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I’ve been gaming since I was in pre-school. I remember curling up watching my mom and sister play Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo. They’d get really into it and shout obscenities when they’d hit each other with Red Shells. It always made me laugh. I’d also watch my mom play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I’d sit perched on the couch and try to tell her what to do and where to go. She would listen, but never took my advice when I told her to do something that I’d learn later would have killed poor Link. Eventually, I started playing it myself and would get lost in Hyrule exploring dungeons, defeating bosses, and trying to fly with Cuccos.
As I got older, I’d move on to more narrative-driven games with complex stories and characters. I found myself searching for acceptance in games as a queer person, but there wasn’t a lot of representation in the late 90s. Despite that, gaming and its characters did become a part of my identity. I’d finish my homework and dive into Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, or The Legend of Zelda. I found myself drawn to strong heroes, mostly women, who knew how to take charge. It wasn’t until I was older I’d find myself interested in competitive games to play with my friends like Halo and Soul Calibur.
While narrative games offered a view into relationships with the stories, multiplayer and competitive games let me build my relationships in real life. I loved the friendly competition these games brought. The thrill of throwing my friend off a stage in Soul Calibur or being blown up in Halo by her grenade as she laughed manically beside me in triumph was unmatched. It was a great way to create a bond with others that was sometimes hard to find in single-player adventures.
I never dove into the world of online, competitive gaming during that time, but later, as an adult, I’d find myself drawn to one game in particular: Overwatch. I hadn’t played a competitive first-person shooter since Halo. Overwatch’s hero-based team battles drew me in. While the story is not a central factor in the game, I couldn’t help but create connections with the characters and their respective struggles leading up to its release. I found myself reading everything I could in anticipation of getting to meet these characters in-game.
Once Overwatch came out, I was hooked. The gameplay was addictive. And then I entered voice chat. I knew going in that it was probably best to communicate with my fellow team members. It was especially important since I mained Lucio, the healer with the rockin’ beats. I was not ready for just how abusive people can be in games. I knew that toxicity existed, but I had never really encountered it before, and honestly, it hurt.
I was met with gay slurs and people assuming I was a woman because of my feminine voice and degrading me based on that. Never mind the fact that I was a good player who listened and supported my teammates. That isn’t to say it happened every time, but it did happen enough that eventually I just stopped using voice chat. I became nervous and anxious before and during matches whenever I was in it. It made me most anxious when another player addressed me. I knew I should speak up.
In 2021, the ADL reported that 75 percent of gamers experience harassment in Overwatch. Today, I don’t play Overwatch very much. I haven’t picked it up often in the last year or two with all the allegations of abuse surrounding Blizzard. I do, however, still avoid voice chat when I play other online games with people I don’t know. Some companies, like Riot, are taking steps to help curb the abuse. Last year, they announced they’d start recording all voice chats in Valorant. Players can opt-out of it, but that means they also forfeit using voice chat. While this doesn’t eliminate abuse, it can help female and queer gamers feel safer.
I think voice chat in competitive games is a vital part of a team’s success, but unless you’re playing with friends, some players just don’t care. Moving forward, I hope more companies take steps to make their communities feel safer. After all, we all want to feel like a welcome part of the team in whatever game we’re playing.