Wil Wheaton Gets It Wrong on Harassment & Anonymity in Gaming

[Content Note: Misogynist terrorism; rape culture; harassment.]

Like Joss Whedon, Wil Wheaton is a straight, white, cis male celebrity and hero among geekdom who has a reputation for being a feminist ally, despite the fact he has written things like "Hillary Clinton: The Psycho Ex-Girlfriend of the Democratic Party," to critics of which he responded by saying, "Here, let me try this one more time for the humorless and professional victims out there, who seem to have shown up in a flood today: Gender, race, sexual orientation, things that make us different that we don't choose...they just don't matter to me. At all. People are people and identity politics is stupid."

I will also disclose, in the interest of honesty, that I had a personal interaction with Wheaton a long time ago which went much the same way. After reaching out to him in good faith and politely asking he not use a particular misogynist term in his writing, he responded with almost exactly the same misogynist tropes: I was humorless, oversensitive, hysterical, and a "bitch."

Whether you interpret that as evidence that I have a personal axe to grind, or as an example of a woman's lived experience with a man who is purported to be a great ally, is not something I can control. Interpret it as you will. But I will note that there is very little incentive for me to share something, especially under my real name, about a famous man with lots of fans who tend to intensely defend him, except that it matters how men who are positioned to speak on women's issues treat actual women.

Now, no one should be defined exclusively by their worst moment. Or two moments. That was a few years ago, and maybe he's changed. But maybe he's also nonetheless not exactly the perfect person to write something for the Washington Post on the subject of harassment in gaming.

His premise is that the anonymity of the internet empowers harassment, and begins by asserting: "More venom than ever before is flowing from behind the cloak of anonymity, where people remain entirely unaccountable for their words and deeds."

He then exclusively uses six women as examples of this phenomenon. And while certainly lots of the people harassing Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian et. al. do so from behind the cloak of anonymity, there are also a lot of people who aren't.

I wonder how many women whose professional lives are mostly or entirely online Wheaton has spoken to, because I'm guessing any one of us would tell him that we get plenty of harassment, threats, abuse from men who are utterly brazen—sending this stuff right under their real names, alongside their pictures, from work emails.

I once received a death threat from a man under his real name, from his work email, at a state government office.

As I've previously observed, the internet is not separate from culture, but a reflection of culture. The pretense that the anonymity of the internet creates the urges that underlie bullying is a way of distancing oneself from the real-life harm many marginalized people face, ignores that many people engaging in trolling come at us under their real names and even work emails, and elides that whatever anonymity and/or impunity the internet provides merely empowers bullies to be uglier, meaner, bolder than some of them would be face-to-face. It doesn't make them engage in behaviors that don't exist in the offline world.

I've said many times before: It's not like no random dude ever called me a fat cunt before I started a blog.

The point is that it isn't anonymity, at least not alone, that drives misogynist terrorism. It's a natural outgrowth of a patriarchal system in which women are treated as less than, in every conceivable way, our humanity diminished, our lived experiences questioned, our bodies treated as property of men and the state.

But if you're someone who doesn't give a fuck about "identity politics," then you're probably not interested in discussing that oppression is the real issue, and anonymity only one of many tools of the oppressors.

Wheaton goes on to make his case, however, citing his own experience:
When I started playing video games, we were in arcades, and we had to win and lose with grace, or we'd get our butts beaten (literally) by other players. Or, worse, we'd be kicked out! When we played games next to each other on the couch, we could trash talk and razz each other, but we were still in the same room together, and our behavior out of game was even more important than the way we behaved in the game. Playing games with real, live humans prevented any of the poisonous behavior proliferating online today.

That, ultimately, is the cure for what ails us. It's nearly impossible to enforce actual consequences in video games at the moment, but at a table, sitting face-to-face across a tabletop game, or even playing at a LAN party, sportsmanship matters. We can challenge ourselves and our opponents in nearly every world in nearly every type of game, and because we're literally inches from each other, the way we react to victory and defeat actually matters.

I've seen players fight for every point in tournaments, then graciously congratulate each other, regardless of who won. I've sat down with complete strangers — just like the random person I'd likely encounter online — and had an absolutely wonderful time being obliterated by them, because not only were they more skilled than I was, they were also nice and decent human beings. My TV show "Tabletop," which debuts its third season this week, is full of warm interactions like those.
This is his experience as white, straight, cis man. But of course there are women, myself among them, who can tell stories of being harassed during tabletop gaming. In arcades. While playing video games on a couch next to a man who we believed wouldn't harm us.

Misogyny, homophobia, racism, transphobia, disablism, sexual harassment and assault—these things happen to marginalized people in real life all the time while gaming. In person.

Virtually every woman and gay man I know who has been involved in local, face-to-face RPG groups has had to leave at least one group because of harassment or assault. I've gotten dozens of emails over the years soliciting advice for how to deal with a man in a gaming group who is harassing, or has assaulted, one or more of the players, and the other men in the group won't believe it. Or simply defend him.

The idea that lack of anonymity ensures safety for women is absurd, if you've really listened to women about their experiences with gaming, instead of just assuming that everyone has the same experiences as your own.

Wheaton probably hasn't considered that there exist men who would create a fun and safe gaming environment for him, but would be totally different with women.

Resistance to that idea—that lots of straight, white, cis men who are "cool" with other straight, white, cis men behave differently around women, genderqueer folks, and/or marginalized men—is what leads to the "small but vocal minority" argument. And that is, naturally, right where Wheaton goes:
The loudest, most obnoxious, most toxic voices are able to drown out the rest of us—a spectacle that has nearly pushed me to quit the video-game world entirely in recent months.
"The rest of us." #NotAllMen.

Wheaton concludes by acknowledging there are places where anonymity online in important, because of government and corporate info mining, and to support whistleblowers and investigative journalists.
In the age of total-information awareness, citizens need certain protections.

But in the gaming community, those protections aren't necessary, and they aren't helping.
Those protections aren't necessary, he argues, thinking only of male harassers who are making gaming look bad for guys like him. But there is, of course, another side to anonymity—which is that it protects women and others from the harassers who want to harm us.

Arguing for the end to anonymity in gaming is necessarily arguing for taking away a crucial tool from the very people who are most vulnerable to harassment.

That's the problem with calls for lack of anonymity rooted in the erroneous belief that harassment is facilitated exclusively or primarily by anonymity. It won't stop harassment. It will only more fully expose targets of harassment.

The result is that it won't drive the abusers out of gaming; it will drive the abused out of gaming.

And maybe that's the point. Not hearing anyone complain because we're all gone would probably look a lot like success to people who aren't really listening, anyway.

[H/T to Aphra_Behn.]

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