Back when Kotaku wrote about a troll that targeted women, there was one critical word that kept popping up in responses: camwhore.
Also curious: the women in the videos streamed themselves casually playing video games, and they took donations. It was as if some folks were saying, no, the harassment these women face is actually warranted: look at them. Look! They're "using" their womanly wiles to "force" men to give them money. They're not even gamers. They're camwhores.
Let it be. They deserve it.
As I explained this ludicrous situation to a close friend, he didn't seem surprised at all. He told me of a relationship with a girl he went out with once. Apparently, she'd go online, drunk, and then put herself on camera for the amusement of other men.
He attributed it to low self-esteem; the ability to broadcast herself while playing games in front of an audience meant that she was granted a temporary, albeit unhealthy, confidence boost. Unable to deal with her doing that to herself, he broke things off.
It became clear to me that there was a strong stigma with these women, but how based on reality was it? Unlike most accusations of ‘fake gamer girl,' the ‘camwhore' phenomenon could at least, arguably, point to a tangible benefit for pretending to like the hobby: for the money.
So was this a continuation of the gaming community's endless issues with women occupying the same space — the refusal to recognise these women as ‘gamers' but rather folks who used the hobby for nefarious purposes?
I dove into Twitch.TV to find out.
During the course of about a week, I would randomly drop into Twitch and watch some of the more popular streamers who were online at the time — women with hundreds and sometimes thousands of viewers — particularly focusing on the women who took donations (though also watching "normal" streams for comparison's sake.)
Twitch is a popular streaming service that allows users to broadcast games and interact with viewers. Thanks to ease of use along with the rise in popularity of e-Sport titles like League of Legends, Twitch has millions of people tuning in every month to watch livestreams.
Someone who cruises through Twitch's channels might notice something almost immediately: one, there aren't as many women streaming as there are men.
And two: at least in my experience, women would display themselves more prominently than men would, often opting to take up more screen space. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with that: rather, it's the type of observation that might happen out of confirmation bias.
See, for instance:
Noticing this felt like going in thinking, "Where is the evidence that there's something else going on here? Ah, bingo. Look at this 'evidence;' it's supposed to be more about the games!" Or something.
If players took donations, they'd have a segment at the bottom of the stream with links and buttons — like so:
Though players would sometimes remind people that they took donations, and some fans would regularly drop in paypal links into the stream's chat.
Players were largely League of Legends and World of Warcraft aficionados, though there were also some Call of Duty: Black Ops II players.
I was surprised to find out that most of the women I spoke to weren't Twitch veterans or anything — a few had been doing it for a while, but most folks only had a few months experience with it — if that. All were fairly young and attractive.
Geneviève Forget, for instance, is a 22-year-old French Canadian with a law degree who chose to chase her dreams of doing gaming and e-Sports full-time, at last bringing to fruition her life-long passion for the hobby. It's currently her only occupation, which wasn't uncommon among the streamers I spoke to — which makes streaming seem like the gamer's version of working for ChaCha.
"I might end up being a lawyer," she explained to me in an interview, "but for now I am more then happy to pursue my dream of transforming the passion for gaming that I had all my life into a career. I didn't want to do it half way so I'd rather give it my all and see where it leads me."
Eschewing a law career for streaming makes streaming sound rather lucrative, but it's not like that. Most streamers don't even make minimum wage.
"I don't make enough money right now to pay for my basic living costs," she revealed, "but since esports is quite a niche market I expected that. I just plan on growing my Twitch and Youtube channels and to keep looking out for sponsors or for some gigs at events."
Despite the current inability to cover basic living costs, she's very happy to have the support of her viewers who donate enough to allow her to go to events, and she makes an effort to feel like she's earned the donations.
"In the past, I raised donations to be able to pay for my plane ticket to get to events. In exchange I promised my viewers to do some interviews, compete, and bring them back some mousepads signed by pros and personalities to give away. I didn't ask for money to cover the food or the hotel room."
The first time I watched Geneviève play, she was speaking to a man — maybe a friend, maybe a fan. I don't know (and she doesn't recall). I was taken aback by how much he focused on what she looked like in an extended conversation about wearing makeup and looking good in the stream.
At times, he'd make remarks like suggesting she take off her clothes. She called him a creep, but almost playfully, dismissively. Whoever it was, the comments weren't enough to unnerve her.
Actually, she's kind of used to it — this is a theme amongst everyone I interview.
"I do experience it like any other female streamer does. It's just a thing you have to accept and move on from... I just don't give it any attention and brush it off my shoulders. I don't even see it anymore really, my mods do a great job at keeping my stream chat clean... I'm pretty sure it was all in good fun. I tend to joke around with my friends and viewers and take everything in a light-hearted kind of way.
"[Harassment] does happen in my stream chat from time to time that people start discussing my appearance but it really isn't the focus on my stream. I'd like to think people come back to watch it because it is quite entertaining and I try to interact with the chat as much as possible."
Ultimately, for her, it's about the games, entertaining people, and making new friends. That's why she streams; that's why everyone I talked to streams. Having people watch her also means she has incentive to play well.
And yet, despite that love for the game, it's practically expected that any woman streamer will undergo harassment. When I asked Twitch community manager Jared Rea about it, he pointed me toward this Reddit thread where girl gamers were giving each other advice as to how to approach putting themselves on camera.
There are measures to help avoid unpleasant experiences, some of which are built into the service. You can assign moderators on your chat, for instance. You can set banned words on your channel. You can report people. And there are "friendlier" broadcasts and channels for people to tune into.
Despite the utter necessity of such tools and their obvious usefulness, the fact that they have to be resorted to is telling of a larger problem within the community. Mistreatment is expected. Most don't even note it anymore, which explains why streamer's friends would let awful things slip in throw the chat. Some streamers even come to adopt the abusive demeanor and parlance as a means of coping.
One woman streamer's response to a rude chat member, for example: "How about I show you my big banhammer cock? In your mouth? ...too soon?" It's out of character with the rest of the stream, but in that moment, it's what she needs to say to put someone in his place.
It's not that women streamers are special in this regard; the Internet and trolling/harassment practically go hand-in-hand. While watching dude streamers, for instance, one particular broadcast comes to mind in which someone was playing Super Hexagon, and the thousands of viewers wouldn't shut up about how 'Asian' it was for him to play the fast-paced game. These comments only continued when he started playing Starcraft II.
"Harassment is a problem that all user-generated or community-oriented sites have to deal with," Rea explained to me, "and Twitch is certainly no exception. The majority of the complaints we receive on a daily basis are more cross-channel than cross-user. For example, we hear a lot of complaints about people from one channel spamming a link to it in another (which, of course, is easily fixed turning off links), or users who constantly create new accounts to circumvent a chat ban."
Despite not being a problem specific to women streamers, the way the harassment manifests itself is very particular. It's gendered and sexualized. In a way, that's unavoidable (though that's not to say it's the streamer's fault).
Remember how I said that most of the women I talked to were fairly new to streaming? And yet, they had hundreds if not thousands of viewers? The reason that happens is, as far as I can tell, greatly based on their gender — regardless of how much the streamer might legitimately love games. A potential viewer doesn't know that until they're already watching, but they likely clicked in the first place because it's a woman.
Vivyan Andrew, a 29-year-old graduate from Polytechnic Institute of New York, has been streaming for maybe three weeks. She amassed a following quickly, just like most of the women I talked to.
"Because the gaming industry is dominated by men," she explained to me, "it's much easier for a woman to become successful as there isn't competition at all; you're like a breath of fresh air. I personally feel that my success has a lot to do with my gender, but a major part of it is also personality and attitude. The viewers will click on your stream because you're a woman, but it's how you present yourself that determines whether or not you've gained a follower or a returning viewer. You have to be yourself so that your stream is different and unique.
"Yes, if you're a woman and you're streaming, the misconceptions are that you're seeking attention and/or trying to use your 'assets' to receive donations. The misconceptions are very superficial as they invalidate the streamer as a person and what she has to offer beyond her appearance."
The necessity of actually having a good personality and being entertaining was particularly evident while I was watching streamers like Mia Rose, a part-time exotic dance instructor in Beverly Hills. You might know her if you've ever watched nerdy porn; she's famous for "Whorecraft."
Or, perhaps you know her from World of Warcraft, where she was banned for... being Mia Rose. Eventually this resulted in a quest where you have to kill an NPC called "Mia The Rose".
She's also a hardcore gamer that streams, though to get to her content you have to click through a screen that informs you that the stream might have inappropriate content — something that was surprisingly uncommon with the women streamers I checked out. Once you get in, you'll notice that Mia displays her latest donors at the top of the stream, along with dollar amounts. She also has her Amazon wishlist linked.
Like many streamers, she plays games and fields ample questions from the peanut gallery over in her stream's chat. It was hard to tell who was a 'real fan' and what people were just happy to have a pretty face to interact with, and perhaps these things don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Even so, a small sampling of the comments:
"sexcam work better for getting donation" "how much u want me to donate beautiful" "how many c**ks have been in your *** "
She answered the last one nonchalantly, sarcastically, almost — you can tell she pays no mind to it. Actually, she might welcome that type of talk (within reason), because much of that stream's talk revolved around relationships, appearance and sex.
She talked about how willing she is when it comes to offering anal to her boyfriends. She talked about how orgasms are all mental and so of course she still "feels stuff down there" (she was asked if sex was boring to her after doing porn). She talked about breaking up with her ex. She talked about being paid $5000 for pissing on someone's face, which was "very empowering".
She talked about all these things while over a thousand people watch her playing games. They're probably watching intently. I don't say this only because she's attractive or even because she's being explicit, but because she's actually really entertaining — which, in a way, is similar to what she did in porn.
"I actually see a lot of similarities between my old occupation and streaming," she revealed to me in an interview. "For one, I have to perform. For two, I have to be more entertaining than my competition. I try to look good any time I'm streaming, and I try to play the games I enjoy at a reasonably competitive level while interacting with my fans - it's actually really similar to porn, and pretty challenging/rewarding."
While watching, you might be a little shocked at how open she is about things, but that's part of the charm, too. No bullshit. She's just honest.
"Yes, I used to do porn because I was interested in experiencing it," she said, "I think if some of my more critical viewers asked themselves what they'd do if given the same opportunity, they might notice we have some similarities. I'm really a nice person, who plays video games, streams and happened to do porn when she was younger. I don't think these things define me, so being harassed doesn't bother me very much. I'm also an Aries, a Radiohead fan and a devoted dog owner."
Beyond a life-long love for gaming, she's streaming for 'nobler' reasons too.
"I want to inspire people — especially other girl gamers — and show them it's possible that you can be as sexy, empowered and attractive as you want to be, while still playing video games at a competitive level and being sort of a nerd. The whole internet gaming culture is pretty much a boy's club. 'Tits or GTFO' comes to mind. But that's totally fine."
As much as I agree with how impossible geeks make it to be both sexy and nerdy, while watching some streams it became obvious to me how complicit even I can be in a culture that over-scrutinizes women and forces them to choose between the labels.
The earlier detail of having bigger webcam streams are an example. So was noticing that all the donors were men. And that some women were advertising that they were drunk on stream. Or how some would say they were single in their FAQs. I muse on these things more than I did learning new strategies on a Call of Duty map thanks to one particular streamer.
Here's someone of note in this regard. Meet Tara Babcock. See how long it takes you before you start judging her. This is what her Twitch page looks like.
She has an enormous number of links seemingly pushing her nerd cred, and all are plastered with pictures like the one below this text. It felt like she was trying too hard, but what does that even mean; what is an 'authentic' gamer?
While watching, I'm not paying attention to the games much. I notice how often she looks at herself, how often she composes her hair, how much she makes sure she looks good. I notice how she makes the entire stream focus on her face for a few seconds as she does this. I start to take count. I don't even know why. What does she have to prove to me?
It's especially jarring because, at this point, I'm realising just how stupid it is to criticise someone for caring so much about appearance: putting yourself on camera is a visual thing. People look at you. Are you not allowed to care about how you come off? Isn't that natural?
But mostly, it strikes me just how judgmental people can be about the combination of being a good-looking woman who games and asks for money. The assumption is that they're tricking people or that they have questionable morals, but most people I talk to streamed for hours on a nearly daily schedule, most don't make much money, and if they do make money, it often goes back into the stream. Internet costs. Gaming hardware costs. Tournaments, events.
None of that is cheap, but we expect people to be humble and we expect them to willingly do things "out of love," which apparently means also sacrifice. You can't care about money and be passionate, too. That'd make you a sell-out. That'd make you calculating. In this case, it'd make you a camwhore.
It can't just make you practical, realistic or even normal, and it doesn't matter that you might feel uncomfortable doing it in the first place. I almost wonder if it's not partially resentment when it comes to things like this — there are some people who dare to ask for what they've earned when most of us don't. Some people forget that proper streaming takes time, energy and talent.
And there are some people who aren't afraid to name a price, because they realise they're doing something of value: and if they don't think it has value, why should anyone else? In most cases, people don't even attach a dollar amount. Donation buttons there if you want to support the streamer, and often, they'll make it worthwhile for you. Streamers play with fans, they entertain them, they open their lives to them.
Is that worth nothing?
Tara did not respond to my interview requests — maybe not by choice; as I talked to some streamers, they told me they become inundated with requests and spam. She has thousands upon thousands of fans; I wasn't surprised I got lost in the mix.
So I end up taking counsel from a friend about it — sending him links, asking him what he thinks about Tara. It's like I'm afraid to make a "prognosis" myself, but I know what I'm erring toward — I'm just afraid and ashamed to admit it.