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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Video game companies vow to fight racism in their communities, but offer few details

(The Washington Post illustration)

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing mass protests, a number of major video game publishers and console makers released statements in support of racial justice, with many committing to some combination of monetary donations, reassessing internal policies, canceling events, suspending online play, and, in some cases, placing a renewed focus on stamping out racism in their own online gaming communities.

But in many cases those same companies offered little detail when it came to addressing their intentions on that last point — the one which most directly impacts gamers. The silence in that regard left many in and around the gaming community wondering why even basic, text-based instances of racism continue to persist in some of the world’s most popular online video game communities.

Racist behavior in gaming is not a new issue. Players have hurled slurs and epithets via in-game voice and text chat for years. But its persistence prompts questions regarding both the commitment and ability of developers and game publishers to match their words with action.

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Video games represent one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States, with 43 percent of U.S. adults playing “often or sometimes,” according to a 2018 Pew report. That same report found 90 percent of teenagers play video games. Yet, as video games continue to grow, both in popularity and scope, racism and harassment remain endemic to the experience.

A 2019 study from the Anti-Defamation League found that two thirds of gamers had been harassed in total and of those, 65 percent had experienced “severe” harassment, which “includes physical threats, stalking, and sustained harassment.”

Some instances of racism in gaming are glaring and brazen, such as players creating usernames, or online aliases, using the n-word. In the week after Floyd’s death, a video posted on Reddit showed a user scrolling through a series of explicitly racist usernames on “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” Activision’s latest title in one of the best selling video games franchises of all time. In response to this and other similar posts, Infinity Ward, the Activision-owned studio that made the game, tweeted that they “need to do a better job” and are issuing thousands of bans daily. The company said it will add a new in-game reporting system, “additional resources to monitor and ID racist content,” and other features, including more permanent bans. The game was released in October of last year.

Later in the week, Infinity Ward replaced several load screens in the game with a statement headlined “Black Lives Matter,” including a paragraph noting the pain experienced by the game’s community as protests flared across the nation. Activision declined The Washington Post’s request for an interview.

Infinity Ward was not alone in referencing Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests in their online game experience. NBA 2K20, took down its servers for two hours and sent “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to its players. Rockstar Games, publisher of “Red Dead Redemption II” and “Grand Theft Auto V,” also suspended online play for two hours last week.

But “Red Dead Redemption II,” a game set in a fictionalized version of the American south, Midwest and west at the end of the 19th century that was previously cited for the racist practices of some users, also generated an uproar this week. Using non-publisher supported modifications, some players introduced characters dressed as KKK members into the online version of the game. Additionally, online players using racist usernames were observed forming posses and sending racist messages, that appeared to come from Rockstar Games, to other players.

On Tuesday, Rockstar announced they had implemented a fix to prevent modders from bringing the KKK characters into the game and were working on a fix for the messaging system.

“We are aware of a few individuals that used cheat tools to generate racist character models and messages in the PC version of Red Dead Online,” Rockstar Games said in a statement to The Post. “We take these actions very seriously and, as per our policy, any form of racist and abusive behavior in-game will not be tolerated and any players found to be in violation of these policies will be banned.”

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While such behavior is still relatively rare compared to the total hours players spend online worldwide, racist incidents are not uncommon, according to players across multiple game titles.

Twenty-two year-old Call of Duty streamer Phil “P2istheName” Enewally, who is black, laughed when asked if he had encountered racism while playing online.

“All the time. You’re going to get all of that. It’s nothing new,” Enewally, who has millions of social media followers, said. “That’s just how Call of Duty and gaming is. People are behind a screen and so they can say what they want.”

More than words

Given racism’s long-term presence in online gaming, a number of players responded cynically to the stream of tweets and news releases from game publishers in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Many pointed to the inability or unwillingness of some publishers to act against players exhibiting racist behavior as running counter to their issued statements on social media. Skepticism was amplified when the global head of consumer products for Riot Games, one of the world’s best-known game publishers, resigned last week after sharing a Facebook post that highlighted Floyd’s criminal record and concluded “too bad [a victim of a 2007 robbery in which Floyd was convicted] didn’t have a gun.”

In a June 3 article, gaming site Kotaku followed up with the companies that issued social media statements in response to Floyd’s death and the protests, reviewing 17 console makers and game publishers to see what actions, if any, they’d taken in the wake of their statements. The examination pointed out that none of the statements specifically condemned police violence, which aligned with their responses after previous high profile killings of unarmed black men and women, preferring instead to condemn racism in broad terms.

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On the topic of racism in their games and on their platforms, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Rockstar Games, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts and Riot Games all declined to speak with The Washington Post, opting to send statements or links to their policies and practices, which include the ability to block and report other gamers. Ubisoft’s statement noted a planned “player reputation system,” and the past permanent bans they’ve handed to pro players of “Rainbow Six Siege.”

As Reddit posts illustrated instances of racism by users in a number of games over the past few weeks, some players noted they commonly encounter such behavior, pointing to racist usernames and noting how they’ve been on the receiving end of in-game hate speech.

“When I first started gaming, I viewed it as an escape from reality, which most of us do,” Sharif “Killadelphia” Moseley said in a video posted to his social media accounts on June 5. “I noticed that as I got deeper into gaming, racism was something I couldn’t escape.” Moseley said in the video that he received abuse both online and offline in the form of threats and racial slurs. He said he had also been sent racist material.

“I think it’s really s----y, obviously. I have come to expect it,” said Terrence “TerrenceM” Miller, 26, a black professional player of “Hearthstone,” a fantasy online card game. “I’m not even surprised about it anymore.”

While noting the statements and certain actions by gaming companies in the wake of Floyd’s death were a step in the right direction, Miller pointed out there was more companies could be doing.

“In general making these statement without any action behind it is pretty empty and seizing the opportunity of the moment without really doing anything,” Miller said. “I feel like if you do want to support, there has to be tangible action or its just taking advantage.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to think [companies are] not serious, but as time goes on and nothing changes then you really see that companies are really just trying to take advantage of the situation by making a PR statement instead of actually caring."

Challenges faced

Game makers have long cited challenges ranging from technological hurdles to their grappling with issues around freedom of speech when asked why racism and other toxic behaviors continue to be displayed by users of their products. And while there are legitimate challenges stemming from monitoring a vast number of online players, there are seemingly simple measures toward curbing instances of racism and toxicity that don’t appear to be uniformly embraced.

Infinity Ward’s pledge to clean up its community may have been the most specific issued over the past several weeks, but the presence of racism in its game was also among the most visible. Many games feature text filters that prohibit the use of inappropriate language in display text, such as usernames or chat messages. However, shortly before Infinity Ward’s statement, users on Reddit and elsewhere had little difficulty tracking down players using handles that featured the n-word. Sometimes the word was obscured with special characters, but other times it was simply spelled out.

There is also a question of vigilance in how companies sustain efforts to monitor and clean up racist communities. On Monday, June 15, The Post performed the same search used in the aforementioned Reddit video in the Call of Duty smartphone app, simply inputting the n-word into the search bar, and found a dozen usernames using some variation of the word. On June 16, the same search yielded 14 entries.

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A more significant challenge is the ubiquity of real-time, in-game voice chat. With players conversing via live microphones, monitoring inflammatory conversations is virtually impossible when games can feature millions of concurrent users.

“It’s very hard to catch that one person when you’re in game chat,” Enewally said, noting he thinks game companies are doing a good job combating racism. “There’s so many people online. So, are you gonna ban all these people online? I don’t know how that would be possible. There’s no rules.”

To that end, platforms and game publishers rely on users to report offensive behavior. Players also often have the ability to mute or block players from game sessions, so they can’t hear or are not paired with an offending player.

But rather that mute bad actors, an action that can compromise team-based games that require coordination and strategic communication, some players just put up with racist or other toxic remarks.

“Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to it at this point,” said Miller, whose success at a “Hearthstone” tournament in 2016 led to a torrent of abuse on live-streaming site Twitch. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

“I definitely think a big amount of the responsibility is on game developers and platforms and having the tools to deal with people like that,” Miller added. “I’ve seen the creativity of people trying to get around those filters, but platforms should be doing everything they can.”

In a 2019 interview with The Post, Dave McCarthy, corporate vice president of Xbox operations, stated that Xbox implemented a variety of tools to combat online harassment, including photo recognition software, private online clubs, parental controls and text filters both for use by Microsoft and by gamers, who can add words they don’t want to see.

In that interview, McCarthy said Xbox uses machine learning technology working in conjunction with employees who can then assess issues that have been flagged automatically. With racial slurs, Xbox’s policies are clear. But McCarthy pointed out complexities beyond racial slurs and other clear violations of their community standards policy, noting that some players will find certain content offensive, while others will not.

“When you get to some of the other nuances, that’s where I think you have to get to user control, so that you, as a user, are able to decide what you want to see or hear and not,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to put those controls in the hands of individual users, because you and I might have different standards on what’s acceptable to us on a social network overall.”

McCarthy noted that context can also be difficult to parse, citing a case where someone says, “Let’s go get all the Asians,” while playing “Age of Empires” — a global warmongering strategy game — as opposed to in general.

“There’s definitely technical complexity to it,” he said. “Is it a solvable problem in terms of giving people more custom controls? It’s solvable.”

As the industry continues to grapple with the ongoing issue, Miller and Enewally say they are brushing off racist commentary as always, with Enewally commending Infinity Ward for incorporating its Black Lives Matter screens into “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.”

“It’s definitely been a lot of supporting the cause, even people who are not African American, you’ll see them saying ‘black lives matter,’” Enewally said.

Said the “Hearthstone” player Miller, “I’m a content creator. I get hate everyday. I got numb to it. Your opinion doesn’t affect my lifestyle.”

Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.

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