Yesterday I got an interesting email from a new organization called Bully Hunters, described as a “vigilante hit squad of elite female gamers” who have come together to fight sexual harassment in Counter Strike: Global Offensive. The message read in part, “The time for harassment in CS:GO is finally up. Starting this Thursday, April 12, female gamers have a way to fight back. A collective of gamers, brands and organizations have teamed up to create a first-of-its-kind global tool that connects victims of in-game harassment with gamers who want to help, called the Bully Hunters.”
According to their cited statistics, “more than 21 million female gamers have reported sexual harassment and abuse—including extreme threats of sexual violence and death.” With the launch of BullyHunters.org, gamers can purportedly report the incident, or “connect with a Bully Hunter through the STEAM platform” who then, presumably, takes out the offending player through the power of their gaming skills. The site for now seems to be a placeholder. “WATCH THE HUNT LIVE” it beckons with vengeful flair, posting a date of April 12, 2018. The page claims SteelSeries as a sponsor, as well as Diverse Gaming Coalition and National Organization for Women. The name of the publisher of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Valve, is nowhere to be seen.
While the service provided aims to protect and help people who’ve had experiences similar to my own in videogames, I’m concerned with the approach and its potential impact. I understand the desire, in light of the overwhelmingly negative experiences women have in multiplayer games, to find a way to address or overcome it with direct action. However, in this case, the methods may be a little bit misguided. Not only does engaging griefers and trolls validate their negative behavior, it can also backfire and antagonize them, increasing the aggression towards their targets. Given how deadly that escalation can be, as illustrated by various swatting incidents over the past few years, it’s valid to ask if the tactic achieves anything in the long run. People’s lives may be put at risk for the sake of sending a message to an intended audience that may never receive it. On a practical level, in terms of maintaining a less hostile gaming environment, will it be worth it? Will there be enough Bully Hunters to address the need? Will response time be efficient?
I also think it may contribute to the exceptionalist demands that are put on perceived outsiders in hobbyist communities. Women are often put in the position of having to prove themselves and navigate additional expectations on their skills in order to be considered “equal.” Sending in an elite squad of pro gamers to assist those who can’t manage their harassers on their own suggests that “bullies” attack their female competitors because they expect them to be bad at games. It also implies that women who are subject to harassment should call in a better player to defend them because they can’t do it themselves. Neither helps the misperceptions surrounding our merits as gamers, and both reinforce a status quo narrative dictating that respect amongst players is built on skill alone.
The vigilante actions of an outside organization in this case may also encourage Valve to avoid taking a direct role in managing the harassment on their platform and in their games. They have a long history of ignoring or delegating the issue and leaving players to manage it amongst themselves; they’re basically an absentee parent whose idea of discipline is yelling at their kids to settle down from another room. Allowing a self professed vigilante group to solve the problem for them gives the appearance that they’re doing something about it, without directly taking responsibility—or alienating the aggressive portions of their userbase. For them, it’s a win-win. They get to play both sides.
The anti-bullying angle in particular sticks with me. It suggests that the sexual harassment they seek to address is motivated by a general power dynamic unrelated to a specific identity, which is a bizarre and obtuse way to go about it. It’s a word that often suggests conflict between children, not adults who should know better. It that sense, it trivializes the issue. I also worry that placing women in the role of enforcer, in addition to reinforcing the narrative that the harassment is driven by a perception of lack of skill, suggests that the problem can be solved by playing on the perceived terms of those who harass other players. In my experience, they simply move the goalposts and keep going.
I support the women on the Bully Hunters team. It takes guts to do anything to stand up for women. In the coming months I hope the organizers and brands that are attached to the project provide them the resources they need to manage the additional stress and negative attention. According to the email, they’re looking for volunteer Bully Hunters, which suggests that at least some of the team will not be paid. If that’s the case, they should change it. Emotional labor is labor, and no one should have to deal with the added stress for free.
I also hope that Valve starts to take responsibility for their own audience. Harassment is the product of permissive game design; if the company wanted to, they could shut it down quickly. A simple ban in most cases will do. It shouldn’t be up to the players to seek outside help to overcompensate for Valve’s lack of foresight just to enjoy the game. By putting the onus on the players who are being harassed, they avoid admitting fault and, thus, duck responsibility.
The roots of the harassment problem go much deeper than one particular entertainment culture. It pervades every facet of our lives due to structural issues that can’t easily be changed. I say that not to be defeatist, but to point out that fighting fire with fire, at least in this case, won’t change the attitudes that cause “bullying” or anti-social player behavior in the first place. Bully Hunters also doesn’t seem to be concerned with other marginalized members of the gaming community who face harassment due to their identity. Our time may be better spent elsewhere.
Ironically, at the end of the email, the publicist offered to introduce me to “a female gamer who can speak to her personal experiences of in-game harassment and / or an anonymous Bully Hunter.” It is truly surreal, after nine years in games reporting, to be invited to talk to a victim of the very behavior that inspired my career and has shaped my multiplayer privacy settings for almost a decade. It seems like every other year, the topic is revisited as if it were new or fresh, as if someone finally has the answer. It never goes away. I wish Bully Hunters well and I hope for the best. But I expect the worst.
Which, as it turns out, is a good approach to playing open multiplayer games.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.