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No More Lip Service: Twitch, Game Platforms Still Ignore Hate and Harassment

Cyber Harassment
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Nearly every streamer has to deal with the occasional troll, but as a Black woman in gaming, I have faced horrifying levels of racist and sexist harassment from belligerent strangers on the other side of the computer screen. Unfortunately, I’m far from alone, as the moderators at major platform, such as Twitch, turn a blind eye and fail to enforce their own, seemingly well-intentioned, anti-hate speech policies, leaving women, BIPOC and LBTQIA users vulnerable.

Warning: Some graphic descriptions of harassment to follow.

In two decades of online gaming, I have been stalked offline, threatened with rape and murder and even saw users steal my kids' pictures from Facebook so they could mock them in online groups. The feeling of helplessness and violation is something you never forget. But with gaming giants, such as Twitch and Microsoft, embracing the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months, you might think that these companies would be more conscientious about stopping bigotry on their platforms. 

However, based on my experiences and those of other streamers of color I speak to, it’s clear that the reality doesn’t live up to the rhetoric.

A few weeks ago, Twitch featured my daughter and I on its front page for a scheduled stream of Minecraft Dungeons. Imagine the excitement of hearing you’re getting a feature in front of thousands of viewers! The second feeling that washed over me was absolute and total dread because I knew I could be completely torn to shreds by abusive harassment during the moment I’m supposed to shine my brightest. 

Ultimately, we had to ban 54 people hurling racist and sexist remarks into my chat on that day alone. Twitch followed up the same way it always does. I received a pre-written auto email registering the report, followed by silence.

(Image credit: Twitch)

The problem isn’t limited to Twitch or to streaming. I have the same problem when I game on Xbox Live. 

I’ve suffered aggressive and demeaning comments from men in response to me being a woman. One user even threatened to murder me and rape my corpse. This gave me nightmares and caused me to stop playing games for a few months.

These are not isolated incidents, and I am not alone. So many of my peers experience these things daily, and we find ourselves wondering why these companies don't protect us.  

Finding safe spaces on the internet is hard enough for the average user. But finding safe spaces to create game streaming content as a person of color feels virtually impossible. Whether you are just starting out as a gamer or an experienced content creator the harassment you inevitably face online turns many away for good. 

Plenty of Policies, Not Enough Enforcement

Xbox Live, Twitch and YouTube all have harassment policies in place. These policies seem great in theory, but users will tell you that we don't often see enforcement. We need swift and severe punishments for users who choose to violate these policies to make gaming safer for everyone. 

I have been actively playing games online for 20 years and I will tell you this: No platform other than Nintendo has made me feel safe playing on it, because this kid-friendly company has strict and swift enforcement. The home of Mario and Zelda may be the only company that is doing it right, and other corporations should follow suit.

Twitch's Vague Anti-Harassment Language

Twitch’s written policy says that harassment is prohibited, but it’s too vague and even allows for “context.” The company’s policy states:

“Harassment is any content or activity that attempts to intimidate, degrade, abuse, or bully others, or creates a hostile environment for others, and is prohibited. Harassment is prohibited. Twitch will consider a number of factors to determine the intent, context, and impact of any reported harassment”. 

The document then goes on to detail some of the ways in which Twitch is supposed to determine if harassment has occurred and how to deal with it. 

The part others and I find lacking is where Twitch states, “Violating our policy against harassment will result in your account being suspended. Depending on the severity of the offense, harassers may be indefinitely suspended on the first violation.” 

As a Twitch broadcaster, I have heard and witnessed the harassment of my peers while live streaming. My ban button is worn out from the countless number of trolls who have slunk into my chat time and time again. So I report, rinse and repeat. Each time I receive an automated bot response thanking me for my report and absolutely ZERO follow up. 

Microsoft's Promise

Microsoft Executive VP of Gaming Phil Spencer  published an essay on the changes he planned on making in May of 2019. It was a powerful statement on how Xbox was going to do its part saying:

We commit to be vigilant, proactive, and swift. Our Xbox Safety team is nicknamed the ‘Defenders of Joy’ because we will defend you in every humanly and technologically possible way, so gaming remains fun. We will identify potentials for abuse and misuse on our platform and will fix problems quickly. We are also intent on expanding the composition of our safety team so wide-ranging perspectives can help us identify future safety problems and solutions. Because hate and harassment have no place in gaming, we recently published a refreshed version of our Xbox Community Standards to communicate how each of us can keep gaming fun and safe for all and detail the consequences when any of us break these standards."

This seems fairly straightforward and, honestly, like a wonderful place to start. Yet, I still cannot play a single game of Call of Duty without being harassed. And yes, I report them every time. Same with my favorite game, Ark: Survival Evolved, insane amounts of hate speech and threats reported and NOTHING done. Spencer made us a commitment, and he needs to uphold that to secure his brand's integrity and support his consumer base. 

Streamers Face Racism, Sexism and Homophobia

Whenever I talk to my Black peers, the conversation is the same. Where is the harassment enforcement? It goes double for my women of color peers and triple for the LGBTQIA folks. As gamers and creators, we NEED these platforms, and they need us too. They should be protecting their broadcasters and users, rather than hiding behind automated emails. 

I reached out to a couple of Black content creators I know have been vocal about the change we need to see. RayApollo, a content creator on Twitch, had this to say: 

There is so much that companies could be doing to protect users from online harassment. If they worked as hard to protect the people that use their services as they do to protect copyrighted music we might not need to be having these conversations. This isn’t to say protecting intellectual properties isn’t important, but people are more important.” 

I couldn't agree more.

The frustrations are palpable in the community, and a lot of us feel helpless to combat these issues. For many streamers, this is the way we support ourselves and how we destress and socialize. 

“Online harassment has been a problem since the invention of the internet,” streamer and podcaster Parris Lilly told me. “Allowing people to be anonymous, empowers them to say  whatever they want, without penalty or accountability for their actions. More recently, we have seen online harassment becoming rampant in the online gaming space on platforms such as Twitch, Xbox Live, Stream, etc. where the moment you are identified to be a person of color, a woman, or LGBTQ, the harassment begins until the person is forced to leave.”

Shaming Twitch on Twitter Brings Results

With newer problems such as hate raids, (where hundreds of users join a streamer live and leave their chats overwhelmed with hateful slurs) and follow botting, (where a user sends bots that create endless accounts to follow the user, which is against Twitch’s terms of service and can result in the victim being banned), many Twitch streamers have taken their complaints to Twitter in the hope of garnering a response. When facing public pressure on social media, Twitch has, in fact, banned users in the past. Honestly, that's the least we cam ask for.

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Real Solutions Mean Real Bans

Moving forward, we need some real protections in place that are stern, like IP bans, so users cannot create multiple accounts for harassment. We need a way to prevent users from making hate speech-based usernames and gamertags. Just enforcing those two things would result in a huge step toward making these streaming platforms safer. 

YouTube has its own issues that are very similar in nature, except its enforcement seems the most lax of all. Even its issues with controversial content are widely known in the gaming community. YouTube has a 3-strike rule that is VERY broad and allows quite a bit of wiggle room. 

YouTube’s policy states, “If your content violates this policy, we’ll remove the content and send you an email to let you know. If this is your first time violating our Community Guidelines, you’ll get a warning with no penalty to your channel. If it’s not, we’ll issue a strike against your channel. If you get 3 strikes, your channel will be terminated”. Not exactly a firm stance as they claim to have in their guidelines found here.

Better Tools, Cooperation Are Key

The thing is, as gamers, we know how toxic some of these communities can be, and we don’t expect these platforms to catch them all. But what we do expect is that, when we provide credible evidence of harassment, that they ban the offenders based on their own guidelines.

Lilly, who has more than 18 years of experience in the gaming industry, has been leading the discussion about online harassment on both social media and the Gamertag Radio podcast. He believes that better tools must go along with tougher enforcement.

“Everything starts with accountability, and until people are held accountable for their actions the harassment will continue,” he said.  

“The owners of these platforms must implement the tools to allow victims of harassment to report incidents, and once it has been reported, we need proper investigations conducted. And, if a person is found guilty of harassment, the punishment must be swift and it needs to be severe [enough] to hold the offender accountable.

Punishments should involve instant bans for an extended period of time and they must happen at a network level that includes their account, IP address and even MAC address to drive the point home that online harassment is not welcome on their platform.

When a ban occurs,it needs to be communicated to the overall community to make everyone aware that reporting harassment works and will not be tolerated. We also need to see all platform owners united with universal policies, so if you are banned on Xbox Live, then you are also banned on Steam, PlaystationNetwork, Twitch, etc.The only way we defeat online harassment is by doing it together.” 

This to me is a clear and comprehensive approach that these companies could easily cooperate around. Truly banning harassment would be monumental in encouraging more people to utilize these platforms and could go a long way in strengthening creator relationships.

Demanding Change from Twitch and Others

The survival of these platforms depends on us using them. By default, we have the power to demand change from these businesses. Customer service matters, and these companies not enforcing their policies is doing a disservice to customers.

Accountability must be something we as consumers take seriously as well. I have faith that more companies are holding themselves to a higher standard in the past few months, and I hope that, before the year ends, we see tangible action from companies like Twitch and Xbox. Internet call-out culture exposed internal harassment at Ubisoft, so perhaps it will also force streaming and gaming platforms to take a closer look in the mirror. 

Despite a down economy, 2020 has been a year of growth for the industry, and I can only hope that companies take some of their profits and invest them in creating safer, more welcoming communities. I’m looking forward to the day when we can focus on the joy of gaming without wading into a cesspool of racism, sexism and homophobia.

Until then, guard yourself online as best you can and report the offenders repeatedly. Change doesn’t happen in a day, but if we make our voices heard, I know it's going to come.

Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team.

Known in the gaming community as Zombaekillz, Natasha Zinda is a professional content creator, a diversity advocate and an activist. You can find her stream on https://twitch.tv/zombaekillz or follow her on Twitter at @zombaekillz.