The video game industry exploded this summer with the #MeToo movement and allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. It added another layer of hardship on a year with Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic, and it caused a lot of stress for both game developers and gamers.
That’s one reason for the urgency behind the Games and Online Harassment Hotline, which opens today. This free, nonprofit service comes from Anita Sarkeesian, the head of the Feminist Frequency who started a movement to expose sexism in games with the firebrand videos dubbed Tropes vs Women in Video Games. That work earned her an Ambassador Award from the Game Developers Choice Awards, as well as a lot of harassment on social media.
Sarkeesian ended most of that effort around 2017, but she continues to be concerned about issues in games and the mindfulness of those who play them, who have increasingly reported mental health challenges. I spoke with her in an interview about the hotline and the reasons behind it. She wants it to address issues of abuse, burnout, depression, or anything else that is bothering people. The hotline is an emotional support resource for all kinds of emotional distress and issues. It’s not just around harassment. It will also be about listening to someone, but not prescribing an answer for their problems.
It took more than a year to get off the ground, as it took time to raise money and figure out the service. People can initiate the process by sending a text message to 23368. The hotline is text-only. The hotline has trained call center experts and volunteers to handle the calls, and they can refer people to the proper resources, such as suicide prevention, as needed.
The hotline opens at 4 p.m. Pacific time on Monday, August 3. It will be available from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific times, Monday through Friday.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What’s the inspiration for doing the hotline. Could you start there?
Anita Sarkeesian: The hotline, we started working on it in earnest back in August 2019, which you might remember as what we’re referring to as the first wave of the #MeToo movement in the games industry. That’s not to say there wasn’t abuse ongoing for a long time before that, but a lot of folks spoke up at that moment. It was kind of a reckoning. During that time period, I was thinking about things we could do to start supporting folks more and how we could work to end abuse in the games industry.
One of the several projects I’d like to work on is this hotline. It took us about a year to get going. The idea is that we wanted to create an emotional support resource for folks who make and play games. The population we want to serve is very wide, so anyone who identifies in any way with games spaces, whether you’re a fan or a player, a developer, a streamer, a competitor. If you just play games on your phone occasionally, it doesn’t matter. There’s no test of who is allowed to reach out to our service. We want to provide emotional support to people who make and play games. That can be pretty wide, so we’re prepared to support folks with whatever issues they might be having, whether it’s anxiety or depression or being overworked, all the way to issues of abuse, issues of harm, issues of online harassment and that sort of thing.
GamesBeat: Some of the usual hotlines are focusing on things like suicide prevention. Is that in your purview as well?
Sarkeesian: Let me tell you what we’re not. We’re not therapy. We’re not legal support. We’re specifically emotional support. That said, our agents are trained — let me tell you how it works. We work with a call center that is already established, that serves other hotlines as well. They have their own specific training that deals with crisis management, intervening if people are calling about feeling suicidal or concerned about harm to themselves or others. Our agents are trained in all of that.
What we do is — in addition to that existing training from the established, reputable call centers we work with — we provide additional training that’s games-specific. Recognizing how oppression and power work in our games spaces, understanding the language of how we speak in games communities, and understanding the issues that are unique to us. Too often, when you talk to folks who don’t know anything about games–the issues that we experience in games, or some of us who’d consider ourselves “extremely online,” can be alienating to folks who aren’t in that space. We want to make sure that the people who are texting in to our hotline feel understood, without having to explain what SWATting is or what online harassment is or any of that stuff.
GamesBeat: I remember the Stack Up people had a hotline. They tend to refer suicidal cases to another, more specific service. Is that something that’s available, where you can redirect people who have something more serious?
Sarkeesian: The agents we’re working with now are equipped to do that work. They also serve suicide hotlines as well. But we can also, with the consent of the person who’s texting in to us, send them to more specific hotlines for their needs, or other references. There are lots of great hotlines out there that do wonderful work. We think of this as another resource in this pool of resources that are available to people.
As a part of the hotline, we have a referral system. First, we want to make sure that folks are supported emotionally in the ways that they want to be supported. If they would like to be referred to other sources or other areas of further support, we’ll offer that as well.
GamesBeat: Did you have to go through a big fundraising effort to get to this launch?
Sarkeesian: Always. Nonprofits are always constantly fundraising. We’ll never stop fundraising. Hotlines are — I didn’t know this, before I decided to do this, but hotlines are extremely expensive to operate. There’s been a lot of fundraising and there will continue to be fundraising in this space, because it’s essential that we keep this resource free and available to the people who need it most.
GamesBeat: I see you have limited hours. Is that a way to keep costs contained?
Sarkeesian: Right now, for our grand opening, we’re launching 3 hours a week. Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. 7 p.m. Pacific. That’s one reason, to keep the costs down. The other reason is for us to get a sense of what the community need is. How often do we get texts? How many texts are we getting? What are the concerns people have and how can we best support them? If it makes sense, we can move the hours, if we’re getting more people who want to talk later or earlier in the day. The goal is to make it a 24/7 system, but that will take more infrastructure. Also, in the beginning, keeping the hours shorter allows us to understand how best we can support the community and be receptive to them.
GamesBeat: Do you see this as a continuation of your mission in general, what you started with Feminist Frequency?
Sarkeesian: Absolutely. I was talking about, back in August, when #MeToo hit the games industry — what drew my mind was, “I know this industry, and I know abuse in this industry. How can I use my platform to best support other folks and end abuse in this space?” I 100 percent feel like it’s in line with all of the work I’ve been doing. I don’t think that the issues around representation, the issues around workplace–who’s making games, who has access to make games, I don’t think that is distinct or separate from the issues about abuses of power and online harassment and all of that.
It’s a larger ecosystem that we exist in. All of these different factors and forces contribute to toxic environments. There are going to be, by necessity, many different approaches to engaging with the work of ending abuse in this space and making it a welcoming environment for folks.
GamesBeat: Do you think you’re going to be taking calls?
Sarkeesian: No, I’m not going to take any calls. One of the other reasons I thought a hotline was important was I think that folks — people in my position, and other people who are more high-profile in terms of being targeted with abuse, or who’ve spoken up about it, we often have this whole underground whisper network of people like, “Hey, can you talk to my friend about this horrible thing that’s happening? Can you review this article she wants to post about being assaulted 10 years ago?” I’m one person that can only do so much. I can only be accessed by so many people, logistically.
The hotline isn’t going to be about case management. It’s not going to be able to hold your hand through every step of your recovery process or whatever it is that you need. But we are going to be there to provide emotional support and a listening ear. We’re not necessarily going to be prescriptive about what you should do in a given situation, but we’re going to be there to help you talk through that and figure that out, if that’s what you want to get out of it.
GamesBeat: And it’s debuting the week of GDC Online? Are you speaking at a panel or anything like that?
Sarkeesian: No, that was completely coincidental. It has nothing to do with that.
GamesBeat: Are there some rules of thumb you would already throw out as far as words of advice for people who face harassment?
Sarkeesian: The advice that I personally would give you, if you called me and said, “Hey, this is what’s going on,” is not how the hotline is going to operate. Those are two separate questions. I think what I was describing before, about the hotline meeting people where they’re at — you text in and say, “I’m having this issue,” and the agent taking that text is going to follow your lead in a lot of ways, and be there for you. Some people just want to be heard. They just want someone to talk to. Other people are going to want help thinking through the next steps of a particular situation. Our agents are equipped to do that, but we’re not prescriptive. We’re not going to say, “You should do this.”
I also want to make clear that the hotline is an emotional support resource for all kinds of emotional distress and issues. It’s not just around harassment.
GamesBeat: How many friends from the game industry have you pulled in to help in some way? Are you getting support from corporate entities in the game industry?
Sarkeesian: We have an awesome advisory board, made up of a collection of folks from different backgrounds, that we think is essential to building out these tools and the training. We’ve gotten a lot of support from folks in games spaces in general, both in terms of being a part of fundraising campaigns, or shouting us out and integrating us into their community spaces. I’m looking forward to seeing how those relationships can grow and develop as the hotline launches and is open and continuing to try and get into as many communities as we can.
GamesBeat: As you were figuring this out, were you interested in something like Discord as a platform, because so many people already use it for gaming? I recall the Stack Up people got integrated into World of Warships.
Sarkeesian: They’re doing great work. It’s very innovative that they’re doing hotline work through games. We’re very familiar with each other. We’ve connected, and I think what they’re doing is really cool. But what we have is SMS, text-based. It’s U.S.-only. The accessibility of SMS was a big one for us. Many people, especially many people in the community we’re serving, have access to text. We wanted to make it as easy as possible, wherever people might be.
GamesBeat: Did you put yourselves in a rush to get this out because of the pandemic? It seems to be coming at a time where it’s useful.
Sarkeesian: I don’t know how much I should share, but — it took us a year to get this up and running, and that was a lot longer that I had hoped. I value the time that we took, because we learned a lot, and we learned about what we want and our values and our organization and our trainings and the people we’re partnering with. Making sure we do that right.
There was definitely a feeling of, “Oh, God, COVID, we need to be here for people.” And then all of these people were coming forward with all their stories and experiences of abuse. We just couldn’t rush it, though. We needed to make sure we built the system solidly, so that–sadly, these issues are not going away. They’re still relevant, and we can be here for people now, in a way that I feel confident in our system.
Also, I feel confident in what we’ve built. There’s a lot of space for growth. We want to hear from the community. We want to know what they feel like they could use from a resource like us and how we can grow and develop with that kind of feedback. I feel like this hotline is very much a living entity that is going to take cues from the needs of the community.
GamesBeat: Did you test-drive it already? I’m curious how many calls a week you might be able to handle.
Sarkeesian: I have no idea how many texts we’re going to get. We’re all holding our breath a bit for the first week to see what’s going to happen. We’re excited. But I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. If you’re not open, you don’t know. We have to open to find out how many texts we’re going to get, what those texts are going to look like, who is going to text in, what the issues are going to be. I feel like we’ve done a lot to get everything put in place for our ability to be nimble and to be able to respond and adjust as needed.
GamesBeat: I take it it’s important to get trained people on the calls, as opposed to volunteers?
Sarkeesian: Volunteers are still trained at hotlines. A lot of call centers and hotlines use volunteers, but they have to go through a rigorous training.
GamesBeat: When all of the latest harassment controversies erupted, what was going through your head as all of that was happening and you were trying to get this going?
Sarkeesian: Honestly, I just thought, “Why aren’t we open yet? I really wish we could be here for people right now.” On a totally personal note, this isn’t representative of the hotline, but I urge us to see — I think that it’s hard, as bystanders, to watch and read and hear about all these stories. To know that we’ve been in these communities, that we know these people, that all this harm was happening around us.
One way that I’ve been getting through as a bystander in this space is recognizing the power that telling your story has. That there is a liberation and a freedom and a sense of beginning to heal when folks speak up. When, in the last couple of months, as more and more stories were erupting, I reached out to some folks I had been supporting back in August, just to check in. Because I know that can be re-traumatizing. It can be a lot to hear these stories. Some of the people I talked to that had told their stories, or had reached out privately, were doing great. They felt this deep sense of liberation from being held down by this secret they’d been keeping for so long.
I guess I look at it as–we as an industry have to reckon and hold the fact that we’ve allowed this harm to proliferate. But that all of these survivors have gotten to tell their stories, gotten to out their abusers, and gotten to start the process of whatever healing might look like for them–I think that is an essential part of the work that we’re going to have to continue doing.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if this is true or not, but my look back — in 2014 it felt like a lot of people who were on the receiving end of Gamergate didn’t get a lot of public support. They were being criticized online all alone. Not too many people came out publicly to support them in some way. Privately, perhaps. But in 2014 it also felt like there were a lot of outings that happened, but it was limited. Things like Riot Games and Ubisoft didn’t really emerge from that. And then this time it feels like there was an outpouring of support for people who were making complaints, and that made all the difference. Again, I don’t know if you would agree with that look at history, but it seems like support for people making harassment complaints has changed.
Sarkeesian: I think that people have changed. Back in 2012, when I was first harassed — which has never stopped since then — and then Gamergate — one thing to note, and this still happens today, is that the most marginalized folks were speaking up. Women of color, trans women, who’ve been talking about these issues long before Gamergate and during Gamergate, were not getting media attention because they weren’t the ideal image of what the media wanted to cover. And even those of us who were getting a lot of press coverage, it’s not like we were getting loads of support either. It took a long time for any press to say anything about Gamergate, let alone how silent the industry remained that whole time. They did not speak up.
I think we are in a different moment. The #MeToo that happened in Hollywood, Trump’s election, a lot has happened that has jarred the population into reckoning with the reality of abuse and misogyny and white supremacy and transphobia and other types of oppression — they’re real, they’re present, and they’re visible. I could go through a longer history of why we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten. A lot of steps got us here. But we’re in a different moment.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not new by any means, but why now? Why did white people start supporting it en masse now? Some of it could have to do with COVID, being isolated and locked up and having nothing but time. Really seeing the injustices, the economic and social injustices that were in place. People were ready to speak up. You just saw, one after another, and that’s what we saw in the games industry. It often takes one person to be brave enough, to be the first one to say something, so that everyone can think, “I’m not alone. I’m not the only one.”
GamesBeat: I guess the hard thing here is that online harassment doesn’t always happen in the open.
Sarkeesian: Predatory behavior usually happens privately, true. If we’re going back to talking about this space, predatory behavior, abuses of power, they can be subtle. They can be quiet. They can be hidden. They’re often perpetrated by people in positions of power, and therefore there is real fear of speaking up against those people, and rightly so. Your career could end. Your reputation could end. Up until recently, victims and survivors were not believed, not in the press and not en masse. You can look at examples like R. Kelly and Bill Cosby. How many people and how long did it take until those people were believed? And those examples really show how much our society does not care about black women and girls. We’re kind of going on a tangent, but —
GamesBeat: Here, what seemed to make a difference was that when the first prominent man was accused, a lot of corroborating reports came along. “They did this to me, too.” And then action happened.
Sarkeesian: Unfortunately, we know that men who get fired from positions get rehired elsewhere. We see this again and again. There are some real questions being asked about what #MeToo in Hollywood really meant, because a lot of those men who were accused of predatory behavior just kind of bounced back. I want to clarify that it’s not just men who perpetrate harm and it’s not just women who are victims of harm. Statistically that’s the majority, but it’s not exclusive.
GamesBeat: I’m still thinking about what makes this moment different. It feels like because there was some success early on, that opened the floodgates for more complaints to come out. There was more impact this time around from people realizing this is a problem.
Sarkeesian: Yeah, I would agree with that. There are a lot of different pieces that come into play as to why. But I think overall, that’s true.
GamesBeat: I have my own blind spots. I was taken by surprise by Riot Games, and I was taken by surprise by Ubisoft. To see it happen on that level, where all the complaints were about one company, that was shocking.
Sarkeesian: I think it’s important to recognize that — the values of leadership infuse an entire company. We see that when we talk about not just abuses at work, but in terms of what kinds of stories get told, who gets to tell those stories. Is there room for people to have any kind of dissent in these meeting spaces? Who gets hired and who doesn’t? In many years of doing this work, I’ve found that the companies that are at least making an effort to be better, it’s coming from a leadership that either is neutral and is willing to let people do that work, or a leadership that actually cardes. If the leadership doesn’t care, nothing can happen, no matter how much individuals in that space want to make a difference.
GamesBeat: With Ubisoft the other interesting thing was the evidence that it affected their games. With Assassin’s Creed they has Cassandra as the only character, and then someone decided that women don’t sell, so they had to add a male player character.
Sarkeesian: I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. I have heard these stories over and over again. Just the ways that people who are trying to just get female leads in games, who are trying to dress female characters appropriately, have characters of color — they’re constantly getting shut down. Art directors, studio heads, publishers, what have you. None of that came as a surprise to me in any way, because I’ve been hearing it for so long.
GamesBeat: Not to drag you into your previous job, but where do you think we are on the video game front, whether games are better than they used to be when you were in full stride with Feminist Frequency?
Sarkeesian: Feminist Frequency collects data every year about the gender breakdown of characters announced at the E3 press conferences. We’ve been doing our best to cobble that together this year with the press conferences that have been out. I haven’t released that data yet this year, so I can’t speak to it. But what we are seeing, and what we’ve seen in previous years, is that the number of solo female protagonists is extremely low, and it doesn’t change. It didn’t change in five years, or barely. The highest was 9% and the lowest was 2% or 3%.
What we are seeing is an increase in either choosing a gender, a binary choice, or choosing a character. There’s a huge increase in those games. That takes up about half the data, those games. Now, that’s great and cool and fine, except that we need to have games that star women and women of color and trans women and disabled women and fat women, all different kinds of women, and we need to ask people who play games to inhabit those characters and inhabit those experiences and allow those stories to be told. That’s the missing piece. The answer isn’t just, “We’ll have a roster of characters you can choose from.” Sure, let’s have those games, but we also need games where you have to play as the female character and experience life in this world as that character.
In some ways we are making progress, for sure. I say that in–you can kind of see that there are slightly less sexualized female characters. There is, as a whole, a shift or a trend toward some progress. But it’s still not great. I’m afraid for us to get a little too overconfident, because there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, and not just in representation. It’s in the types of stories that are being told, in the mechanics and the ways the mechanics interact with those stories. What we’re asking players to do, how we’re solving problems and all of that, is an essential part.
The representation piece of it, in retrospect, feels like the most basic, simple piece of it. When I say “it,” I mean creating games with inclusive narratives and stories and experiences.
GamesBeat: The Last of Us Part II made a big impression on me and a lot of people. It was finally a game where all those things you talked about are normal.
Sarkeesian: Sure. But Last of Us is also a great example of exactly what I’m talking about. It’s seeing extraordinary progress in representation. That game is queer as fuck, and it’s awesome. The representation, I thought, was great. But that game — we need to investigate and interrogate what that game is saying about violence, about people, about societies, what it’s asking us to do as a player. There are deeper questions we need to get at in terms of what it means to be making progress in this industry toward a more inclusive gaming landscape.
GamesBeat: Going back to the hotline, are you anticipating particular subjects as the ones that people will be calling in about?
Sarkeesian: We have an idea, but who knows? I hope that people understand that it’s a wide-ranging platform. That’s a weird way of saying it, but — early on, when I announced the hotline and started to talking about it, they got hung up thinking that it’s all about online harassment, and it’s not. I just wanted a place for people–the reason that online harassment is in the title is because for me, I have so many people who don’t know where to go or what do with online harassment that I wanted a signal. You are welcome here. We understand this issue.
But the hotline is really about any emotional support need you have, whether it’s anxiety, depression, crunch, burnout, isolation, loneliness. If you feel like you’re going to–if you feel like you’ve caused harm and you need a place to work that out, if you’re worried about causing harm to yourself or others, we’re here for you. We’re here to be that resource.
To me, when I think about ending abuse in the games industry, it has to be cultural. We have to create a large-scale cultural shift. One of the things I hope the hotline can encourage is help-seeking behaviors. I want to encourage folks to understand that asking for help is not cowardly. It’s not a weakness. I actually think it’s incredibly courageous and brave to ask for help. Sadly, in our society, we demonize that. In video games you’re supposed to be the stoic leader on their own saving the world or whatever. But if we’re going to do better as a community and an industry, we need to be able to ask for help, and we need places to seek that help. We want to be one of many resources that can do that.