Sexism exists in both online and offline spaces, because both kinds of spaces (and those that fall somewhere in between) are constructed both physically and socially by humans who carry our prejudicial thoughts and behavior with us wherever we go. However, discrimination in general and misogyny specifically play out differently in these spaces in two main ways: through the scale and reach, and a more clearly defined and easily attainable reward system, provided by online spaces. In combination, these differences disincentivize the development of non-normative personal characteristics, working to restrict the number of self models an individual can access and thereby the possible selves they can construct during their online interactions and throughout their lifetime. Although this dynamic most acutely impacts women, who bear the brunt of encoded misogyny, it also has severe and lasting consequences for men, who as bystanders are socialized by this behavior as well.
Possibly the biggest difference in how misogyny manifests online versus offline is the result of the exponentially larger potential audience in online environments. If a woman frequents her local gaming establishment, she will almost certainly encounter fewer people over time than if she frequents an online gaming platform, in part because her online interactions do not necessarily rely on sharing a common space or time with other gamers. This does not necessarily reduce the risk that she will be treated in a misogynistic manner, but it does decrease the social risk to the abusers, increasing the potential amount of misogyny a woman in these spaces will suffer. According to Mary Chayko in Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life, in online spaces, “harassers and abusers tend to operate anonymously or under pseudonyms” (p. 147), and when it comes to the gaming world specifically, “women report disproportionately high levels of harassment in more competitive games involving strangers” (p. 183). Because their offline identity can be harder to determine, these abusers are somewhat shielded from taking social responsibility for their actions.
Abusers in online spaces can also more quickly and easily access and dispatch a torrent of harassment from dozens, hundreds, or thousands of collaborators, as Eron Gjoni did to ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn when he kicked off GamerGate. In this dispersed model of abuse, the target suffers the entirety of the misogyny, but each individual actor is responsible for only a small part, making it hard for social and legal structures to hold them criminally liable. On the other hand, participants in offline gaming spaces (local game stores, conventions, tournaments, etc) often know or are at least familiar with each other due to repeated or sustained physical proximity. This does not mean these spaces are without misogyny, and it does not mean every act can be associated with an individual person. There are asynchronous communication methods that might be used to anonymously harass a target in offline spaces — community bulletin board flyers, bathroom graffiti, etc — but these methods are less precise and reliable in reaching a specific person. As a result, abusers in offline spaces have a higher risk of social backlash, and their abuse is often less targeted.
The misogynistic abuse a woman receives, whether highly targeted and at scale, or more diffuse and of lesser quantity, has ramifications well beyond the active period of harassment, particularly when it comes to her construction of her self. If we consider that a person’s online self is not a separate identity but “a manifestation of the self that exists offline” (Superconnected, p. 116), so too must a person’s offline identity be a manifestation of the self that exists online. Online gamers can be thought of as a reference group, to whom women compare themselves and from whom women learn what is expected from them. If a woman is being disincentivized, through repeated microaggressions, large-scale targeted attacks, or anything in between, that she is not to act in this way, not to use her voice in that way, not welcome in these or those spaces, she will begin to internalize those lessons. Because her online self is not separate from, but just another facet of, her overall self, learning these lessons in online spaces will begin to impact her offline self, just as lessons learned in offline spaces will impact her online self.
Men are not exempt from these impacts; they, too, are constructing themselves in this toxic primordial soup, learning what behaviors and reactions are expected of them whether actively through participation in or as bystanders to misogyny. In the case of young men who are delaying their entrance into the workforce in favor of playing video games, we can consider online gaming groups to be secondary groups, which have a greater influence on one’s construction of self than reference groups. The experience of gaming is programmed to be as pleasurable as possible, with a very clearly defined path to rewards. As Clive Thompson put it, “grinding always works. Always. You get a gold start just for showing up.” The result is that some young men are spending as much daily time playing video games as many do in the workplace. They’re being socialized not just by the other participants, however, but also by the sexualized and violent treatment of women encoded in many of the most popular games on the market.
Misogyny works against women no matter the context, but online spaces, and gaming spaces specifically, can greatly impact the selves constructed by men and women alike. We cannot help but absorb lessons from the social spaces we inhabit; because games are both engineered to be addictive and used as a form of escapism, they can restrict the types of selves we can see, and therefor can use to model ourselves. This is due in part to the presence of a much wider audience, less social risk, and a literal encoding of misogyny into video games. Because these problems stem from systemic issues impacting people of all genders, the path forward lies not in constructing more resilient selves, but in building better games.