Online Voice Chat Is Often A Sexist Nightmare (But It Doesn’t Have To Be)
Your voice is revealing—it can give up a constellation of personal details, including your age, where you’re from, and how you’re feeling. This isn’t always an issue and can even be a benefit. Your voice can let you bond with a stranger from your hometown, your friend’s voice fills you with relief when you hear it on the phone after a tiring day. But on the instant messaging platform Discord, a voice can quickly be weaponized.
The miasma of Discord’s voice chat option, which is available for any of the 6.7 million active servers on the gamer-focused platform, routinely swaddles the women and non-male users that enter it. On online spaces for non-male gamers like r/GirlGamers, you see the fallout of this, people routinely share the abuse they receive on Discord’s voice chat, or VC. Why? Their voice stands out from a chorus of cisgender men. A server’s reaction to hearing the difference can be sickening. “I was playing CS:GO, and I turned my mic on to talk with my teammates,” one Reddit user wrote on r/GirlGamers. “The next round, these two players blocked my path and wouldn’t let me play. ‘How much for your nudes? C’mon, I know you have them,’ ‘I’m going to fuck you,’ ‘What’s your chest size, your waist size, your hip size? I wanna know everything.’”
If you’ve ever been on the internet, you know that this type of gross targeted harassment goes well beyond the confines of Discord.
“Marginalized users, especially women, non-binary people, and trans folks, are more likely to experience harassment in voice and video chats,” game researcher and doctoral student at the University of Central Florida PS Berge told me. “The reason for this comes from what social media scholar Alice Marwick has called ‘attack vectors.’ The idea is that when someone becomes a target of harassment, regardless of what sparked the original confrontation, the target’s various marginalized identities become ‘vectors’ for additional attacks against them.”
But as the most popular messaging service for gamers, Discord and its voice chat function, which gets used during multiplayer games without their own voice chats, are major pain points for marginalized gamers. They want to join the camaraderie of a game in a more material way, by speaking to those they play with. But, in addition to facing blatant sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances, non-male gamers are terrified of being immediately misgendered or disparaged for gameplay purely because of how they sound. To avoid this, some people resort to using voice changing software to sound more stereotypically “feminine,” pretend to be male, or just sit out of voice chats altogether and dodge “feminine” usernames (Kirby, a Reddit user quoted in this article, was harassed for the apparently “feminine” username “peachjelly”).
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“Would like to go a day without being threatened to be violently raped and a bunch of other weird stuff,” one Reddit user looking for voice changer recommendations said. “I’ll legit pay anything to be able to speak and be treated like a human.”
Discord voice chat’s verbal abuse keeps gaming insular and gamers afraid. You can find the root of the problem in the aggressor, their misogyny, and their need to act heartless for no reason other than anonymity making it feel easy. But until everyone is able to look inward (what a day that will be!), non-male gamers shouldn’t have to miss out on voice chat just because people want to make them feel strange and small. There is absolutely a space for everyone in gaming—read on for expert-backed advice on how to claim yours in Discord’s voice chat.
Get picky with Discord’s many communities
“Because online games are male-dominated, when non-men are harassed, they are much more likely to feel isolated,” Stephanie Fredrick, professor and associate director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University of Buffalo told me. “Bystanders (often men) are more likely to be silent or even join in on the harassment.”
When choosing a Discord server to join and participate in voice chat, you need to find one that you know will protect you in the case that you are harassed. This may sound like a cosmic task, but when looking at Discord’s enormous range of server options, it is absolutely doable.
“Discord’s Discovery tab lists over 34,000 verified and partnered gaming servers, and third-party site Disboard lists over 340,000. If you want to play games with folks online but the communities you’re in are toxic and you’re stuck dealing with players that make you uncomfy—you don’t have to take that shit! This isn’t Xbox Live. It’s not 2010,” Berge said.
They suggest looking out for a few green flags when selecting a Discord community that you might feel safe in. Like “is there a pronoun bot? Does the server have a setup for displaying pronouns in the user profile (or instruction on how to add them to your username on that server?)” Berge said. “This certainly isn’t a litmus test, but at the very least, clear guidelines for pronouns show that the moderators and users are—at least on the surface— invested in seeing and respecting gender diversity in the community. This can also be a useful tool for checking to see if you’re about to be the only woman or enby in a VC.”
Berge also recommends looking for community rules and guidelines that specifically denounce harassment, misogyny, and transphobia and homophobia. A community’s rules “can tell you a lot about what its moderators value,” Berge says. “It also means that, in the event that something happens, you have recourse within the guidelines of that community to take issues up with the mods.”
Berge notes that a large community doesn’t necessarily mean more room for toxicity—some large servers run by game developers employ full-time moderators, a quality you might want to look out for, too. But if a community is tiny and missing this, Berge also says you can “check the vibe” by scanning through existing text chats before deciding to join. Are insults an accepted part of the server? Can you already spot hostile language toward your identity group?
“While voice chats are always going to be a little different, text chats prove a useful indication,” Berge said.
Discord’s many servers may mean a lot of content to slog through, but if you would like to make new friends or simply find a group of people to play your game of choice with, know that a congenial place exists.
“There [are] a lot of nice people out there who aren’t bullies, and you’ll make a lot of friends,” AngeIEevee, a Reddit user who tends to get anxious over large video game servers, told me. “Guys usually take being nice as flirting with them…even if you have a partner. [So] it’s kind of a hard balance, but you’ll find some great people out there.”
If you need to, bring down the block hammer
There will be servers with voice chat channels that make you feel welcome, but since harassment comes down to other people’s actions, not us, we can’t always prevent it.
If you are placed in a distressing situation, “it’s important to have a specific plan on what [you] will do,” Fredrick said. “For example, users could ignore the harassment, report, leave the game, or seek support” through friends and family, the confidential emotional support hotline Games and Online Harassment Hotline, or online communities that make you feel uplifted.
Another option is turning to established resources created with the goal of “helping and supporting individuals identifying as a woman and/or LGBTQ in male-dominated online spaces,” Fredrick said. Take Back the Tech, Feminist Frequency, Women in Games, and Take This, all offer readings and mental health resources that will help keep you protected and happy online.
But “in the event that something serious happens that jeopardizes your actual safety (doxing, swatting, revenge porn),” Berge said, “this should be taken up immediately with Discord and the relevant authorities right away.” Discord’s community guidelines include a way to report users, messages, and servers directly to the platform. If you require immediate action, you can mute channels and whole servers or block direct messages and users.
In more mild cases of harassment, muting could suffice, and people spoken to for this article sincerely endorse it. “If someone seems rude, mute ASAP,” the Reddit user Kirby told me. “Do not respond. These people don’t know how to get attention from women so they act rude and hope you respond. Just muting them is the only way to go!”
“The best thing is to go into [voice chat] accepting that [harassment is] not your fault and has nothing to do with you, but rather the harasser,” AngeIEevee said. “Just mute, block, and report them after.”
And if you’re the problem…
“The question of how we can promote safety for women and non-binary people on Discord and gaming culture more broadly should be brought first to the cultural level—how can we reimagine gaming culture to be expressly inclusive?” Berge said. “How can we disentangle gaming culture from its roots in toxic masculinity? How can communities themselves welcome marginalized players while anticipating and mitigating harassment?”
They said that Discord has made more public efforts to promote inclusion, diversity, and well-being than other messaging services, such as doling out “more comprehensive bans and preventing offenders from easily making new accounts.” Aggressors on Discord should know that they are being actively phased out, and more than that, their behavior is splitting a diverse community that wants to be whole.
Patriarchal behavior also doesn’t need to be overt to be damaging—some non-male gamers intentionally single out or ostracize other non-male gamers in voice chat, a quieter method of keeping the community crumbling. For Discord bullies of all stripes, their “‘tough baby’ act (to quote game scholar Amanda Phillips) isn’t just a cliché way to be a dick on the internet,” Berge said. “It’s terrible for their gaming communities.”
“It is never just the victim who is alienated,” they said.
I hope that everyone can use some of the advice in this article and learn to speak freely but with compassion—to improve gaming and Discord, but more importantly, to liberate yourself online.