If you are a woman over the age of 12 who goes online or leaves the house, then you already know that the world doesn’t offer you much protection. Whether in the street, in a bar, on public transport, at a show, or merely having the audacity to speak in the comments section, you know — from a wealth of exhausting experience — that a lot of men feel entitled to say a lot of unsolicited, terrible things to you. We learn this young, and we learn to be wary.

For the sake of our mental well-being, a lot of women regularly retreat to female-friendly spaces. We have feminist Facebook groups that are private to keep out the trolls and the “men’s rights” activists. We have meetings in our communities about politics, art, and knitting. We have bands that attract predominantly female audiences (never leave us again, Sleater-Kinney) and we have online activities that are so innocuous, we like to presume they’re safe.

Until recently, I assumed Words With Friends was one of these activities because, well, it’s Scrabble. Sadly, these days, not even in the nerdiest, wordiest online environment can we get away from men who do not understand or respect social boundaries. I found this out recently after accepting a game request from a stranger, who immediately messaged me.

This was our exchange:

wwf-me

Some of you might think that was an overreaction on my part. Perhaps so. But when I posted this screenshot to social media, aghast that I can’t even play WWF without a man vocalizing what he thinks of my appearance, I was reasonably astonished to find that this type of non-game-related contact is not only common, but has been happening to a lot of women I know, inside the app, for a really long time. And some of their experiences are great examples of precisely why I responded so bluntly, so quickly. [Please note: I have omitted user names and last names to eliminate the chance of these women being targeted for further harassment.]

Here’s a screenshot from my friend Tamra, demonstrating how a hearty greeting from a stranger can become threatening, if you don’t immediately respond to it (even though it’s the middle of the night):

tamra-final

And here’s one from my pal Caroline, demonstrating what can happen when you take the time to engage rationally with the stranger asking you questions:

wwf-caz-pt-1

wwf-caz-pt-3

After sending these screenshots to me, Caroline told me with a shrug that because she is such an active WWF user: “I tend to block and delete them, but they happen most days.”

Rebecca, another regular player who contacted me, said: “I refuse all random games now. One guy seemed okay at first, then got completely obsessed and weird. Others just send random sexual s**t…”

Nicky told me: “I deleted the app because, despite enjoying Words with actual friends, it was too depressing to start games with randos and have all the words be [sexually explicit].”

Sometimes, being actively aggressive is the only way to shut this type of behavior down. Here’s my friend Alexis trying and ultimately failing to ignore a pest:

alexis

Another thing I discovered, just within my immediate friend group, is that sexual harassment on WWF isn’t limited to merely irritating come-on lines and ugly insults.

“Two of the last four people WWF has paired me up with have had porn as their profile pic,” my friend Julia told me. “I didn’t take screen shots. I just resigned both games immediately. The second one was an amateur shot of him (his name was graphic too) and a woman. I could see his penis and her vagina.”

I was initially a little taken aback to find that my friends, for the most part, were not reporting many of these incidents to Zynga (“I just ignore it,” Dani said, “because it happens constantly”), but it made a whole lot more sense once I discovered that blocking a player in WWF does not automatically remove them from your screen. The game that’s already been started with that person will remain on your homepage, and the lines of contact between you (messages and “nudges”) will remain open until you hit the “resign” button. And, as all WWF players know, the “resign” button comes with a clear warning: “End this game and it counts as a loss!”

To put it another way, Words With Friends currently has a blocking system that actively penalizes women for trying to get away from sexual harassers.

After trying and failing to remove the unwanted player from my games list without having to “resign” (and add a loss to my overall score), I attempted to contact Zynga to find out why. Not only was there no means to file a complaint within the app, but the form I filled out on the company’s website prompted little more than an automatically triggered email and a few days of silence.

In the end, frustrated, I contacted Zynga as a member of the press, and asked them what they were doing to tackle the harassment problems inside WWF. I also asked them why the list of options when blocking another player were limited to things like spam and sexually explicit content, when straight-forward “unwanted contact” seemed to be a more accurate description of what I and many of my friends were dealing with.

The response from Zynga this time was swift and serious — to the degree that, in a slightly bizarre turn of events, I was invited to discuss these issues over a conference call with three very concerned-sounding high-ranking Zynga employees, including Vaibhav Sahgal, VP of Games and head of Words With Friends.

In the course of the communications that followed, Zynga sent me the following statement:

Upcoming feature roll outs [include]:
Enhancing the blocking of an opponent so that once an opponent has been blocked, they will not have a presence within the reporting player’s app, including their games list, leaderboard and friends list. This enhanced blocking has already started to ramp in Words With Friends and will be live for all players across Web, iOS and Android over the coming days.

We appreciated your suggestion to add a category for “Unwanted Contact” when reporting a player. We will be adding this category into the Words With Friends game across Web, iOS and Android in the next two weeks.

Looking ahead, we are evaluating additional measures, including reducing the number of steps taken by players in-game to report violations of our Terms of Service and Community Rules.

All of which is great news for the multitude of women who just want to play a word game in peace.

Ultimately, though, the fact that these steps even have to be taken within an app like Words With Friends is monumentally depressing. It is symbolic of how hard it is for women to get away from sexual harassment and unsolicited body-commentary, and how even the simplest of everyday activities can be interrupted by jarring interactions with male strangers.

In the end, there is one silver lining: it is easier to safely shut down sexual harassment within the realm of an app than it is to do so in a public space — but this must be a team effort. We as individuals must take responsibility for reporting harassment, and web and app companies must be far more vigilant in monitoring who’s getting blocked and why. Because if we can’t eliminate harassment from an online word game, what hope do we have for all of the other places women exist?

How I Got Zynga to Finally Address Their ‘Words with Friends’ Sexual Harassment Problem 17 January,2017Rae Alexandra

  • Hillary Clintub

    “If you are a woman over the age of 12 who goes online or leaves the house, then you already know that the world doesn’t offer you much protection.”

    Men have experienced this since time immemorial. Welcome to the world of men, ladies. You’ll learn to deal with it when you’ve convinced men to no longer feel protective of you. You might want to go get into a knock down, drag out bar brawl to celebrate your new status. There will always be someone to accomodate you.

    • Guest40

      Except that men who are naturally bigger and more powerful than women rarely have to fear being
      sexually assaulted. What men fear most about going to jail is what women fear every day.

      • Hillary Clintub

        I wonder why our mothers and grandmothers seldom worried about this back in the forties and fifties. Why have times changed so much?

        • The Militant Pacifist

          Obviously because they “knew their place”. This is also why we didn’t need battered women’s shelters and they were taught how to use their makeup to cover black eyes. What’s your point?

          • Guest40

            You’re a lousy WWF player, we’ve all seen you.

          • Hillary Clintub

            Nope. EVERYONE knew their place back then. Men didn’t hit ladies. That only happened on the wrong side of the tracks.

          • The Militant Pacifist

            I can’t tell if you actually think this is true or if you’re purposely trolling. Either way it’s easy to dismiss you.

      • Joe D.

        Except if you go look at hidden camera tests you’ll see that women are the most protected citizens. Go look up ABC’s “What Would You Do” when they compared:

        Men “assaulting” (staged, obviously) women

        Then go look at what happened when they had women “assaulting” men.

        I’ll give you a hint: guys rush to a woman’s aid, women typically walk by when they see a gal hitting a guy.

        The assumption is the one you made, the man is physically stronger. So what happens when a guy pushes his “attacker” away while yelling at her to stop hitting him? People rush to HER aid.

        • Guest40

          Oh for Chrissake. Another MRA screaming what about the men????? We can’t have a single
          discussion regarding women without someone like you chiming in to bring it back around to men.

          • Joe D.

            You made a blanket statement about women living in perpetual fear, which flies in the face of the public response as shown by ABC. Did ABC stage those videos to marginalize women? Or is it possible that you, along with the author, are being irrational?

          • Guest40

            Oh well, ABC said so so why listen to a woman with real experiences. It’s so disheartening that
            Men like yourself exist in this world.

          • Joe D.

            ABC didn’t say so, they showed it happening in real life. I guess your feelings override reality. Do you believe that the Earth is flat?

  • Higgens

    THIS JUST IN: internet is full of assholes.

  • Jerry Plaaten

    I enjoy playing WWF and had no inkling that such a problem existed! Then again I am male. It sucks that women are constantly subjected to this type of behavior! Not all men do this, fortunately, only the cretins. At least Zynga has taken it seriously and is trying to do something.

  • Guest40

    OMG, this has happened to me several times. Instead of engaging, I immediately delete the game but it’s still creepy. It’s starting to happen more on FB too. Emboldened men who try contacting me in Messenger even though we’re not connected. And before anyone asks, no it’s not flattering, it’s unnerving and makes me feel exposed.

  • SconeClone

    Maybe the players who get negative feedback should tend to be matched with others who also get negative feedback, so the worst will get sucked into an increasingly black hole which will make them vanish from the rest of us. People might get released from the effect of negative feedback with some positive feedback… or use playing a good game as a weak positive signal.

  • DutchS

    Speaking as a male somewhat older than the social media set, this baffles me. Not just the creepy come-ons, but people like Trump and Anthony Weiner. This is so many parsecs removed from anything I was raised to consider good manners that I just can’t comprehend anyone getting to (legal) adulthood and thinking this is acceptable behavior.

  • Carolyn J. Plep

    Actually WWF is like the #1 cheating app online , I learned that the hard way. Because the chat feature can’t be accessed historically and it’s easy to tell your partner your just playing WWF, and you are, but you’re really making plans with your lover. Also meeting new affair partners as well…. So it has become Tinder to be honest.

    • Janine Rose Jenkins

      Would you be willing to tell me the username? I had a horrible experience myself.

  • SLD

    Thank you for the article. I just ended a two year relationship with a man who apparently has no proper boundaries with other women and WWF was one arena he felt he could make sexual references and innuendos that were offensive to women, not just disrespectul to me and the relationship. Great article.

  • Jdirksen

    Why don’t they have an option to disable chat? I HATE when people send me messages. Male or female.

    • Liz Ojeda

      I agree. Remove that chat option. We were taught not to speak to strangers so why do it now? We can chat with our true friends on text messaging, not while playing WWF. I am going to stop playing WWF if they don’t remove this option.

  • Jay

    I’m tired of women making this complaint of getting hit on and I’m tired of not playing games because people start them and then forget them. I’ve had women ask me over and over if I was single, dating and on and on, and I am a male. I like to have fun and fool around. If you can’t take it go someplace else. Zynga has more problems than women that create a profile picture using themselves in a bikini from 20 years ago, or a low cut dress or blouse and then use it to attract attention. Don’t use a profile of yourself half dressed if you don’t want to get hit on. Guys are guys. Use a baby picture, your dog or cat. You’re just showing your ignorance. If you want to play WWF then play. I get ahead of someone by 60 -100 pts and they stop playing. I hate to use nudge but Zynga allows these people to stay on for days while in the meantime Zynga won’t let you start a new game because you have too many idiots not playing and taking up your space. If you don’t want to get hit on put some clothes on or don’t use a human profile. Your complaint is a waste. That is why Zynga has a block function. I want the people that stay on for two days without a move kicked off and your score shouldn’t count in your averager. I’m ahead of a person 179 -39 and they don’t move,. They run out of time and I’m stuck with a 179 score going into my average, If I tell a women she looks nice and she answers me like you suggested I finish the game and put her on my block list.

    • Ellena Navarro

      I have a pic with my husband and children and I am fully clothed so why am I still getting hit on? According to your logic only scantily clad women get hit on. Not true. I could probably wear a burlap sack and still get unwelcomed advances.

    • Lisa Brey

      Wow dude. Your profile pic shows you in a skin tight ski suit – you must be asking for it.

  • Janine Rose Jenkins

    Are any of these complaints from a ajmartiniz84????

  • Janine Rose Jenkins

    I had a bad experience with WWF. I’m looking to see if there are other complaints regarding a specific user???

  • Janine Rose Jenkins

    Would we be able to see the usernames of the person making the sexual comments???

  • Cheryl Arne Nelsen

    I just started playing WWF again after taking a year break. In the 3 weeks I’ve been playing again I’ve had to block 4 players for offensive msgs.
    One individual has stalked me to my social media links.
    I don’t remember this happening when I was playing a year ago.
    Makes me wonder why all the sudden men are using WWF as a dating site?

  • Hippoharry

    Eh Jay you on crack??? You’re a victim blamer. A woman can wear what ever she wants and shouldn’t have to dress to hide her body to appease men. Men should learn to keep their mouths shut and to keep their hands to themselves. Ffs how difficult is that concept. I get random men send me messages I ignore. Always. My dp is off facebook and no I’m not in a bikini and if I put a 20 year old pic up I’d have been a child. I have no intention of putting my children up for a whole bunch of strangers to see. What’s wrong with you

    • Jay

      No I’m not on crack. If your not trying to impress people why do you women have portraits done. I like to chat because I’m social and not over the hill. Has nothing to do with appearance. If you so mindless you can’t do two things at once play solitaire. You make me sick. If a women says I don’t chat then I don’t chat with her. I just don’t play her anymore. But any women that shows her breasts so deep you can almost see her belly button, or wears a bikini for a profile then anyone that says she has the right is an idiot if she doesn’t think she’ll get hit on. You show you ignorance buy throwing out the crack reference just because I have an opinion. Maybe you don’t have an avatar because your too damn udly.

  • Lisa Brey

    YEP!! I’m just trying to play words with friends and this guy won’t stop hitting on me, sending sexual comments. I played the word “Wets” and he sent me this: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cfc0cd0d0efda74c5c60c9990b27bee526ada054ea88b8531a7536f4cd3c1ad5.png

Author

Rae Alexandra

Rae Alexandra is On Call Producer for KQED Pop. Born and raised in Wales, she started her career writing for Britain’s biggest music magazines. After moving to California, she became a regular contributor to both SF Weekly and New York’s Village Voice. She regularly ruins your favorite ‘80s movies at MovieRuiner.com, and can be found on Twitter @raemondjjjj.

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