Everybody’s fantasized about owning jerks in games so hard that they drop off the face of the internet. It’s an appealing idea, but Bully Hunters, a group that’s trying to fight harassment by diving into games and killing harassers, has become an object lesson in why that idea works better as an idle fantasy.
Last week, the Bully Hunters announced their presence in Counter-Strike, describing themselves as a collective that “connects victims of in-game harassment with gamers who want to help.” “The Bully Hunters are a vigilante hit squad of elite female gamers who have banded together to end sexual harassment and abuse in the popular game CS:GO,” said the announcement.
In theory, the system works like this: if you’re experiencing “in-game harassment or verbal abuse” in CSGO, you go to the Bully Hunters website and login with your Steam account. At that point, you’ll be matched with a hunter, who’ll then friend you on Steam. After that, you invite them to join your game, and then they body the baddie and drop a message into chat saying that harassment is not a joke. Anyone can register to become a Bully Hunter through the initiative’s website, but the vetting process is opaque.
Counter-Strike is a game that’s more popular with men than it is with women, and anecdotal evidence suggests that griefing and harassment are common for some players. A blurb on the Bully Hunters website justifies their cause by claiming that “21 million female gamers have experienced sex-based taunting, harassment, or threats while playing video games online,” an apparent extrapolation of a study that the site links to (the study, however, only says that 63.3 percent of women in an 874-person survey claimed to have experienced sexual harassment while playing games online).
According to a release on marketing site MediaPost, Bully Hunters is a “passion project” of marketing firm FCB Chicago, who teamed up with gaming peripheral maker SteelSeries to fight back against in-game harassment. In addition, popular Twitch streamer ZombiUnicorn says she’s consulted for the initiative, and the Bully Hunters website displays the logos of custom PC manufacturer CyberPowerPC, and gaming chair store Vertagear, as well as two activism-focused organizations: the National Organization For Women and the Diverse Gaming Coalition. Kotaku reached out to Bully Hunters and for more information, but PR firm Golin—representing Bully Hunters—said that the Bully Hunters aren’t talking to press because they “want to remain anonymous.”
The Bully Hunters’ announcement was accompanied by the promise of a debut livestream, but before that even happened, the organization was met with criticism that ranged from open vitriol and trolling to dissections of statistics they were citing to rampant questioning of their fight-fire-with-fire methodology. In the wake of the initial round of criticism, ZombiUnicorn—who vociferously defended Bully Hunters on multiple occasions—claimed she’d been “called racist, bigot, sexist, ppl have threatened me with violence, sexual harassment & more all because I’m standing up to end harassment in gaming.”
However, whether in bad or good faith, most arguments against the Bully Hunters basically boiled down to the idea that it’s probably not a great plan to go after harassers by antagonizing them—even if it’s exclusively through gameplay. This widespread supposition is backed up by a 2015 study which found that men who aren’t performing well in games are more likely to make nasty, potentially harassing comments toward women playing the same game. Morgan Romine, director of initiatives at Intel and ESL-backed esports diversity organization AnyKey, further told me via DM that, in her organization’s own research, they’ve found that “the most effective strategies for discouraging harassment involve modeling positive behaviors,” especially when highly-skilled players are the ones supporting others and being actively welcoming.
After the announcement, Bully Hunters hosted a livestream last Thursday where the group purported to hunt down bullies live. The demonstration had a pre-recorded (but allegedly real) situation in which a “casual gamer” called on a Bully Hunter to dispense justice in a CSGO match. The hosts played a clip of a male voice calling a woman player a “whore” and saying that “women just suck at video games in general.” He was quickly dispatched by a Bully Hunter with a knife to the back. It all went off without a hitch, and weirdly, there was no voice chat beyond what the guy initially said. After that, they cut away from the scenario.
Next, ZombiUnicorn hosted a Q&A with two psychologists walking through the 101 basics of why harassment is a severe issue. Dr. Alexandra Solomon and counselor Kevin Lanham hit on points ranging from how in-game harassment can have real-world psychological effects to the idea it’s on men to step up and call out harassment, too. “What this initiative is all about is figuring out how can we work together—men and women both—to move from a culture of harassment to a culture of inclusion,” said Solomon. Solomon and Lanham did not explain how hunting down harassers would help achieve that otherwise admirable goal.
A horror-movie-style sound effect played at the end of the Q&A, signalling that another bully had appeared in-game. “You wanna get raped, bitch?” asked a male voice that sounded exactly the same as the first. “I know where you live. I can’t handle how big your tits are.” Then another bully hunter showed up in-game with startling speed given how many steps are involved in connecting people with Bully Hunters, not to mention the fact that CSGO games are often full, making it hard for new people to immediately join matches. But this second hunt, presented as a live, spontaneous occurrence, also went perfectly, with the hunter getting a double-kill and advertising the Bully Hunters service in chat instantaneously. After that, there were a couple more brief segments about the severity of harassment, followed by a confusing montage of “Bully Hunt highlights” accompanied by the same male voice as before hurling similarly generic insults. By this point, large portions of stream chat were declaring the whole thing fake. Then the stream ended.
Since the stream, Bully Hunters have received a new wave of criticism, much of it centered on the questionable stream, insults like “bitch” and “cunt” publicly used by host ZombiUnicorn in the past (for which she’s since apologized), and just how unworkable the Bully Hunters idea seems in action. In addition to the aforementioned complications of joining an in-progress CSGO match, the ease of changing your name on Steam means that anybody can impersonate a Bully Hunter, and it seems that some already have. On top of that, the Bully Hunters don’t vet claims of harassment before acting, meaning that there’s potential for people to be judged guilty without any evidence. Bully Hunters have, as a result, become the butt of many jokes, with even Pewdiepie joining in on the mockery.
In the wake of all this, SteelSeries, the company whose brand was most prominently displayed on the Bully Hunters page in the form of a pair of special Bully Hunter-themed headphones, has pulled support. “Bully Hunters was not a viral campaign stage-managed by us,” the company said in a statement on Facebook over the weekend. “We did not hire a marketing agency to create it. We didn’t have anything to do with its execution, content or messaging. And more importantly, we would never take advantage of an issue like bullying to sell hardware… Although we still believe in a world where harassment isn’t tolerated, it’s clear to us that Bully Hunters is hurting, not helping, that cause.”
Vertagear and the Diverse Gaming Coalition released statements announcing that they’re pulling support as well, both expressing surprise at what Bully Hunters—a very different campaign when they first came on board, they claimed—eventually became. “Although our engagement with this particular campaign ends here, we would like to express that our commitment to furthering causes that support those in need will not,” said Vertagear’s statement. “However, we will ensure that proper due diligence is exercised from this point forward so that the Vertagear name is not attached to anything that may undermine the community and our brand ever again.”
Paloma Delgadillo, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women, didn’t distance herself from the campaign, but did acknowledge the blowback. “We know that one platform won’t end sexual harassment, but I’m still glad to have had the opportunity to bring attention to this issue,” she said in an email. “Speaking personally, although the hateful comments aren’t easy to look at, I still firmly believe it’s important for me and like-minded individuals to speak up on behalf of victims and share our truth no matter what the trolls may say.”
ZombiUnicorn, who emphasized that while she’s only consulting on the Bully Hunters project and is not heading it up, believes the Bully Hunters organization has heard the criticism and is open to change. “They are gonna be working on changing stuff and coming up with more ideas,” she said over the phone, also claiming that Bully Hunters began as a campaign to raise awareness around online harassment, with the hunt element only being added a few months ago as a stunt to kick off the larger campaign. “I am still working with Bully Hunters to come up with more solutions and other ways of taking all the feedback.”
She added, however, that from her perspective, the campaign has already kind of succeeded in that it got a lot of people talking about harassment, even if a lot of that talk was directed at the campaign itself. “If it’s gonna help a few more people understand that this is not OK—all these people are speaking up saying that we shouldn’t do the Bully Hunters thing because that might harass the bully—then it did its job,” she said. “It’s bringing more attention to the fact that harassing isn’t OK. You can debate the merits of the execution, but I’m always gonna remain supportive of the overall goal.”
Bully Hunters has yet to make a statement about all of this, but as of writing, its website, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, and Facebook were offline.
Update - 1:45 PM, 4/17/18: Marketing firm FCB Chicago, who headed up Bully Hunters, has issued an apology. “We recognize our efforts were less than perfect and apologize—to our supporters, the gaming community and most importantly to those that continue to be bullied,” the firm said in a statement to Kotaku. “This issue deserves more ways to end it and we look forward to continuing to find them. Until then, we hope the conversation around ending sexual harassment in gaming grows even stronger.”