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I used to play computer games online.
I’m reluctant to call myself a gamer because unlike some of my friends who have been playing online since childhood, I only recently joined their ranks — thanks Covid!
But during the pandemic, I started playing online with my friends as it was one of the few ways to bond since we couldn’t really meet in person.
Relaxing games like Minecraft and Scrabble.io turned into more “exciting” first-person shooter (FPS) games like Valorant and Overwatch. These hyper competitive games were fun because I was playing with my friends and hanging out was all that mattered.
Then I started playing on my own.
And it made a world of difference.
Threatened for being a girl
I remember the first time I was playing without my friends and decided to use voice comms to communicate with my team. My first mistake.
Up to that point, I had never experienced sexism or harassment of any kind online.
Upon hearing my voice, my teammates instantly started pestering me to confirm if I were really a girl. I thought to myself: “If you just ignore them, they’ll stop”. My second mistake.
The comments kept coming, ranging from questions about myself to what my social media handles were. They were relentless.
When they realised I wasn’t going to reply, they started swearing, cursing at my family, friends and myself. Among the threats, abuse and insults came the worst thing anyone could ever hear.
“I hope you get raped and die.”
That was the first time I experienced the darker side of online gaming.
I didn’t touch a single video game for a month after that.
After much persuasion, my friends finally got me back into gaming, but to call me wary after that is an understatement.
At first, I played only with my friends. But after a while, with our differing schedules, I went back to playing on my own. This time though, I instantly muted everyone in-game the moment I entered the gaming lobby.
Call it an overreaction, but any living being’s natural instinct is to protect ourselves from danger. For me, I refuse to be put in a position to be threatened and violated like that online again.
Wounds do heal though, and since then, I have become much more comfortable with gaming. Yet I will never forget that feeling of degradation and fear at the exact moment when I heard those words.
Toxicity in gaming lobbies
Ask anyone who plays games online and they will tell you that toxic behaviour, especially towards female gamers, is rampant.
These come in many forms, ranging from low-key patronising comments to outright degrading accusations.
Yet, it isn’t the insults that come first. Often, it’s harassment.
I think many girl gamers would recognise this pattern: The moment you identify yourself as a girl; either on voice comms or if a friend outs you in the chat, there is an instant stream of comments, asking if you are really a girl and whether or not they can be your friend.
They ask for your Instagram handle or your TikTok channel, and keep spamming you until you respond.
Once, I joined a game and when the other players found out I was a girl, they started passing dodgy comments. I ignored them until one of them casually disclosed the exact number of Instagram followers I had at the moment, which freaked me out.
Creepy comments are bad enough, but outright cyber stalking sends chills down my spine.
Note to guys out there: This is not a way to impress a girl. It is not cool. It is not cute. It’s creepy.
Being hit on isn’t the only thing girl gamers have to deal with. Lowkey macho posturing and sexist comments are problems too.
For example, if I have a bad game on Valorant — everyone has bad games — my teammates would accuse me of getting “boosted” (getting outside help) to my current rank of Platinum (which puts me in the top 15% of players), an achievement that I worked really hard for.
In my experience (and friends confirm this), this happens a lot less than if it is a guy who does not perform well.
Being anonymous on the Internet, these players are ruthless. Hiding behind a fake name encourages toxic players to abuse others.
There are some who do speak up sometimes, but they are few and far between and often don’t go beyond an “eh, don’t say that lah” or a “eh bro, enough liao”. When the trolls keep flaming, these good guys often go silent, perhaps relieved at not being the target of the attacks.
Sometimes, when your teammates are especially juvenile, they will “throw”, or lose the game on purpose, just to spite you for not giving them the attention or reaction they crave.
Yes, there is a report system, as most online games do, but they don’t work all the time and this lack of accountability simply encourages more toxic behaviour.
Look at it this way: Robbers wear masks so that you cannot identify them when they commit a crime. Cyber-bullying is the same, except that in this case, you’re getting robbed of respect and self-worth.
I know I’m not alone in this. I’m not much different from any other girl (or guy) who likes to play games online. And this happens in all online games.
A friend told me in all seriousness that “playing video games has affected (her) self-worth more than any human being has in real life”.
Words do not hurt any less coming from a person online than if it were to come from someone saying it to your face.
Not all abuse is blatant, however. There are times when I get patronised simply for being a girl.
If you think it is infuriating to get told what to do by random strangers, imagine having them insist on you playing a support character instead of a carry (in gaming terms, a “carry” is like the team’s quarterback or star striker) purely because “you are a girl!”.
It is threats and treatment like this that make girls fear playing online.
When I tell people I play video games, they often tease me about having to be tough and thick-skinned when I tell them about my share of toxic comments and players in game.
This gets me so annoyed: Why should girls (or anyone for that matter) have to be tough and thick-skinned? Why can’t toxic players be called out for their bad behaviour instead?
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Is that really what we want to promote: The normalisation of a toxic online community?
Singapore has the infrastructure and online community to be an e-sports hub in Southeast Asia and the world. Our gamers have represented Singapore at the SEA Games, with our e-sportsmen and women winning medals in League of Legends, League of Legends: Wild Rift and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.
In fact, it was just announced that one of the biggest e-sports events of the year, Dota 2’s The International 11, will be held in Singapore in October. The prize pool for last year’s competition was more than $55m.
But all this fanfare becomes unimportant if our online gaming communities are filled with bullies, creeps and toxic trolls.
If gaming is so toxic, why continue playing games, one might ask?
Think of it this way: Would you be comfortable with random strangers telling you what you should or should not do in your life?
No one should not be forced to stop doing what they enjoy simply because it is the “easier” solution.
We should fix the problem, and not change to accommodate it.
How to deal with toxicity
Until online gaming communities get less toxic, we need to find ways to deal with such situations ourselves.
One, set boundaries.
After my brush with cyberbullying, I avoided talking to strangers in game for a long time until I was comfortable with speaking and unmuting others again.
I set boundaries for myself, such as muting toxic people, for my own safety and peace of mind.
It’s a pity we might not get to enjoy the full experience of video games because of such toxicity but being secure, safe and mentally well is more important.
Two, set limits.
It’s easy to get engrossed in a game and want to do your best to win, but I have learnt not to take many of what happens online personally.
Treat strangers’ words as wind, and let them blow past you!
Also, remember that you’re playing to have fun. Losing isn’t fun, yes, but don’t let it affect you more than it should.
Three, have support from loved ones.
Even if you follow the first two rules, sometimes there will be encounters that will make you lose hope in humanity, or faith in yourself. That’s when a listening ear or a comforting shoulder from friends and family can come in handy.
Lastly, follow the golden rule: Treat others as you want to be treated.
If everyone follows that rule, then the online community (myself included!) would be a more wholesome, and dare I say it, forgiving place.
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Toxicity in online games is real, but we should change this reality and help our fellow gamers be aware of how their behaviour can affect others.
Share these simple guidelines with your online community, and even if it’s just a handful of friends, if they share those ideas with their other friends… well, it could spark a cycle of positivity in the online community.
It might even mean that another young gamer (girl or boy) wouldn’t have to go through what I went through before.