Twitch streamer Steph “FerociouslySteph” Loehr has been making waves in the streamer scene over the past couple of weeks. She is a trans streamer and considers herself a political activist. FerociouslySteph was recently added to the new Twitch Safety Advisory Council, whose mission is to make Twitch a safer, more inclusive platform.
Among other topics, FerociouslySteph has riled up some controversy for her advocacy against in-game voice chat systems, of all things. According to her, in-game voice chat is not a safe space for marginalized voices, including women and non-cis people, who constantly face gendered threats and harassment in voice chat. Some took particular offense to her comment that “a lot of people here with cis white male sounding voices are here telling me voice chat is not a problem.”
Despite the backlash from fragile men, FerociouslySteph is making a very important point. It is easy for those with privilege to mock or deride what she is saying, but FerociouslySteph’s experience as a trans woman is likely far worse than any white male-presenting person’s own experience with online forums. Many women, trans people, and other marginalized voices in the gaming community face constant harassment and abuse in the voice chat, and it’s almost always men attacking them.
It’s time to rethink gaming’s reliance on voice chat for communication and consider some alternatives.
Voice chat has become a tool for bigotry
In an ideal world, voice chat would improve communication and make online gaming better. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Many gamers use voice chat to attack and harass their teammates, often with no consequences from the developers. In short, voice chat has actually made online gaming less safe.
Steph is not the only gamer speaking out about toxicity in voice chat and gaming culture more broadly. Riot’s own UX designer now refuses to play VALORANT alone, because she received constant harassment when trying to play VALORANT.
Back in April, Overwatch streamer Franyatta was targeted by misogynists in response to her building a successful Overwatch team for the Flash Ops: Echo Showdown. Even when women succeed in esports, they are attacked.
The more creative pieces of shit combine their sexism with their racism, to intersectionally abuse other players. Of course, Blizzard seems fine with this stuff, considering how the Overwatch chat continues to be filled with racism and bigotry.
CS:GO is similarly plagued with constant racism. YouTuber Beergul made a video demonstrating this fact this past week.
These examples of hateful harassment in games only barely scratch the surface of a thriving machine of bigotry. It takes a high level of denial to say these things are not a problem, or to have the audacity to attack FericouslySteph for speaking out against abuse.
There will be those who will try to minimize this very prevalent issue or call those upset with receiving racist and gendered abuse “snowflakes.” Those are the same people who will be triggered by an article calling out abuse, ironically. Seeking to minimize this problem makes you part of the problem. When you say “that’s just the way games are” or you argue that games are supposed to be a white male-only safe-space, you perpetuate racist and sexist systems and become partly to blame for the maintenance of those systems.
I can’t believe it’s controversial to say this in the gaming community, but gaming should be a safe and enjoyable activity for everyone regardless of their race, gender, or ability.
Some argue that harassment happens to everyone. Firstly, that doesn’t make harassment acceptable. Secondly, although harassment happens to everyone, for women it is a constant issue, to the point where many women leave voice chat entirely just to escape the large number of misogynistic gamers trolling for their next target. The ease with which many men throw out rape threats, racist comments, and other harassment without any punishment is astonishing. Additionally, the companies are also to blame, because there is no way they are actually banning every person who uses hate speech in their games. It’s just too prevalent for that to be true.
For games where voice chat is required to succeed, marginalized folks face a choice.
They can either resign themselves to getting stuck in the middle of the ladder, incapable of advancing because they aren’t joining team chat and therefore don’t have the advantages that come with coordinated call-outs, or they can join team chat and risk getting harassed, threatened, and reduced by some random incel just for existing in that space. That lose-lose situation is what FerociouslySteph is talking about when she criticizes voice chat, and I think her point is legitimate. Players shouldn’t have to choose between succeeding and avoiding harassment.
Not only is that situation wholly unacceptable, it’s also bad for the competitive integrity of the game. When gamers don’t have equal access to the same tools, that compromises the fairness of the competition. Women can’t effectively use voice chat if they don’t want to be bullied, and even when they do make call outs in the chat they are often ignored. This inequality distorts true competition.
It would be great if companies like Riot, Blizzard, and Valve would take hatred and discrimination in their games seriously and ban the offenders. However, after years of inaction from these companies, it’s clear that they don’t really have an issue with their players being hateful bigots. So long as the bigots are in charge, marginalized people will not be safe in voice chat.
- No, it's not a real problem for the majority of competitors 65%, 32 votes32 votes 65%32 votes - 65% of all votes
- Yes, it's highly problematic in competitive gaming 20%, 10 votes10 votes 20%10 votes - 20% of all votes
- No, but we need to change it in some way to make it more inclusive 14%, 7 votes7 votes 14%7 votes - 14% of all votes
Design a solution for the voice chat problem
The systematic exclusion of women, non-cis, and LGBT gamers has been well documented. Of course, many gamers are not sexist or racist, but as the saying goes, “a few bad apples ruin the whole barrel.” I don’t think we necessarily have to remove voice chat entirely, but I do think we need to provide compelling alternatives for those who don’t feel safe in voice chat.
Some games have already started to implement systems that help players communicate without having to join a voice channel. Apex Legends and Fortnite feature ping systems which allow teammates to indicate their intentions and mark loot on the map. Overwatch recently implemented a more customizable chat wheel. Systems like these help level the playing field, while keeping gamers safe from the abuse.
It’s time to stop trusting that players will stop being hateful. That optimism isn’t particularly helpful. Instead, companies and communities need to step up to 1) moderate their members to punish abusive players, and 2) provide alternatives to voice chat. Designers have only recently started to implement more advanced ping and chat wheel systems. A greater investment in these non-verbal tools will help people feel more safe while playing games online, without having to sacrifice their competitive success.