Frequent homophobic slurs among the Xbox Live community prompted Microsoft to reevaluate its policies last year. Now advocacy groups like GLAAD are turning their attention toward other virtual communities.
The Internet has positively influenced our lives in an innumerable amount of ways; from the revolution of the standard business model to the friends we decide to go out with on a Friday night, we've come a long way in such a short amount of time. The Internet has forever changed the video games industry as well. As multiplayer gaming gained momentum in the late-90s, players began to coalesce on the Web in virtual communities, ultimately paving the way to the massive-scale gaming networks, like Xbox Live and MMO environments, we use today.
The ubiquity of online gaming communities comes with a price, though. It's easier to spread bigotry and inflict prejudice in virtual spaces than ever before. That's not to say that problems like these are anything new, or exclusive to online mediums like gaming networks. By middle-school, practically every student in the country is exposed to defamation in some form. Homophobia is particularly one of the most-debated issues in online gaming today; harassment of gay and lesbian gamers in virtual communities is drawing more media attention than ever before, and some analysts believe it's only getting worse.
Online gamers are particularly conscious of the "anonymity factor" of the Internet, which suggests that many people lose natural inhibitions when they're able to communicate anonymously and without consequence. Whether it was addressed to you personally or something you read in chat channels, how many times have you thought, "Who would actually say things like that to someone's face, in the real world?"
Sociologists began studying Internet communication almost two decades ago, when IRC and online message boards were just emerging. As time went on, the technology advanced and spawned the smorgasbord of Web 2.0 and "virtual communities" we use today. Instant messaging, social networking, forums, blogs and online gaming (including MMOs) are so ingrained in our culture that most teenagers can't remember a time without them.
Even so, it's not the technology that's to blame; defamation of one's sexual orientation existed long before video games and online message boards. To a certain extent, it's rather the new and innovative ways in which people have learned to express bigotry and hatred.
A few years ago, Microsoft came under fire from advocacy groups and thousands of angry customers after the "Halo 3: Homophobia Evolved" video fiasco (note: not safe for work). After constantly hearing an endless barrage of homophobic slurs from players in the Xbox Live community, a subscriber decided to produce the video as an experiment. He created the gamer tag "xxx GayBoy xxx" and simply joined Halo 3 matches as usual, without provoking other players or even talking about sexual orientation. Sadly, we probably don't need to explain what he experienced throughout the video, because most gamers have seen or heard it for themselves.
Xbox Live made headlines again when the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community branded it as a hostile environment last spring. An Xbox player (referred to as "Teresa" in news reports) was frequently harassed and degraded by other players for identifying her sexual orientation openly. She contacted Microsoft about the issue, but her account ended up being suspended. At the time, the story stirred up quite an uproar, eventually prompting Microsoft to reevaluate their Xbox Live rules and policies and issue an apology to the LGBT community.
Offensive slang and discrimination was prevalent in MMOs long before the era of online communities like Xbox Live, but it hasn't received as much attention as the mainstream console gaming industry. But during the summer of 2009, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) began taking a closer look at how people were being treated in MMOs.
Last July, GLAAD’s Director of Digital Media, Justin Cole, wrote a popular op-ed for Kotaku; "The Impact of Homophobia in Virtual Communities." In addition to the recent Xbox Live issues, Cole emphasized the fact that these problems aren't limited to a single gaming medium. He doesn't mention the name of specific MMOs that GLAAD has crossed paths with in the past, like World of Warcraft—but he does reveal a few distressing statistics from a 2006 study:
52.7% of those surveyed said the gaming community is "Somewhat Hostile" to gay and lesbian gamers, 14% said "Very Hostile." When asked what forms of homophobia people have seen in the gaming community, here is some of what the surveyed said:
87.7% - Players use the phrase, "That's so gay."
83.4% - Players use the words "gay" or "queer" as derogatory names.
52.3% - Stereotypical representations of gay characters in games.
42.5% - Refusal of game designers to include well-developed gay characters.
49.4% - Invisibility of gaymers and/or the gaymer community.
When asked how frequently players experience homophobia, those surveyed who responded "Always" or "Frequently" equaled 42%. Add in "Sometimes" and it brings up that total to 74.5%. When asked how often those players respond to the homophobia they witness – 50.9% total responded "Never" or "Rarely."