The classic version of “gamer support hotlines” revolved around a late ’80s and early ’90s period of titans like Nintendo and Sega. You’d either make a long-distance call or call a 1-900 line to get help from a live counselor on how to beat a tough video game.
Those kinds of hotlines are long gone, replaced by YouTube tutorials—which is fair enough, because it’s usually easy to spell out steps to fight a boss or solve a puzzle. This week, a completely different type of gamer-centric hotline has emerged to address an industrywide issue that isn’t as easily solved by walkthroughs: emotional support.
The Games and Online Harassment Hotline (GOHH) launches today as a free text-based hotline that anyone can use to begin talking about the emotional issues that emerge all over the gaming industry. Twitch streamers, game developers, Discord server members, even online trolls: all are invited to begin talking—anonymously and confidentially—about mental health with counselors who are equipped to understand gaming’s social systems and lingo.
“I’m not answering any of the texts”
Starting today, GOHH will allow owners of US phone numbers ages 13 and up to text the word “Support” to 23368 between 7-10pm ET Monday through Friday. A series of “established call centers” will process your query, ask a few basic questions, and then let users text stories and feelings through a back-and-forth text-conversation process. Participating counselors have been trained to understand gaming-specific concepts like griefing, streaming (a la Twitch), games-industry crunch, and more.
The free hotline is an outgrowth of Feminist Frequency‘s years of non-profit media advocacy and is run through its donation-powered funding model. For FF founder Anita Sarkeesian, that’s the beginning and the end of the hotline’s ties to her work.
“I don’t want the hotline to get caught up in my reputation,” Sarkeesian tells Ars Technica in a phone interview, alluding to violent reactions to her advocacy over the years. “I’m a visible person. People have a lot of opinions about me and Feminist Frequency. But I want the hotline to exist for anyone who needs it. I’m not answering any of the texts. You’re not going to reach me at any point. The values of Feminist Frequency and the hotline are intertwined: it’s its own space where people can go with emotional needs.”
We’ve seen [reporting systems] fail survivors and people who are victims of abuse and harassment.
The project began when Sarkeesian and her FF collaborators, along with a team at the tech advocacy nonprofit Take This, began a hearty conversation in August 2019 after an explosion of “me too” stories stemming from abuses in the tech and games industries. “Many folks came forward about abuse,” Sarkeesian says. “It wasn’t the first or only time, but it was a pivotal moment. Many of us came together and asked, ‘What do we actually do to end abuse in the games industry?'”
The answer is incremental, and this week’s launch of GOHH is one near-term solution because it is built to “create emotional support for folks who need it,” Sarkeesian says. “It’s a confidential safe space where people can work out issues they’re having because they don’t have anywhere else to do that.”
“We aren’t tied to any larger powers at play,” GOHH coordinator Jae Lin continues. “We have no power to fire anyone, no power to get anyone arrested or indicted. We’re not taking a part in those systems. Those systems exist. We’ve seen them fail survivors and people who are victims of abuse and harassment all of the time. We can create an alternative space.”
Ready for those who “test the boundaries”
But Sarkeesian and her collaborators are clear: This hotline does not offer a mechanism for reporting abuses to authorities, nor is it a version of licensed therapy. And it’s not specific to people with so-called “industry” jobs.
“It’s for people who make and play games,” Sarkeesian says. “Streamer, competitor, press, fan, my mom who plays Candy Crush. There’s no gatekeeping here, no test to get into our boundaries. If you’re part of our space, we’re here for you.”
And with a wide net comes a wide range of emotional issues that are fair game for a GOHH session, which Sarkeesian lists: “Burnt out by crunch. Isolated, lonely, or depressed. Facing online harassment. Abuse. Afraid that you have caused harm and want a place to talk that out. Worried for your friends or colleagues. We’re a space you can come to and talk some of that through.”
Even if you reach out in a seemingly disingenuous fashion, the GOHH still wants to lend a hand. “We might get some texters who test the boundaries,” Sarkeesian says. “Who show up wanting support but not knowing how to ask for it, and reacting in a harassing way.” (This, everyone on the call clarifies, is an inherent operating issue for a text-based emotional support hotline.)
Eve Crevoshay, the founder of mental health advocacy non-profit Take This, was consulted early in GOHH’s development to help with matters just like this. “We want to be available to people who don’t know how to ask for help in the so-called ‘right’ way but still need help.”
Sarkeesian chimes in: “We’re not banning you forever from our system if you were ever a dick to us. And you can quote that. If you texted harassing content at one point but need help in the future, we’ll be there.”
A better version of “git gud”
Crevoshay’s work at Take This is already invested in bridging the gap for people in gaming and tech spaces in need of emotional support. “It can be an obstacle to people getting support they need if they don’t feel like they can communicate about the specifics of their experience,” Crevoshay says. “They have to perform labor to communicate with [licensed experts]. There’s also stigma and misinformation about games and about mental health related to people who play games. I was proud to be part of the process to make this a game-competent hotline.”
Crevoshay uses the word “normalize” repeatedly while talking about GOHH, and she seems genuinely invested in giving every gaming fan and participant imaginable an equal opportunity to feel OK about… not feeling OK.
“It’s courageous to get help, no matter who you are, what situation you get in,” Crevoshay says. “That’s a fantastic and amazing first step. This hotline is a necessary but insufficient tool in the larger effort to combat toxicity, harassment, and abuse in games. But it is part of the gateway to thinking about your own emotional health and support. That can change a culture.”
Like any other emotional support hotline, GOHH can only offer so much support, and it will not operate as a reporting mechanism or data-gathering project. Should users find themselves talking about abusive or even lawbreaking topics, GOHH counselors will suggest formal reporting mechanisms as appropriate. “This is not therapy or legal support,” Sarkeesian points out. “This is emotional support.” (And if you’re looking for a more general hotline that offers generalized, non-gaming support, GOHH can help, but so can larger operations like the Crisis Text Line.)
But GOHH is still a far more inviting and hospitable “gaming hotline” than any I’ve ever heard about. In a games industry where the slogan “git gud” can emerge to talk about mastering tough video games, it’s refreshing to hear about an effort that tweaks such a classic phrase: “Getting help is good,” Crevoshay says.
Listing image by Games and Online Harassment Hotline