Jeannail Carter a.k.a Cuddle_Core remembers a lot from her first televised tournament as a professional Tekken player. There were the pre-show jitters, the rush of adrenaline under the blinding lights, and the bouquet of flowers waiting in her parents’ arms after she stepped off the stage. But what she recalls the most vividly four years later are the toxic comments. They weren’t about her insane combos or perfectly timed counter hits as the pink-haired android Alisa Bosconovitch. Rather, the tweets and chat comments were about the way Carter, as a Black woman, wears her hair, the fact that she wears glasses, and how she doesn’t have enough sex appeal for the random people (read: men) behind faceless profile pics in chat. “Even the way my mouth is shaped [was criticized],” she tells Refinery29 in a recent phone call. “It was the complete breaking down of somebody’s appearance.”
She was proud of her performance, and her Twitch community was in her corner, but the overwhelming amount of personal attacks clouded the experience. “People like to claim everyone gets that in Twitch chat,” but it’s simply not true, she says. “You judge people based on gameplay, and when it comes to women, they’re twice as harsh.”
If you’re a woman in gaming, Carter’s experience probably sounds familiar. And it’s the same story if you’re transgender, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or of any other marginalized group who has historically faced harassment and toxicity in a space that, for a long time, has been made up of mostly white dudes.
But it’s a new age in gaming, and people aren’t staying silent any longer. With the rise of new platforms specifically created to be safe spaces for women, non-binary people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, gamers don’t have to worry that logging on will expose them to hate because they’re in a community of like-minded people. It’s the same thinking behind the creation of women’s colleges and HBCUs, the NAACP and the BET Awards: to support and create an inclusive space for marginalized people where they can thrive. Now though, the movement is taking place entirely online. These platforms are essential, but they aren’t necessarily meant to change the gaming culture as it exists and has for years. Instead, they’re ready to become the new mainstream.
You judge people based on gameplay, and when it comes to women, they’re twice as harsh.
Gaming culture has long been a boys’ club, and for anyone who’s not white and male, entering these spaces can be isolating and sometimes harmful. In gaming, the bigotry isn’t subtle. In fact, many gamers notice it as soon as they log on. This is especially true for women, who face everything from criticism of their gameplay based on their gender to threats against their safety. “There’s a lot of propositioning and a lot of harassment,” Jill Kenney, co-founder and CEO of Paidia, tells Refinery29. Regardless of what the specific comment may be, one thing is pretty constant: “It’s really, really, really, really bad.” For Black and LGBTQ+ gamers, treatment and harassment can be even worse.
In addition to comments about their appearance, women gamers are also subjected to jabs that their games — and wins — must be rigged. (You know, because a woman couldn’t possibly outperform a man). According to a 2021 survey, 77% of female gamers reported experiencing gender-specific discrimination, including verbal abuse (everything from “go back to the kitchen” to death threats). Nearly 60% of women gamers use non-gender or male identities online to avoid being harassed, according to a Reach3 study, and in many cases, women turn off their mics and don’t communicate in game to protect themselves from harassment.
These facts are part of the thinking behind Paidia, a digital gaming portal featuring tournaments, community content, and membership rewards that promotes inclusivity and respectful gaming, that launched in beta last November. The platform, named fittingly after the Greek goddess of play and amusement, is unique in that each player is required to denounce abuse, signing a waiver that pledges that they won’t take part in any harassment on the platform. The idea is to ensure barriers and toxicity aren’t something gamers have to face at all, so they can focus on what everyone’s there to do: game, bond, and have fun. “This is really our first line of defense for making people accountable and saying I understand the values, which is for an inclusive, supportive and clean site and any sort of racism, sexism, transphobia, or any sort of other prejudice or not tolerated,” Kenney says. They now have over 5,000 users in beta, she says.
Unlike many of the mainstream platforms, content — and any potential abuse – is monitored by the community rather than AI bots, something Kenney wants to maintain once Paidia officially debuts later this spring. So far, the platform has launched a podcast, hosted and sponsored 40 tournaments, and offered matchmaking expertise, to connect gamers to each other on the platform, based on their game of choice — all without the fear of being targeted or harassed.
Until now, gamers have had to largely create and curate these spaces themselves. For streamer and former YouTube vlogger Stephanie Peloza (Stef Sanjati), it was a priority to ensure her Twitch channel and streams “felt inclusive, and cozy, and relaxing.” As a trans gamer — and someone whose YouTube page was primarily used to educate people on her experience as a trans person — Peloza knows the environment that can be created when harassment and convos about identity enter the chat. What starts out as an escape can quickly turn into a space where people aren’t focusing on the gameplay, but debating and defending their very existence. “I didn’t want my stream to be about the oppression and the marginalization that different communities faced,” she tells Refinery29. “I wanted it to be a reprieve from that, so we didn’t have to sit in it all the time.”
Peloza, who joined Paidia as a head narrative designer last June, says Paidia’s inherently inclusive space and focus on player safety is lightyears ahead than where other platforms are. “This is a space for people to relax and enjoy, whatever background they are.” Carter, an ambassador for Paidia who’s also worked with Black Girl Gamers, feels a similar way. “Being in these spaces, I feel so safe,” she says. “I feel like my feelings are validated.” And working with women in a women-led space is empowering, led by people who’ve equipped Carter with the tools to continue to grow and start to invest in herself and her career.
Safe spaces, like the one Paidia has created, is important, but also begs the question of how it’ll inevitably affect — and hopefully impact — the mainstream gaming community. Last January, in response to harassment, Twitch updated its hateful conduct and harassment policy to take a clearer — and harder — stance on harmful behaviors on its platform, particularly attacks aimed at women and other marginalized groups. The streaming site also implemented an Off-Service Conduct Policy to help address any threats to Twitch users that might affect their safety offline and IRL and has promised to jumpstart more initiatives designed to protect user safety this year.
There is no downside to making sure that your service is safer and more inclusive for all kinds of people.
For Kenney and Carter, platforms like Paidia are a drop in the water, a place to start conversations about the need for, and success of, safe spaces. “I wouldn’t say the culture overall has completely changed, but we’re taking steps in the right direction and the conversations are a lot more present,” Carter says. “That’s absolutely the most important stepping stone that needs to take place: getting these conversations into the sphere.” Despite the fact that Paidia is still in beta, (they have plans to launch off-desktop within the next few months), the response has already been positive. “We’ve seen a lot of like minded individuals that, like us, are just like, ‘Hey, let’s create a safe, awesome space,’” Kenney says.
While Paidia is working on getting its name and mission out there, its very existence puts the onus on other platforms to follow suit. With social media playing such a massive part of people’s everyday lives, all platforms have a responsibility. “There is no downside to making sure that your service is safer and more inclusive for all kinds of people,” Peloza says, “because it just means all kinds of people are going to be using your platform and they’re not going to be walking away, feeling hurt, or having had harm done to them.”
It’s not about just changing things as they stand, but rather, establishing this treatment of each other online as the mainstream moving forward. “We’re entering the ring to help change the conversation, to influence the wider industry to a better place,” Peloza agrees, “and we can do that by setting an example, by setting a standard for how people deserve to be treated in online spaces.”