Sexual harassment in the video game industry has been a problem since the beginning. Gaming industry companies were also one of the first where gender discrimination bubbled into the public view in 2014’s Gamergate. But even as problems continue to go public and sexual harassment resignations grow, experts say that the changes aren’t doing much to address the core problems of representation and diversity in the industry.
Most conventions, sporting events, and other gatherings were cancelled in 2020. But unlike the many events that closed down to stop the spread of Coronavirus, TwitchCon’s Las Vegas Evolution Gaming Series (Evo) tournament was cancelled for a different reason: sexual harassment. More than 70 people, mostly women, came forward on Twitter, YouTube, the game-streaming platform Twitch, and its blogging platform TwitLonger to report sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender-based discrimination within the esports gaming industry.
Competitive gamers, commentators, and streamers make their living playing, broadcasting, and commenting on big-name video games like Overwatch by Blizzard Entertainment, Assassins Creed by Ubisoft. Their work is managed by talent agencies including Online Performers Group which operate similar to athletes’ agents, helping esports competitors participate in competitions, find sponsorships, and make their games available online to viewers.
Often, these esports competitions happen in large in-person gatherings, like TwitchCon. Many of the women who came forward said that these conventions are full of non-consensual touching, propositions for sex, and other forms of sexual harassment. They also reported ongoing online sexual harassment and abuse by some of the industries most well-known professional gamers.
The online gaming community had one of its first public run-ins with sexual harassment in 2014, in an incident that became known as “Gamergate.” When Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic, called out gender discrimination and sexual stereotypes in video games on her YouTube series Tropes vs Women in Video Games, she and others who supported and agreed with her faced severe harassment, including death threats, hacking, and the public distribution of personal information called “doxxing” from within the gamer community.
This time, the response to those who have spoken up has been mostly positive. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and other efforts to uncover gender discrimination and sexual harassment in gaming industry companies, public opinion about diversity in gaming, and within the gaming industry appears to have changed. That has led to some high-level resignations at the top of some major gaming and esport companies.
Many of the current round of complaints have involved the CEO of Online Performers Group, Omeed Dariana. In June 2020, Molly Fender Ayala, a community developer for Overwatch said Dariana had sexually harassed her by acting inappropriately and propositioning her for sex in 2014. According to the New York Times, Ayala wrote:
“‘I feel that it’s my responsibility to speak up,’ Ms. Ayala wrote, so that other women in the streaming and gaming world ‘know that this isn’t “just how the industry is.”’”
Mr. Dariana stepped down from his position at OPG the same day. His response to the allegations is starkly different from the treatment received by Anita Sarkeesian and others who exposed gender inequality just six years earlier. He responded on Twitter saying:
“I do not specifically recall the conversation referenced, but I’m not going to sit here and argue about whether or not it happened . . . . Because I promised I would believe women. Even, and probably most especially when I’m the person being called out. And I do believe her. So as far as I am concerned, this happened.”
Soon after, OPG closed its doors. Clients and performers were trying to terminate their working relationship with the company, and some had already quit over the incident. Dariana’s behavior had tarnished the company’s reputation in a way that one resignation was not going to fix.
While the change in approach of and responses to sexual harassment complaints in the gaming industry is encouraging, many experts are warning that broader change is necessary. Kishonne Gray, a gender and women’s studies professor at University of Illinois, Chicago, viewed the statements as nothing more than attempts to “pacify” people and make them stop talking about the underlying gender problems in the industry. She told the New York Times:
“They just purge the evildoers and think that they’re OK, not realizing that they’re all complicit and that there’s a culture that devalues women.”
Dr. Carly Kocurek, an associate professor of digital humanities and media studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said it was too soon to say whether these sexual harassment resignations were signs of a broader cultural shift away from the longstanding sexist attitudes within many gaming companies.
“If you don’t actively try to change these things, they don’t change that much. . . . There’s been a few times where there’s some pushback and there seems to be a real conversation happening, and then it just kind of fizzles.”
The answer for women and others who face gender discrimination and sexual harassment within gaming industry companies is to keep the pressure on, even in the face of executive-level resignations. Who takes the places of those accused of sexual assault and harassment can sometimes be as important as removing the bad actor in the first place. When the survivors of sexual harassment and their advocates come forward, they can push the industry to adjust promotion and advancement policies, making more space for women and people of color at the top of the organizational charts. These placements can push the industry forward, and further the kind of cultural shift the industry so desperately needs.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys know how to pressure slow-moving companies and industries to improve their practices and prevent ongoing gender discrimination and sexual harassment. If you work with gaming industry companies or another male-dominated industry and have been sexually harassed by an agent, manager or supervisor, we can help. We will meet with you and review your options to put pressure on employers to change their policies, and get you compensation for the harm you have suffered. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.