Anita Sarkeesian and the gamification of misogyny

How internet communities encourage bad behaviour online.

Anita Sarkeesian, the videogame critic who attracted an online hate campaign - and a game about beating her up - after she launched a Kickstarter project (I like writing it like that, to emphasise the madness of it) spoke at a TEDx event organised by the Paley Center for Media.

You can watch the video here; it's around 10 minutes long:

I've taken screenshots of two of her points. The first is some of the harassment, because I think people need to know that when we talk about "trolling" or online abuse, we're often not just talking about a few tasteless comments. Special shoutout to James Anderson, who used his Facebook profile to LOL: "Wouldn't it be funny if five guys raped her right now :D". 

The second is what happened to her online presence. You can see the vandalisation of her Wikipedia page, the attacks on her website, the attempts to access her Twitter, Google and Formspring accounts and the attempt to have her social media profiles flagged as spam. In the top right is someone claiming to be from 4Chan offering up her phone, email and address, adding "this is going to be fun!"

But the most interesting aspect of her talk is the way that she interprets the harassment itself as a game. There is an enemy - her - who must be defeated - by getting her to stop making feminist videos. There are forums dedicated to the cause, where members slap each other on the back for each latest bit of bullying. And there are rewards - in the form of peer approval - for being the worst, most daring member of the group. 

As Sarkeesian put it: "This social aspect is a powerful motivating factor which provides incentives for players to participate and to escalate the attacks by earning the praise and approval of their peers. . . Players earn 'internet points' for increasingly brazen attacks. "

That echoes what I was told recently by Tom Postmes, a researcher studying "trolling" and online culture at the University of Groningen. He emphasised that although anonymity is often blamed for bad behaviour online, it's not as simple as that. He told me:

It is clear that there is a social dynamic amongst trollers. They like to show off their work. For example, if anonymity for them was vitally important they would not use a pseudonym consistently through time and have multiple identities. It’s very hard to know but research suggests that people with particular kinds of online identities tend to stick to them for very long times. These people, they bask in the effects of their online contributions.

They take some pride in their work and they obviously also think it’s quite funny to do these kinds of things. There’s some kind of pride they derive from it within their community. It’s a very loose community of course, it’s not a clearly defined group. They do not hang out in one place. Nevertheless, they do comment on each others’ work, they look out for it. They clearly identify with some kind of common style of interacting online.

In Sarkeesian's case, her abusers have effectively "gamified" trolling. It's like when a group of kids gather, and they talk about doing something stupid, and no one is really sure whether or not to do it, and then the most extreme member of the group does. (And then everybody looks up to them, and realises that even if they think it was a stupid thing to do, there are no points to be earned for being a square.) Except because of the connectivity of the internet, the size of the group is vastly larger, and so the extremity of behaviour is further from the centre. Terry Pratchett put the idea beautifully: "The IQ of a mob is the IQ of its dumbest member divided by the number of mobsters."

As Sarkeesian notes, to her abusers "it's a game"; to the victim, it's anything but. 

The first time I wrote about Sarkeesian, I noted that there were two outcomes to her Kickstarter launch: one horrific, the other wonderful. (She got abused; she got funded.) It's the same again now: in the video, she says that she had hoped to make five "Tropes vs Women" videos; thanks to the extra funding, she is making 13, plus a classroom curriculum that educators can use for free. 

And the horrific bit? Look under that YouTube video:

WHY ARE COMMENTS TURNED OFF? This talk comes from a woman who was targeted by an online hate campaign. Predictably, the same campaign has targeted this talk, so comments have been shut down. If you'd like to comment constructively on this video, please share on your own social networks.


Anita Sarkeesian.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research