Dodging Digital Bullets - Video Game Design and Hate Speech

Author's Note: This was an analysis of a scholarly journal for a course on mass media studies. The purpose of the assignment was to breakdown and evaluate the journal, relate it to other course material, and then to present it in a roundtable discussion with the class. This piece is not perfect. If I recall correctly I believe I received an A or a B. It also only skims the surface of an infinitely complex subject. As most of my writing time is now devoted to university assignments, I wanted to give you a taste of the types of things I'm working on. Let me know what you think.     J.

In Ryan Rogers’ paper “Video Game Design and Acceptance of Hate Speech in Online Gaming”, the author argues that society must concern itself with the real-world impact that the acceptance of hate speech in online games can have. He also argues that game design is a critical component in how widely accepted these behaviours become. Rogers conducts a small experiment to test these hypotheses and concludes that hate speech is affected by the level of competitiveness in games and the fragmentation between players.

Rogers is an Assistant Professor at Marist College in New York state and earned his PhD in Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina. He has written extensively on video games and the psychology of our interaction with them (Marist College). Rogers wrote this study on hate speech in 2010. In our era of fast moving and ever changing online communities, a lot has happened in five years. Certain aspects of Rogers’ paper, such as the sources he uses or the game he conducts his experiment with, are somewhat dated, but the results of his experiment and the conclusions he draws are still quite relevant today.

Rogers begins by stating that “Bigotry and hate thrive in online gaming … and gamers say they often encounter varied forms of hate speech in games” (Rogers 44). Couple this with the anonymity that the internet offers, it is clear this issue is not easily solvable. Rogers notes how the design of modern online games does little to curb harassment and unfriendly conduct, but may in fact encourage it. Rogers states “60% of Americans play video games” (45) but even with such a high percentage of Americans represented, hate speech “is most often directed at individuals who do not fit the stereotype of the heterosexual, adolescent, white male” (45). Pointing to research that indicates that players competing rather than cooperating are more aggressive, Rogers believes that competitive gaming can foster hate speech. The author also posits that fragmentation in games is also a key factor. Fragmentation is seen as a partition of a player’s experience from others. It can create a “psychological distinction between online gaming and real world interaction” (Rogers 45). This often happens when players have a feeling of disconnect from others as a result of the distance and anonymity the internet provides. Another factor that leads to fragmentation is the frustration a player feels when faced with loss and poor performance. This frustration can be expressed in all manner of outbursts or deviations from acceptable social norms.

The experiment that Rogers conducted to test his hypotheses involved showing subjects “a 15-minute video segment of recorded game play, in which actors played Gears of War 2 and followed a script” (Rogers 46). The demographics of Rogers chosen subjects leave much to be desired. The subjects ranged from 18 to 54 years old, but by Rogers own admission were “mostly white men between 18 and 24” (46). This would dramatically swing the resulting data in line with Rogers’ assumptions on who is more likely to condone online harassment. The experiment included a total of forty-one subjects. Though the findings of the experiment are interesting, this is not a large enough pool of data to draw conclusive results from. In the experiment, “one group of participants was exposed to a high competitive game mode and a second group to a low competitive game mode. Both game modes incorporated two levels of fragmentation, and seven instances of hate speech” (46). Rogers also included what he calls “breaks in etiquette” to contrast the reaction to traditional hate speech. These included “disruptive communication, unsporting behavior, lack of skill/unfamiliarity with the game, and cheating” (46). The subjects finally filled out a survey that measured all of these same factors but were divorced from gaming so as to better assess the effects of online games.

The results of the experiment show that “acceptance of hate speech is influenced by competitive game design. Competition may increase aggression and hostility, and it may also increase acceptance of aggressive and hostile actions, such as hate speech” (Rogers 48).  Rogers also concludes that competitiveness can lead to hostility towards women and their exclusion from online gaming spaces. Rogers believes that game developers can combat this by including better representations of women in their games and by battling misogyny directly in their communities (48). From the resulting data, Rogers also concludes that fragmentation of the player’s experience will also lead to an acceptance of hate speech. A game creates distance between players by reinforcing how artificial their experience is. As a result, “hateful content is more acceptable online than offline” (48). Knowing this, designers should strive to facilitate more substantial experiences between players. In this way, players may learn to see another person on the other end of an in-game avatar.

A number of parallels between Rogers theories and existing media effects models are evident in his research. Cultivation theory states that we are affected by the media we consume and that it shapes our perceptions of reality as a result. Cultivation theory also asserts that the ideals, opinions, and beliefs of a wider audience can be homogenized through the consumption of a medium. In this way, behaviours can be normalized and defined as “acceptable” whether that is actually the case or not. If popular media like television, games, and movies reinforce the idea that games are the purview of predominantly heterosexual, white, adolescent males, then we will construct a reality for ourselves in which that is true. If this is our perceived reality, it is not surprising that any challenge to our perceptions would be met with hostility. We know that video games are in fact no longer the dominion of this traditional demographic. The Entertainment Software Association recently published its sales, demographic, and usage data which states “women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33%) than boys age 18 or younger (15%)” (Entertainment Software Association 5).

So why do these notions of video games as a strictly male hobby persist? To be short: marketing. Adriana Barbaro’s documentary film Consuming Kids examines the multi-billion dollar industry that surrounds advertising and marketing to children. In it, the film examines how marketers target their ads to both genders in a way that reinforces desired behaviours and stereotypes. They use bright pastel colours to appeal to girls and emphasize the ideals of vanity and domesticity. Conversely, “marketers have long targeted boys with what would seem to be adult messages. Messages that equate being a man with aggression and toughness and violence” (Barbaro). Nowhere in advertising to young men and boys do we see the values of empathy, compassion, or tolerance heralded as acceptable standards of masculinity.

This problem in advertising, especially video game advertising, stems all the way back to the 1980’s and 1990’s. In Tracey Lien’s article entitled No Girls Allowed for gaming website Polygon, Lien examines this history:

“The video game industry created something of a chicken-and-egg situation. When it conducted market research during the '80s and '90s, it found that more boys than girls played video games. Boys were more likely to be involved with new technology, more willing to be early adopters and more encouraged by their teachers and families to pursue science, technology, engineering and math in school. Girls have always played video games, but they weren't the majority. In wake of the video game crash, the game industry's pursuit of a safe and reliable market led to it homing in on the young male. And so the advertising campaigns began. Video games were heavily marketed as products for men, and the message was clear: No girls allowed” (Lien)

As Rogers’ research has pointed out, combating online harassment is no easy task. Not only will gamers have to become aware of this issue but the way video games are built and developed will need to change as well. Many developers are already trying to discern the best ways for players to interact with one another online. Some games remove voice chat entirely, while others only provide simple emotes for communication. The highly competitive genre of Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games (or MOBAs) are synonymous in gaming circles with their toxic and unwelcoming environments. The most popular of which, League of Legends, is actively engaged with its community to find the best means to reduce harassment and unacceptable behaviour. In an interview with gaming website Kotaku, the game’s lead designer of social systems, Jeffrey Lin, spoke about a tribunal system that was implemented to curb harassment (Skiffington). This system was meant to address anti-social behaviours that were normalized as players had never been confronted or punished for them in the past. Lin goes on to state, “For the majority of players (74%) [of those ever punished under that system], the first warning in the Tribunal was enough for them to improve their behaviors” (Skiffington).

Harassment and misogyny are very serious issues that are not exclusive to online gaming, but still warrant a concerted effort to expunge them from the medium. Rogers’ appeals to players that they must be aware of how competition will affect their attitudes and to developers that they should limit fragmentation are both noble tenets to achieve these goals. These are, however, only two small factors in a larger societal problem. Though, perhaps if the online gaming space can be made to be a safer, more understanding, and more inclusive environment, then the effects may permeate into our everyday lives.




Works Cited

Barbaro, A. (Director). (2008). Consuming Kids [Motion picture]. Media Education Foundation.

Entertainment Software Association. (2015). Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. Retrieved November 4, 2015, from http://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ESA-Essential-Facts-2015.pdf

Lien, T. (2013, December 2). No Girls Allowed. Retrieved November 4, 2015, from http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/12/2/5143856/no-girls-allowed

Marist College. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2015, from http://www.marist.edu/commarts/facviewer.html?uid=455

Rogers, R. (2010). Video Game Design and Acceptance of Hate Speech in Online Gaming. In R. Lind (Ed.),  Race/Gender/Class/Media 3.0: Considering Diversity Across Content, Audiences and Production (3rd ed.) (pp. 44-49). Boston: Pearson.

Skiffington, D. (2014, September 19). League of Legends' Neverending War On Toxic Behavior. Retrieved November 4, 2015, from http://kotaku.com/league-of-legends-neverending-war-on-toxic-behavior-1636894289