Inside the ‘Wild West’ of Twitch Streaming, Where Sexual Abuse Runs Rampant
Multiple women come forward to The Daily Beast to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse on the popular video game-streaming platform, where victims have no recourse.
For Rion, a 23-year-old gamer who prefers to go only by her online handle, the first red flag was a comment about her hip tattoo. It was early 2016, and Rion was playing Destiny, a science-fiction first-person shooter game for PlayStation 4, which she broadcast on the livestreaming platform Twitch. The past few weeks had been eventful: Rion says her secret boyfriend, the prominent streamer Luminosity, turned out to have another girlfriend; her clan—gamers that compete together in multi-player games—known as BombSquadKittens (BSK) had excommunicated her; and those same former friends had launched a harassment campaign, clogging her streams with insults whenever she deigned to play.
This was gross and unpleasant, if pretty standard for female gamers. But when one of the commenters mentioned a tattoo on her hip, Rion panicked. As far as photos, Rion skews conservative. She had never posted anything about that tattoo. She had never mentioned it. The only player who knew it existed was her ex, Luminosity, and he had photo evidence, having once, she alleges, begged her for nudes. When she confronted Luminosity, who has 156,000 followers, about the comment, he denied sharing her photos. (He did not respond to a request for comment).
But not long later, a friend linked Rion to a Discord server. The server was filled with nude photos of female Destiny streamers—all women she knew, including her best friend, Luna*, who confirmed the account with The Daily Beast. Rion never found her photos in the document, though Luna said she saw them at one point. The server, which has since been deleted, floated around the Destiny Twitch community for more than a year. No one who contributed suffered consequences. And no one else complained—until Saturday, when Rion shared a statement on the blogging site, TwitLonger.
“BSK and its members used their popularity and community to slide into girls’ direct messages to get nudes,” she wrote in a lengthy statement about Luminosity and BSK. “Plain and simple. It was a game for them, and for those same nudes to get leaked is disgusting.” (Luminosity responded in a post to TwitLonger, apologizing to Rion, whom he addresses by her middle name, and fans. The streamer did not mention nude photos or the Discord server.)
Over the weekend, Destiny players like Rion came forward en masse to detail allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct in the game and on Twitch. It began on Friday, when a tweet suggested an unnamed “top” Destiny player had committed untold “awful things,” prompting three women to share stories about the streamer known as Lono (aka SayNoToRage), who has a Twitch following of 170,000, accusing him of nonconsensual touching and harassment. Within a few hours, dozens more allegations against prominent gamers surfaced, triggering a conversation that stretched across the entire streaming community—a $1.1 billion industry that encompasses everything from competitive esports players to minor gamers broadcasting from their bedrooms.
The allegations posted this weekend were novel for their sheer volume—a post by New York creator Jessica Richey compiled more than 40 allegations; The New York Times counted more than 70—and for their scope. The statements accused dozens of streamers of a range of misbehaviors, from unwanted sexual comments to forcible and statutory rape, in various settings. Some occurred in real life: at work, conferences, or in private. Others took place almost exclusively online.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, seven of these women described a nascent industry, lacking the rules and regulations of most professional settings, leaving victims with little recourse. “It’s the Wild, Wild West,” one woman said of the livestreaming world, where business and sex can easily intermingle to exploitative results.
“We don’t want to be treated as a piece of meat playing a game,” Luna said. “We just want to play the game. We want to escape reality. And they just keep reasserting the same things... we’re trying to escape.”
The pattern of sexism in gaming is so familiar it barely needs repeating. Perhaps the best-known example is “Gamergate,” when male gamers harassed, trolled and doxxed developer Zoe Quinn and other women in the industry for the crime of infringing on their male-dominated space. The harassment campaign made national headlines, and Quinn was forced to move out of her house after receiving death threats.
The streaming industry is an increasingly popular offshoot of this same space, which users say is rife with its own forms of harassment and abuse. Though other companies have tried to get in on the market, by far the largest video-game streaming platform is Twitch, which boasts 37.5 million monthly viewers and accounted for nearly three-quarters of all streaming hours watched last year. (These numbers have only increased in recent months, thanks to lockdowns stemming from the COVID-19 crisis.)
Originally an experimental site meant to livestream the daily life of founder Justin Kan, the site quickly became a home for the growing number of people who wanted to broadcast themselves playing video games—a trend that emerged from wildly popular “walk through” videos on YouTube, where charismatic hosts would show viewers how to beat a game.
Today, half of Twitch users report spending more than 20 hours per week on the site. The most popular Twitch streamers can become quasi-celebrities, boasting millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter and earning millions of dollars a year for their streams. Others compete professionally at massive, in-person tournaments that sell out arenas from Madison Square Garden to the National Stadium in Beijing
“Before Twitch, gaming was something you did in the basement in the glow of your monitor,” David Cowan, a venture capitalist who works for a major Twitch investor, previously told The New York Times. “Now it’s something you can do in groups with hundreds and thousands of people.”
One of the peculiarities of Twitch harassment is how it weaponizes features unique to the platform, or to the games it broadcasts. Rion first met her ex-boyfriend, Lumi, for example, after he combed through the Destiny directory, looking for female streamers. Once he invited her to his clan, they began DMing on Twitch’s direct message feature, Whispers. After the break-up, she said the harassment initially took the form of comments, which popped up during her livestream. But even after Rion blocked the trolls, they found new ways to needle her.
Using Twitch’s donation function, one guy sent money to her friend’s PayPal, with the comment “eat a salad fattie.” Others would activate “host mode,” a setting that allows one streamer to broadcast another channel on their page. Host mode can be used as a promotional tool—a way for high-profile players to elevate smaller ones—but it can also be deployed with malice. Rion said multiple BSK players would broadcast her smaller-scale streams to their audiences, inviting more people to tell her to die.
At the time, Rion said, players could host another streamer, even if that streamer had blocked them. Sometime after she complained to a friend at Twitch, the platform changed this policy. (A Twitch spokesperson confirmed that users could no longer host streamers who’d blocked them, but not whether the rule changed as a result of Rion’s complaint).
Several women who spoke to The Daily Beast described how streamers would weaponize the “raid” function, a promotional tool used when a player concludes their game, which redirects their viewers to another channel. In one instance, a woman claimed one streamer used the feature to get her attention, even after she’d told him not to contact her, forcing her to publicly thank him. “If you have somebody who you told to fuck off dump 500 viewers in your channel, and you have 700 viewers watching you,” she said, “you’re going to sit there and say, ‘Thank you for the raid.’”
Another time, a 15-year-old streamer used the raid feature herself, and wound up in a predatory relationship with a man in his forties. At the time, Krystal, whose last name has been withheld, was a small-time streamer playing mostly indie games, like The Binding of Isaac, with a charitable organization called “Rize Up Gaming.” (The nonprofit has since deleted their Twitch, after the former owner was also accused of sexual assault last weekend). After fundraisers, the group often raided popular streamers—a gesture which, Krystal said, was meant to “share the love.” One of those streamers was a guy called WarwitchTV, a streamer with 43,000 followers.
Krystal and Warwitch began messaging in October of 2014. The exchange, laid out in a series of screenshots, began tame. But by April of the following year, he wondered if her parents “would be upset” to find out they talked. In June, he added her on Snapchat. By the time Krystal turned 17, their online relationship had turned explicitly sexual. In a series of Instagram DMs, Warwitch described fantasizing about “break[ing] in” her new dress, suggesting she’d wear it out “knowing [she was] squirting hard in it nights before.” Once, when Warwitch asked whether Krystal was “playing with [her] little teen pussy,” she stopped responding. “Delete delete delete please!” he wrote back.
Not long later, Krystal cut off contact. “At the time... it was consensual, but as a minor I couldn’t consent,” she said. “Everything stopped because I got a boyfriend and I just didn’t feel comfortable talking to him anymore. It was starting to creep me out.” Warwitch did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But before locking his Twitter, the gamer shared a statement to TwitLonger, calling the interaction “the worst mistake” of his life.
The mistreatment also follows gamers offline. Two women in the industry told The Daily Beast they were sexually assaulted by coworkers; others tweeted over the weekend about being touched inappropriately, propositioned or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable at industry events. The problem, many of these women said, was that the misogynistic gaming culture bled into the workplace—whether at boozy professional events, in collaborations between content creators, or at small gaming companies with no HR departments.
Several of the alleged incidents occurred in or around streaming conferences like PAX or TwitchCon—stadium-sized events where industry insiders meet up to compete, try new games, and network in the gaming space. For an online industry, several women said, schmoozing at these in-person conferences is surprisingly critical in gaining popularity, and eventually, getting paid. The problem is that, in such a new field, there are few rules to guide appropriate behavior at the conferences, which often spill into rowdy, drunken afterparties. (A PAX spokesperson said the event has a team dedicated to safety and anti-harassment policies. A code of conduct states that harassment can be grounds for a permanent ban from the event.)
In 2015, Cristina Amaya was working in one of her first jobs in the industry, at an event planning company called WellPlayed. The company was producing the Archon Team League Championships, a popular esports competition, and put its employees up at a hotel near the venue in Dallas. After competition ended one day, Amaya wrote in a TwitLonger post on Sunday, a group of employees met up to drink in one of their hotel rooms. As the night wore on, Amaya says, she felt tired and curled up to sleep in one of her coworkers’ beds. She says she awoke that night to find her CEO, Colin Kierans, sexually assaulting her. When he left to go to the bathroom, Amaya wrote, she dragged a co-worker out of the room with her and broke down in tears.
Amaya told The Daily Beast she informed her superior about what happened the next morning. (In an interview, former Chief Operating Officer Andrew Quan said Amaya told him that morning that something inappropriate had happened with Kierans, and later gave him a more detailed account similar to what she posted on TwitLonger.)
After the event ended, Amaya flew to Vancouver, BC, to meet with Kierans and representatives from a local rape crisis center. She said her intent was to establish accountability measures, but that her managers forced her to sign an NDA as a condition of implementing them, hamstringing her attempts to start a larger conversation at the company. (Kierans did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Years later, after they had both left the company, Amaya said, she still saw Kierans out at industry events.
“It felt like nothing changed,” she said. “I flew myself to Vancouver, I put myself through all this trauma, and then I would see Colin at a party like nothing had happened. What was the point of that?"
Women in gaming, she added, “don’t speak out because our peers enable this behavior for a long, long time.”
In a response to Amaya’s story posted Sunday, Quan issued a lengthy apology for how he had handled the situation, saying he had sought counseling for several years as a result. “I failed @Silcris88 as a boss, an ally, and a friend 5 years ago by responding exceptionally poorly to her sexual assault,” he tweeted, refering to Amaya by her Twitter handle. “Her friendship has been invaluable to me, and I enormously regret how I handled things.”
Unlike Gamergate, when complaints of misogyny spurred a prolonged harassment campaign against the women who made them, the accusations of the past week have elicited support, inverting the old paradigm. Sponsors like Astro Gaming dropped channels with credible allegations; platforms issued statements promising change; accused streamers—including Lono, the Destiny player who started it all—issued apologies. Omeed Dariani, the C.E.O. of Online Performers Group, stepped down Sunday after a female game developer claimed he had suggested she sleep with industry men to get ahead.
On Wednesday, streamers planned a Twitch Blackout—a kind of work stoppage for gamers—to call attention to harassment problems. To some extent though, attention was already there. On Monday, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear published an internal memo addressing the allegations, and calling for a pretty steep challenge: to make Twitch “the safest place to create on the Internet.”
Late Wednesday night, the company released a statement announcing investigations into the allegations. “We’ve prioritized the most severe cases and will begin issuing permanent suspensions in line with our findings immediately,” they wrote.
In the meantime, most of these women will still keep playing.“If girls and non-binary people let things like this make us leave the video game industry, it’d be a much smaller industry,” one accuser said. “I’m not gonna let shitty experiences ruin a thing that has been such a major part of my childhood and my upbringing. They bring me joy and I’m going to keep doing it.”