A comic depicts a stereotypical male gamer, shirt and stomach covered with crumbs, sneering into his headset mic. “Wait a sec you’re a girl?” he asks. “You must be some fat ugly whore.” Another shows a woman logging on after a long day. “Well I’ve got some free time,” she says, smiling. “Maybe I’ll play a fun multiplayer game.” Her screen is then filled with gendered curse words as the same, now ironic, smile stays stuck on her face.
These depictions and hundreds like it are a unifying thread on /r/GirlGamers, a subreddit and corresponding Discord server run by mostly the same group of moderators, specifically made for women-identifying and non-binary gamers. While these comics poke fun at the serious online harassment female gamers face on a daily basis, threads on the subreddit are often more serious. Women contemplate logging off and never playing again; others question why they constantly find themselves questioned about their gender whenever they try to play online.
The subreddit has more than 78,000 members, while the Discord server has 2,600 daily users. Discord itself is an online chat platform, originally designed for the video gaming community — in private and public servers, users can chat via text, image, video, and audio (think Slack, but for gamers). While initially created so players could audio chat during games, the platform has evolved beyond the gaming community. Now you can find servers small enough for a single group of friends, like internet personas hosting their own servers, or large enough for thousands of people interested in a game like Overwatch or Fortnite.
When Jamie Klouse, who goes by the handle Byeuji, helped create the /r/GirlGamers subreddit nine years ago, she was searching for a place to talk about woman-centric issues in gaming and tech. She gave a recent example of a thread where a woman asked about the best gaming headphones to use with her newly healing earlobe double piercings. “Had that been posted on /r/gaming or another large male-dominated community, it would have been downvoted to oblivion for being irrelevant to their interests, and because of the relatively low percentage of women in the community compared to men, the thread likely would have never been seen by any other women who might find it to be an interesting topic,” she said. “The communal wisdom was earbuds, without exception, by the way.”
Primarily, /r/GirlGamers is a place to find other women with whom to play, and vent about the exhausting existence of being a woman online. The online harassment women gamers face has been widely reported; in one study of gaming communities, 38 percent of women and 35 percent of LGBTQ+ players claimed they’d experienced harassment because of their gender or sexual orientation. The women I talked to for this story all had their own striking stories at the hands of male gamers. Rebecca, a moderator for /r/GirlGamers, said her personal information, including her address, had been publicized by a 12-year-old user during a livestream session on Twitch. Erika Curtis, another moderator, recalled a man who’d followed her throughout a multiplayer game, telling her how he’d rape her. Byeuji has purged past Reddit posts containing information she thought might be too personal, owing to the risk that someone might excavate them for nefarious purposes.
“A lot of people in our Discord have experienced it in some way, shape, or form,” Curtis said.“And that shared experience is what binds us together in that community.” So when the news of Bianca Devins’s death broke last month, the community was saddened, but not surprised. Devins was a 17-year-old gamer and online persona who was allegedly murdered by Brandon Andrew Clark, an acquaintance who subsequently posted photos of her body to her Discord server. Users of the server then reported Clark to the police, who arrested him and charged him with second-degree murder (he recently pleaded not guilty).
“We are not the kind of community that accepts ‘it was just a joke’ as an excuse.”
Curtis called it a “scary reminder of the real-world consequences to online harassment.” The moderators immediately went to work, releasing a post titled “Break Glass in Case of Emergency — What to Do if You're a Target of Harassment.” The comprehensive guide lists dozens of resources for seeking help, a checklist of steps to follow to protect yourself and your identity, and additional organizations that combat harassment, both online and off. “Sometimes it makes you want to just leave and never log in again,” Byeuji said. “But eventually I come to my senses and realize that the actions of these terrorists make it ever more necessary for spaces like ours to exist. Because without them, all we have is fear.”
Discord, unlike many online spaces, allows users to be selective about who can join and has strict rules. The platform has also been better about banning hate speech and groups, compared to sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit. Recently, they’ve banned alt-right groups, Nazi supporter servers, and groups promoting an app that undresses photos of women without their consent. “Discord has really helped a lot of women's organizations crop up,” Rebecca said.
Meanwhile, platforms like Reddit often frustrate Rebecca with their inaction towards the harassment /r/GirlGamers faces regularly. For example, moderators have the ability to mute messages from a particular Redditor who is sending threatening messages to their moderator inbox. But that the mute only lasts for three days — once time is up, the messages may continue. Even banning or deleting accounts isn’t an easy solution. Since making an account on the platform is simple — Redditors can sign up for multiple accounts with the same email — a banned individual can reemerge moments later. Rebecca recalled one user who made 300 accounts over the course of two years simply to tell users of /r/HeroesOfTheStorm (a subreddit devoted to the game of the same name), where she served as a moderator, to “die of cancer.”
The features of Discord’s servers allow much more regulation within the /r/GirlGamers community. For one, users can only join a server through a unique invite link. In order to receive an invite, you have to follow an application process via the subreddit, where moderators look through a user’s posting history to see if they have a background of being vile or hateful towards others (you also have to be an active member of /r/GirlGamers to begin with). They ask users to disclose if they are a man (typically cisgender males) at the top of their application, which easily weeds out the applications they reject. Byeuji says they’ve only had a dozen or two male-identified users in the channel, and often they’ve been vouched for by their spouses or significant others already in the Discord. “The structure of Discord serves woman-centric communities very well,” she said. “There are strong moderation controls, especially with third-party bots, and a lot of ways to collaborate with other users.”
When a member first joins the /r/GirlGamers Discord, they’re greeted by a list of 10 rules covering the type of language banned in the chat, which discussions correlate to each channel, and how to reach out for help with harassing messages. Below a note reads, “All women are welcome here, regardless of their background, and no discrimination or disrespect based on race, religion, gender identity, or anything else is tolerated. We are not the kind of community that accepts ‘it was just a joke’ as an excuse.” Rebecca said they rarely need to enforce these rules since the community is already very tight knit and dedicated to inclusion. But the fact that the rules, made and regulated by women, exist is powerful in its own right.
Byeuji and Rebecca are both part of other groups for women gamers. Byeuji is a moderator for /r/GirlsGoneWired (for women who work in technology and computer science) and /r/GirlOtakus (for women who enjoy manga and anime). Rebecca, meanwhile, started an offshoot of /r/GirlGamers for women who play Overwatch. “There has been a surge in demand for women’s communities in gaming in recent years,” Byeuji said. “I would say since 2016, the demand has been booming, particularly on Reddit... I’ve seen all of my woman-centric communities move from near flat-line growth post-Gamergate to solid incremental growth — between 10 and 20 percent annually.” The technology industry is vastly dominated by men, but as we see apps and services grow that are developed by women for women, it’s hard not to wonder what the internet could’ve been like if, from the beginning, women had been included in the process of creating major platforms.
Still, there is no clear path forward. For now, commiserating with women they trust is enough for these users, and many others in their community. “It’s very hard to show up and make your username Erika, speak in the mic, and be afraid,” Curtis said. “But I think the more and more that women do that, the less prevalent that harassing messages, comments and threats will be. As we say, hey I’m here and I’m not afraid of you.”