The United Nations recently released a report denouncing harassment and misogyny in the world of video games. The report comes from the organization’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development’s Working Group on Broadband and Gender, and is titled “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: A World-Wide Wake-Up Call (PDF).”
The Case For Addressing “Cyber Violence” Against Women
Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, who have both become targets of harassment through their work in games criticism and game dev, respectively, addressed the U.N. commission. The event sparked outrage among the ranks of GamerGate, predictably; GamerGate tends to fly into a fury whenever these women do anything. A petition to jail Sarkeesian and Quinn was posted almost immediately, supposedly in the name of freedom of speech (though you’d be hard-pressed to wrap your head around how imprisoning women for speaking publicly is in defense of free speech).
While the GamerGate response to any criticism is tired and predictable (and is less in the news than it once was) it’s still immensely damaging to the individuals they’ve targeted. It’s validating to see bodies like the United Nations step up to denounce these practices. The report details a few high-profile cases and acknowledges that online gendered violence is a huge and widespread problem. The report confirms that we need to address the underlying cultural mechanisms that lead to this kind of violence. It also details some previously successful initiatives and lays down some guidelines for improving the situation. Its goals are certainly something to applaud:
- Promote digital inclusion for women
- Empower women through digital literacy training and skills building
- Promote the development of gender-sensitive applications (monitor violence against women, etc.) in partnership with the private sector and civil society
- Foster public service delivery that takes into account the specific needs of women and their surroundings
- Make technology training and jobs more attractive to girls and women
- Promote digital entrepreneurship among women to foster social innovation
- Foster the protection of girls and women when they go online
- Contribute to the post-2015 development agenda
The Case Against Demonizing Video Games
Unfortunately, the U.N.’s report is not without problems. The parts that discuss video games are particularly frustrating, and the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) has come out strongly against that content. “This is an uninformed, misguided and unfortunate report. If the overall issue was not so serious, it would be laughable that the U.N. is citing this work. It is willful ignorance to utilize such incredibly outlandish and outdated data,” said Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of ESA. “ESA strongly supports empowering women and minorities and creating an inclusive digital environment that welcomes all perspectives. However, the U.N. does this important issue a great disservice and undercuts its credibility by spreading ridiculous stereotypes and false opinions.” The ESA is not without bias, of course—its primary objective is to serve the business and public affairs needs of the game industry.
The specific passage Gallagher refers to is this: “Recent research on how violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into ‘killing zombies’ are also a part of mainstreaming violence. And while the presentation and analysis of this research is beyond the scope of this paper, the links to the core roots of the problem are very much in evidence and cannot be overlooked.” The passage is unsupported by valid research and cites outdated opinion pieces that are even worse. This comes closely on the heels of the American Association of Pediatrics’ report, which suffered from many of the same issues, all of which have been addressed by notable psychologists and researchers.
Perhaps more importantly, the U.N. report offers no clear parameters for these issues, putting all under the same umbrella. Cyber violence against women, in this case, includes anything from GamerGate harassment to sex trafficking to children stumbling across legal pornography, all of which demand wildly different solutions and involve wildly different target populations.
This isn’t to say that gaming culture—and the industry it’s built around—doesn’t have a slew of problems regarding misogyny (and racism, and other various phobias and isms). I’d argue that preventing violence against women and supporting women and girls is more important than championing video games, however much we might love them. Hopefully this report is only a first step for the U. N., and they’ll correct their report after reviewing scientifically validated research on the effects of video game violence—especially that part about video games turning boys into “killing zombies.”