Penalising gamers – the solution to harassment? One gaming exec thinks so

Almost a decade has passed since the term GamerGate entered everyday vocabulary, the online campaign of hate and misogyny aimed at female gamers, developers and journalists taking off in 2014.

And while that tsunami of abuse has since fallen out the headlines, the harassment of women and girls in gaming has by no means disappeared in its wake.

Dorota Wróbel, chief R&D officer at digital marketplace, believes a two-pronged approach is needed to continue tackling the issue.

‘We need to educate gamers,’ she says. ‘We have to fight to stop [other gamers] treating women in a sexist manner. You’ll often see women and girls playing under a male nickname because they’re afraid they’ll be treated differently, then only admitting they’re women after they’ve won.

‘And it’s not just happening to women, minorities are also [being harassed], so education should be much wider.’

Education, however, relies on a willingness by those involved to engage and learn. Looking back to 2014, those involved in GamerGate believed – or alleged – they were part of a social movement, their founding aim to ‘promote ethics in video game journalism’. This evolved into a number of other goals, including a fight against political correctness in gaming. That was the closest the movement came to accurately describing itself, GamerGate in reality being a proxy war in the increasingly vocal and violent cultural divide seen across the globe. 

So if those committing harassment via their keyboards believe they’re on the right side, free educational information is unlikely to convince them otherwise. That is where Wróbel proposes the second prong. Less carrot, more stick.

‘Perhaps the best way would be gamification,’ she says. ‘Gamers want to achieve more points, more levels. So if you are not treating others in a proper manner, you’re not achieving points – people would be much more focused on behaving better [if they were penalised].’

It’s a radical idea, rarely seen and possibly hard to implement in practice. It will place vastly more responsibility on moderators but, as Wróbel points out, they already often play a role in trying to educate those who are seen to be harassing others. It will be a team effort, a real-life MMOG – but not a game.

However, it is not simply among players that progress must be made. Many of the women GamerGate originally targeted were developers, who remain a minority in the sector. A 2022 survey in the US found just 28% of developers are women, despite the gaming community itself being an almost 50/50 split.

Wróbel cites Amy Hennig, Lena Raine and Kim Swift among her favourite devs, but notes the sector is still overwhelmingly male. Likewise, a lack of female developers has resulted in a gender imbalance among lead characters.

‘There are particular examples of games where [women] aren’t well presented, like Super Mario or Donkey Kong where you can see the woman treated as damsels in distress, or in combat games where they’re mainly male characters,’ says Wróbel. ‘But there are also great examples like Horizon Zero Dawn, or Mass Effect – the whole series – where Shepard can be either male or female, but the actions are always the same based on heroics, not gender.’

Gender division and a pay gap also endures at the industry executive level, but like on screen, progress is being made.

‘I remember my first games trade show, where we had 30 business meetings lined up,’ says Wróbel. ‘I didn’t have a single one with a person of the same gender. I think it’s changing, right now you can see women entering special roles and they’re also more valued as creative people who add to the games – more and more professional women are entering the gaming industry, and that’s good.

‘At the beginning it’s not easy, but it is important to overcome the obstacles. When I started at G2A there were three women in the 30-people company, and right now we have almost forty per cent women. That’s really cool and I’m proud of that, because it was not easy to do – it’s taken more than six years. 

‘But step by step, if you really focus on having an inclusive environment you can do that. Competencies are the most important, but I think you can choose your team and make sure that mix is working better than a female-only or male-focused team.

‘And female empowerment is key.’

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