No, Online Gaming Isn’t A Breeding Ground For Xenophobia

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A recent piece in Bloomberg breathlessly accuses online gaming of having become a “breeding ground” for xenophobia among young people.

It’s essentially a whole bunch of ink spilled over an issue that can be boiled down into one very obvious observation: People playing games online say mean stuff to one another. All the time.

Oh the horrors. What a startling revelation.

Games have always been this way.

Maybe this is news to some people, to pundits and commentators and journalists unfamiliar with the video game community. I suppose I’m just old-hat at this point. Years ago when I began playing online games like Counter-Strike people could be absolutely atrocious to one another. Racist and sexist and homophobic slurs were bandied about like so many digital bullets, and as someone who has never enjoyed that kind of verbal jostling, I would often either ignore these types or simply mute them. Sometimes I’d log on to a different server.

Astonishingly, these solutions were incredibly effective!

Rather than attempt to change human nature, I simply ignored those individuals I found distasteful. As is so often the case, we rarely have control over others and can only find true peace by turning inward.

Over a decade later, I still use this simple trick of ignoring and/or muting unpleasant online interlocutors. It’s still just as easy and elegant a solution as before.

I have yet to become a xenophobe, brainwashed by my online gaming peers. Somehow, I am still not a nationalist of any stripe.

Locker Talk

It’s much harder to ignore jerks in another type of gaming: Sports. In sports, which I played more when I was younger and fitter (yes I was at once a gamer, a theater nerd and a jock! I am the destroyer of stereotypes!) people trash talk all the time. President Trump may have popularized the term “locker talk” in the last election, but it’s been around for ages.

Locker talk among jocks and online trash talking among gamers is incredibly similar. The difference, of course, is that in video games you can only pretend kill one another in response, whereas in sports real fights break out. (To be fair, sometimes gamers will “swat” each other, which is an absolutely shameful practice that I heartily condemn, but that’s an exception to the rule.)

I’m not sure which is the better scenario. I am an advocate of nonviolence, but I do wonder if people would wag tongues less if fists were a part of the equation. I often say that if I had one super power other than flight, invisibility or super strength, it would be the ability to reach through computer monitors and slap whoever was on the other side. They say something nasty and SLAP! What did the five fingers say to the face?

But I digress.

The Taming of the Web

Here’s Bloomberg:

In marquee titles from Activision Blizzard Inc.’s Overwatch to Ubisoft Entertainment SA’s Rainbow Six Siege, one encounters players freely exchanging graphic slurs in patterns reflecting real-world tensions. Yet while “Gamergate” exposed the depth of misogyny in the community and Grand Theft Auto triggered calls for curbs on violence, xenophobia in games has yet to draw the same level of attention.

Facebook and YouTube police hate-speech to comply with advertisers: YouTube sensation PewDiePie’s premium show got canceled over videos deemed to contain anti-Semitic content (he denies being racist). But in the world of online gaming, where competition is the main pursuit, name-calling and verbal abuse are inextricably part of gaming trash-talk to many enthusiasts. In others, it provokes uneasiness.

So here we have a dig at GamerGate without any critical analysis or reporting whatsoever, followed by a piling on of YouTuber PewDiePie who, along with many other YouTubers, has been hit hard by advertisers fleeing in droves over an issue that’s been blown incredibly out of proportion.

And all in the name of censorship! All in the name of taming the Wild West that is the internet and settling it with good, upstanding, proper folk. It’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance playing out in news columns and YouTube videos.

Let’s sanitize the world lest someone, somewhere is uneasy. Let’s save those who are incapable of muting toxic individuals. What about the children? Shouldn’t we make speech safe rather than free? After all, freedom’s just another word…

Fear-mongering

When Bloomberg bemoans the evils of “young Xenophobia” what they are actually doing is observing that trash-talking between young people occurs in digital, online playgrounds. This observation alone is unremarkable. Draping it within the framework of nationalism and xenophobia and threat is what makes it interesting, frightening and click-worthy. That it now is a mirror of the real-world politicking, of government propaganda, and the various other horrors we see in our day-to-day lives makes that threat tangible.

It’s all hogwash.

You may as well go down to the edge of a basketball court or hide out in a locker room and listen to men there berate one another. Or go to a work site or an office or any number of other places where people say terrible things in attempts to goad or provoke or be playful. Sometimes this terrible language is, in its own weird way, affection.

Of course, in real world situations sometimes people are actually hurt, actually abused or discriminated against. In real life we face real struggle.

That’s the wonderful thing about video games. Even when people are mean, they’re not real. You can turn them off. You can go about your business. You can escape. You can be powerful and overcome. You can find a community of like minds, friends to play with over vast distances who share at least some of your values.

Self-government.

Many online communities do have measures in place to guard against truly awful language and harassment. Self-policing does occur, and is embedded into the culture of these games. Streamers who have gone off on racist rants have lost accounts, and competitive eSports players who have exhibited similar behavior have been let go. Nothing is as dire as articles like this make it sound, though it can be unfortunate when your favorite game is swamped with whiny, entitled jerks who complain and talk crap all the time. It’s not grounds for fear, but it sure can be a bummer.

There are hateful people out there, playing sports and running governments and shooting one another in Call of Duty. I recommend muting them.

There are silly, breathless, fear-mongering articles out there as well. I recommend ignoring them. But just in case you prefer to engage, here’s a link.

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