamers, an organization
Melanin Gamers, or MG for short, aims at creating inclusion and diversity in the video game community by offering networking opportunities for gamers to connect with other members in the community. The MG crew also interacts with their audience through countless streams and events hosted by the organization. For Annabel, it’s important to have a safe space like the one Melanin Gamers has to offer.
“Sometimes gaming with [random players] is really difficult because you don’t know what you’re going to get yourself into. I’m not saying all “randoms” are bad, but that’s why there’s a safe space where you know that everyone in this community, at least you’re not going to get any racial slurs [directed at you],” says Annabel.
It’s not only casual video game users that are stuck dealing with these online bullies. Video game streamers and content creators, especially those who are a part of a visible minority, are also tasked with handling these tormentors. However, those playing video games in the public eye must cope with the harassers in front of an audience.
Ritalucia Henry-Andoh, a black pansexual streamer based in Ghana, knows all too well about handling forms of racial discrimination as a streamer. In one of her streams, Henry-Andoh found herself randomly paired with some sexist male gamers in an online game, who went on to catcall her throughout their match.
“I remember playing Apex [Legends] one time and I spoke, and they realized I was a woman. And they just started screaming, “Lady, lady, I want to fuck you!” He shouted at me the whole game,” recalls Henry-Andoh. “It sucks that I have to be subjected to this just because I exist.”
In another instance, Henry-Andoh was racially berated by randoms on a Discord channel.
“I was playing Valorant and I’m in a Discord voice chat with about three other people and some random people entered the Discord voice chat and they were shouting the N-word.”
A point can be made that streamers are actually subjected to harassment more than casual consumers. The job of streamers is to play video games in front of a live audience. This lets harassers know which games and at what times you can find certain streamers. Interactions, like the one Henry-Andoh experienced, are never easy to handle for streamers, as they must stay calm and free from emotion while their stream is visible.
“People don’t go by their [real] names online, they go by a different name. So you wouldn’t know who’s behind this one character [and] they can do absolutely anything they want and it won’t be [traced] to anybody. So, I think that being anonymous online is why people find it easier to verbally abuse people for no reason.”Adam Ashalley-Anthony
“I was on stream, so I quickly [muted] my computer audio so that way the stream couldn’t hear it. I turned off my camera just so I didn’t get too flustered on stream because when they see how flustered they make you, it makes them happier. So, I tried to be relaxed,” says Henry-Andoh.
“We can’t speak about it until after stream because you don’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing that they were able to fuck with you.”
Sadly, it’s no longer casual gamers and stream audiences that are the only ones who exhibit signs of toxicity. Some content creators have apparently begun to pile on the issue through a concept known as “hate raiding.” This is done through a feature on the platform, Twitch, that allows streamers to send their viewers into another creators’ live stream. While it was meant to share kindness across the platform, it, on occasion, turns into another form of digital harassment.
“Essentially what happens,” says Henry-Andoh, “is perhaps [a creator] just saw your stream from somewhere. [They] probably saw me under the ‘Black’ tag and they bring their [audience] into my chat just to spam hate words,”
What’s worrying is streamers are meant to be role models in the video game community and must lead their audience by example.
For Andrew Simon, the creative director of TGS Esports, a gaming organization based out of Richmond, B.C., certain audiences can be highly impressionable which leads to further issues down the road.
“[Some streamer or game] will have really anti-Semitic imagery or something like that and then it becomes normalized because they see it and they’ll sort of intake these values depending on what game they have.”
Creating diversity, starting with creators, helps break these stigmas. Simon, who is of Chilean descent, believes representation is massive.
“When you see someone online, especially in content [creation], that is a person of colour or someone like that, it can mean all the difference in the world because for those marginalized communities that could be you.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s, Hate is No Game report, in the past year over 80 million adults aged 18-45 in the United States have faced some kind of verbal harassment while playing video games online.
It’s important to note that Canada has no statistics on video game consumption or harassment. However, it’s safe to infer that the numbers would be relatively similar to the United States as Canadian users would join the same online lobbies as their American counterparts which means they would be subjected to the same toxic players.
And yet the inability to identify hateful gamers allows the harassment to continue, and even grow. This makes it almost impossible for game moderators to track down and discipline the culprits.
ANONYMITY PERPETUATES ABUSE
Fellow streamer and member of Melanin Gamers, Sheila Irie, feels that the anonymity allows consumers to make hateful comments that they would not say in the real world.
“[Harassers] get too big for their boots because nobody can see them, so they feel like they can say anything. When you actually do reply, sometimes some of them are just in shock and stop talking.”
According to Adam Ashalley-Anthony, a member of Melanin Gamers’ “stream team” and brother to Annabel, users can join lobbies with aliases and “gamertags” that easily hide their true identities.
“People don’t go by their [real] names online, they go by a different name. So you wouldn’t know who’s behind this one character [and] they can do absolutely anything they want and it won’t be [traced] to anybody. So, I think that being anonymous online is why people find it easier to verbally abuse people for no reason.”
In most online games, users do have the ability to report accounts that are being inappropriate in public lobbies but it’s not enough. The strictest repercussion reported accounts may face is a ban from the multiplayer content, and users can simply make another account via email and continue on abusing others online.
Instead of signing up through emails, Adam feels that more personal logins are a good start to cut down on the number of accounts set up to harass other players.
“Personally, that’s why I think there’s so much two-factor-authentication coming out… Trying to make it so that it’s harder for a new account to be created just off the rip, which I do think is a good attempt at stopping people from acting out on their main accounts.”
FINE LINE BETWEEN TRASH TALKING AND HARASSMENT
Parts of the video game community will also claim that there is no harassment in video games as it is simply good-natured teasing. While it’s important to note that light-hearted banter is present in the competitive space of video games, there still remains a line between joking and harassment.
For Annabel, the line is drawn when the trash-talking becomes personal or someone’s characteristics becomes the main point of focus.
“I get teased online and I think it’s funny. It’s fine. There’s like a lot of trash talking that goes on and I love that. Trash talking like, ‘Oh you’re so bad, or you’re so this.’ You can disrespect somebody respectfully without bringing their race [into it]… There’s so many other ways you can trash talk somebody. Also, it has to be with someone you know or you keep it lighthearted so that they know that I would never go further than that.”
WOMEN ARE TARGETED
As for which group is targeted the most by toxic users? Black women, without a doubt. Being a black woman, Henry-Andoh understands she along with countless other women gamers are a “double-whammy” for potential harassers.
“You’re black, you’re already getting hit with the N-word online. And then you’re a woman, you’re getting hit with the kitchen jokes. So, as a black woman online, it’s like, ‘Woah. We got both, we have double the ammunition for you.’ It really sucks.”
With many competitive gamers being women comes many side comments, mainly directed by men, about which games are meant for which sexualities.
“Women are questioned on what games they play,” said Irie.
“If a [woman] does say they are a gamer, they think that we play the Sims or Animal Crossing. As soon as we say, ‘We play a [first-person shooter],’ they like to question us about our gaming history. Like, why would we know that? I’m sure they don’t know that too.”
PLEA FOR MORE ACCOUNTABILITY
Along with creating a space free from harassment and discrimination for video game consumers, Annabel and Melanin Gamers are also doing their part in standing up against the toxic players in video games.
A social media initiative known as The Watch, was launched by Melanin Gamers as a way players can report clips of harassment involving racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination to the account via direct message. At the moment, the initiative is targeting the game Call of Duty, as its multiplayer environment is one of, if not the worst for harassment. The Watch sends the clips to Activision, the video game publisher behind Call of Duty, as a plea to have more accountability for their multiplayer functionality.
“[The Watch] has compiled all these videos and then they’re sending it to Activision to put pressure on by saying, ‘Look how many videos we have. You guys need to do something.’ So that we can sit down with them and have a conversation about [finding] a solution,” says Annabel.
Since its creation in August 2021, The Watch has received over 70 reports of racism shared by gamers in their community and have spanned across various platforms including Twitch.
The people of Melanin Gamers have the shared belief that the game developers and moderators are to blame for the level of harassment that gamers must face when participating in online matches, as they have no accountability and continue to “turn a blind eye” to the issue at hand. Some feel those in charge of the games are too concerned about the income they can potentially lose if they become stricter with cases of harassment in their games.
For example, if the Call of Duty moderators would enforce harsher punishments on discrimination and harassment, a large portion of toxic players may choose to walk away from the video game entirely. This would mean Call of Duty could lose a significant amount of income due to the drop off in players — a risk that the organization may not want to take.
We reached out to several of the bigger video game developers for a comment but received no answer. According to Annabel, if anything were to change, it would start with admitting to the community that there is a problem
“I think there needs to be a statement at first because addressing the fact that there is a problem will go so far to helping people feel like, ‘Oh, something’s being done.’ Then obviously following that up with transparency on what is going to happen. Like, ‘These are our new reporting features, and these are the steps people are going to do.’ I feel like once someone sees that, ‘Oh, they’re taking real action,’ it will stop half the players from saying what they’re going to say.”
NEED FOR DIVERSITY
Adam on the other hand feels that game developers should start by making their games more diverse for all cultures both inside the game and within their organizations.
In past games, there was a definite lack of culture representation through the main characters and the “skins” players could choose from. The choices of what characters a gamer could play with was often flooded with white men. As for the women characters, they tend to also be white and incredibly hypersexualized.
“I think it’s a matter of getting to know more people. Learning about more backgrounds or cultures depending on what the game’s about. Obviously, we live in the internet era so a lot of information can be discovered online, but making that extra effort would go a long way. You’d have somebody, somewhere random look at this game like, ‘Oh that character reminds me of myself,’” says Adam.
“Getting to know people from diverse cultures and different backgrounds, and just including their different walks of life within your video game. Even from the executive position, just hiring people from different places. Not having one kind of demographic because it’d be difficult to get an all-white cast and create a diverse game.”