Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual Mosaic Journalism Workshop for Bay Area high school students, a two-week intensive course in journalism. Students in the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.
Benjamin Tonthat, a rising senior at San Jose’s Evergreen High School and an avid player of first-person shooter games, was playing Valorant recently, and wasn’t doing well in his competitive match.
As a result, his teammates targeted him with aggressive comments. Though he muted them, he continued to feel bothered by the hurtful remarks while playing, which affected his delivery in the game.
“I reported them after the game, but I don’t think it did much,” Tonthat said.
Tonthat, like many teens, loves to play online multiplayer games. And like many, he has been harassed while playing.
In 2021, three in five teen gamers, or nearly 14 million teens, reported experiencing harassment or being targeted by hate in online multiplayer games, according to a survey released in September by the Anti-Defamation League.
They were sometimes harassed because of their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
The games Valorant and Call of Duty drew the most complaints in the ADL survey, with League of Legends and Rocket League drawing the least complaints.
Nearly all teens said they have had some positive gaming experiences, but at the same time 60% said they had also been harassed.
To avoid being targeted, teens are resorting to managing who they play with, or even changing how they play, which can affect them competitively. Some even quit, or avoid certain games.
After being humiliated or bullied, some teens retreat from friends and family, or start to treat others worse. Others report doing poorly in school. Few had contacted a helpline.
Because she’s female, Vivian Tieu, a teen gamer from Alhambra in Southern California, has been relentlessly told by other gamers to quit and stick with typical known “feminine” games, like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing.
If she wasn’t doing well, her teammates would berate her. And if she was doing well, they would berate her.
“They would still talk down to me,” said Tieu. One time, Tieu and a female friend had joined a team on Valorant, when a stranger on their team found out they were both girls. He began verbally harassing them and, annoyed at playing with girls, he disconnected from the game.
Experiences like this have led Tieu to often not talk in voice chat while playing. However, as communication is an essential in team games, this can put her at a disadvantage as a player.
Vish Kapu, a rising senior at San Jose’s Yerba Buena High School, plays various online games, like Valorant, Rainbow Six Siege and Apex Legends.
When he hears children spewing slurs in voice chat, he intervenes to let them know the consequences of offensive speech.
Some take his advice, but others don’t. Kapu has tried making light of toxic players in Rainbow Six Siege.When users hurled insults, he would sarcastically retort that it was a good game.
“If someone says something like ‘you are s***’, I go, ‘TRUE gg tho’ and just move on,” Kapu said.
Like Tieu, Vicky Nguyen, a teen online gamer from Garden Grove who plays on Minecraft and other platforms, uses voice chat cautiously while playing, so that she can avoid being put down because she’s female.
She said she’s been mocked for the pitch of her voice and had a teammate throw obstacles in her way, which made her emotional.
Harassment in online gaming can be particularly harmful to women and girls, according to Rabindra Ratan, a professor at Michigan State University and an expert on toxicity in gaming.
Besides affecting their psychological status, toxicity decreases their motivation to pursue technical fields, Ratan wrote in MSU Today.
To combat the toxic culture, major gaming companies have banned players and published their names, and imposed restrictions on players who show abusive behavior.
In January, Riot Games imposed more than 40,000 bans and 400,000 chat regulations on Valorant players. But the company has acknowledged that the bans and regulations haven’t necessarily reduced Valorant’s toxic culture.
The ADL would like to see game industries do more. Among other measures, it recommends that industries submit to regular independent audits, and improve their reporting systems and moderation tools. It also recommends more parental involvement and governmental regulation of the industry.
Jasmine Sessoms is a rising sophomore at Silver Creek High School in San Jose.