When Miranda Pakozdi entered the Cross Assault video game tournament this year, she knew she had a slim chance of winning the US$25,000 prize. However, she was ready to compete, and promised fans watching online that she would train just as hard as, if not harder than, anyone else. Over six days of competition, though, her team’s coach, Aris Bakhtanians, interrogated her on camera about her bra size, said “take off your shirt” and focused the team’s webcam on her chest, feet and legs. He leaned in over her shoulder and smelled her.
Pakozdi, 25, an experienced gamer, has said she always expects a certain amount of trash talk. However, as the only woman on the team, this was too much, especially from her coach, she said. It was after she overheard Bakhtanians defending sexual harassment as part of “the fighting game community” that she forfeited the game.
Sexism, racism, homophobia and general name-calling are longstanding facts of life in certain corners of online video games. However, the Cross Assault episode was the first of a series this year that have exposed the severity of the harassment that many women experience in virtual gaming communities.
And a backlash — on Twitter, in videos, on blogs and even in an online comic strip — has moved the issue beyond endless debate among gaming insiders to more public calls for change.
Executives in the US$25 billion-a-year industry are taking note. One game designer’s online call for civility prompted a meeting with Microsoft executives about how to better police Xbox Live. In February, shortly after the Cross Assault tournament, LevelUp, an Internet broadcaster of gaming events, barred two commentators who made light of sexual harassment on camera and issued a formal apology, including statements from the commentators.
Even so, Tom Cannon, co-founder of the largest fighting game tournament, EVO, pulled his company’s sponsorship of the weekly LevelUp series, saying that “we cannot continue to let ignorant, hateful speech slide.”
“The nasty undercurrent in the scene isn’t a joke or a meme,” he said. “It’s something we need to fix.”
Bakhtanians, whose actions during the Cross Assault tournament were captured on video, later issued a statement in which he apologized if he had offended anyone. He also blamed “my own inability in the heat of the moment to defend myself and the community I have loved for over 15 years.”
The issues raised by the Cross Assault episode gained more attention with Anita Sarkeesian’s campaign in May to raise US$6,000 on Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, to document how women are portrayed in video games. Her YouTube and Facebook pages were instantly flooded with hate-filled comments. People tried to hack her online accounts. She received violent personal threats.
Sarkeesian responded by documenting the harassment, posting online the doctored, pornographic images of herself that her detractors had created. Supporters of her efforts, aghast, donated more than US$150,000, further angering her critics. A man from Ontario created an Internet game where players could “punch” her, layering bruises and cuts on her image until the screen turns red.
“The gaming industry is actually in the process of changing,” Sarkeesian said. “That’s a really positive thing, but I think there is a small group of male gamers who feel like gaming belongs to them, and are really terrified of that change happening.”