Hate Speech Corrodes Online Games
It's not just cyberbullets that are exchanged during firefights on the XBox Live version of "Call of Duty."
Many gamers also exchange hate speech over their headsets as they stalk each other across the virtual battlefields. Players trade racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic insults so frequently that game makers are taking steps to tone down the rhetoric.
The comments would shock parents who may not realize their children are constantly exposed to language that might make a sailor blush. Most parental concerns have focused on violence, not language.
One gamer told an opponent he presumed to be Jewish that he wished Hitler had succeeded in his mission. Many exchanges involve talk of rape or exult over the atomic bombing of Japan. There are frequent slurs on homosexuals, Asians, Hispanics and women.
Such comments can be heard on all online video gaming systems, including PlayStation Network, Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft) and others.
"Personally, I don't do a lot of online gaming for that reason," said Flynn DeMarco, founder of the Web site GayGamer.net, which has worked with Microsoft and other companies on steps to clean up online gaming. "I don't play with anybody I don't already know."
DeMarco said hate speech has been a problem for years. Game makers, despite some serious efforts, can only seek to limit the amount.
"A lot of the problem lies within the players themselves," DeMarco said.
The widespread use of the slurs is partly fueled by the same anonymity that provides cover for abuse throughout cyberspace. Players can compete with people thousands of miles away, and know them only by the fictional "gamertags" they use to identify themselves.
After years of tolerating abusive players, gamers have become more diligent about noting the gametags of abusive players and reporting them to game companies. Abusive players can be punished or even banned, but the process is slow.
"It's a baby steps kind of thing," DeMarco said.
Microsoft, maker of the XBox 360, has taken numerous steps to clean up the language on its Live service, which is by far the biggest online gaming service with some has 23 million members.
Stephen Toulouse, director of policy and enforcement for Microsoft's Xbox Live service, heads a team charged with providing a safe and enjoyable experience for customers.
"There is always a subset of humanity that goes toward miscreant behavior," Toulouse said.
With 1 million to 2 million players online at any one time, most of the policing falls to other users who report hate speech to the company, he said.
Those complaints are reviewed, and people who use hate speech can face punishments such as having their voice privileges suspended, making them unable to speak with other players in real time. They can also be banned temporarily or even permanently from the service, Toulouse said. Players whose conduct crosses into criminal behavior are reported to law enforcement, he said.
The company has created a Web site to help parents control their children's gaming, www.GetGameSmart.com. Parents can learn how to limit the people their children play with, limit the time and type of games they play and find other tools, he said.
Gamers always have the power to mute out any other player they find offensive, or can block an offensive player and not encounter him again, Toulouse said.
But the notion of companies monitoring and cleaning up cyberspace is troubling to some.
Joan Bertin, director of the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York City, said she is uncomfortable with game makers serving as "nannies."
"They respond occasionally and erratically and incompletely," she said. "Some people who are doing what everyone else is doing get caught."
The coalition, which works to protect First Amendment rights, does not generally endorse actions to limit speech, she said.
"The use of taboo language has a lot of different functions and they not all are evil," she said. "I don't think pulling the cover over it and hiding it makes it go away."
Gamers themselves are also somewhat split on the issue.
When Xbox Live banned the use of gamertags or profile information that revealed sexual orientation, in an effort to reduce taunting, some gays and lesbians were upset because they wanted to use such IDs, DeMarco said.
A simple solution would be having gamers use their real names, but that presents a host of problems involving privacy and the protection of children from predators.
"I don't want everybody out there knowing my name and looking me up on the Internet or Facebook," DeMarco said.
Plus the fake names can be fun, DeMarco said, although they can also be offensive, making plays on ethnic slurs.
Still, Toulouse said the use of real names is being studied as one possible solution.
DeMarco said the best solution may just be continuing to educate people, especially parents of young gamers, about the problem.
"I'd like to see parents being aware of what their kids being exposed to," he said.