Homophobia, sexism, racism and online games

7 July 2009
1:17 am

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.

6 Responses to \'Homophobia, sexism, racism and online games\'

    Excellent post Joshua. A female friend who plays EQ2 is constantly asked sometimes by male players to prove she's female. Although last night she did turn round and say to one "prove your male" which seemed to shut him up. But it seems to be a constant battle for female players that if they say there female there usually met with disbelief or suddenly everyone wants to help them in the game.

    Interestingly enough a post was started a couple of weeks ago on Codemaster's forums for 'Lord of the Rings Online' from someone asking if there were any LGBT friendly kinships. This in turn was met with a lot of "why" "does anybody care?" to "can we have straight friendly kinships?" It took a number of posts to explain the reasons why and not just from the original poster.

    While I'm sure GLAAD's intentions are worthy I just don't see how its going to work in online gaming worlds. Like you say most companies whether it be Bioware, SOE or Codemasters already have in place policies regarding hate, homophobia, sexism. Like you already say whether they are enforced is another matter.

    Hey Joshua – This is Justin Cole, GLAAD's Director of Digital Media. I agree with Carthalis, this is a very insightful post indeed.

    A couple of things I wanted to respond to you on, though. First of all, you are absolutely right in that this is a complicated endeavor. Many companies do have some sort of policy in place that prohibits threats, advocating violence or death, hate speech, etc, but the ability to report that behavior and/or the enforcement of those policies isn't always consistent. And in most cases, the person doing the reporting never knows whether or not their report was acted upon – very little transparency.

    This really is a company-by-company and a case-by-case project. Of course there are specific and general goals – to provide safe spaces for LGBT people in these virtual communities (which includes virtual worlds, online games, social networks, message boards, and on and on), to work with each of the companies to ensure they have policies in place that prevent anti-LGBT defamation (and a mechanism/protocol to enforce them) that makes sense, and what will be the most challenging in my eyes – to educate the user base about the real impact of their virtual homophobia.

    For example, when the Old Republic situation arose, I reached out to Bioware about the situation and ended up getting a call back from a VP at Electronic Arts (EA), Bioware's parent company. He issued a statement through GLAAD which we shared on our blog (http://glaadblog.org/2009/05/01/when-old-republic-strikes-new-media/). Through ongoing conversations with EA, they have offered to host our upcoming Panel on Homophobia & Virtual Communities on their private campus in Redwood City, CA (http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=93132189074), have provided a panelist – a senior producer from the Maxis Studio, and we'll be having a sit down meeting to discuss the homophobia, their policies and begin working on a comprehensive plan to address it.

    The same goes for Microsoft – I spent two days on their campus in Washington state meeting with executives to review their systems, protocols and policies and provide recommendation on way to address the problem.

    These companies are very much committed to providing a safe and fun environment for all their players – they're just not all there yet. And that's why GLAAD has begun actively working to advise and assist them.

    It's not going to happen overnight and it's not going to be easy. I, like you, understand the uphill battle we have here. But in my job I've also seen the real impact unchecked homophobia has on people's lives and how it ultimately can lead to violence and death. We need to begin to address it.

    Regarding the problem being more than just about homophobia – you're absolutely right, but we have to start somewhere. As GLAAD's mission is focused on advocating for LGBT people, that's where we are starting. And keep in mind, while the work being done here is focused around fighting homophobia its implications will affect all the other groups you mentioned. If we work to help implement better reporting mechanisms, it helps everyone. If we work to provide better policies and safe spaces for LGBT people, those policies and spaces can be replicated for other groups as well.

    I hope this helps to address some of your points. I'm definitely interested in hearing more from you – your analysis is thoughtful and helpful in shaping some of the discussions I'm having. Please feel free to keep in touch. I'll be putting together another conference call with gamers to get their insight and thoughts and I'd love it if you could join in.

    Drop me a line and thanks again for the post!

    – Justin

    Thanks for the reply Justin, I appreciated receiving it. I've shot you off an email in response.

    I've had a bit of the "fucking asian cunt" phrase (and its derivatives) directed at me quite a few times on COD:MW2 multiplayer. MW2 uses a P2P networking system and it matches you with players with the best ping (so usually locally) so I know these people are most likely from my own city.

    I'm from Melbourne, Australia.

    As an American who moved to Sydney some time back, the only thing really in the way of culture shock I've experienced here is the antagonizing racism towards Asian people. Coming from the US where we've had our own history with it, and where such overt racism is usually non-existent or it gets blasted immediately by general consensus, it was totally bizarre to me to come here and see such extreme hostility towards Asians. Everything from seeing flyers taped to buildings advertising for open apartments and declaring "No Asians" to people getting yelled at on the street because of their race and no further provocation, it was really disconcerting to me to learn.

    Young teens are ignorant because their parents are. Wait a generation and the stains will hopefully wash out.

    Thanks for the post Joshua.

    From a Female WoW'er
    (yes I really am a female)

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