Technology » Video Games

Gay Teen Gamers Vulnerable to Cyber Bullying

by Shaun Knittel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday May 10, 2012

The online gaming market is worth more than $15 billion. And according to Online Gaming Association, in 2011, 20 million players have spent 17 billion hours on Xbox Live. That's more than two hours played for every person on the planet.

With progresses in technology and Internet speeds and downloads, online gaming has becoming more popular than ever. Some are predicting that online gaming will soon become the only way people play video games.

That's good news for the companies banking on the market. It is, however, bad news for parents of some LGBT teens. Unfortunately, according to experts, online gaming is a minefield of hate. More specifically, it has become a breeding ground for anti-LGBT cyber bullies.

Experts say that when parents allow their LGBT teen to play online videogames without monitoring them they are exposing them to racial slurs, X-rated content and anti-gay remarks.

"Much of the verbal assaults in shoot-'em-up games, like Call of Duty and Gears of War, revolves around homosexually oriented epithets," Kevin J Roberts, author of "Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap "(Hazelden 2010) told EDGE. "The underpinnings of this lie in the fact that those games are 'macho proving grounds' and for young males, homosexually oriented epithets represent an assault on one's masculinity, or one's masculine worthiness."

Mental health experts who focus on youth see those who are bullied as often learning to perpetuate the problem and becoming bullies themselves, simultaneously or concurrently. This is the cycle of victim-perpetrator that catches so many children and adults.

Roberts says that in many cases, gay teens are most likely playing with someone much older than they are. The average age of a gamer is 37 years old, so when a teen takes the game online and players start interacting, all content ratings go out the window.

"Incredible levels of profanity, racial epithets, homosexually-oriented epithets. We're talking 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kids who are getting exposed to this regularly," said Roberts.

By age 12, the average child has witnessed tens of thousands of acts of violence on TV and games. The gaming acts of violence are even more damaging, because the player is actively seeking to kill or wound fellow players. Multiplayer online games have real people taking the part of avatars, which means that fights are going on in real psychological space.

"Online gaming exposes all youth to homophobic, racist and other hateful speech," notes Heather Carter, who runs OUTLoud, the LGBT arm of Washington State's Youth Suicide Prevention program. Youth and adults in a cyber world tend to say things they would never say in a person-to-person situation, she adds.

’They may trash talk. They may be calling you names. They may steal their passwords. Or a lot of them may gang up on one online, not because it’s a good strategic win, but to hurt the other person.’

There's also an issue with game ratings. Carter says parents should know that "even though there are ratings on games those rating do not refer to online gaming. Most who play in this venue have microphones and will talk throughout the game/match," she explains. "So, it can start as 'trash talking' and wind up with actual online cyber bullying."

Carter says she's heard this firsthand. "I've seen this myself when playing online games with my nephew."

For young kids who haven't yet discovered their sexual orientation -- or have and are still in the closet for various reasons -- this could be especially damaging, according to Carter: "If you think about youth who are struggling with their sexual orientation, for example, hearing comments such as 'fag,' it would be surprising if it didn't have a negative impact."

Online gaming bullying is, in many ways, a larger problem than face-to face bullying, for several reasons, Carter said: "Adults and peers are often not in a position to intervene, and victims' hurt is not visible as useful feedback for the bullies to experience as a 'reality check.' It is far too easy for cyber-bullies to convince themselves they are merely 'joking.' Some are surprised at the harm they cause, because the abuse did not feel 'real.'"

There are a number of games that actually allow players to "play" as a gay character. But those games like "Mass Effect 3," which includes same-sex romance options for both female and male Commander Shepard, are far and few between.

There's also the possibility of addiction. As some LGBT teens withdraw from family and schoolmates because they feel dissimilar, they might turn to Cyberland for solace. According to the Zur Institute, a resource for therapists looking to treat patients for online addiction, this is something called "the digital divide."

The younger generation has been referred to as being one of "Digital Natives" while the older generation has been referred to as one of "Digital Immigrants." This could help explain why some parents don't have any clue that cyber bullying in online gaming happens -- or that an addiction to gaming is even possible.

"At times, when parents take away the computer or disconnect the Internet, some youngsters have responded with violence towards the computer, themselves or even their parents," say officials of the Zur Institute. "Others have fallen into depression."

Parry Aftab, an Internet safety expert, says this inappropriate language in online gaming is rampant and leads to cyber bullying. "They may trash talk. They may be calling you names. They may steal their passwords. Or a lot of them may gang up on one online, not because it's a good strategic win, but to hurt the other person," Aftab said in a recent ABC News report of cyber bullying and online gaming.

Game companies attempt to combat these issues with on-box warnings, parental controls and special task squads. "They have an Xbox LIVE enforcement squad that is one of the best enforcement groups looking for grooming activities and online sexual predators, as well as cyber bullying," said Aftab.

But parental involvement is still key. Aftab recommends that parents ask their child to "unplug the headphones and turn up the speakers so you can hear exactly what's being said."

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.


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