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On Twitch, women who stream say their biggest obstacle is harassment

“There’s definitely days where I’m like, ‘I can’t even stream because there’s so much mean stuff,’” said Lisa Vannatta, who goes by STPeach on the site.
Image: Quqco cosplays as the character Kasumi at TwitchCon in the San Diego Convention Center on Sept. 28, 2019.
Quqco cosplays as the character Kasumi at TwitchCon in San Diego on Saturday. Jenna Schoenefeld / for NBC News

SAN DIEGO — At a booth on the second floor of the San Diego Convention Center, where hundreds of gamers wearing purple badges gathered to peruse pins shaped like Pikachu and “Game of Thrones” posters, a streamer called Quqco squealed with joy as an acquaintance gushed over her costume.

Quqco, 28, who makes art on the streaming platform Twitch and attended the site’s annual convention TwitchCon on Friday, was dressed in long, fingerless leather gloves and a leather miniskirt — a cosplay of the character Tifa from the video game “Final Fantasy VII.”

The acquaintance asked if she could take a picture with Quqco. They snapped a photo, then the pair hugged and parted ways.

“She was so cute!” Quqco sighed, opining that women on Twitch are often each others’ biggest supporters.

Originally, Quqco, who asked that NBC News identify her only by her Twitch name to protect her safety, had planned to have a booth at TwitchCon, where fans of her streams and attendees could find and buy her artwork.

But Quqco said she believes she was targeted earlier this month by an organized group of trolls — in this particular case from a Reddit page — who mass-reported her account to Twitch and successfully got the platform to slap the second of three strikes on her, ban her for three days and revoke her access to her own booth at TwitchCon.

“Very recently, I’ve been on — there’s a subreddit called ‘LiveStreamFails.’ Unfortunately, I caught the attention of that subreddit, which has a lot of angry men,” Quqco said in an interview ahead of TwitchCon.

The trolling happened during a stream where Quqco was dressed as the character Chun-Li from the video game “Street Fighter” — a costume that covers her entire torso, with only her thighs exposed. At one point, she said she was adjusting her camera and momentarily tilted the camera downward. About an hour and a half after it started, the livestream abruptly disconnected.

Confused, Quqco soon realized she had been banned. Although the ban lasted only three days, she has appealed the strike on her account to Twitch, which has not explained what violation triggered the ban. If she receives another strike, she will be permanently banned from the platform.

Quqco has been streaming on Twitch for more than two years, but she said the incident earlier this month marked the second time in recent weeks that she was banned for alleged “sexually suggestive content or activities.”

Out of respect for streamers’ privacy, Twitch doesn’t comment on individual moderation cases, a spokesperson told NBC News. Twitch said it has doubled the number of people working for its moderation team over the last year.

NBC News was unable to independently confirm that Quqco’s account was mass-reported. However, Twitch has a growing number of users who consider themselves vigilantes, according to video game news site Kotaku. They keep a watchful eye out for women streamers who “violate the sanctity of Twitch as a gaming site,” and report them when they determine they have broken a rule, Kotaku reported.

“I felt very sorry for existing,” Quqco said of her initial reaction to being banned. “I wondered what did I do to make these people so angry. … There’s this huge brigade of trolls and thousands of comments sexually harassing you or racially harassing you. It definitely puts you in a dark place.”

Although harassment of women isn't exclusively a Twitch problem, Quqco is just one of scores of women on the site who say they face regular harassment simply for their gender. At TwitchCon, NBC News spoke with a dozen women who said they had experienced harassment on the platform. A majority of those interviewed asked that their real names not be used, citing fears for their safety.

“I’m definitely not the only one who experiences it,” Quqco said. “I get a lot of sexist remarks like, ‘women are only on this platform to steal viewers from their male counterparts.’ I’ve gotten remarks like, ‘you wouldn’t get the views that you have now if you weren’t a woman.’ It’s a lot of men projecting that because I’m a woman I don’t deserve what I’ve built.”

On a platform that is dominated by men, women are working to carve out a space for themselves, but many described obstacles that have driven them to the edge of giving up on their streaming careers.

Image: Quqco is interviewed at TwitchCon in the San Diego Convention Center on Sept. 28, 2019.
“I felt very sorry for existing,” said Quqco after being banned from the streaming platform Twitch.Jenna Schoenefeld / for NBC News

Community guidelines

Because she was no longer able to have a booth of her own, Quqco instead assisted her friend, SleepyMia, 24, who dressed as Wonder Woman, with her art booth. SleepyMia sells stickers she designed of characters from Studio Ghibli films and a postcard with the face of actor Danny DeVito on the body of a three-headed Pokemon.

SleepyMia, who asked that her real name not be used, said she has been harassed on Twitch both for being a woman and for being a woman of color.

“I never experienced racism in real life, but I’ve experienced it on Twitch,” she said.

Like Quqco, SleepyMia said she has ended up on a predominantly male subreddit that targeted her. She said that she feels women receive unfair scrutiny from men on Twitch for what they wear, and that she receives comments even when she dresses conservatively.

“If I’m dressed very conservatively one day then I might get donations and comments that say, ‘It’s nice to see a female streamer who’s not a h--.’ I’m like, ‘OK, take your money back,’” SleepyMia said.

Twitch’s guidelines around what is considered “sexually explicit” clothing are vague, which has been a source of frustration among women streamers, according to Kotaku.

The platform’s community guidelines state that attire “should be appropriate for a public street, mall, or restaurant.”

But the guidelines also say: “As a reminder, we will not tolerate using this policy as a basis to harass streamers on or off Twitch, regardless of whether you think they’re breaking this rule.”

Quqco and SleepyMia sat on black chairs, resting their sore feet behind the booth’s table covered in a plastic purple cloth, when Lisa Vannatta, 25, who goes by STPeach on Twitch and has a following of more than 900,000, walked over flanked by approximately 10 friends.

Vannatta, who streams the video game “League of Legends,” among a variety of other content, and has been on the platform for about four years, said people get mad at women who deviate from strictly playing games.

“When it comes to the mean comments, I think you have to get a thick skin. Unfortunately, it just comes with the job,” Vannatta said. “There’s definitely days where I’m like, ‘I can’t even stream because there’s so much mean stuff.’”

Vannatta said that although it’s difficult to deal with harassment she faces on Twitch, the majority of the community she’s fostered on the site has been supportive, which motivates her to continue streaming. The 12 women interviewed by NBC News all echoed Vannatta’s perspective.

Image: Quqco cosplays as the character Kasumi at TwitchCon in San Diego on Sept. 28, 2019.
Although harassment toward women isn't exclusively a Twitch problem, Quqco is just one of scores of women on the site who say they face regular harassment simply for their gender.Jenna Schoenefeld / for NBC News

'We need more girls out there'

Across the hall from SleepyMia’s booth, Christy Shao, 24, who livestreams her creation of emotes (Twitch’s version of emojis), was standing at her own booth, selling her artwork.

Before her life as an emote artist, Shao said she was a top 500 player for the game “Overwatch.” But she said that when she played with pros, she was often accused of having male players boost her account.

“I remember back when I still played ‘Overwatch’ I would be very sad about it,” Shao said.

Shao said the harassment continued when she switched from streaming video games to streaming art.

“I would occasionally get really weird people in my chat. I remember one guy made 30 Twitch accounts and 20 Twitter accounts just to message me,” she said. “The only way to get him to back off was to make a Twitter thread.”

In order to preserve her mental health, Shao said she has taken a hiatus from the platform several times.

A few rows over from Shao's, streamers TraceyCola, 33, and JukeBoxHaiku, 26, were having poop emoji henna tattoos applied to their arms.

Both women said they stream video games and have been on the platform for about three years.

When she started, JukeBoxHaiku, who asked NBC News to use only her first name, Alyssa, said she was afraid to reveal her gender to her viewers.

TraceyCola, who also asked NBC News to use only her first name, Tracey, said she didn’t think much about the harassment at first, but over the years she found that she and some of her viewers had mismatched expectations of one another.

“A lot of people might anticipate extra access to you or extra attention,” Tracey said. “I think that’s a big challenge in setting those boundaries and making sure they’re listened to.”

Robyn Lee, 32, who makes hoodie commissions live on Twitch, where she goes by the name RisingMo0n, said boundaries are a must to make it on the platform. She estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of viewers won’t respect the boundaries, and added that Twitch allows streamers to give moderation power to users they trust, who can monitor chats and kick out the bad actors.

“Just being a woman in the real world, [harassment] happens all the time. Twitch is no different,” Lee said. “Thankfully, Twitch gives the streamers the ability to stop that stuff.”

Although they all said they had experienced different forms of harassment, every woman suggested the same antidote to the challenges they faced on Twitch: More women.

“We need more girls out there. We need more of us,” Lee said. “The louder the voice, the better we’ll be heard.”

CORRECTION (Sept. 30, 2019, 1:45 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the video game in which the character Tifa appears. She is from "Final Fantasy VII," not "Final Fantasy IIX."