Last week GLAAD sent out a press release announcing their intention to start a project meant to combat homophobia in online video games and communities. On the surface this might sound like a great idea, unless you happen to actually be familiar with any of those communities, then the warning bells would be going off.
By way of preface let me just say that the environments GLAAD intends to wade into are absolutely slithering bastions of homophobic speech. I can say without hyperbole that I've never once logged into a game with an online component, be it dedicated as in World of Warcraft, or optional multiplayer like Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, and had my playtime not consist of at least one derogatory comment involving gay people. Usually it's just demure, "Ugh the way you messed that up was so gay," or "Listen to what I tell you to do you fag," and sometimes it's pointed diatribes specifically assaulting the LGBT community. Some of this I think is a product of culture: I don't know anyone high school aged in the US who isn't using "gay" as an adjective for any generic thing they find lame, irrespective of sexuality. Some of it is just what happens when people get on the internet and discover anonymity. Past that is when the actual homophobia begins.
But gay people aren't the only ones who have to put up with this sort of behavior. Women in particular are treated with such vulgarity that I can't understand why any of them even bother disclosing their gender in the first place. Beyond just the extreme oversexualization and objectification, there is manifest sexism in other ways. Women players are defacto "bad," regardless of their actual ability. They're consistently the recipient of solicitations, come ons, sexually explicit conversation whether interested or not. It's no surprise that most female gamers who don't want this attention play male characters, hide their gender and avoid disclosure of it. It doesn't help when sometimes the game itself is complicit in this, as with an Easter event in WoW that required players chase female characters over level 18 to slap Playboy-esque bunny ears on their heads for an achievement.
There's also a fair amount of racism in these games too, generally always from "white" players against other minority groups. It would be simple to stereotype these perpetrators as overcompensating nerdy kids in the basements of their parents' places, but whether or not that's true, these attacks seem to be manifested in the same place of machismo-inspired bigotry.
So given that this is obviously an issue, why would I respond skeptically to GLAAD's announcement? I believe, after years of experience inside these environments, any plan that is little more than "Let's ask the players to be nicer to each other," is utterly doomed to failure. By the same extension, however, any plan that demands companies adopt an authoritarian stance against homophobic behavior is going to end up increasing vitriol against gay players.
To the first point, when I find myself in the middle of a situation where a player is consistently being homophobic, by this point I rarely ever confront them about it. Simple stuff like the aforementioned gay-as-an-adjective I will generally let slide; after all, I make the same comments myself sometimes (though usually sardonically). If a player is consistently abusive, I typically will simply log the chat and report it to an employee, although this move rarely ever amounts to retribution either. But in my experience, challenging the person hardly ever results in anyone scratching their heads and replying, "You know, I had never thought about it this way, I won't say that in the future." The antagonistic ones are almost assuredly looking for attention and validation that their behavior is being annoying, so responding to it is akin to acknowledging a child pitching a fit. If this is to be GLAAD's approach I think they seriously overestimate their chances of success and are vastly unprepared for the "lolfag is whinefag" they're going to be met with in response.
If, then, dealing with the players directly won't do anything, what about pressuring the gaming companies to take a harder stance against this sort of speech? This is a difficult idea as well. A recent example would be from the discussion forums for Bioware's upcoming MMOG Star Wars: Old Republic. In an unfortunately misguided attempt to curb attacks on gay people, words like "gay" and "lesbian" were added to the forum's automatic swear-word filter, resulting in such terms becoming *** and ******* if posted. Matters became worse when clarification consisted of employees locking threads questioning the move (which had usually devolved into shouting matches with LGBT players and friends against straight people who didn't want them around) and suspending players who persisted with complaints. Eventually Electronic Arts, owner of Bioware, relented on the policy and issued a public apology, but the escapade serves as a valid cautionary tale that swinging too hard with the hammer makes things just as bad.
What should be done, then? Simply, for the most part such hate speech is already established as against the rules in almost all games' terms of service agreements. With few exceptions it's already an offense for players to spout abusive speech against people for their gender, sexual orientation or race. All that's needed is greater enforcement of existing policies. Earlier I mentioned how most of my abuse reports are never met with any action; whether this is because customer service reps are overworked dealing with other issues or actively decide/are told not to do anything about it, I couldn't say, but clearly if abusive players don't worry that there's a punishment to their comments, they won't feel intimidated into not blasting them. It's particularly obnoxious that if these players had been exploiting game mechanics they would be removed quickly, but creating a hostile environment for players of all spectrums is usually overlooked. So, encouraging gaming companies to police current standards, protecting women, minorities and LGBT players as a whole, would be a much better plan that would help curb such anti-social behavior with real consequences without setting up one segment as a politically correct "protected class" that's likely to encounter more abuse as a result.
If these standards don't already exist, companies need to be encouraged to adopt them. Blizzard needed this motivation years ago when they banned the existence of a LGBT-friendly guild from World of Warcraft, and it took a lawsuit for their policy to change. Thankfully, such groups now thrive as a safe place for LGBT players to be themselves. Employees need to be trained on these policies and it needs to be ensured that they follow them fairly and without personal bias.
It should be said though that at the end of all this, GLAAD's plans only attempt to deal with a symptom and not the root causes of hate speech (whether against LGBT individuals, minority racial groups or women), and that is my biggest complaint with this announcement, and why I think their time and money would be better spent elsewhere. Making sure I don't have to hear the word fag while leveling my Blood Elf priest in World of Warcraft does nothing for the many, many gay people across the world living in fear of coming out to their family and friends, expressing themselves in public, or– in many cases– with the reality of violence or death if anyone finds out who they are.