Over the past few days, dozens of women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against videogame streamers on Twitch. In online posts shared on Twitter and in interviews with WIRED, several question what responsibility kingmaking platforms like Twitch have when top streamers, accused of inappropriate behavior, are no longer live on camera.
The great democratic pitch of platforms like Twitch is that any gamer with the hardware can start their own streaming channel and attract an audience. In May, millions of streamers went live for audiences ranging from zero to hundreds of thousands. A lucky, small minority achieve microcelebrity status off large fandoms sanctioned by hardware companies, game publishers, and Twitch’s own partner program, which allows streamers to monetize their channel off subscriptions. It has empowered gamers to donate millions of dollars to organizations like St. Jude Children’s Hospital. It has also, according to dozens of women, allowed men to prey on female fans and aspiring gaming professionals unchecked.
Allegations range from unwanted flirting to sexual assault and involve widely popular streamers partnered with Twitch. As their stories gained more attention, outrage has grew; a new hashtag, #TwitchBlackout, emerged. On Wednesday, the platform permanently removed users at the center of some allegations. Twitch has also promised more tools to combat harassment and hate. Yet the issue has been going on for years. While sexism and abuse are not new to gaming, women who recently spoke out say they hope that sharing their most painful memories of the environment in which they work, play, and socialize will spur lasting structural change.
“This was definitely like a ripple effect,” says Neha Nair, who has worked at several top gaming companies and wrote her own Twitter post calling out abuse in games. It was titled “I was sexually abused at my very first two gaming industry events.” The first time, she was 19, she says. “Women are saying, ‘I’ve never had the courage to come forward before, but now that I’ve seen all these other women come forward, I can.’”
Several of the women spoke to WIRED about their experiences with sexual misconduct around Twitch, while others declined to delve into the details of their allegations on the record, citing persistent online harassment or fear of giving their abusers more attention. Some women asked not to use their full names, to protect their privacy. As up-and-coming female streamers (and, often, even established ones) vie for success and careers in streaming, sources say, sometimes, the gatekeepers to Twitch culture—which is dominated by men—can take advantage of their relative power.
Recent years have seen more attention paid to problems of harassment and sexual coercion in the workplace, thanks in part to movements like #MeToo. But in this new environment of digital microcelebrity on Twitch, where thousands of streamers make their living, there’s no sexual harassment training or HR for streamers, and few protections exist against unwanted, off-stream behavior. When uncomfortable or abusive incidents come up, women say they don’t have a place to go; accountability can be inconsistent, short-lived, or nonexistent.
Avery, who goes by “LittleSiha” on Twitch, met Sam “IAmSp00n” Earney at TwitchCon in 2016. While today Avery is a popular Just Dance streamer with 144,000 followers, at the time her audience was dwarfed by Earney, who had a large following on Twitch even then and a sponsorship with the hardware company Nvidia. She told him that he had been a huge inspiration for her friend, another streamer. The two continued speaking after the convention, and Avery recalls Earney being charming and flirtatious. Soon, they started dating.