Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Gaymer-friendly Environments: Homophobia in online games

If you've spent a significant amount of time playing online games, you'll have encountered it at least once.

And if you haven't, then this video will provide a good idea of what I'm talking about.

The video I have linked above relates to a specific game on a specific platform with homophobic comments coming exclusively from American gamers, but this is by no means unique. Personal experience playing Call of Duty on the PS3 has illustrated the fact that homophobic speech patterns are almost an accepted part of online gaming. I have never heard anyone dissenting over such remarks.

It can range from the fairly timid 'That's so gay' right the way through to the more vitriolic 'Fuck you, you fucking faggot.'

Whatever the words used, homophobia appears to be rife in the world of online gaming.

A survey carried out in 2007 made for some interesting reading:
88% of respondents said they had heard the phrase “that’s so gay” while 84% said they had heard ‘gay’ used in a derogatory fashion. Over 50% said they felt that games portray gay people in a stereotypical way, while 42% believe gays are under-represented in games. 15% said the industry creates a culture where gay employees “feel like they must stay in the closet”. 52% believed that the gaming community is hostile to gay and lesbian gamers. Only 9% said they “never” encounter anti-gay sentiments from online gamers.

 The Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, as well as The Consumerist have both reported on the lack of recognition for LGBT gamers from the main console manufacturers. GLAAD, in fact, continues to work with both Sony and Microsoft in order to ensure their online policies do not discriminate against the LGBT community.

It's interesting to see just how wrong both Microsoft and Sony were originally getting it.

The Consumerist reported that, initially at least, Microsoft would ban anyone who had the word 'gay' in their Gamertag. They also included a letter from a gamer, identified only as Teresa, who was banned from the service for identifying herself as a lesbian in her profile. Furthermore, there was a mention of a player called Richard Gaywood being banned from the Xbox Live because, despite being part of his actual name, the word 'gay' was obviously so offensive that it couldn't appear in any context.

In response, Stephen Toulouse, in charge of policy and enforcement for Xbox Live, tweeted:
Expression of any sexual orientation (straight or gay or otherswise) is not allowed in gamertags. However we’ve heard from the user base they want that capability, so I am examining how we can provide it in a way that wont get misused. I can’t say any more at the moment, except to say I’m working right now in finding a way to safely express relationship preference.
Riiiiight, so I can see what you are trying to do here. I just don't think it works.

Basically, to prevent people from creating a Gamertag that says 'IH8GAYS' or some other equally puerile derivative, Microsoft has simply banned any expression of sexual preference from the Xbox Live service. Interesting. I wonder could they not have implemented a more specific policy that allowed someone to identify themselves as belonging to a particular sexual persuasion and still protect against plainly offensive Gamertags? You know, like they do with existing Gamertags. Try creating a profile called '1sh1tmypant5' on Xbox live and see how long it takes to get suspended. It won't take long.

Sony had a similar policy for player interactions during the beta for their Playstation Home service. Words such as 'gay' or 'lesbian' would be blanked out with asterixs and a message like 'I am gay' would come through as 'I am ***'.

Now, we are all familiar with the Internet Fuckwad rule, and it does seem that Microsoft and Sony have implemented these policies with the best of intentions, ie. to prevent harrassment and defamtion of LGBT players using their online services. But the methods used so far are akin to using a machete to cut your toenails. Instead of simply limiting harrassment, it makes these companies look as if they are behaving in a discriminatory manner.

For some reason, this topic always generates a lot of discussion amongst gamers. I remember a conversation on the World of Warcraft forums regarding a guild that had started up that only accepted LGBT gamers. There was widespread condemnation from other players, who argued that the admission policy was unfair and discriminated against non-LGBT gamers. Was this discrimination? Possibly. Was there anything inherently wrong with a LGBT-only guild? I don't think so.

Indeed, after the creator of the guild dismissed the criticism, players asked for an official 'blue' response and Blizzard basically stated that as they have no role in the creation of guilds, and as players are accepting of guilds that were 'Swedish-only' or 'English-speaking-only', there was no precedent for banning a guild that catered for specific sexual preferences. The question was posed as to what the response would be for a 'whites-only' guild. Again, Blizzard stated that there were no specific rules against it, but that they would expect such a guild to find life very difficult when it came to their reputation and dealing with other players. Ultimately it was a question of letting the community police itself, and in some ways, I can't help but think that it might have been a better route for Microsoft/Sony to follow.

During this whole debate, there were a number of players who questioned whether or not sexual identity had a place in online games. Something like the US military, they advocated for a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach. And there was me thinking that one of the positive aspects of online gaming was encountering people who came from different walks of life, had different political views, values, tastes etc. Apparently this is ok, but the small matter of sexuality wasn't included in this list and therefore inappropriate for discussion. My feelings on this line of thought can be summarized in a quote from a GLAAD report into homophobia in games: 'And with new technologies, come new challenges. LGBT people have fought hard for years to come out of real-world closets – we’re not willing to accept virtual ones.'

On a personal level, I actively try and avoid playing with people who use terms like 'faggot' to mock their opponents. My last guild in WoW, before I stopped playing, had strict rules on using this kind of abusive language. Similarly, alot of the servers I play FPS games on will also have strict rules on racism, homophobia, etc.

There is one area where I would be guilty, however. And that is use of the word 'gay', not as a direct insult, but often in a pejorative sense. This actually applies to day-to-day to life moreso than online gaming.

'That's so gay' is an utterance that you might hear from me on any number of occasions. Even in the examples mentioned above, where homophobic language was not tolerated, describing something as 'gay' wouldn't have fallen foul of the rules.

I can't speak for others, but personally, I have always divorced my meaning of the word from its association with homosexuality and with being jolly. For me it can mean both of those things, but also mean something that is just not very cool, or something that is great in a bad sort of way, Girls.

And it seems that I'm not alone. Nine times out of ten, when I hear someone use that expression, they do so in the way I have described, not as a pure insult based on a certain sexuality.

It could be simply a case of evolution of language, or it could be me trying to justify my ignorance. Who can say for sure?

1 comment: