Many prominent women in gaming have come forward with tales of sexist abuse, and so it shouldn't be a surprise that women on Twitch, a massively popular video game streaming platform, are subjected to harassment because of their gender.
But for any doubters out there, a new study from researchers at Indiana University that analyzed more than one billion public Twitch comments concludes that women on the streaming site are routinely objectified in some pretty gross ways. Men who stream their gameplay on Twitch, on the other hand, are more commonly greeted with comments about their skills, not their looks.
Some of the most popular words used in chat rooms for streamers who identify as women were "boobs," "hot," "omg," "smile," and "babe," the researchers report in a paper posted to the arXiv preprint server on Tuesday and which is currently under peer review. For Twitch streams by those who identify as men, by contrast, the words most commonly used by commenters included "melee," "shields," "glitch," and "reset."
"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence about gendered conversations on Twitch, and even if you just go on Twitch it's very stark," said Giovanni Ciampaglia, one of the study's authors. "You could say it has a bad rap."
"Viewers on women's stream spoke in more objectifying terms," he continued, "which confirms that anecdotal evidence."
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Ciampaglia and his colleagues looked at more than one billion public chat messages posted over a two-month period in 2014. (The data was provided by Twitch.) Of that initial set, the researchers looked at a subset of more than 71 million messages posted to 200 channels run by men, and 200 channels run by women. The gender of the channel owners was verified by cam feeds, and the sample contained an even mix of channels from Twitch's top 1000 ranking and less popular channels.
It would be fair to question whether 2014 data might have limited explanatory potential for 2016, because a lot can change in just two years. However, Ciampaglia said, there's little reason to think that sexist harassment online has abated in the intervening years, especially given the rise of the anti-feminist GamerGate movement.
Recent comments from Twitch stars who are women, like Hearthstone streamer Hafu Chan, show that sexist harassment on Twitch is still very much alive and well. In a 2016 interview with Fusion about streaming on Twitch, Chan said, "You just get harassed a lot." She recalls being called a "whore" and a racial slur, because she is Asian-American.
In response to comments similar to Chan's from other women streamers in September, Twitch pledged to work on new community moderation technology to stem the tide of sexist abuse on the platform.
"We take harassment very seriously at Twitch," Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's senior vice president of marketing, sent Motherboard in an emailed statement. "We're dedicated to improving our policies, products, and features to offer broadcasters the tools and flexibility to manage their channels how they see fit and to protect themselves against harassment and other inappropriate behavior."
Twitch currently offers streamers a harassment "toolkit" that includes the ability to ban certain words in chat, put aggressive users on a "time out," and more.
Beyond site infrastructure to deal with harassment, Ciampaglia highlighted the impressive amount of community self-moderation on display in their large dataset of Twitch comments.
"It seems there is good evidence from this data that there is a strong moderation system put in place by the users, by the community," he said. "This is encouraging news, I think."
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