Cons, Gaming, and the Growing Anti-Harassment Movement

Many people are familiar with the pushback on street harassment that contributed to the buildup of the Hollaback movement, which has since gone international. It even has its own phone app, aimed at allowing people to name and shame street harassers in the act. The idea of making anti-harassment visible, fighting back, and making sure other people know you have their backs when you see them getting harassed is an important step aimed at changing the culture we live in. I know I’m not the only one who’d like to be able to walk down the street without receiving unsolicited comments on my appearance.

And this movement is important, but I’m especially interested in how gamers and convention-goers are tackling harassment, because I feel like they’ve been underaddressed in larger discussions on the issue. Gamers are finally starting to get some traction and mainstream media attention, but not nearly enough, and there is a pretty notable silence when it comes to talking about conventions. Even though organisations like WisCon have had anti-harassment policies in place for years, and have been very committed to keeping their members as safe as possible.

Harassment in gaming is a serious issue, one that keeps women in particular from enjoying gaming because it requires navigating a constant sea of sexism. Racism, homophobia, and transphobia also run rampant on some servers, creating a minefield out of what should be a pleasurable social activity. And women gamers have started fighting back, from creating feminism and social justice-oriented servers that provide a safe space to members, to actively naming, shaming, and reporting people who engage in harassment.

Seeing that they weren’t getting a lot of support from the outside, gamers built their own anti-harassment paradigm, because they were fed up, and they wanted to be able to focus on gaming. And the stinginess of that support came from a lot of stereotypes about gaming, who games, and why people game. It’s very much looked down upon as a form of entertainment and social connection, and thus, a lot of people weren’t interested in addressing harassment in gaming; after all, it’s just a bunch of mouthbreathing guys who live in their mothers’ basements, right? So who really cares what kind of culture exists there, and who’s being subjected to it?

Only in the last few months have I started to see harassment in gaming covered with any degree of regularity and seriousness; the New York Times finally did a feature on harassment in gaming in August and suddenly it became a huge topic of conversation. People were admitting that this was an ongoing issue, that it hadn’t stopped, that there were women gamers, and that they were organising to address the issue and create a more pleasant place to play, compete, and socialise.

Women in gaming are here and they’re not going away. There’s getting more vocal with each year, and with that comes greater exposure. Every time women accomplish things in gaming, from developing new games to establishing themselves as champions in competition, they’re subjected to hateful sexist rhetoric and harassment. Threats abound for anyone with a female username or profile, and gamers known to the public are apt to be harassed even more viciously. Look, for example, at the hatred people reserve for Felicia Day, who’s raised the profile of women in gaming significantly, and gotten substantial hatemail for it.

On the convention scale, conventions across the world have always struggled with harassment; you’re talking about crowding a bunch of strangers in a small space, and the potential creation of volatile situations. At social-justice themed conferences, this is a particular issue, because the safety of attendees is a careful consideration. In other instances, it’s an endemic problem that hasn’t been addressed; tech conferences, for example, are notorious for sexual harassment of women attendees, from porn embedded in presentations to groping incidents in elevators.

And many cons have started taking the stance of developing and enforcing an anti-harassment policy to create a framework for protecting users. It’s not always perfect, but it’s an important start. As seen at Readercon earlier this year, having a policy doesn’t necessarily mean that harassment won’t happen or that the policy will be immediately enforced, but it does mean that there’s something attendees can point to while they work to get traction on an incident of harassment. And the more a policy is developed and enforced, the more trust attendees can place in it.

Cons and gamers alike rely on community-based solutions to harassment that focus on defining it, identifying it, and doing something about it. And they’ve made a lot of progress, although not nearly enough, because putting a stop to harassment is an uphill battle. Their work has made participation and attendance safer for a lot of people, and has made it easier for people to feel comfortable about reporting harassment and expecting a real result.

Both communities also tend to be marginalised and looked down on by society at large, which means a lot of people aren’t talking about the anti-harassment work occurring within the spaces, and how they can take the lessons from these environments to other locales. It’s not possible to smoothly transfer tactics from gaming and cons without a ripple, but it could be possible to start looking at what’s worked and what hasn’t, and how it could be used in other places.

For example, many con anti-harassment policies lay out a clear list of penalties for offenders so people can understand the consequences of their actions. Having similar penalties clearly delineated in other environments, like the workplace, could make a big difference. Harassed employees know what to expect in terms of handling of the incident because there’s a transparent framework for doing so, and people engaging in harassment would know from the start what the consequences would be.

The work being done in communities on the margins can be critically important, and it’s possible to evaluate it, use it beneficially, and credit the communities it came from; the question is, are people ready to do that?