Game streaming, gender diversity and media
The media informs us, shapes our opinions, and ideally provides us with pluralistic views about the world we live in, and the people around us. Preferably, the media also helps to disrupt negative stereotypes about different groups of people. Game streaming platforms are still predominately male-dominated, just like the media. The most popular games (e.g. The Grand Theft Auto V, Fortnight, Call of Duty Warzone, etc. trending on Twitch platform) frequently lack female characters altogether, but if they are present, they are often sexualized and underrepresented.
In addition, there is very little diversity of characters, thereby promoting male-dominant and stereotypical narratives (for example through a lot of violent content that promotes muscular male characters, while female characters are most likely to have exaggerated femininity, focus is on their exposed body parts, they either need to be saved or have no active role in the game). This is also confirmed by Bryter 2020 report. The research team discovered that a lot of streaming content is sexist or misogynistic, there is also a lot of toxicity and discrimination in online games streaming. Violence spills over the game content too: 58% of female gamers have experienced abuse from other online gamers. Often, games serve to recreate a skewed perspective of the world, full of misogyny, a general lack of compassion, and instead, they tend to create an idealized and unrealistic world. This problematic situation with representation and stereotypical portrayal is also true for the media. The result: gamers internalize the graphics that they are seeing in this world: all the good and all the bad.
What is game streaming?
Basically, game streaming is a platform where those who play a game are able to stream their content, pre-recorded or live, to those who want to watch it. One of the most popular streaming platforms is Twitch. In February 2021, the platform had 9.5 million active streamers.
HowStuffWorks offers a good explanation of Twitch : “Twitch is an online site that allows users to watch or broadcast live streaming or pre-recorded video [content] of broadcaster’s video game gameplay. A Twitch broadcast often includes audio commentary from the player, and [a] video of the player might appear on the edge of the screen via their webcam. There’s also running chat from viewers on the screen that the broadcaster can respond to if he or she wishes.”
According to the Stream Hatchet’s 2021 report “… only 27% of the top 3,000 video game streamers on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook Gaming are female. This number has decreased slightly from 2020, when 28% of the top creators were female.” On average 11.3% of Twitch’s top 1,000 channels, are channels associated with female streamers and influencers. It is worth mentioning that the report highlights only two binary gender categories, with no data on non-binary folks.
Free Press Unlimited took a glimpse into the world of gaming, representation within the streamed content and issues that play out on these platforms, for example, misogyny, sexual harassment, or trolling. In addition, we scrutinized the role of these platforms in preventing and protecting their users from abuses of this kind.
Meet the Twitch gamer
GlitchKraft (uses pronouns they/them) is a non-binary content creator from the Netherlands, streaming a wide variety of games on Twitch daily — from all sorts of indie games to retro classics. GlitchKraft focuses on growing a community that is welcoming to queer and neurodiverse folks.
GlitchKraft is energetic, passionate about the subject of gaming, their diverse community and is super comfortable in their habitat, that is being in front of the computer screen. –This is also how we see them during our Zoom call.
GlitchKraft: “I’m 37 years old. I live in the Netherlands, and I’ve been loving gaming ever since I was like super small. It started for me with Super Mario. One of my friends had a Nintendo and we always played Super Mario at her place. And it kind of just grew from there. I have worked as a manager in a game shop for a very long time, so gaming was on my radar. And it’s just the world that I thrive in, I guess. I even opened my own shop selling merchandise for video games and movies more on the retro side of things, so more focused on 90s of 80s kind of movies and games. Sadly, I had to close that shop due to COVID. I was stuck at home, and that’s kind of led me into streaming. I’ve been watching a lot of streams from other people. It’s like listening to the radio, like this noise on the background while you’re doing your stuff. Only with streaming every day is different. It’s not like the same song that you hear over and over. New stuff is happening every day, and that’s what I find so interesting about it and how easy it is to communicate with the streamer over their chats and with their community. We want everything catered to our own wishes. And I think watching streams in that sense is absolutely perfect.
I focus on indie games [short for independent video games] and retro games. Those games are usually very unique, and I focus on games that are telling a story. “
Game streaming and representation
GlitchKraft explains that the many different types of games on offer can be used to help their subscribers (-community) to process or discuss different issues: gender, racial discrimination and other social justice issues. GlitchKraft explains how this works “… Videogames can help guide people through and deal with difficult real-life situations, such as the loss of loved ones, (mental) illness, and discrimination. Sometimes games can be too heavy for gamers to play themselves and they prefer watching other people play them, so they experience the stories through the streamer.”. With their community GlitchKraft also played a game called “Tell Me Why”. The studio says that they created the first video game with a playable transgender character. GlitchKraft: “During the game we face ignorant comments, microaggressions after coming back to our hometown after 10 years and after transitioning. In the game we also have to deal with possible rejection by family members. The game offers you choices on how to deal with these and more situations. These choices lead to different paths you can take in the game leading to different endings.”
Representation in gaming is important and can be very validating, especially for non-binary people. That is, the users feel seen, and can feel empowered to be who they are. Starting from choosing your character’s pronouns to choosing gender, to creating diverse (transgender) bodies. There is only a small number of games of this type, and they are more of a niche product for small indie studios. Unfortunately, while this idea was initially praised highly, it was also criticized for hypersexualizing the gaming characters. Likewise, in mainstream media the lack of women representation in content, especially of women of color, or the misrepresentation and stereotyping of gender roles has been discussed intensely. This is an important debate whether in the media or on game streaming platforms.
Just like in mainstream media, objectification and sexualization remain prevalent in gaming and game streaming. Last year a trend of Hot Tub streams on Twitch started. This is when (mostly) women streamers are sharing their content or answering questions of their viewers while sitting in a jacuzzi, wearing their bath suits, and maybe having a cocktail too. This created backlash, with highly sexualized comments being shared, about the streamers. It also provoked a debate on the policing of what women must wear. As GlitchKraft stated: “…if a woman gets like a little bit of a snippet of fame or success, then there is like a ton of men who just pile on to her that she’s only getting these views, and these likes because she shows her boobs. But they [the male streamers] just don’t allow women to have success and they’re not even looking at their own content because if they do that, they would probably see that they're slouching in their chairs, burping or even yelling into their mic, put no effort in making their stream or themselves looking presentable, and rarely interact with their chat. It just isn't great content to watch or listen to, which doesn't help them grow their audience.”
The way that women have been treated by male streamers and viewers has also sparked debate within GlitchKraft’s community around discrimination, feminism, and misogyny. GlitchKraft says “…they [the community] learn things that they hadn’t even known about before. There are people in my community that had never met transgender people before, maybe even had some negative ideas about us, but in spending time with me and my community now they realize that we are not crazy or weird, mentally ill or whatever. So, we definitely change people.”
When GlitchKraft started streaming, they were not out as a non-binary person. They did not present themselves “…very masculine or feminine. I had some thoughts in my head about like, am I fully a woman or not?” It is when the community started asking what pronouns they would like to use, that GlitchKraft started thinking about their gender identity and in the end came out as non-binary , choosing they/them as their pronouns; which they now feel “more comfortable with .”
The community was very supportive about this step, and this made GlitchKraft feel safe, while most negative comments and trolling happened on Twitter from people they didn’t know. The attacks and online hate did not stop there. “There are multiple ways that we get harassed when it comes to streaming.” When new followers join the stream, they are welcomed, and there will be a pop-up message on the screen of the stream for everyone to see . When hundreds or even thousands of bot accounts attack a streamer “…you get that message like a thousand times in a row. They will also flood the chat with hate speech. I’ve had my chat flooded with swastikas at some point.” This completely overwhelms the chat function, flooding it with symbols, which is obviously very disruptive and intrusive. While there are tools that help limit this type of attacks, for instance by allowing only subscribers (paying members) to use chats, they also lead to less interaction with the community and eventually a loss of revenue.
GlitchKraft had these types of attacks two to three times a week for a couple of months. They and their fellow streamers complained to Twitch, requesting that the platform addresses a verification system of accounts and heightens the engagement rules rather than making streamers use self-limiting moderation options.
Accountability = taking (full) responsibility
After an outcry and a call by some streamers with significant numbers of followers to unsubscribe from Twitch and seek alternative platforms, (including by encouraging people to mass boycott Twitch for a day), Twitch finally deleted around 15 mln bot accounts.
Twitch also added an additional tool which allows chat moderators to “observe” some of their users if they are suspected of being trolls or bots. Twitch also filed a lawsuit against two people that they believed were responsible for the so called “hate raids” – automated hate campaigns predominately targeting LGBTQI+ streamers and people of color.
This trend is similar to cases that have been observed on social media platforms. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook are reluctant to actively address cases of online harassment and violence, making it hard for those who are attacked online to “shake off” the trolls and haters by themselves, without support from the platform and contributing to the high level of impunity. It takes a long time for the platforms to stop the attacks, and instead, those affected give up and resort to deleting their accounts altogether, when social media platforms are slow to recognize and respond. According to the most recent UNESCO global report conducted among 901 journalists in over 125 countries ‘’…when asked “How does the level of online violence you experience affect your journalism practice and your interaction with sources/audiences?”, 30% of the women journalists surveyed answered that they self-censored on social media. 20% described how they withdrew from all online interaction. Self-censorship was also a response noted by many interviewees.’’
When asked how GlitchKraft ensures that their community remains an open, yet safe space for all, they explain that new followers need to read and consent to their rules: “Streamers also have their own rules… these are very telling about the person that you’re going to be watching. So my rules are first and foremost, Black Lives Matter. Trans rights are human rights. If these points make you uncomfortable this isn’t the channel for you. Hopefully, someday it will be. This is a friendly and encouraging place. If anyone violates these rules they receive a warning or a ban to the channel, which removes their ability to use the chat in my channel.”
The similarities between the world of game streaming and media when it comes to equity, equality and inclusivity are clear. Who gets a voice, who remains invisible, how the person/character is portrayed, whether or not the content is challenging or enabling discrimination, how inclusive engagement with audiences are: these are all challenges that must be addressed by the media and game streaming platforms. It is also evident that game streaming and social media platforms play a critical role in preventing and addressing instances of online hate speech and violence, through clear rules of inclusion, protection and participation policies that are anchored in human rights-based approaches. Both should invest into personnel who understand human-rights based frameworks and know how these can effectively be transmitted into the digital gaming world to ensure good governance, equal protection, eliminating discrimination and fostering the right to free speech for all their users.
Story written by Larissa Buschmann.