Privilege and Rules in Online Play: Institutional Failures of the Video Game Industry

Simply telling people to use the ignore function is not going to curtail decades-long problems in video games communities.

by Melissa King on July 21st, 2015

For as long as the internet has been in American homes, toxic communities centered on video games have flourished online. The seemingly lawless and anonymous nature of the internet allowed people to express hate speech without repercussion, and as soon as video games collided with online chat functionality, it was inevitable that they would become home to the same. As the popularity of online games such as MUDs and MMOs grew, companies that produced these games began to include codes of conduct in their EULAs (End User License Agreement), designed to limit the worst of this abuse. However, these codes have proved ineffective in protecting minorities from targeted harassment. This is due to the demographics of game development and marketing, as well as a lack of specificity in community codes of conduct.

Many companies have been content to leave their rules of play under generalized guidelines that ban harassment, sometimes going so far as to name hate speech specifically. The most specific acts banned in these codes include forming obvious hate groups, yet there is never an official explanation of what they consider hate groups or speech – and EULAs point out that it is the moderators and company employees that determine what counts as harassment.

While the persecution of minorities in online spaces like video games and social media is not new, the proper handling and disposal of it is. This behavior has been spilling over from these communities long before Gamergate, and social media companies like Twitter are only just now beginning to react to this harmful pattern. But for minorities who play video games, the problem has been painfully obvious since the beginning.

Limitations of EULAs, Codes of Conduct, and Moderation

The Wintergrasp Fortress in World of Warcraft: Two large, pillared buildings with blue banners. Character corpses lie all around.

Photo CC-BY rolo tomassi, filtered.

Minorities are consistently failed when a video games company and the people it hires to enforce its EULA do not recognize and react to targeted harassment. This is almost guaranteed when minorities are scarce in all levels of the development process and administration of game companies. It is added insult to injury when these same companies constantly appropriate minority culture within the design of their products. Rules cannot be expected to protect groups vulnerable to online harassment, when those groups have had little to no contribution to the design and implementation of the rules, or the design of the game itself.

The most common complaint I hear is that reporting targeted harassment to game moderators results in non-action. Moderators committed to doing nothing will suggest that targets just “use the ignore function,” putting the onus on the player receiving abuse. This is poor advice, as a minority in an unprotected space can ignore legions of people and still not see an end to the hate speech. If nothing is done to punish hate speech, it will continue to fester within these public spaces, which is exactly the sort of social trend that an effective system of moderation is supposed to prevent. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that this inaction is necessarily impassive, since moderators are just as prone to bigoted philosophies as the players they oversee.

Taking complaints to a community forum that developers read is also no guarantee of help. I have heard of several occasions where someone complaining about homophobia or transphobia has had their threads closed, or even having their account banned from a forum or game for having a “hostile” tone. Sometimes, it is done by rote as a moderator may see complaining about harassment aimed at sexuality or gender as bringing up sexual topics (which are almost always forbidden via the EULA). With trans slurs being mainstream (see Ru Paul if you need an example), especially those leveled against trans women, it is unlikely that any given moderator will recognize hate speech aimed at trans folk. If moderator diversity resembles the composition of the developers and producers they work under, most of them are likely to be cis people with little idea of what transphobia and cisnormativity look like.

Leaving enforcement of rules open to moderator interpretation perhaps leaves the company itself off the hook when the inevitable failures do come around. There was the noted instance a decade ago in World of Warcraft, where a large LGBT guild formed. The guild was blocked by moderator action for being ‘sexually explicit,’ and only reinstated after significant pressure. It may have been 2002 when this happened, but trans people are still put in a position where they feel unprotected by the rules and feel forced to stay “stealthed” in online play.

I have seen jokes about Nazis reacted to with quicker ferocity than transphobia and homophobia in general chat. When rules go out their way to ban whole topics of discussion, rather than hate, it is really an enforcement of a privileged normativity – the establishment of a status quo where only the people in charge feel that everything is safe and calm. When it comes to determining whether a community is actually safe for minorities, the people who hold power are taken more seriously than the folk still being abused – they are relegated as ‘isolated incidents.’

Problematic Video Games – Problematic Tech Industry

Characters fight a large dragon in Guild Wars 2.

Photo CC-BY Joshua Livingston, filtered.

The tech industry as a whole has poorly handled and often contributed to the harassment of marginalized people. American video games have been even more transparent in the way they prioritize a specific privileged audience, developing and prioritizing homogenous consumer groups. The design of mainstream games — from art to writing, gameplay, and marketing — clearly demonstrates a preference for the most privileged people in America. Video game companies have few internal reasons to target their codes of conduct at protecting minorities: they do not see minority groups as valuable customers.

This is because of a persistent marketing myth that straight white cis men form the backbone of gamers. Recent data has pointed out that this belief is not true, with women numbering at least half of all video game consumers, and people of color making up an even greater proportion of the audience than what is believed. Yet these game companies have convinced themselves of their own marketing myths, and are refusing to change their tactics despite evidence proving them wrong. Gamergate is perhaps the freshest example of what happens when a particular consumer group is prioritized above all others. GG was not the beginning of this either – but simply a name for the latest wave of entitlement that comes when a privileged group is treated as sacred. They do call themselves a “consumer revolt,” after all.

The level of dialogue is not exactly high in even the most innocuous of topics within video games. Developers have been threatened when they try to make more inclusive games, or side with the ‘wrong’ people online. Maybe this is not surprising, in hindsight, considering that developers have also been threatened for changing something like a minor game mechanic. It does not help that many cis men in tech love to play the victim, alluding to childhood bullying as a way to deny and deflect responsibility for their failure to create safe and professional online spaces. We live in a culture that considers being a white cis heterosexual man the norm, and rules designed by them to facilitate fair and equal treatment will only protect what they see as fair and equal.

To protect themselves from online harassment within or out of these failed systems of moderation, folks often leverage gaming myths as a way of protecting themselves. Using male pronouns, and never correcting people when they assume one is cis, heterosexual, or white is a way to avoid threats of violence and social abuse. For anyone fitting outside of those descriptors, hiding is often the least painful option – but it is still painful to be denied one’s identity, and it’s a pain rarely recognized by privileged gamers.

In this oppressive system of hiring, moderation, marketing, and design, it’s not surprising how many minorities instead operate within indie and alt game development. AAA gaming has elevated the capital and personnel needed to make something considered ‘standard’ in designs far beyond the capabilities of independant developers. It is not a gulf of quality, by any means: it is simply the sheer marketing power of AAA game companies that sets a standard with such high financial requirements. Games developed outside of this marketing machine are making greater strides in the inclusion of diverse groups, where artists are capable of making decisions that would give a marketing director (or a team of them) nightmares about the “risk.” It will be interesting to see where indie games go in terms of moderation, as larger indie multiplayer titles are created.

Specific Groups Require Specific Protections

Serene, peaceful waterfall from Guild Wars 2.

Photo CC-BY Joshua Livingston, filtered.

Game moderation needs to offer specific protections aimed at protecting specific groups of people. Detailing exactly what constitutes hate speech would allow minority players unsatisfied with a moderator’s response to have an avenue of appeal. Specific rules would also make the moderator actually responsible for taking care of player harassment that they would not recognize of their own volition. Training in basic social theory regarding minority issues could highlight why these rules exist, why they are enforced, and why a community as a whole benefits from it. It is social justice “101,” something that does not take a great deal of time to teach. Of course, this all sounds like dangerous “SJW” talk.

Transparency would also help go a long way in engendering trust between an effective moderating staff and minority players. Despite my research, I have no idea who makes the rules in these games, nor who moderates. If it resembles the demographics of the rest of the video game industry, it is depressingly white, male, straight, and cis. Hiring more minorities into all levels of the video game industry would increase the visibility of the issues they face within a company’s operations. As technology companies have proven over and over again, making a pledge for more diversity is not enough to guarantee that they actually change their business practices to facilitate it.

Simply telling people to use the ignore function is not going to curtail decades-long problems in video games communities. A company throwing up their hands and claiming that toxic communities are unfixable will do little to change this pattern.

Effective moderation means that abuse becomes less common not just in one game; multiple large video games companies refusing to tolerate terrible behavior from customers would help create an online environment that ostracizes abusers rather than minorities. Minorities make up a significant part of a video game players. They deserve to be protected, and they want to spend their money on games that respect their lives.