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Emotional Abuse

Do Video Games Promote Sexual Harassment?

Do more sexualized games result in more online sexual harassment?

Key points

  • Female gamers have a unique experience with being sexually harassed online.
  • Sexualized game content and male-enforced online environments are two possible explanations for online abuse.
  • Online gaming serves as a microcosm for issues that negatively impact women in the broader social realm.

Most people are probably familiar with the endless debate over whether video games inspire real-world violence. Questions about the socialization of violence have overshadowed studies that have explored how video games may be a factor in attitudes surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality. Nevertheless, several studies have been instrumental in bringing to light issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality originating in online video game environments.

Yan Krukau/Pexels
Yan Krukau/Pexels

Online Harassment of Female Gamers

Yee (2006) claimed that online gaming promotes collaboration, socialization, teamwork, and the formation of long-term, meaningful relationships.

Other works, however, have reported a different picture with respect to female gamers. Female online gamers have experienced severe harassment, which includes physical threats, stalking, and more. Female gamers have also experienced doxing, or the online broadcasting of an individual’s personal information, such as their real name, phone number, and address.

In a study of 271 female gamers, McLean and Griffiths (2019) found that female gamers experience stress, anxiety, and insecurity. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League reported that 49 percent of adult gamers identifying as female were harassed online (up from 41 percent in 2020). Due to the potential for online harassment, some female gamers (which make up nearly 50 percent of online gaming participants), have chosen to hide their identity. As one respondent to McLean and Griffiths' study said, “I’ve almost completely hidden my gender for the past 10 years in online gaming so I could enjoy my hobby,” with another respondent disclosing that she had been “dying to play competitively but I know I shouldn’t without communicating. I’m too afraid because I’m a girl” (2019, p. 983).

Is this offensive online attitude against women and girls a product of a male-dominated network holding the online environment to strict gender expectations, or is it a response originating from the content of the games themselves?

Sexualized Game Content Study

Burnay, Bushman, and Laroi (2019) approached questions of sexualized game content. In a study involving 211 students aged 18 to 37 (49 percent male), participants were instructed to play a video game to determine what effect sexualized content in games had on sexual harassment behaviors by the players. All participants played the same game, Ultra Street Fighter IV, for the first time. The outfits the female characters wore varied. In the sexualized condition, characters wore revealing clothing. In the non-sexualized condition, characters wore non-revealing clothing. Which version participants played was based on random assignment. Once the game was played, the opportunity was provided for players to sexually harass other players by sending them sexist jokes. The researchers found the incidence of sexual harassment toward female players was higher in the sexualized gameplay environment than in the non-sexualized gameplay condition. According to the authors of the study, the sexualization of the female characters provoked sexually harassing behaviors toward female players of the game.

Game Content or the Online Gaming Environment?

“There are too many incidents to put out here. Being told I must suck because I’m a girl...being told that I should be in the kitchen making food for my man and not on WoW (World of Warcraft).” (#MeToo in Burney, Bushman, & Laroi, 2019, p. 1)

It’s too convenient to blame a single factor for producing sexist behavior in any social environment. Bruney, Bushman, & Laroi (2019) produced findings that implicated sexualized game content, but if hegemonic masculinity is promoted and adhered to in the online gaming world, sexual harassment of female gamers is a method by which to reinforce the power structure. In any social environment where men are celebrated in some online circles for harassing female gamers online, it's an indication an issue exists in the dynamics of the community itself. When gamer Aris Bakhtanians harassed a female online member for five days and was asked if they could just play the game without sexual harassment, Bakhtanians argued, “No, you can’t because they are one and same. Sexual harassment is part of the culture” (Little, 2013).

The environment found in online gaming is but a microcosm of the issues in the broader social realm. Still, in order to successfully address the problem of sexual harassment everywhere, it's helpful to identify and understand the potential causes somewhere, in this case, the gaming world.


Anti-Defamation League. “Hate is no game: Harassment and positive social experience in online games 2021. Executive Summary.….

Burnay, J., Bushman, B.J., & Laroi, F. 2019. “Effects of sexualized video games on online sexual harassment.” Aggressive Behavior, 1-10.

Little, S. 2013. “Excuse me, Princess: Gender in video game culture.” TedxUNC. http://

McLean, L., & Griffiths, M.D. 2019. “Female gamers’ experience of online harassment and social support in online gaming: A qualitative study.” International Journal of Mental Health Addiction, 17, 970-994.

Yee, N. 2006. “Motivations for play in online games.” Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 9(6), 772-775.

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