There's no denying that the online multiplayer experience is a major selling point for video games like the just-released Modern Warfare 2. The ability to play with (and against) other players from around the world adds an expanded dimension and a social component that single-player titles lack.
But while the bulk of the mainstream media criticism of these games tends to focus on the violence, gore, and questionable ethics in such combat-centric titles, little is spoken about a growing issue that can affect online gamers playing any title: instances of racism, misogyny, and homophobia (see below for a Current TV video on the latter subject).
Increasingly sophisticated gaming networks such as Microsoft's Xbox Live and Sony's PlayStation Network allow players to communicate with one another before, during, and after gaming sessions via text and voice. Having participated in online gaming for more than a decade, I've heard every last profane muttering and expletive known to man.
But when my attention to online gaming shifted from the PC to the home console, I began to notice a comparatively more hostile environment. For whatever reason, this hostility usually came in the form of racial insensitivity and homophobic behavior.
Fast-forward to the current generation of games, and hearing racial epithets like the "n word" or homophobic slang like the "f word" shouted online is more commonplace than you might want to believe. Meanwhile, women who play in the male-dominated world of online gaming sometimes find themselves the victims of sexually suggestive comments and gender-based taunting.
While this type of behavior and language is actively discouraged in polite society, that mindset is totally disregarded by some in the online gaming world. Odds are that if you play enough online, you'll experience it firsthand.
A quick survey in the CNET office of gamers who play online using voicechat told us that all had had at least one negative experience. And unfortunately, it only takes a single unpleasant match online to really slam you back down to reality.
Perhaps the cloak of anonymity that playing a video game online provides increases the prevalence of these instances. Or maybe the brutal reality is that social issues like racism are more of a problem than we'd like to admit. The fact remains that there are some seriously deranged and troubled people out there, and they are speaking into my headset.
On CNET's The 404 podcast, numerous African American listeners called up voicing their views. Listener Andrel from Georgia says, "It's so bad to the point where if I'm playing a game over Xbox Live, I don't even have my headset on unless I'm in a party with friends."
So what do we do? The answer isn't simple. In fact, there probably isn't much console manufacturers or developers can do to curb this ugly trend. Services like Xbox Live let you mute and avoid players who are guilty of such behavior, and if things escalate, you can file a complaint. If punishment is deemed appropriate, players can be warned, temporarily kicked out, or even permanently banned from the service altogether.
With more than 20 million members, Xbox Live is the most popular online gaming service for home consoles. Leading the way toward a safer, more positive online experience is Stephen "Stepto" Toulouse, director of policy and enforcement for Xbox Live. It's his team's responsibility to sift through the complaints that accuse gamers of malevolent activities and decide whether disciplinary action is warranted. We had a chance to interview Stepto over the phone about what's being done to combat such deviant behavior.
Stepto says that in addition to working closely with the product team in developing tools to help gamers protect themselves, his group also polices the lobbies of some of the most popular games online. What is good to know is that there seem to be enough provisions in place, on both sides of the service, so even the most slippery of online deviants will inevitability be reprimanded and dealt with accordingly.
From my personal experience--as well as that of other CNET editors who are gamers--these instances of racism and unacceptable behavior online are not the norm, and Stepto explains that the numbers support that conclusion. For example, in a given month, complaints made on Xbox Live accounted for less than 1 percent of total users in the system.
As we mentioned earlier and Stepto reinforces, "The behavior you tend to come across sometimes online tends to be really egregious...you could be gaming online for four hours and suddenly you run into a room or game where people are just throwing the n-word around and it's really graphic and that one moment right there can have a multiplying effect on your opinion...but the data doesn't really bear that out." This convincing statistic aside, it's tough to know how many incidents go unreported.
While an instant ban would be ideal, it's difficult to put technology in place to support such a response without the potential of it being misused. Since most complaints filed get addressed within 24 hours, I asked Stepto if there were ways to instantly kick out a user if a room unanimously agreed that someone should be removed. "We're definitely looking at ways we can make the experience better for the tools that you have right there," he said. "The big challenge we have is identifying misuse."
What about giving some Xbox Live users moderator status? "We're always looking at new ways to do things; that is one possible avenue; sort of a tiered system, but right now I don't have anything to announce," Stepto said.
As with any subset of the Internet, this type of disappointing behavior will surface. If you're confronted with this sort of conduct on Xbox Live, your best bet is to immediately file a complaint. You can do this by hitting the guide button and then locating the profile of the gamer in question.
While these complaints are addressed within 24 hours, there is technology in place to deal with conflicts even quicker. There are even a few tools in Stepto's repertoire that he wouldn't disclose. I asked if that included a way to record or monitor everything being said online, but he wouldn't comment on that directly.
"I think right now with our system, the greatest source for us understanding how people feel safe in the system comes from the community in the form of complaints," Stepto told us. So it seems like the power really is in the hands of the gamers. If you think a line has been crossed, file a claim.
For more on the effect racial insensitivity has on the gaming community check out The 404 Episode 464 that talks about Modern Warfare 2 and the online experience. We've had hundreds of e-mails and voicemails regarding the issue and encourage you to take part in the discussion as well.