I’m the kind of gamer who grew up with single-player experiences. Whether I was exploring the vast hills of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda or traveling through caves in Final Fantasy, my gaming time consisted of solitary experiences. When I got to high school, the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 came around, the first two big-name gaming consoles with robust online multiplayer games and options. During my senior year, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare hit. Needless to say, it quickly became one of the most popular games on Earth, and just about everyone I knew was hooked.

I played with friends from school, friends from the swim team, basically anyone and everyone since the game was so fresh and fun. One day, a fellow student and I, let’s call him Joe, were discussing the game and our service records on the digital battlefield: headshots, Hail-Mary style grenade tosses, the latest ranks we’d achieved, what have you (in religion class, no less). We only knew each other on a casual basis, but we swapped Gamertags and planned on playing together once we got home.

Once we logged on to Xbox Live later that day, we found a lobby for the team deathmatch game mode and started chatting through our headsets. We were talking about grades, the school football team, strategies for the upcoming match, etc., when another player in the lobby interjected with a phrase so disgusting that to this day I still can’t believe he actually said it. Whatever his Gamertag was, the microphone icon illuminated next to his name, and he said “Wait, wait, wait: Are you a n****r?”

Joe is black.

My jaw dropped. I was horrified for Joe. We just wanted to play a video game together and have some fun.

“Whoa, watch it with that talk,” Joe said. I couldn’t believe he kept his composure.

Then the moron on the other side of the Internet connection (who, in all likelihood, was a straight, white male) retorted, “Words only have as much power as you give them,” as if the first amendment gave him license to say whatever he pleased to whoever he pleased. We clicked on his name and muted him.

The next day in school, I expressed my remorse to Joe over our experience online the night before.

“It happens,” he said, shaking his head and shrugging it off. It was almost as if he had expected to encounter such dredge that night.

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior in online games is nothing new.

As far back as two decades ago, Julian Dibbell wrote about online role players harassing others with hate speech and vile language across MUDs, or multi-user dimensions, in her essay “A Rape in Cyberspace.” The notorious avatar Mr. Bungle violated another player’s avatar in a text-only MUD, manipulating the game’s programming to have user Starsinger stab herself with a knife, even going so far as to note that Bungle’s avatar could be heard laughing at her pain in the distance. In response, a Wizard in the MUD (a moderator, essentially) banned Mr. Bungle, but the damage had already been done, and “LambdaMOO has never been the same since Mr. Bungle’s toading (Dibbell 210).” Twenty years later, many games are still struggling to keep their online spaces safe.

Even in a kid-friendly game like Animal Crossing: New Leaf, it seems there’s always someone who wants to spoil everyone else’s fun. The game offers an online component called the Happy Home Showcase, a digital plaza where you can visit the homes of other Animal Crossing players you’ve StreetPassed with in your travels. Now, the 3DS is equipped with a camera and Animal Crossing with a QR scanner, so players can upload any images they want into the game. Digby, the affable curator mutt of the HH Showcase, explicitly tells you you should report any inappropriate material in other players’ homes to him. I took a few screenshots of his explanation:

HNI_0021 HNI_0022 HNI_0023 HNI_0024 HNI_0025 HNI_0026 HNI_0027 Digby explains blocking players in #ACNL

Yes, you can flag users and get them banned, just like in LambdaMOO.

Because, sometimes, Mr. Bungles rear their ugly heads and slip through the cracks.

Animal Crossing genitalia town flag

And Nintendo is the most strict of the big three console developers, too. Rather than use tags or IDs like Steam or Xbox Live, Nintendo assigns each player a 12-digit friend code, keeping online identity limited to a Mii.

You can't name Bidoof with swear words

Nice try, but Nintendo is way ahead of you, potty mouth. Leave poor Bidoof alone.

PlayStation Network and Xbox Live are a bit more open, and thus leave players susceptile to the occasional profanity-laden audio message after a round of Soul Calibur (cringe). Until a few years ago, the Xbox Live code of conduct stated users could not create a Gamertag referencing sexual orientation, for fear of players harassing others based on such indicators. Just take a look at this video where a player with the Gamertag “xxxGayBoyxxx” plays Halo 3 online and see just how hostile this online environment can be. PlayStation also recently announced that with the new PlayStation 4 hardware, set to release next month, players will be able to use their full names to register for the PlayStation Network, which some might argue as worrisome, considering harassment against women particularly on Xbox Live isn’t uncommon and that some feuds started in a video game have led to real life violence.

With the LambdaMOO incident, we saw how one user in an online game can bring about frustration in an entire community, killing the fun for everyone but the troll. In expressing her outrage over Bungle’s behavior, user legba wrote on the *social issues mailing list, “I also think that Mr. Bungle was being a vicious, vile fuckhead … and I want his sorry ass scattered from #17 to the Cinder Pile … I’m not sure what I’m calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it (Dibbell 203).”

Eventually, after being violated and harassed online for too long, people break. One of my favorite games writers, Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku, wrote about her experience playing Gears of War 3 online in a lobby full of men. In Gears of War, after taking so many bullets, characters enter a “last stand” state, in which they drop to their knees in an effort to crawl to safety and find a teammate to revive them. If an enemy reaches you before a friend, however, you’re forced to wait for your harbinger of death to finish you off.

Unfortunately, some players use this time to humiliate the downed player, using the barrel of their guns to mimic raping the downed player. Patricia, a rape survivor, was fed up with her opponents’ behavior and, in her rage, finally managed to defeat them, triumphantly proclaiming to them afterwards “I raped you.” She was so furious over their actions toward her that wanted them to feel the soul-sucking anguish associated with rape. In response, they laughed in her face.

As upsetting as all of these online gaming interactions can be, there are signs of hope for the future. There are groups like Gamers Against Bigotry championing inclusiveness in gaming and ending online harassment. Both IGN and Kotaku have committed to cracking down on the large volume of hateful comments on their sites, too. We deserve better, and we can only achieve a safe, welcoming environment in online gaming spaces by working together to let problem users know that their behavior is unacceptable.

Written with StackEdit.

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Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. It’s really a shame that the power of anonymity makes some people have to ruin anything social. I’m glad that Nintendo actively tries to manage their communities, kids especially should be able to play without nasty pictures and language at least when playing a game geared towards children. I have a WiiU and there’s a constant stream of messages and images on the home screen, but it’s always fun and appropriate. I too grew up on video games, so I think the impression that games and the gaming community have on you as a child has a huge impact. I’m glad that Nintendo is concerned about making a nice community for young and old users.

    Reply
  2. To be fair, Nintendo doesn’t afford the volume or depth of online interaction available on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 (nor do they come close to the user base seen on their competitors’ platforms), so monitoring and responding to inappropriate behavior is a little easier for them than for Microsoft or Sony.

    For example, on Xbox Live, if I enter a lobby with, say, 11 other people in Call of Duty, my name displayed on the leaderboard and above my character’s head, just like everybody else. My Gamertag is now known to everyone in that game, so, if they wanted, SuperWeed420XoX could leave me a nasty voice message in my inbox calling me all kinds of colorful things, and the most I could do is block and report him. Nintendo, on the other hand, affords much more limited interactions online. I can’t send or receive message from players I haven’t added onto my 3DS friends list, and, in turn, those friends would then have to add me to their friends lists before we could battle our Pokémon or something.

    So, in a way, Nintendo is like Facebook and Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are like Twitter. Not saying any are better than the other, just to take it for what you will.

    Reply
  3. I completely agree, and I think that the two different online communities suit the game system, users, and games they are paired with. From growing up on solitary/duo Mario type games and then later group games like Mario Party/Rock Band I would rather just play with close friends on a network like Nintendo than with people like SuperWeed420XoX who make me not want to interact with random users.

    Reply
  4. On a related thread…when you have a minute, check out John Scalzi’s article, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” : http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

    Reply
  5. Video games and gameplay over the internet offer a great example of a common complaint about sub/counter cultures. Gamers often complain about being marginalized, but they seem willing enough to embrace the normative ideals of mainstream culture. These Mr. Bungles react violently when they perceive their space is being threatened-I’m sure no one needs to be reminded about feminist frequency.

    Reply
  6. Wayne, you might also look at this article, “Bow, Nigger,” a seminal essay which explores racism in online games.

    Reply

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