Talk Is Cheap: Video Game Companies Take a Stand Against Racism, But What Are They Really Doing?

June 29, 2020

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Black Lives Matter protests erupted all over the world. And a number of companies rushed to offer their sympathies for Floyd’s family and for the BLM movement in general.

These included statements from major companies like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo as well as famous publishers such as Blizzard, Activision, and Bethesda. And to their credit, these companies did a good job citing specifics about Floyd and specifics about dangerous systemic racism within our culture.

They were a lot less specific, though, about what they planned to do about racism within gaming communities. And this has many wondering if talk is cheap for all these big names when it comes to actually taking action.

Video game companies release statements on George Floyd

As we said, companies were very specific in their official statements on the death of George Floyd. Nintendo assures players “we reject bias, exclusion, oppression, and the violence that leads to these completely unnecessary deaths.” Sony says “we denounce systemic racism and violence against the Black community.” And Microsoft and Xbox assure “fans, creators, colleagues, friends, and the entire African American & Black Community” that they stand “against systemic racism and injustice.”

It doesn’t take too long to see the cracks in this, though. Microsoft may abhor “systemic racism,” but how many streamers on their now-dead Mixer platform received bigoted comments? Sony hates “violence against the Black community,” but black players constantly receive violent racial threats while playing online games.

Of the “Big Three,” Nintendo has arguably done the best job of protecting players from racist abuse. However, that’s arguably a side effect of Nintendo making it so damn difficult to connect with other players, much less to speak to them.

This highlights the big question: is it even possible for a company to both create an online community and root out the racism? Or is racism basically inevitable when you get enough people together in a digital room?

Rampant online harassment

Most players don’t have to go out of their way to encounter racism online. In many cases, it’s a consequence of using the mic and talking to your team in any given competitive game.

Black players often receive verbal abuse from these relatively anonymous teammates. It is similar to the experience of many female gamers who encounter violent misogyny if they talk with their team.

On one hand, this bigotry is a sad “par for the course” when it comes to any online interactions. After all, users on social media often encounter racist and misogynistic abuse from virtual strangers. However, social media platforms do a better job of banning harassers, in part because there is usually a record of these online interactions.

What can you do if someone calls you slurs on Xbox Live? There is usually no proof of who said what, and you’re unlikely to see any real justice from reporting the incident to Microsoft.

Racist online handles

While it’s hard to track down verbal abusers online, it’s pretty easy to monitor user names. While companies like Sony and Microsoft do a decent job of monitoring online handles for racism, other companies have dropped the ball on this.

For example, Infinity Ward is one of many companies that offered support for black lives in the wake of Floyd’s murder. And they even went a step further and promised to clean up their online community. However, before they made that promise, users found many cases of gamers who had gotten around the game filters. They did so to have some variation of the n-word in their handle.

Similarly, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was full of users with racist handles. It’s enough to beg the question: why did it get so bad in the first place? Why did it take the public murder of a man and worldwide mass protests for companies to notice the blatant racism of their players?


Talk is cheap

With all that these companies are saying, you eventually start to notice what they aren’t saying. For example, each company proudly condemns systemic racism and violence. But few of them say anything against police brutality specifically. Considering that George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, this is pretty telling!

In some cases, the statements are downright hypocritical. Blizzard, for example, says “we support all those who stand against racism and inequality.” But Blizzard famously banned one of their pro players last year when he supported Hong Kong protesters demanding human rights.

In Blizzard’s case, players can see the grim reality: they support equality… right up until it hurts their bottom line. And this illuminates why so many of these companies are hesitant to speak out against police brutality or more effectively curtail racism among their players. Doing so might hurt their profits in a way that bland “racism is bad” posts never will.

Power to the players

The real solution to the problem is very obvious. Unfortunately, it’s very obviously impossible!

These assorted companies and publishers will never be able to monitor and report racism as the players can. On paper, that means that they should simply let players police their own community and report any issues that they see.

That doesn’t really work, though, for a number of reasons. The first is that many players have simply gotten accustomed to the state of things. In a recent Washington Post interview, black streamer Terrence Miller (TerrenceM) said simply, “I’ve gotten used to it at this point.”

Miller is still hopeful that these companies will offer more practical solutions. But he also understands that racism and bigotry seem largely “baked-in” to the current gaming community.

Beyond that, there are practical limits to having players police their own communities. Who determines what is offensive and what is not? As notions of acceptable language changes, will veteran players who now get reported feel confused and betrayed?

Finally, there’s the blunt truth that for many players, “gaming community” is an oxymoron. Some dedicated players are part of clans, guilds, and other online groups. However, most casual gamers just log on, play a few games, and log out. If we trust the gaming community to police its own bigotry, there may be little recourse for players who aren’t really part of that community. 

Where do we go from here?

Now the big question: where do we go from here? The honest answer is that “nobody knows.”

Companies are hesitant to employ robust policies against racism because those policies may be both complex and costly. And some players are hesitant to embrace such policies because they feel it represents companies infringing on an otherwise organic community.

However, the murder of George Floyd has taught us that we can’t just keep waiting and hoping for things to get better on their own. Just as protesters call for direct action against police brutality and systemic racism, players and companies alike must be willing to change a gaming landscape where bigotry is an acceptable part of logging in.

This may ultimately change the face of gaming as we know it. But this change is a long time coming, and it can only make games and the overall gaming community stronger.

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