The streaming website Twitch is a honeypot for millions of online gamers who watch their young role models broadcast their video game exploits to the world – but amid the boom lies a murky world of sexual harassment and a crackdown on nudity.
A chorus of women say the website bought by Amazon for $970million in 2014 is a lair for perverts and sex abusers who make unwanted sexual advances online and abuse them physically and emotionally when they meet in person.
One woman described how she had been advised to ‘get ahead’ by having sex with male gamers and was warned that she could be ‘blacklisted’ if she refused.
Hundreds of women have come forward with ‘survivor stories’ in recent days in what has already been described as the gaming industry’s latest #MeToo moment.
Critics say Twitch is too focused on tackling excessive nudity and censoring so-called ‘booby streamers’ rather than stamping out harassment.
One man has even cast himself as the victim by claiming in a $25million lawsuit that the ‘scantily clad gamers’ on Twitch have combined with his ‘sex addiction’ to cause him physical injury.
Twitch’s CEO said in an internal email that the firm was taking the abuse allegations ‘very seriously’ and praised the ‘bravery’ of the women who had come forward – but said there was no easy fix.
The website has now started banning some of its users at it responds to the flood of allegations, saying it will work with law enforcement where necessary.
Streaming website Twitch – which is popular with online gamers such as Daniela Azuaje (pictured) who live-stream their video game exploits to millions – is facing a chorus of anger from women who have come forward with stories of rampant sexual harassment and abuse
Twitch users such as Lilchiipmunk (pictured) broadcast to millions of viewers online but critics say the website is too focused on censoring nudity rather than tackling harassment
One Twitch user, MissVespite, said she had been approached with unwanted comments on the website including ‘You’re hot’ and ‘I’m your slave, Queen’.
‘Think what is appropriate for the workplace. Twitch is my workplace,’ she said, saying that genuine compliments such as ‘your look is so cool’ were fine because they were ‘not focused on sexual attraction’.
After the many claims of abuse surfaced this week some users took part in a ‘blackout’ on Wednesday by signing off Twitch for the day.
A user called Nextarkid122 said that Twitch staff ‘can moderate the content on the platform quite well’ when they choose to, for example by policing nudity.
‘You’re quick to ban a millisecond of nudity but not for this?,’ asked one user in response to Twitch’s statement that harassment claims were being taken seriously.
A user called Alinity with more than a million followers was temporarily banned from the site earlier this year after what was widely described as a ‘wardrobe malfunction’.
Twitch has previously laid out guidelines for nudity on the website – asking female presenters to ‘cover your nipples’.
‘We do not permit exposed underbust. Cleavage is unrestricted as long as these coverage requirements are met,’ the rules published in April this year said.
Some Twitch users – and parents of young users – have previously voiced concerns over so-called ‘booby streamers’ who post suggestive videos to attract subscribers.
The industry has grappled with harassment and toxic behaviour since the Gamergate scandal of 2014, when a group of male gamers organised to target women throughout the industry.
Pink_Sparkles (pictured) has nearly 900,000 followers – one of many streamers who broadcast their video game performances to an online audience
Twitch users such as STPeach (pictured) have more than a million followers on the Amazon-owned site – where many male gamers have been accused of sexual harassment and abuse
There are also many stories of in-person harassment after gamers met each other in real life at Twitch conventions and similar events.
One of the early stories of harassment which triggered the flood of allegations in the last week was posted by a Twitch user called JewelsVerne, who said she had ‘played an entire card game with a notable streamer’s hand on my thigh the whole time and was then basically asked for sex’.
She identified the streamer as Lono, a Twitch user also known as SayNoToRage who has since faced further claims from other women on the platform.
One of them, who uses Twitch under the name SheSnaps, said that Lono had stroked her hair, stared at her and invaded her personal space when they met in person and declared he was feeling ‘sexually liberated’.
She described another encounter in which Lono had ‘come up behind me and completely wrapped yourself around me, then put your head on my shoulder super close to my face’, making her ‘incredibly uncomfortable’.
A third Twitch user, known as SchviftyFive, followed up those claims by saying she was ‘harassed by Lono at a party’.
Lono responded with a YouTube video in which he said that ‘there is no excuse for my behaviour’ and ‘the things that I did were unacceptable’.
‘I took something from these people. I took memories and events and they are now clouded and darkened by my selfish and reckless behaviour,’ he said.
‘Being inappropriate with these people robbed them of their sense of safety and security and it broke trust, and I am deeply sorry.’
Pokimane, a Twitch user who has more than five million followers, said there were ‘so many more people that are still too afraid to speak up’ about abuse harassment by various gamers, in addition to those who have come forward in recent days.
A fellow Twitch streamer called STPeach said the women were ‘extremely brave for sharing your story and speaking out’.
Loserfruit (pictured) has more than 1.5million followers on the website, which was bought by Amazon for $970million six years ago
This user, JadetheJaguar, has more than 150,000 followers. More than 4,000 people back a petition calling for Twitch’s CEO to take ‘visible action’ or resign in the wake of the scandal
Twitch’s CEO said in an internal email that the firm was taking the abuse allegations ‘very seriously’ and praised the ‘bravery’ of the women who had come forward (pictured, a screenshot from the website not showing any alleged victims or abusers)
Another Twitch streamer, Molly Ayala, described meeting a gamer called Omeed Dariani whom she regarded as a role model.
When she asked him for advice, he said that sleeping with men was ‘really the best way to get ahead’ and added that some women had been blacklisted for not ‘doing the right thing’.
‘Shortly after these stories, you propositioned me to come back to your room for a threesome with you and your wife,’ Ayala said, addressing Dariani.
Ayala said she had refused politely for fear of being ‘blacklisted’ and subsequently questioned whether she wanted to enter the gaming world at all.
‘I didn’t say anything then because in some ways, you succeeded. I was scared of your power in the industry. I didn’t want to be blacklisted from reaching my dreams,’ she said.
‘This industry is scary enough without people who gatekeep, manipulate, and who insinuate the way to the top is through your bed.’
Responding to the allegations, Dariani said he did not recall the conversation but said that ‘I believe Molly’.
‘The fact that I don’t remember and she has had to live with this is just more evidence of the privilege I’ve enjoyed as a successful man in this space,’ he said.
‘I recognise that I have made mistakes, big ones. Unfortunately, we often learn our greatest lessons from the worst parts of ourselves, and I am no exception.
‘I am reflecting on those mistakes and what I can do to keep anything like this from ever happening again. I know I have to be more vigilant and more sensitive.’
Dariani subsequently announced his resignation as chief executive of the talent agency Online Performers Group.
Another user met a prominent streamer at a Twitch event in 2016 and later moved in with him, but fell victim to a ‘cycle of abuse’ in which he cheated on her and jealously tried to cut her off from her friends.
A user called Viv described an encounter where she was ‘asked repeatedly to go home with someone’ who proceeded to grope her when she refused.
She reported the abuse but says she was later told that no further action was being taken against the ‘predator’ – until other victims came forward.
Another streamer, Dominick Evans, said they were offered ‘sexy sponge baths’ and other ‘gross infantilising things’ by Twitch users who voiced ‘fantasies of physically harming my girlfriend to get her out of their way’.
In a separate case, a self-described sex addict is suing Twitch for $25million in a lawsuit that says the website’s ‘scantily clad’ gamers caused him to injure his genitals.
The suit claims Erik Estavillo of San Francisco is following 786 female gamers and that the list of women keeps on growing because he has little control over his addiction.
A spokesperson for Twitch dismissed the legal action as ‘frivolous’ and having ‘absolutely no merit’.
On Tuesday the CEO of Twitch, Emmett Shear, told staff in an internal email that users will be banned and prosecuted if claims against them are found to be true.
‘We support people coming forward, commend their bravery in doing so and know there are many others who are not,’ Shear wrote.
‘Please know that we are taking these accusations very seriously and we are working with urgency to address them so that Twitch and the broader streaming and gaming communities are safer for everyone.’
‘The gaming industry is not unlike others that have had to reckon with systemic sexism, racism and abuse that rewards certain people and disadvantages – even harms – others.
‘This reckoning and industry-wide actions are overdue and this is another issue that we, and the industry, need to address to create lasting and positive change.’
However, Shear said there was no easy answer – saying that ‘if there was an off-the-shelf solution to build a universally safe and healthy community, someone would have done it already’.
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition calling for the CEO to take ‘visible action’ or resign in the wake of the scandal.
Twitch (file photo) has previously laid out guidelines for nudity on the website – asking female presenters to ‘cover your nipples’
In a statement on Wednesday the company said: ‘We are reviewing each case that has come to light as quickly as possible, while ensuring appropriate due diligence as we assess these serious allegations.
‘We’ve prioritised the most severe cases and will begin issuing permanent suspensions in line with our findings immediately.
‘In many of the cases, the alleged incident took place off Twitch, and we need more information to make a determination.’
The company said it was working on better technology to detect offensive words and usernames and reviewing its ‘Hateful Conduct and Harassment policies’.
‘Those who have come forward have shown incredible strength, vulnerability, and bravery,’ the statement said.
‘We acknowledge that we can’t singlehandedly tackle pervasive issues across the gaming and broader internet communities, but we take our responsibility as a service for our community seriously.
‘We will continue to assess accusations against people affiliated with Twitch and explore ways Twitch can collaborate with other industry leaders on this important issue.’
Amazon bought Twitch for $970million in 2014 and the platform has boomed in popularity over the last few years, playing a key role in boosting the spread of competitive video gaming.
Popular Twitch gamers can have millions of followers, and the platform itself has more than 100million monthly users. Online gaming has grown further during the coronavirus-related lockdowns around the world.
Twitch previously came under criticism last October when an synagogue shooter in Germany live-streamed a deadly gun rampage on the website.
The 35-minute video was streamed live and stayed there for another 30 minutes after the broadcast had finished before it was finally taken down.
In that time more than 2,000 people viewed the footage and some of them distributed it further via other social media networks.
A Twitch spokesman said at the time that ‘Twitch has a zero-tolerance policy against hateful conduct, and any act of violence is taken extremely seriously’.
The gunman had only attempted a live-stream on Twitch once before, the company said.
‘Amazon is just as much to blame as Twitch for allowing this stream online,’ said Hans-Jakob Schindler of the Counter Extremism Project at the time.
‘Online platforms need to step up and stop their services being used and in turn, parent companies need to hold them accountable.’