This session of Overwatch was supposed to be a stress reliever, but tensions began to rise after Daja Williams and one of her teammates started to argue over who would play Lucio, one of the most popular supporting characters in the first-person-shooter game.
“You’re a fucking fat ass nigger,” a male teammate says through his microphone. Williams has never met the guy she’s playing with and chances are slim to none that she ever will. More slurs blare into her ear as Williams blasts through other characters in the game. Flashing lights and swirling colors fill her screen, the intensity of the images almost mimicking the screaming match growing between Williams and her partner.
The 22-year-old has been playing video games since the first PlayStation was released and she’s mastered a wide range of games including Dead by Daylight, Mortal Combat, the Sims, and Overwatch. But even masters take losses. Large red letters pan across her screen spelling out “defeat” as the Williams and her teammate spew the last of their verbal punches before digitally parting ways.
“Hang yourself, bitch,” the male teammate says as a final goodbye.
“Imagine getting racist just because I’m asking for a fucking Lucio,” Williams says. “That is so sad.” Williams logs off of the game and takes a breath as her headset and microphone remain in place. This isn’t her first time having slurs hurled at her while playing online. It’s become so commonplace that Williams has started documenting and recording when she gets harassed while on Overwatch.
“Every time I play, people mention that I’m black or that I’m a woman,” Williams says. “It’s something I’ve always dealt with playing online. I know it’s bad that I’m used to it.”
Williams, like many other black female gamers, often have to deal with harassment, racial epithets, and sexist slurs while playing online. Overwatch and multiplayer online games have become a cesspool for hate and other black women gamers commonly become victims of harassment when they do not hide their identities.
Sometimes Williams masks herself online by opting out of using her headset and mic when playing with people she does not know. Any signs of a feminine voice or “sounding black” to other players could open her up to a whirlwind of sexist and racist insults. Williams also doesn’t use an image for her profile photo on Overwatch or PlayStation, but says that her username often gives her away if she is not using her headset.
Blizzard’s website says that it prohibits hate speech and discriminatory language and that repeat offenders receive expanded account restrictions. The number of transgressors who are punished seems to be the tip of the iceberg as reporting each violator can become taxing and time-consuming for those actively in a gaming session. Blizzard could not be reached for comment.
Creating a safe space for women gamers
Williams says Blizzard, the maker of Overwatch, doesn’t have any control over the amount of hate speech used on its platforms and she has turned to gamer communities to avoid the vitriol. Williams is a current member of Black Girl Gamers (BGG), an international online community dedicated to creating a safe space for women gamers. The community originally started as a private Facebook group launched in 2015 by Jay-Ann Lopez, an avid Halo and Call of Duty fan who has dealt with her fair share of racists and sexists online.
“I understood that there were other people experiencing the same things I was experiencing,” Lopez says. She’s been a gamer since the days of GameCube, but took a hiatus from playing video games after enduring heavy loads of harassment on Halo.
She used her time away from her game console to create Black Girl Gamers, which has expanded rapidly to the U.S. from London. The Black Girl Gamers Facebook group has more than 4,000 members and a presence on Twitter.
There is no formal application process to be in Black Girl Gamers; however, women looking to be a part of the Facebook group must answer a series of questions and be approved by moderators before they can begin interacting with BGG members from around the world. The requirements are pretty simple to get in: be black, be a woman, be a gamer.
The questionnaire asks candidates about their racial and gender identities and requires them to acknowledge the group’s community standards against sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry.
“We are very stringent in how [we let] people enter the group,” says Akua Harris, a community manager for BGG. “When we go through to approve people, we actually do go to their profiles and look through all of their photos.”
BGG administrators only approve users who have more than three images of themselves associated with their accounts. Harris says that the extra verification step helps to ensure that all of the rules of the group are followed and to keep the haters out.
“The name of our platform draws a lot of attention,” Lopez says. “We get a lot of racist vitriol on Twitter that I don’t even share for the most part until I want to make an example out of someone.”
Even having a space on Twitter makes BGG a huge target for hate. A recent study by Amnesty International shows that Black women are disproportionately harassed on Twitter, being 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets.
Forty-seven percent of daily Twitch users said they received hate on the platform. The report also noted that 28% of users on other gaming platforms also said they have been harassed. To curtail some of the harassment, BGG members moderate each other’s streams by removing and reporting users who leave nasty comments.
Lopez says she usually reports and blocks hateful, racist trolls, but every now and again she posts screenshots to start conversations with other gamers.
“It is important for people to know that [sexism and racism] are out there and it’s not a safe haven yet,” Lopez says. “BGG grows because there is a need for it. Until companies do a little bit more to hold players accountable, BGG will keep growing.”
Taking matters into their own hands
Game makers like Blizzard, Epic Games, Xbox, and streaming platform Twitch have come under fire for the seeming lack of policing on their platforms. Players have had to take matters into their own hands by reporting issues, creating tactics to combat trolls and hoping for the best.
Users are forced to trust reporting procedures when looking to avoid or punish harassers during gameplay. Despite Blizzard’s rules against harassment and hate speech, it still seeps through and black women gamers often become targets for just existing.
Xbox Live plans to release new content filters by the end of the year to “to detect and prevent harmful content from being shared on our services,” says a Microsoft spokesperson. Restricted players do have the ability to create new profile, just as long as they do not violate Xbox Live’s Community Guidelines under their new account.
“There needs to be some more accountability from these companies to do IRL bans and character bans,” Lopez says.
Twitch, one of the most popular streaming platforms used by members of BGG, knows there is a harassment issue on the platform and has built out tools to help its users deal with these problems on the front end.
“Beyond having some of the strictest community guidelines on the internet when it comes to hate speech and other forms of harassment, they have a wealth of moderation tools and a report button on every channel that goes to their global 24/7 human moderation team,” a former Twitch employee says.
Twitch’s website lists a number of features that streamers and moderators, people who immediately report, remove, and block harassers from live streams, can use to “manage harassment” in the streaming chats. Users can ban strangers from sending messages, enable the “ignore” feature, turn on an autobot, and establish other channel rules to curb some of the hate speech they receive.
“You’re never going to catch every troll or every racist person that writes a dumb comment on somebody’s stream,” Harris said. “But, as long as they feel like nothing is going to happen, there’s not going to be a reason for them to stop.”
Black Girl Gamers has its own Twitch channel where viewers can watch its members live-stream a host of different games like Oxygen Not Included, Don’t Starve Together, Apex Legend, and King’s Landing. Its members work together to moderate each other’s streams and for the official Twitch page. BGG also has community standards similar to its Facebook group that it requires its viewers to abide by.
A note on BGG’s Twitch page says its “ban hand is strong,” a small warning to anyone looking to cause trouble on their profile. Proactive messaging, teamwork, and a survey are just a few tools Black Girl Gamers use to hold individual users accountable, but these tactics highlight a strained trust in gaming companies and developers as a whole.
BGG members build organic relationships through their Facebook group, Twitter conversations, and Discord, a voice and text chat platform for gamers. These relationships open doors of protection on streaming websites where many BGGs post videos of their gameplay and can often become targets for trolls.
Accountability has not been the gaming industry’s strong suit, and harassment campaigns like GamerGate have brought light to the hate and sexism that exists in the digital world. In 2014, game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu and feminist YouTube personality Anita Sarkeesian became targets of internet mobs, threats, and a never-ending world of harassment during GamerGate after pushing for more gender diversity in the industry.
“I was getting the wrath of Steve Bannon and the alt-right for just talking about getting more women employed in the gaming industry,” Wu says. “They did everything they could to shut me up.”
The harassment from GamerGate got so bad that Wu was forced to move out of her home. Her safety was constantly in jeopardy as she received death and rape threats, had a brick chucked through her window, and was stalked by male gamers. Five years has not been enough for Wu to heal. She says she suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from the years of harassment and she still gets death threats to this day.
Wu understands why the hate escalated in the way that it did, attributing the issue to multiple decades of the gaming industry focusing on white male consumers.
“The field is wildly sexist in ways we’re not willing to think about,” Wu says. “Over the last 30 years, the industry has catered to a very specific kind of consumer and has met their every single fantasy. It has sent this message to anyone that’s not a white, straight male that they are not welcome in the game industry.”
Wu says that diversifying the number of game developers will help alleviate some of the other issues with hate in the industry.
“If we fix the input side of the industry, the output side will fix itself,” Wu says.
Since GamerGate online hate and harassment has reached record highs. According to the Anti-Defamation League, more than half of people in the U.S. have experienced some type of harassment online. Women disproportionately received hate, with 24% of respondents claiming they’ve been insulted, physically threatened, sexually harassed or stalked online.
How to fight off the trolls
Fighting off trolls is not the only purpose of Black Girl Gamers. BGG has helped numerous black women find a sense of community in an industry where they are often left out of the conversation. These women have nurtured friendships, found teammates for their games, and created a safe escape from their routine gaming experience.
The variety of genres and titles has created subgroups within the BGG community, and players often chat about tips on Discord.
“We have a channel in our Discord specifically for helping people stream better,” Harris says. “There people in the channel who will sit with you and have a one-on-one conversation with you on how to improve your stuff.”
The channel, and others like it, give novice players and streamers the chance to learn from more expert members of the group. For now, the Facebook group and Discord channels serve as an online replacement for some of BGG’s future plans. Harris says the organization will soon be hosting its own in-person meetups and workshops.
“Things have been on a more individual level so far,” Harris says, noting that BGG members often make private plans to meet each other. Members have organized in-person meetings during comic and gaming conventions, but Harris hopes to have more official events later this year.
Most women in the BGG group continue leaning on virtual relationships to build up their gaming skills or burn off some steam at the end of a long day. Members like Williams are still trying to get the hang of maneuvering in their newfound network.
Williams has played and streamed her Overwatch sessions dozens of times since her encounter with her Lucio-less teammate. Now that she is a part of Black Girl Gamers, she knows there is a group of women she can turn to when having her headset mic on opens the floodgates of racism and sexism.
Williams says that her love for games, like many of the other members of BGG, is what motivates her to turn on her console each day despite the hate she may get. “No one is going to stop me from playing,” Williams says.
Arriana McLymore covers the intersection of diversity and tech, and its impacts. She’s currently a student in NYU’s business and economic reporting program. When she’s not studying, writing, or tweeting, she’s trying to find the best sushi spot in town.