In the United States, gaming is a $35.5 billion industry, with an estimated 211 million people playing online games -- which adds up to 67% of the population.
In addition to the general allure of gameplay and competition, online gaming platforms also establish connections between people, allowing gamers to strike up conversations with friends or complete strangers and to build what can sometimes turn out to be long-lasting relationships. However, the ability to easily connect socially through a simple internet connection also means there's a platform for negative social interactions, leading to instances of online harassment.
A 2019 study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) revealed 74% of gamers had experienced some form of online harassment, and 65% of people playing games online have experienced "severe" online harassment, which is defined as including sustained harassment, physical threats and even stalking.
What does online harassment look like?
Online harassment can include a variety of damaging behaviors such as threats, hateful messages, defamation, and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Typically, the end goal of the harasser is to drive the victim off of the gaming platform or to harm them in some way through a series of threats, by broadcasting personal information online (also known as doxxing), or otherwise threatening their personal safety -- not just virtually, but in real life.
According to the ADL study, 29% of online gamers reported being victims of doxxing. This form of online harassment entails divulging personal information about someone without their consent, such as a home address, telephone number or a gamer's real name. In some cases, this can lead to additional harassment from others who come across that information.
Once this information is online, the harassment can then escalate to swatting. Swatting occurs when an ill-intentioned gamer reaches out to emergency services and law enforcement agencies and asks that they respond to a fake emergency at the victim's house. When law enforcement enters what they believe to be a dangerous situation, such as the fallout of a shooting or a hostage situation, people can get hurt in the confusion.
When harassment transcends the boundaries of the internet, there are far-reaching consequences. To prevent online harassment from escalating and to keep online gaming fun for the entire gaming community, gamers need to report instances of online harassment early to the gaming company or service provider of the gaming platform. Companies need to know about the incident in order for them to step in and remedy the situation. People found guilty of harassment are commonly banned from the game, making the game more safe and more fun for other players.
How are companies addressing harassment?
Most large tech and gaming companies are aware of the possibility (if not prevalence) of online harassment happening on their platforms. And many of these companies have put measures in place to help players report online harassment or digital abuse.
Console gaming tycoons Xbox (owned by Microsoft) and Playstation (Sony) each have a clearly defined code of conduct outlining the boundaries of behavior accepted on the platforms. Microsoft's Community Standards and Sony's Community Code of Conduct leave very little room for misunderstanding where the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable online behaviors lie.
Of course, the options of blocking other players or filing reports of online harassment are not limited to the world of console gaming. Just about every online gaming platform has similar options available to players. For example, the online gaming platform Steam has posted rules and guidelines and a Steam Online Conduct guide, both of which clearly outline what is considered inappropriate behavior that will not be tolerated. Steam users are also encouraged to file a complaint should they experience harassment or come across inappropriate content.
Harassment and defamation are not the only things gamers need to report. Gaming platforms encourage people to report a wide range of incidents. Some of these include (but are not limited to) cheating, posting spam, posting inappropriate or offensive content, or using inappropriate profile pictures and player names.
What are the steps to take when targeted?
In most cases dealing with online harassment isn't a matter of toughing it out. Being proactive means, you're more likely to get the behavior to stop. Luckily, there are several steps you or your child can take to deal with online harassment. Let's look at a few:
- Step 1: Document and gather evidence. Gathering evidence in the form of digital records is incredibly important if you are being harassed. The evidence is crucial for when you need to take criminal or legal action against your aggressor. Since online harassment can cross into real life, you need to have proof of everything that has happened in the digital world. Document all of your interactions with the person harassing you. This means taking and printing screenshots and getting timestamps whenever you can. (Tip: Screenshots often save with a file name that doubles as a timestamp.)
- Step 2: Tell them to stop, but don't initiate a dialogue with the harasser. This is an important step to take when you're dealing with online harassment. As a one-time action, tell the person they need to stop harassing you. Engaging with the harasser can lead to escalation.
- Step 3: Try not to take it personally. Regardless of the level of harassment, remember that someone else is behaving badly, and their words and actions are not a reflection of you. Try to distance yourself from the scenario emotionally. In a nutshell, don't let them push your buttons. By refusing to engage, you are taking away their power over you.
- Step 4: Block and report them. Most games provide players with the option to block and/or report other players. You can ensure you won't be paired up with them again by blocking a player, and hopefully, the harassment will end there. If the harassment is more serious in nature, you should report the player as well. Filing a formal complaint might mean the aggressor is completely banned from the game as a consequence.
- Step 5: Speak to the other players. It takes a tribe. Speak to the other players in your game about the player targeting you. Chances are, some of them will have had similar experiences. The chances of having an aggressor banned from the game are much higher if multiple complaints are filed against them.
- Step 6: Reach out to the game moderators. Game moderators can act as both the police and peacekeepers. If your game has a moderator, you can reach out to them and make them aware that another player is harassing you.
- Step 6: Know your legal rights. Stay prepared by knowing your rights if you encounter online harassment. Carla Franklin, a cyber abuse expert, survivor and advocate for victims, offers this tip on her website: "Even if you have a lawyer or the police involved in your situation, you are your own best advocate and know your case better than anyone." We've provided a list of resources below.
- Step 7: Contact the police. If the person who is harassing you makes threats or does something that is considered illegal in the real world, you should contact the police. If another player threatens your life or causes you harm, it is time to get law enforcement involved.
- Step 8: Step up your internet security. Some people may be more tech-savvy than others in gaining information on you and your online activities. They may go so far as to try to access your email or social media accounts. But you can make it harder for others to engage in doxxing by tightening up your online security. It is incredibly important to have two-factor authentication and a very strong password for each account. Have a good look at how much information you have posted about yourself and your whereabouts online. It may not seem important to you at the time you post something, but for an aggressor who is gathering sensitive and personal information about you, your social media accounts can be a goldmine.
- Step 9: Reach out for support. As with any other traumatic experience in life, you should reach out to your support network and possibly even a licensed mental health professional for help. Being the target of online harassment is something you shouldn't have to deal with by yourself. Samantha Silverberg, the co-founder of the Online SOS Network, told Psychology Today, "People don't realize how big of an issue it is from a mental health perspective. It's really hard to quantify what's happening." Online harassment can have a massive impact on an individual's mental health, so getting help and reaching out for support is incredibly important in many cases.
- Step 10: Look out for others. Anyone is at risk of becoming a victim of online harassment. Don't be a bystander if you see someone harassing another player. The gaming community is meant to be a safe space for everyone, and identifying and dealing with a troll often needs to be a collective effort. Emily May, the co-founder and executive director of Hollaback! and HeartMob, which supports people who are being harassed online, reported to Vice, "We have to depend on one another and work together to change the culture that makes online harassment acceptable."
What resources are there?
Because online harassment is such a big issue, there has been an increase in people and groups advocating for the victims of online harassment. These individuals, support groups, and nonprofit organizations aim to end all online harassment and have made many available resources on the topic.
Here are a few resources you can turn to if you, or someone you know, is being harassed online:
- HeartMob: A nonprofit organization powered by activists that aim to end online harassment. The platform provides real-time support for anyone who experiences online harassment and has made available a long list of resources, including helpful guides and more information on the topic of harassment.
- Crash Override Network: A crisis helpline, advocacy group and resource center for people who are experiencing online abuse. The group has made various resources available, including educational materials, referrals, guides and interactive tools, which people can use to inform and educate themselves on online harassment.
- Cyber Smile Foundation: A nonprofit organization working towards ending online harassment and cyberbullying and promoting kindness, diversity and inclusion online. They offer several articles and guides aimed specifically at the gaming community.
- International Game Developers Association (IGDA): A nonprofit organization with extensive resources covering how to respond to online harassment.
- Online SOS: A platform providing information and tools to help empower people dealing with online harassment. The nonprofit also offers services such as crisis coaching and referrals to experts.
- Feminist Frequency: A nonprofit educational organization that has put together an extensive guide on how to protect yourself from online harassment.
- Data & Society Research Institute: This nonprofit research organization has compiled a detailed report on America's online harassment, digital abuse, and cyberstalking.
The bottom line
The majority of people looking at online gaming as a source of entertainment want to join a community of people who have one thing in common: a love for games. Unfortunately, not everyone is doing their part to create a safe and positive online gaming culture.
Two-thirds of online gamers in the U.S. have experienced some form of online harassment, and often the harassment does not simply end when a player logs off. Luckily, there are many steps a victim of online harassment can take to empower and protect themselves. There are also many resources available to educate yourself further on the topic of online harassment.
Take control of your gaming experience and do your part to spot and report online harassment early to help ensure a safe and fun gaming community for everyone.