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Breaking Barriers in Online Gaming: ECPAT’s USAID Symposium Presentation Spotlights Gender Dynamics in Gaming Environments

Posted on Mar 10, 2024

Francesco Cecon, Head of ECPAT’s Global Boys Initiative, sheds light on the potential for online gaming environments to challenge gender norms and foster inclusivity amongst adolescent boys.

Amidst the rapid integration of digital technologies into the lives of children and youth globally, the 2024 Protecting Children and Youth from Digital Harm Symposium, hosted by USAID, emerged as a pivotal platform for addressing the inherent risks and opportunities therein. Convening leaders from government, civil society, the private sector, and youth themselves, the Symposium served as an interactive forum to tackle the multifaceted challenges of digital harm.  

Francesco Cecon, Head of the Global Boys Initiative at ECPAT International, led a presentation on the “Gender Dimensions of Harm and Help-Seeking in Online Gaming Environments”, with a focus on adolescent boys. Francesco illuminated the complex interplay of gender dynamics within online gaming spaces, underscoring both the potential for reinforcing harmful stereotypes and the opportunities for fostering inclusivity and acceptance. Delving into boys’ experiences in seeking help, he highlighted the pervasive impact of rigid gender norms as a significant barrier to accessing support, emphasising the importance of dismantling these stereotypes to create safer and more inclusive spaces for all gamers. Through consultations with gaming experts and industry representatives, two key areas for action emerged: leveraging online gaming environments as spaces for safe exploration of gender identity and sexuality, and providing tools for challenging rigid gender roles and stereotypes.  

Read a recap of the presentation below:


The Impact of Gender Norms on Boys 

“Boys in general tend to be excluded from conversations that we have around vulnerability and sexual exploitation and abuse.” 

Drawing from insights gleaned from the Global Boys Initiative, Francesco highlighted the challenges boys face in seeking help, citing rigid gender norms as significant barriers to accessing support. He noted that boys tend to be sidelined in discussions around vulnerability, a consequence of entrenched stereotypes about what it means to be a boy.  

Opportunities in Online Gaming 

“Online gaming environments can also be places where children can challenge gender roles and gender ideas and ideas of masculinity in a way that they cannot do in real life.” 

Francesco stressed the importance of understanding children and youth’s experiences in online environments in order to develop effective strategies for prevention and response, highlighting the potential of online gaming platforms as avenues for boys to seek alternative confidential and trusted advice on issues related to child protection, sexuality, safe sexual exploration, and gender identity exploration. These opportunities, he noted, can be explored while considering the risks for children engaging in these environments and reducing the harm caused by the display of stereotypical male behaviours. 

Areas for Action 

Through consultations with gaming experts and industry representatives, Francesco identified two key areas for action and opportunities for positive change, one being the potential for online gaming environments to serve as spaces where boys join micro and macro communities facilitating safe exploration of gender identity and sexuality. For instance, private chats or groups within these platforms may offer boys a secure environment to engage in discussions that may not be readily available offline, allowing them to seek advice and guidance on sensitive topics. Additionally, adolescent boys can access tools within online gaming environments to challenge gender roles and stereotypes, fostering a sense of acceptance of differences. For example, customisable avatars enable players to express themselves authentically, breaking free from traditional notions of masculinity. By leveraging these features, online gaming platforms have the potential to promote inclusivity and diversity, empowering boys to embrace their identities and engage with others in a more open and accepting manner. 

The Way Forward 

Moving forward, ECPAT is poised to embark on several key initiatives to address the gender dimensions of harm and help-seeking in online gaming environments. One crucial aspect involves engaging adolescent boys and youth, especially gamers, in discussions to understand how gaming platforms can promote help-seeking behaviours and challenge entrenched gender norms. By fostering dialogue within gaming communities, ECPAT aims to create spaces where children feel empowered to seek support and guidance from their peers. Additionally, ECPAT champions a participatory approach, prioritising children’s voices in the design and implementation of safety measures.

Furthermore, ECPAT is committed to conducting research to explore how gaming environments facilitate community-building among different gender and age groups, as well as across various socio-cultural contexts. This research will inform the development of inclusive safety measures that address the unique challenges faced by children worldwide. By connecting these efforts with broader child safety initiatives, ECPAT aims to create a holistic framework that safeguards children in online gaming environments while empowering them to challenge harmful gender norms. 


Click here to register and watch the full presentation.