From League of Legends to Counter-Strike, student gamers and experts weigh in on the topic of safe spaces in video games.

By Casey Ek

Kelli Dunlap has earned her stripes in the world of Halo, an online video game. But her skill at the game and her position as co-owner of Grifballhub.com, an associated fan site, have not exempted her from receiving rape threats and unwanted nude photos online, she said.

“Being a female in this space means that you are much more likely to receive harassment than not,” said Dunlap, an expert in gaming and mental health and a master’s student in game design. “The people who argue that we don’t need safe spaces in video games are obviously the people who have never felt unsafe.”

Dunlap has received countless messages with content she calls sexual harassment, including nude pictures from men, she said. The Xbox gamer has found that acts like these typically warrant no punishment from Xbox Live administrators, those in charge of regulating her particular gaming space.

“If someone sends you a hateful message, you have to leave it in your inbox until enforcement deals with it. So if someone sends me a rape threat, which has happened many, many times, when I open up my messages, it has to be there because if I delete it, enforcement can’t see it,” Dunlap said. “I get reminded every single time that this person sent me this horrible message because I can’t delete it unless enforcement tells me I can, and that’s assuming enforcement gets back to me.”

Kenny Newton, 26 (right), stares intently at his computer monitor mid-contest. (Photo:Casey Ek)

Kenny Newton, 26 (right), stares intently at his computer monitor mid-contest. (Photo: Casey Ek)

Gamer: ‘You can’t take it too seriously’

Dunlap’s story is not remarkable within online gaming. According to a Pew study published in 2014, one in four women 18-24 experience some form of sexual harassment online (not specific to gaming). But while sexual harassment is ostensibly pervasive in online spaces, there are those who say they believe the notion of safe spaces limits the gaming experience.

Many, like Steven Golden, 21, a student at George Mason University, hold that acts they say don’t put anyone in real physical or emotional danger should not be regulated and are just part of the online gaming experience. Golden said he believes the popular act of crouching over an enemy’s face after killing a real player opponent, simulating oral sex, has been the subject of too much scrutiny in the gaming world.

 

People think they’re special little snowflakes and they’re not. People need to get over it.”

 

The backlash against developer-created safe spaces does not stop at everyday players. Allum Bokhari, a reporter for Breitbart Tech, a conservative news website, has denounced them in the past and still holds this position, he said.

“Game studios should remember that people play games primarily to let off steam. That’s why violent games sell well, and that’s why players tend to enjoy trash-talk,” he said. “This is especially true in multiplayer games, where there’s an element of competition. Riot Games’ approach is a perfect example of what not to do.”

Where many gamers find themselves polarized by the topic, others, like Noah Goldstein, 18, who plans to attend Washington University in St. Louis in the fall, have taken a quiet approach to their online play.

I see it a lot in chat, but I don’t really pay attention to it. I think it speaks to how much there is because you can zone out,” he said. “You can’t take it too seriously. I think the same is true in the real world.”

Silenced players

Nicole Haigwood, a freshman at George Mason University, is an avid League of Legends player, she said. She noted that although gaming online has been a mostly positive experience, she still has techniques to deal with toxic behavior.

“They have this really awesome button called mute,” she said. “And if people are still talking crap at the end of the game, you can just report them, and it will be taken care of.”

Muting microphones can go both ways for some players. Georgetown University sophomore Brian Bies, 20, said he and countless other players choose to mute their own microphones in order to avoid harassment.

“They have this really awesome button called mute…

Bies described part of his online gaming experience in his pubescent years:

“…I purposely didn’t turn on my microphone because my voice didn’t drop. That’s when you’ll get interactions where harassment goes flying left and right,” he said. “I think there are people in the gaming community who just want to give people a hard time.”

Amidst the game developer Blizzard Entertainment’s launch of what fans called an over-sexualized victory pose for one of its characters, Dunlap says a lack of response from gaming administrators in the face of harassment has led many female gamers in the Xbox player space to feel alienated.

“Most women that I know online don’t report because one, they feel like it’s only happening to them and two, nothing is going to be done about it anyway, so why go through the extra steps?” she said.

Microsoft, the owners and operators of Xbox Live, claim to take such cases very seriously, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

“Online harassment is not tolerated at Microsoft,” the spokesperson said. “Everyone has the right to create, play, review and criticize games without the fear of violence, harassment and threats, and we place great importance on the safety and security of our customers.”

The Cave Gaming Center between rounds at the Hearthstone qualifying rounds. (Photo:Casey Ek)

The Cave Gaming Center between rounds at the Hearthstone qualifying rounds. (Photo:Casey Ek)

Do safe spaces already exist?

Andy Lin, 21, a researcher at Riot Games, the makers of League of Legends, the world’s most played video game, said he believes creating online atmospheres where all players feel safe is a difficult task. But ultimately, this is an important effort, he said.

“If you want to have untouchable speech, by definition you can’t create spaces where people aren’t exposed to unsafe ideas,” Lin said. He added that regulating player behaviors online was a crucial step for the company he works for.

“If they hadn’t done that, League would have died a long time ago.”

What exactly does Riot Games regulate? Lin noted that all forms of “toxic behavior,” Riot Games’ official term for many forms of harassment, including sexual, racial or otherwise, are under the company’s scrutiny.

“You can exercise your free speech in public spaces and public forums,” Lin said. “But League isn’t a public space—it’s private and owned by Riot games—and getting angry for getting banned for harassment is like going into someone’s house and cussing at them and getting mad at them for kicking you out.”

Most League of Legends players, according to Lin, are college-aged, with the average player being 21.

Both sides of the debate seem to meet on some common ground. Bokhari said there is a solution that has the potential to benefit those for or against safe spaces in video games that players already use.

“Games like Counter-Strike and Mount & Blade allow you to set up your own game servers where you can impose any rules you wish, and ban anyone who violates them,” he said. “…Unfortunately, social justice warriors of gaming want their own thin-skinned values to be universal. I doubt they’d be satisfied with such a solution.”

David Paciorkowski, 26, frequents The Cave Gaming Center, a PC cafe in Fairfax, VA. He stated that players need not leave the real world to find safe spaces.

“Online communities, just on the nature of not being able to see a person face-to-face, do get a little toxic, but I’ve noticed anytime you go to an area with other gamers, they are overtly friendly—they invite you to talk to them. The community at large are often good people,” he said.