Sexual Harassment in Online Gaming: A Closer Examination and a Call for Better Regulation
A troubling scenario has recently unfolded in the realm of online gaming in India. A team consisting of three players (two males and one female) was engaged in an online gaming session. The session took a disturbing turn when the female player revealed her gender identity which sparked a barrage of inappropriate compliments tinged with sexual innuendos and uninvited solicitations for virtual dates. Upon her refusal, she was subjected to verbal abuse and sexist remarks leading to her eventual departure from the game.
In a similar instance another player, Miranda Pakozdi, faced harassment from spectators and her coach who rather than focusing on the gameplay directed the camera towards her avatar’s breasts and buttocks while making crude comments. To protest these violations, she purposefully led her avatar to death.
According to a recent study, these cases are not isolated events. With the surge in online gaming popularity, about 20% of female gamers have reported experiences of sexual harassment from male players or other participants. This often takes the form of objectifying comments or threats of physical violence and sexual assault.
Sexual Harassment in the Metaverse
Many incidents of ‘groping’ and ‘gang rape’ are being reported on several platforms these days. Sexual harassment in the metaverse has emerged as a pressing issue concerning such incidents. Although such actions do not involve physical touch, the trauma experienced by the victim can be as severe as it would be in the physical world. The potential for sexual harassment in this virtual environment continues to grow as the Metaverse increasingly becomes an alternative workplace for employers and employees. This raises pivotal questions about the responsibility of employers in dealing with such instances and the broader implications of such behaviour in the virtual world.
Online Gaming Landscape and Its Regulation
As online gaming gains traction in India, online gaming intermediaries (companies providing these services) are also on the rise. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (hereafter referred to as the “Rules”) provides the current framework for these entities.
The Information Technology Act, 2000, defines an ‘Intermediary’ as any individual or entity who receives, stores or transmits an electronic record on behalf of another person. This includes telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, online-auction sites, online-market places and cyber cafes. However, this definition was broadened through an amendment to the Rules in April 2023 to include online gaming intermediaries, defining them as those offering one or more online games.
The amended Rules aim to hold online gaming platforms accountable for their actions by stipulating certain obligations and responsibilities. It mandates intermediaries to prevent users from hosting, displaying, uploading or publishing any information that is obscene, pornographic, pedophilic or harassing on the basis of gender and contravenes any law in force. In addition to this, the intermediaries are also charged with the duty of removing any material that depicts nudity, partial or full or displays an individual in sexual acts or conducts.
However, the problem of sexual harassment in online gaming remains largely unaddressed despite the stringent guidelines. While these platforms have been made liable for actions violating any provision of the IT Act, the rules remain directive rather than preventive in nature which serves as a blanket cover for the unregulated sector of online gaming in India.
Enhanced Regulations and Sexual Harassment in Online Gaming in India
The realm of online gaming in India has significantly evolved from merely being a source of entertainment. It plays a pivotal role in the economic sector by tapping into its potential to generate substantial revenue and contribute significantly to the gross domestic product (GDP). As India envisages becoming a 5 trillion-dollar economy by 2025, the Indian online gaming industry is also set to expand and potentially metamorphose into one trillion-dollar digital economy by the same timeline.
The Amended Rules have marked a noteworthy stride forward in shaping a safe and secure environment for all ‘Digital Citizens.’ While the online gaming sector in India is still in its infancy the Amended Rules serve to establish accountability within the online gaming industry.
The Amended Rules have been designed to address various key issues. These encompass addiction-related concerns among both children and adults which often result in financial losses for adult users. They also cater to content-related issues particularly pertaining to the depiction of violent or inappropriate content along with the conspicuous absence of active measures to prevent children from accessing such content or engaging in real money games.
Further, the rules also aim to tackle the menace of advertisements from offshore gambling and betting websites targeting Indian users. The regulations further address the need for comprehensive safeguards to secure users’ money and mitigate money laundering-related concerns, primarily in the absence of any stringent Know Your Customer (KYC) mechanism.F
However, while the Amended Rules acknowledge the importance of regulating content published on online gaming platforms they seem to fall short in providing for instances of sexual harassment that are already prevalent on such platforms. The Rules appear to overlook the need for stringent measures to combat the pervasive issue of sexual harassment in online gaming despite their progress in many areas. This continues to mar the user experience and raises pressing questions about the industry’s safety standards.
There is an urgent need for a more holistic approach in the sector of online gaming in India. Such an approach is expected to incorporate comprehensive safeguards against sexual harassment within the ambit of online gaming regulations. Ensuring the safety and well-being of users is paramount to the growth and sustainability of the online gaming industry. This necessitates the adoption of stronger measures to combat this deep-seated issue. Better addressal of this issue will contribute significantly towards creating an inclusive, respectful and safe gaming environment for all users.