"I think we'd do better with a healer," I suggested to my Overwatch team earlier this week. We were in the spawn room defending the Temple of Anubis and, without a healer, we would quickly forfeit the objective. Not even the slightest pause passed before a teammate told me that, instead, "What we need is another man."
This frustrating incident was sandwiched between two other matches, and in each, a teammate had snarked on my gender after I had attempted to strategise through voice chat. Earlier, I was referred to as "that fuckin' bitch" when I asked whether we felt good about our team composition. And, in the spawn room of Horizon Lunar Colony later that night, after wishing my team good luck, I was asked: "Can you play? I just want to know. I'm so curious. Do you know how to play Overwatch?"
On no occasion did any other player on these six-person teams say anything about it.
Toxicity is on the rise in Overwatch, a game I had been enjoying for hundreds of hours since its launch last May. Since I wrote about its competitive mode's toxicity epidemic on Monday, I've heard from over a dozen female players, many of whom said that they were throwing up their hands and walking away or making big sacrifices to how they play:
"The toxicity has kept me from playing the game unless I'm explicitly playing with friends. Sucks because I <3 Overwatch, but... yeah, no thx"
"It'd make the game go smoother if I could speak over voice chat, but I've learned my lesson at this point that letting the other players know I'm a girl means I'm going to get harassed and some jerk is going to throw the game just so they can spend the entire time making fun of me."
"It especially doesn't help to be a girl and still get the occasional 'Oh we're gonna lose it's a group of girls' comment (or worse) when my friend and I join the channel. We pretty much stopped joining the team channel due to that."
"I get the usual cracks about 'go make us a sammich' 'Girls only play healers,' but some are really nasty stuff I won't put in here… Anywhere in the outside world the lewd comments female gamers are forced to put up with and ignore would have some kind of serious repercussions."
And so on.
This is ridiculous. Players' rampant and unchecked cruelty and sexist commentary are preventing me and others from enjoying our favourite game, a first-person shooter with twice the female userbase as any other. And I want to be clear about something: When it comes to harassment in online gaming, silence is complicity.
As long as developers are slow to address toxicity, it is on a game's playerbase to stomp out hatred if they don't want it there. Frustrating mechanics and a punishment-averse reporting system — in which abusive teammates have actually encouraged me to report them, telling me, "Make my day!" — are just two reasons why I encounter targeted harassment in a third of my Overwatch matches. The real reason why players (and especially women) are dropping like flies from the game's playerbase is the fact that shitty behaviour is now a part of Overwatch's culture, at least on PC, much like other online games'.
There will always be arseholes in online games. But who sanctions it are the indifferent or cowardly bystanders who stay silent while strangers harass those of us just trying to enjoy the game and play it without making big, game-changing compromises. (Overwatch, like many other online multiplayer games, is a team game with involved strategy and is best coordinated over voice chat.)
Teammates who hear hatred are the first line of defence for harassed players. Permissiveness is tacit approval of this behaviour. If there are no social repercussions for antisocial behaviour, and especially misogynistic behaviour toward female teammates, it will continue. So if you are one of these four silent teammates — who will suffer no real harm for shaming a harasser or supporting the harassed — you are complicit in these online games' now-entrenched culture of toxicity.
Speak up. Tell that arsehole to sit down. Show your teammate that they are welcome. Be an advocate for the most basic decency. That's all it is.
Until there is a stigma around harassment in these games, I, and many others who have reached out to me or commented on my Kotaku articles around this, will continue to bow out out our favourite games' communities.
For those of you who would prefer to question my gaming habits as I discuss rampant toxicity and misogyny in Overwatch: I play on PC and use a microphone. I enjoy coordinating strategies and team compositions, so I consider a microphone necessary most of the time. I use the mute function when harassment is a consistent and ongoing distraction. I report players often, but have noticed no repercussions (One player who tested it estimates that it takes a few dozen reports for abusive chat to provoke a suspension, but Blizzard says they're making changes soon). I play whomever the composition dictates is necessary, but mostly tank heroes. I solo-queue about half the time, but resist the criticism that I need friends to protect me while I'm playing an online game. And, no, I am not doing anything to provoke the toxicity I encounter in about half of my matches.
My being harassed is not my fault. It is the fault of specific maladjusted people and a culture that acquiesces to their cruelty. I will not tolerate it. And I will not be part of a community that silently endorses it. That's why I'm speaking up. And that's why, when your teammate is getting harassed for their gender, voice, race or demographic, you should speak up, too. And if you do not, you are a part of the problem.
This permissive culture toward harassment is why too many of my Overwatch games leave me feeling like a pariah, despite being a vocal and authoritative source for Overwatch news and criticism on Kotaku. So I am slowly backing away from this game I love.