OVER THE PAST few days, dozens of women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against videogame streamers on Twitch, Dozens of women have come forward with allegations of harassment and abuse by streamers who built their followings and power on the platform.

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.

A couple of weeks into talking, though, one of his channel moderators, who goes by Snookville, wrote her a message warning her about Earney’s alleged behavior toward women. The moderator said he saw Earney bring multiple women—up-and-coming Twitch streamers—in and out of his room at conventions, including after telling another woman he would just see her. “It didn’t scream ‘abuse of power’ to me,” says Avery of her thinking at the time. “It was like, ‘cheating and kind of being an asshole.’”

Since then, Avery says, her mind has changed. She says she later learned that throughout their relationship, he was sending flirtatious and sexual messages to other aspiring or small-audience streamers. “That seems a little predatory,” she says. “He specifically uses his power with smaller streamers who are trying to grow a following, as opposed to streamers who are more on his level.” When they broke up, she says, he began dating another up-and-coming streamer.

Earney confirmed through email to WIRED that these events occurred.

Avery published a post on Saturday about her relationship with Earney. Throughout the weekend, other women also publicly accused Earney of behavior that ranged from uncomfortable flirtation to crossing sexual boundaries. Earney announced on Sunday that he would discontinue his networks “indefinitely” in a post titled “A Departure.” He apologized for his “overly sexual and flirty behavior.” “Regardless of when any of what you see is said to have happened, I want you to believe [the accusers],” he wrote. “What is obvious is that this behavior has gone on throughout my career, and I directly benefited sexually from it while the people on the receiving end were negatively impacted.”

In an email to WIRED, Earney denied that his behavior was abusive or harassing, calling any suggestion otherwise “completely untrue.” Regarding claims that he sought out up-and-coming streamers, Earney told WIRED that he does not “consider the ‘streamer’ aspect to be relevant here. I never associated sexual behavior with channel growth or improvement.”

On Wednesday night, after days of outcry, Twitch removed Earney’s partner status and channel, along with the channels of several other accused streamers: BlessRNG, Dreadedcone, Warwitch, and 21wolv, three of whom responded to allegations against them. (A global Twitch emote of BlessRNG’s face has been removed.)

In a post on its website also published Wednesday, Twitch says it is “reviewing each case that has come to light as quickly as possible, while ensuring appropriate due diligence.” Twitch adds that, “in many of the cases, the alleged incidents took place off Twitch” and noted that it will need to report some of those cases to “proper authorities who are better placed to conduct a more thorough investigation.” Twitch declined to comment on WIRED’s question about its responsibility in streamers’ behavior off the platform after they gain an audience on it, and has shared no plans on whether it will vet streamers to whom it gives partner status.

In interviews with WIRED, women who came forward with allegations of abuse also described larger, structural factors in the Twitch streaming community that can contribute to a toxic environment. “I have said this for so many years,” says Natalie “ZombiUnicorn” Casanova, a Twitch streamer with 220,000 followers who shared her own allegations of sexual misconduct involving a top streamer. (The streamer has called her allegations false.) “We are behind the rest of the entertainment industry on the way women are treated.”

About half of gamers are women. Gaming culture, however, has been steeped in the trappings of traditional masculinity for decades, from the war games that inspired Dungeons & Dragons to the military simulations of Call of Duty. Gaming’s reputation as a male-dominated cultural tide pool is, in part, because of advertising campaigns, not because of who plays games. Boys with pocket money are a marketing demographic, and early on, gaming companies like Nintendo targeted them. Over time, this boys’-club ad demographic reinforced itself, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: Boys-only Halo nights, Ventrilo voice chat servers full of male Counter-Strike players.

Now, that culture has ballooned into a $100 billion industry with the massive success of games like Fortnite and personalities like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins championing it. And with gaming no longer a subculture but the mainstream, gatekeeping that formerly persisted in neighborhood basements and mall arcades became more of a matter of public concern.

“There’s this clear-cut idea that you’re an e-girl or a thot, and you don’t belong in this space where men are supposed to be,” says SheSnaps, a Twitch streamer with 65,000 followers. When a girl speaks up in online games’ voice chats, she says, “it either turns into this gross lust-fest or it turns into ‘go make me a sandwich. What are you doing? You probably have a guy running the game for you. Give the controller back to the man.’” This sort of sexism is normalized in the world of gaming, SheSnaps says, and she believes it contributes to a culture where predation is endemic. “People don’t realize that stupid comments and microaggressions feed into this overall culture of feeling unheard and unsafe.”

Says Casanova, “There’s not enough companies shutting down players in games who are sexist over [game voice] comms. There’s friggin’ nazis on YouTube. And there are incel, commentator YouTubers who pick a woman a week on Twitch they want to hate on and completely disparage. I’ve been one of those women several times.”

Twitch wrote on Wednesday that it was reviewing its policies, among other projects “focused on reducing harassment and hateful conduct.”

As women fight to earn success and stability in the game-streaming industry—an industry in which networking can make or break careers, sources say—they can be put in fraught situations with more popular streamers, who tend to be men. Many of the women speaking out this week don’t allege criminal or even predatory behavior but rather describe interactions with streamers that were deeply uncomfortable in the context of their working environment.

“This is the year that we pop the pimple and drain it of the toxicity and get it out,” says Danica Rockwood, a cosplayer and streamer. “Twitch needs to get in there and get dirty and take some of these predators people have come forward about and rip their contracts. That’s the least they can do.”

Rockwood was one of at least six women to speak out on Twitter this week about the same partnered Twitch streamer, HJTenchi, who has about 40,000 followers. Rockwood had just started streaming on Twitch herself when HJTenchi began speaking directly to her during his livestream one day in 2016. At the time, she thought it was a special gesture. “He was talking to me out of hundreds of people in his channel,” Rockwood said in an interview on Tuesday.

HJTenchi followed her on Twitter and Snapchat, through which they communicated and became friendly. At the time, she had a long-term boyfriend, so when HJTenchi began texting her flirtatious messages after he got out of the shower, she says, she was a little weirded out, but turned it into a joke. When he started asking her for sexy pictures taken especially for him, she says, she raised an eyebrow and wryly referenced her Patreon. He began secretly writing Rockwood dirty messages while they were live on Twitch together, she recalls. In her mind, she says, she couldn’t react; she had to entertain.

In her public post describing her interactions with HJTenchi, Rockwood notes that she did consider him a good friend for years and did reciprocate some of the attention. HJTenchi also tossed opportunities her way, like sponsored gaming streams, and began introducing her to well-connected games-industry folk online and at industry events. At the same time, she says, she was decidedly uncomfortable with his behavior, which she believed crossed boundaries as friends and colleagues. “I was like, who is this? Who is this guy?” she says. “He’s a lot bigger than me on Twitch, because I don’t know anybody. And like, this is crazy. He’s probably got connections and can ruin my credibility if I don’t give him what he wants.”

Rockwood says the final straw occurred after HJTenchi borrowed her computer at E3 2018, another gaming convention. When she got it back and opened her web browser, she says it was still logged into HJTenchi’s accounts and showed private, sometimes sexual messages at the bottom of the screen that he had sent to female Twitch streamers. She decided then to finally end their friendship, and after another contract gig, during which she says she was obligated to be around him, she ghosted him. Even after that, says Rockwood, HJTenchi “hosted” her stream, dumping live viewers into her channel or donating money to her (money, Rockwood says, she returned).

After seeing someone else come forward with similar allegations about HJTenchi this week, Rockwood wrote a post on Twitter titled “In solidarity of the women who spoke up,” in which she detailed her story. Other allegations about HJTenchi from current and former Twitch streamers emerged, too, describing similar relationships in which they began feeling uncomfortable with the sexual messages but were reluctant to say stop.

One former streamer, who goes by Alice Fae, says HJTenchi badgered her with sexual messages many years ago. She says the flirtation was mutual at one point but that sexual messages continued after she stopped demonstrating interest and said she had a boyfriend. She says she never specifically asked him to stop. “It’s already hard enough being a female streamer, because you’re never quite on par with the guys. It’s always about your boobs and how you look and whether you’re good at the game. You have all that working against you,” she says. “To have someone in his position who’s bigger and has connections—you can’t tell him no.”

HJTenchi responded to some allegations in a livestream, which is no longer on his channel, but recordings of it are still online. “I’m sure I’ve crossed lines before,” he said. “That’s not how I remember it, but if that’s how she experienced it that’s all that matters.” HJTenchi has since retained a lawyer, who told WIRED that his client “vehemently denies any and all allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct.” He did not respond to any of Rockwood’s specific claims. Of Alice Fae and a third woman who spoke out, HJTenchi’s lawyer told WIRED that “the women that you have mentioned were both, at one time, in consensual relationships with Mr. Tenchi … While harassment does exist and needs to be addressed, this isn’t harassment. These examples detract attention from the women who have truly been victimized. Tenchi would never send an unwanted sexually explicit message to anyone.” HJTenchi’s channel is still up on Twitch and includes a purple Partner checkmark.

Many women who spoke to WIRED say they didn’t report anything to Twitch, the platform on which the men they called out worked and gained their followings. Other women who say that they’ve reported abuse to the company before this week claim they’ve seen little response.

One streamer, Erin “YourStarling” Hall, says she and members of her community reported her ex-boyfriend, who had partner status on Twitch, to the employees of the streaming company in July 2019. He had referenced what she says was her then-private adult entertainment history on his Twitter after she had been on Twitch’s front page singing karaoke—which she believed to be a violation of her privacy. The company later gave him a literal platform at a promotional Twitch Sings karaoke event. She says she never received a response from Twitch. However, a Twitch employee told her recently and confidentially that her case was raised at an internal all-hands staff meeting and that Twitch CEO Emmett Shear dismissed the question. (WIRED has confirmed this with a Twitch employee who was present.)

“We’ve seen what happens when platforms take a hands-off approach. What happens is abuse,” says Hall. “It sounds like a good deal, right? There’s this freedom. We can create what we want to create. But if there’s no system of accountability, then people are going to misuse it.”

Over the weekend, former Twitch employees also called out the company on Twitter for failing to address abuse between streamers. Quote-tweeting one woman who said that Twitch dismissed her sexual harassment, Justin Wong wrote, “I was a VP at Twitch and I reported this to the relationship-owning VP, the head of HR, and the CEO. All assured me it would be handled. Next year, he was in the same VIP space at the same Twitch event.” Another former employee tweeted that he “can 100% confirm this.” Neither returned requests for comment.

Twitch declined to comment on Hall’s allegations or Wong’s tweet. In an email sent internally to Twitch staff on Monday and then shared publicly on Twitter, CEO Emmett Shear acknowledged that the gaming industry is reckoning with “systemic sexism, racism, and abuse that rewards certain people and disadvantages—even harms—others.” He added, “If at some point you’ve heard my comments and felt they were dismissive or that Twitch doesn’t care, I’m sorry that happened and I want you to know that in no way was my intent.”

Twitch has long been aware of issues around misconduct on the platform. In February 2019, a Kotaku report identified several Twitch streamers who had used their platform to flirt with or groom young women. One of them, a World of Warcraft streamer named Thomas Cheung who had 20,000 followers and also worked at Hi-Rez Studios, asked women for sexy pictures and flirted with them in direct messages. One year, at BlizzCon, a woman in the games industry who goes by Drav says she had to fend off his physical advances. Months later, Cheung was charged with a felony: using a computer service to solicit, seduce, lure, or entice a child to commit an illegal act. (He was speaking with a police officer posing as a 14-year-old. Cheung’s case is still open with no next court date set.)

Another Twitch streamer identified in the story, MethodJosh, regularly flirted with girls and young women in his Discord server, where women were referred to as “whores” and “thots.” One woman emailed MethodJosh’s management company, Method, alleging that he had been entertaining his fans by manipulating young girls. The management company told her to contact the police if they have evidence of criminal activity. Twitch banned him months after Kotaku’s report, in July. The reason the company shared in a message to him was “Other Terms of Service Violation.” On Wednesday, however, after Josh’s alleged behavior gained renewed attention, Method announced it was ending its relationship with him on Twitter.

Sources interviewed by WIRED fear that what they will receive after posting their painful stories online is not accountability but awareness. Some believe that may not be enough to stop sexual misconduct and predatory behavior. They and their peers have been intimately aware of the issue for years. “You want to be surprised by it, but as a woman you’re not surprised at all. If anything, it’s horrible knowing that there are probably so, so, so many people who are still afraid to come forward,” says SheSnaps, noting that her DMs are full of people who want to anonymously share their stories. Bans are one thing, but how can Twitch prevent abuses of power?

The volume and visibility of these women’s stories over the past couple of days has forced companies to acknowledge this persisting problem. A #TwitchBlackout hashtag is encouraging streamers to boycott the platform. So far, though, the burden of action has been shouldered by the women who suffered in the first place. Avery, who did stream during the blackout, says that “after keeping my mouth shut for years, the last thing I want to do is be silenced another day.” She dedicated her stream to discussing red flags and abuse of power.

“Men get away with it,” says Avery, “which I think is another reason why it happens. If they know there’s no repercussions, then what’s stopping them from doing it? If they know they can get away with it, they’re gonna keep doing it, and we’re not going to see any sort of change unless Twitch holds these people accountable and takes action.”

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