Does the F-Word being a ‘Gamer Word’ highlight streaming’s homophobia problem?

Homophobia in gaming has long been a problem - has the rise of streaming fuelled it?

Last month, the prolific streamer Donut Operator – known for playing Escape from Tarkov – was handed a seven-day ban by Twitch on November 22 for using the word ‘f****t’ during a stream. Following his removal, he took to Twitter to try to explain the circumstances in which he used the homophobic slur. His initial – and now deleted response – claimed that he was wrongly punished for using what he views as a ‘gamer word.’ Responses to Donut Operator ranged from those calling out his use of the word, to those who felt it was unfair to ban him for using a homophobic slur. This highlights the undercurrent of homophobia within the streaming community.

Harassment when gaming online is rife. A 2021 survey conducted by ADL found that 83 per cent of adult respondents and 60 per cent of under-18 respondents had experienced some form of harassment when playing online multiplayer games. 71 per cent of adult multiplayer gamers experienced severe abuse – with the figure steadily rising from 68 per cent in 2020 and 65 per cent in 2019. Harassment against those who identify as LGBTQ+ stood at 38 per cent in 2021, up from 37 per cent in 2020.

Donut Operator’s initial annoyance at being banned comes from the fact he – and many others – claim that f****t in this context is a gamer word and has no allusions to the offensive slang for homosexual. Language does evolve over time, but could ‘f****t’ be deemed a gamer word – and can it be brushed off as one by a straight streamer, especially one who has a history of using the word?

Escape From Tarkov
Escape From Tarkov. Credit: Battlestate Games

The historical context of the word still resonates with gamers and spectators. Originally used in 16th Century England to insult women (particularly older women), the word evolved to refer to men. Homophobic insults are steeped in misogyny as feminine traits are often projected onto gay men to imply their otherness and depict them as lesser. The 21st Century saw the word used not just as a pejorative for effeminate or gay men, but as a way of expressing dominance in a traditionally masculine power structure. The “gamer word” would then be when ‘f****t’ is used to refer to someone deemed inferior, in terms of the theory that masculinity and superiority are defined through dominance proposed by sociologist C. J. Pascoe in the book Dude, You’re a F*g: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.

Typically, the word is used to insult queer men, or those who are made to feel lesser. LGBT+ Silent Hill 2 streamer BoyBlueLondon says that: “In the UK it’s highly discriminatory. Growing up it was used in a very negative context towards me and other gay friends of mine.” The main argument for using ‘f*****t’ as a gamer word is that it is usually not being directed at a member of the LGBT+ community, so those using it perceive it to not be homophobic. But even if the word itself isn’t directed towards a member of the LGBT+ community, it is still being used as an insult. So it is likely to still trigger a negative response in those who are watching the stream and who have been subjected to abuse by people using that word.

This isn’t the first time Twitch has come down on prominent streamers for using homophobic slurs. 2018 saw moE and Destiny both banned for using the word ‘f*g’ – with m0e claiming that his use of the word wasn’t malicious and that he would hold himself to a higher standard. Whether he meant it as a gamer word – using it against a non-LGBT+ person – or not, his response implies he understands why it could still be seen as offensive.

Twitch understands that it’s not just streamers using slurs, but those who watch on the platform. Drag queen streamer dragtrashly has encountered it before. “Filters are good at censoring most variations, but trolls use symbols and other similar looking letters from alphabets of different languages to get around it.” So, this suggests that not only do some understand the severity behind the word but are finding ways to circumvent the rules in order to still use the word. Using the word against someone clearly presenting as a member of the LGBT+ community shows that the word is still entrenched its meaning as an anti-LGBT slur. When using the word against dragtrashly, they are deliberately choosing a word that would hit harder than other insults might, and that would carry a subtext that wouldn’t exist when directed towards someone not in the LGBT+ community.

Dead By Daylight
Dead By Daylight. Credit: Behaviour Interactive

This is directly contrasted by LGBT+ Dead by Daylight streamer iamvapid’s experience of the word. He told us: “While I was streaming the worst I received was people joining my stream after a game and just calling me ‘f****t’ or ‘batty boy’ type thing. It only happened a handful of times though, I have to admit. I think though that the reason for this (or a big part of it anyway) is that I present as quite masculine. I identify as non-binary and have he+they pronouns. This was never picked up by trolls.” To have the word directed more towards less masculine presenting streamers indicates that its use in streaming is still homophobic, and not merely a meaningless insult that many are trying to pass it off as.

Twitch does dole out bans for streamers who use homophobic slurs, whether the intended target of the slur identifies as LGBT+ or not. In cases where the target of homophobic slurs isn’t LGBT+, those who have been banned react incredulously to the punishment. Streamer s1mple made a costly ‘joke’ in 2019 that led to suspension from the platform. He referred to another player as ‘pidor’, which is Russian slang for gay, and protested that his seven-day ban was a ridiculous punishment for what he did.

The shock at being banned for doing something that some perceive all gamers to be doing shows there is an underlying problem. iamvapid proposes that people use the word so much in its gaming context, that they have become desensitised to how it may hurt people who are affected by its homophobic meaning. He says: “It just shows how out of touch with reality these people can be. I think they exist in echo chambers that they’re unaware they exist in.”

He goes on to say: “I have been gaming online since I was 13 and the word is used so, so much.” Different games have differing attitudes towards LGBT+ slurs and some seem to be more popular for homophobic language. Iamvapid explains that “Games like Call of Duty draw a lot more slurs, I feel. Counter-Strike – it was super common to hear on. League of Legends – there’s a chat filter and people would use it a lot too by using symbols for letters.” But he also suggests that there could be positive changes afoot. “In recent years, on League, people are more likely to back you up if you call people out on it now than they were a few years ago.”

League Of Legends Lux
League Of Legends. Credit: Riot Games

Twitch itself could do better to improve inclusivity for LGBT+ streamers. In 2020, LGBT+ gamers were quick to criticise a misguided campaign that unintentionally erased those who identified as gay from the LGBT+ community by suggesting that the G in LGBT+ stood for gamer. While the sentiment is inclusive and the welcoming message is well-intended, much of the gaming community’s response to LGBT+ members is of tolerance rather than acceptance. Similarly, early 2021 saw LGBT+ streamers become frustrated when cishet allies began using the LGBTQIA+ tag on their streams. This meant that those cishet allies with greater popularity eclipsed some LGBT+ streamers when people searched the tag. The intentions of creating equality on the platform are admirable, but as those who identify as LGBT+ face different challenges, wiping out their identities isn’t the solution. There is a difference between celebrating and embracing difference and merely pretending it doesn’t exist.

We spoke to a Twitch moderator to find out how much homophobic language has to be policed. Twitch mod Tommy suggests: “It’s a HUGE issue right now in streaming. Especially with the hate raids that are going on too. I have seen three; two of which involved the spamming of racist and homophobic messages in chat, and it was scarring to the streamers. I can’t imagine the strain it puts on them and their mental well-being.”

twitch mobile app logo iphone
Credit: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

He adds: “But as a mod, I am definitely more vigilant when in chats now. There have been a few occasions of homophobia that I have had to nip in the bud, and I would say it’s becoming more common. I think hate raids have really opened the doors for some people to think it’s okay or ‘a laugh.’” Raids on Twitch are when a streamer directs their followers to someone else’s channel when they are not online. Initially, this was to help amplify those with a smaller following. But the feature can be hijacked for harassment. Hate raids occur when trolls or bots flood a user’s chats with abuse after being directed there en-masse. As these can be targeted, many marginalised communities on Twitch are experiencing hate raids.

Hate raids are a problem for Twitch, and have already led to lawsuits against hate raiders and a boycott by gamers. LGBT+ streamers and spectators almost expect to encounter homophobic language through the course of gaming, and it appears to be normalised to an extent. But it’s not just homophobic language that has increased – racist language has too. Yet, people have a greater understanding of what racist slurs are and why they could warrant a ban.

The f-word being singled out as a gamer word is significant, especially as any racist equivalents, while still being used frequently to abuse on gaming platforms, are not deemed gamer words. Donut Operator’s fans defended his use of ‘f****t’ as a gamer word. He even made clear to his followers that he didn’t utter the n-word, just the f-word, suggesting that what he did wasn’t really that bad, implying that had he uttered a racist slur, the ban would have been justified. Donut Operator also claimed that the stream raised $250,000 (£189, 311) for veterans – suggesting that as the stream did some greater good, any homophobic slurs should be overlooked.

Final Fantasy 14 compensation
Final Fantasy 14. Credit: Square Enix.

Final Fantasy 14 and Heroes Of The Storm streamer wortermelon, who operates a safe space on their streams, takes umbrage to the suggestion that the f-word is a gamer word, stating: ““It’s a stance that helps reinforce the fact that whilst many people may not harbour anti-gay mentalities, they’re unable to understand the damage that this language does to the LGBT+ community and the harm it can cause.” They add, “It’s no longer acceptable to claim you’re not aware of the impact or gravity that word has or imply that it’s now something that’s accepted as a light term that gamers can throw around.”

“A failure to understand that damage once you’ve used the word and a denial to listen to LGBT+ people, especially when you have a platform where people can be influenced easily, means you’re actively contributing to the continued anti-gay rhetoric that is so rife through both Twitch and the gaming community itself. People need to be held responsible for the words they use as well as do better for the communities they’re building.”

If figures on the platform who are looked up to as revered examples (many of them affiliate partners) utter slurs and then brush off the severity of them, then this sends a message to viewers and fans that homophobic language is no big deal. This can then translate to specific homophobic abuse directed towards LGBT+ streamers.

Twitch

Gaming is important to the LGBT+ community – 10 per cent of all gamers over-18 identified as LGBTQ+ in a 2020 study conducted by Nielsen. The escapism provided by gaming provides solace for those who may be going through difficult times in the real world. Members of the trans community have used the freedom and safety of gaming to explore their gender identity. It seems that Twitch does want to create safe spaces to help make different aspects of the LGBT+ community feel welcome. May 2021 saw Twitch add tags to help gamers create their own safe spaces, including words such as ‘transgender.’ The reason this has taken so long to implement is due to concerns of targeted harassment based on the tags, which amplifies the issue of an undercurrent of homophobia in streaming.

Better education could be a solution to help streamers who mean no malice understand that regardless of their intent, the word is still harmful to many. Creating safe spaces is important but helping gamers understand why safe spaces are needed could do more to help stem hate raids and remove the undercurrent of homophobia that seems to pervade certain games. The first step in this would be to help those who have been suspended for saying the f-word understand the implications and connotations behind the word, much as they understand them for other slurs.

Whether f****t is a gamer word or not – if it is, for many the word will never not have homophobic connotations – the use of such language automatically casts LGBT+ viewers, streamers, and gamers as ‘other’ and not a part of the streaming community. It’s not enough to just not use such slurs, streamers have to ensure that they make everyone feel welcome – which is a key part of Twitch’s guidelines. As harassment in online gaming is growing, it’s important for those with a large following on the platform to set an example that no abuse will be tolerated, and one that will be backed up by Twitch. While suspending streamers who use homophobic language is good, it’s also important to ensure that the streaming community understands and accepts why such suspensions occur.

If you’d like to check out more LGBT+ streamers, feel free to visit any of the ones we’ve linked to above.

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