Racism and Sexism in Online Games

January 28, 2011: “You know you’re doing well at Call of Duty when you get a death wish.”

We are going to dive into a territory that is deeply relevant and current-online games and the issues they host and reflect. Those issues hurt marginalized groups in particular. In “Gender and Race Online” chapter of Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives (2014), Professor Lisa Nakamura successfully evaluates the racial and gender climate in the world of console gaming. She also discusses how racism and sexism have continued to flourish on the Internet, and indeed to some extent have been come to define it, despite our supposedly post-racial moment (p. 82). Nakamura cites some of the latest studies on the topic. For instance, Anna Everett and Craig Watkins found in a qualitative study of video games, games continue to represent black and brown bodies predominantly as criminals, gangsters, and athletes. Racist representation within games can be found in every genre: stimulation games like Civilization series depict non-Western culture as shot through with superstition, cruelty, and irrationality (Galloway 2006, 83). An important part of Nakamura’s article concerns “racial discourse.” Sociologist Ashley Doane defines “racial discourse” as the collective text and talk of society with respect to issues of race (Doane 2006: 256).

A professional black female gamer known as “BurnYourBra,” a nationally ranked Mortal Kombat player, explained in an interview on a gaming website that (86):

At tournaments players talk crap at each other. That’s just the way tournaments are…For me, I’ve been called a dyke, a butch, a slut, a bitch…I was even called a black bitch to my face along with being called a lesbian, a gorilla, and a monkey.

The most unfair and frustrating part is that the burden of addressing and solving these despicable incidents falls on the receiver of these slurs who is in turn then told to “shake it off,” to “relax,” or to “be less sensitive.” Another problem besides placing all the work on those who are under these attacks is that racism and sexism in video games is presented as some kind of inevitability. It is almost like when people say things like, “there always will be some racist and rapists, but they are the exception, not the norm.”

Online gamers under attack did not take it. They resisted. For example, The Border House: Breaking Down Borders in Gaming is a blog for gamers. It’s a blog for those who are feminist, queer, disabled, people of color, transgender, poor, gay, lesbian, and others who belong to marginalized groups and allies. They address what the game industry can’t and won’t by publicizing sexist interactions on popular game platforms and exposing abusive gamers to public ridicule (87).

A very hilarious expose: COMBO PACK #3 – BRIEF FLIRTATIONS. Posted on April 25, 2011. From Fat, Ugly, or Slutty

Here is the description of one of such resistance and safe space crowd-sourcing sites– Fat, Ugly, or Slutty. Their bio says: “Some players like to send creepy, disturbing, insulting, degrading and/or just plain rude messages to other online players, usually women. We think this is funny. Why do they send them? There are a few theories. But instead of getting offended, we offer a method for people to share these messages and laugh together.” While it is great to use laughter to expose the shameful behavior and heal, perhaps using the very language of those who use sexist and racist language “Don’t get so offended” may be counterproductive. That site has a few categories; besides “Fat, “Ugly,” “Slutty,” “Unprovoked Rage,” “Sandwich Making 101,” there is also of course “Death Threats” category for submissions. On their most recent blog post, June 21, 2015, the page moderators underlined some progress that had been achieved since they began: “We’re relieved that everybody now recognizes the fact that the software and websites we use are under human control and can be used to protect, rather than harm. In the non-gaming space, Facebook has been coming to grips with harassment on its service.  Reddit is banning subreddits that specifically harass others. Google announced just recently that they’ll be removing revenge porn from search results. Twitter has been making many changes to its safety features lately.” The issue is that some of these improvements are performed by those with little protection: “Facebook’s 7,500 Moderators Protect You From the Internet’s Most Horrifying Content. But Who’s Protecting Them?”

Highly recommend this video! The player behavior team at Riot uses science to understand toxic player behavior. During this session, Jeffrey “Dr. Lyte” Lin discusses what Riot’s statisticians, scientists, and developers are doing with the latest research in behavioral, social, and cognitive psychology to solve one of the biggest problems in online gaming today. From the player-driven Tribunal to the Honor Initiative, Jeff Lin talks about how science can reform toxic players, and reinforce positive player behavior.

So, after this overall grim picture what can we conclude? Dr. Nakamura argues that it is important to remember that preserving so-called “cultural authenticity” at the expense of marginalized groups, their safety, dignity, and humanity. She hopes for an expanded community based on skill, pleasure, engagement, and collaboration (93). Are you hopeful about the future of inclusive online gaming? Do you know of any studies on profanity against marginalized groups? Have you witnessed something like what is described here? Video gaming industry is lucrative: how could the public ensure that some of its revenue goes towards improving the field for everyone?

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