In 2002, Microsoft announced Xbox Live, an online gaming service that allows people to play video games with each other without being in the same room. Since then, it’s amassed 60 million active users, and during that time, it’s become a racist and toxic environment for players of color.
Following Terrence Miller’s incident, Twitch responded to Polygon with the following. “Twitch has a responsibility to broadcasters and players to provide a welcoming environment. As such, we are exploring new tools and processes to increase awareness and mitigation of these issues, and will continue to take action against chatters who committed reported violations.”
When asked for comment Microsoft responded with the following.“Keeping everyone safe is a priority for Xbox. Our code of conduct helps all players have a safe, secure, and enjoyable experience, and any activity that violates these terms may result in enforcement action. Content that is prohibited in Xbox Live includes negative speech (including hate speech or threats of harm) directed at people based on a number of factors, including race, ethnicity, or nationality. We also encourage our community to use the “Report” option to flag content to the Xbox Live Policy & Enforcement Team. You can learn more at http://enforcement.xbox.com.”
PlayStation did not respond to a request for comment.
The following is a transcript of the video.
Emmanuel Ocbazghi: I’ve been playing video games for a long time, and as long as they’ve existed, the industry responsible for them has been riddled with race issues. Whether it was the lack of diversity or stereotypical portrayals, games haven’t been too welcoming for players of color.
But worst of all, online gaming is a toxic, racist environment, and developers aren’t doing much about it.
In 2002, NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Matt Hasselbeck played each other in a game of NFL Fever 2003. There was a twist though, the two players were thousands of miles apart.
Microsoft used this event to promote Xbox Live, an online gaming service that allowed people to play and talk with each other without being in the same room. Enter: middle school me, who just got his hands on a copy of Halo 2. This was post 9/11, so kids with weird names like mine weren’t the most popular at school. To get away from some of the bullying at school, I turned to video games. So, imagine how 12-year-old me felt when I logged onto Xbox Live for the first time and was almost immediately called the n-word.
As I got older, the same things kind of happened. People were still calling me the n-word and saying racially insensitive things to me. After a while, I just got used to it. It was normal, and it was just something I had to deal with if I wanted to play games online.
It’s not just Xbox. PlayStation and Twitch have these issues, too. There are countless examples of this online.
Kishonna Gray: Gaming is not made for women, people of color, right? It’s really not made for marginalized bodies.
Ocbazghi: Kishonna Gray is the director of the Equity in Gaming lab at Arizona State University. She published a study that followed four black gamers and their experiences online.
The players mentioned that they experienced racism online a lot, and that they kind of just got used to it.
Gray: A lot of folks have just normalized what happens to them in this space. Because I remember, like, back in, like, 2007, 2009, or something like that, you know, Microsoft had issued this press release that said racism’s not a problem on their network, right? But they were solely relying on the quantitative data, the number of complaints that people would file, and because a lot of gamers of color had normalized what was happening to them, they wouldn’t file the complaints, right? People don’t do it because in their mind, they think that nothing’s gonna be done, they think that the stakeholder within the space, Microsoft, Xbox, whoever doesn’t care about that and about what’s happening to them.
Ocbazghi: I’m not really playing competitive games as much anymore, so I’m not talking to as many people online. But I know that professional gamers can’t really avoid it. Terrence Miller is a professional Hearthstone player. He faced a very public display of racism during a tournament. A bunch of commentors in the Twitch chat were sending tons of racist messages directed towards Terrence. The chat moderators couldn’t keep up.
How did that affect you, just as a player in general? How did you feel when you left the tournament and you knew that this happened?
Miller: I’m like, onscreen playing at the time, so I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m getting a bunch of messages on Twitter and Discord and stuff like that, everyone’s like, “All this stuff happened” like, “Are you okay?” Like… I know my mom saw it for sure, and she didn’t really understand why they were like that at the time, and I just kinda had to explain it to her.
Ocbazghi: At the tournaments, and at the events, can you talk about your experiences there as a black person? Is it way different than it is online?
Miller: It’s definitely way different than it is online. I’ve experienced no racism whatsoever. People are anonymous on the internet, so like, they’re one way when you’re not around, and then when they know that you’re there, they’re more careful with what they say.
Ocbazghi: The fact that people act wild behind a computer screen isn’t that surprising, but is anonymity the driving factor behind the racism in online gaming?
Gray: Yeah, I think it is the driver for racist comments, yes. So, in that piece, I talked about this online disinhibition where when people get online, they’ll say and do things that they normally wouldn’t do in physical spaces, right? Which is just what Terrence M described, right? He’s like, “Wait a minute, y’all callin’ me the N-word online, you’re all here now, you not sayin’ nothin’, right?” ‘Cause there can be real-life repercussions, right?
Ocbazghi: So how do we solve this? Microsoft’s current strategy is a reputation system. The more bad reports you get, the worse your reputation is. If it gets bad enough, you’re only allowed to play with people who have similar bad reputations. But gaming companies should have zero tolerance when it comes to racism. Racist players should be permanently banned. That’s a no-brainer that provides immediate relief to players of color. But outside of banning players, I think there’s something that can be done in the long run. It really comes down to diversity. Gaming companies should be held responsible for changing the culture of gaming as we know it. When companies discuss how to fight racism online, are voices of color being included? And if so, are they being listened to? Here’s an example of how diversity could help.
Gray: So I was banned because I asked a guy why he called me the N-word. All that they saw, all this algorithm saw was that I used the N-word and then I had to be ousted from the space. So think about, you know, a lot of black men utilize the N-word in their everyday speech practices and their everyday text practices, and then they get banned because they’ve used the N-word in these spaces. So, for instance, if I was at the table with Xbox whenever they decided this, I coulda told them black people are gonna get punished. Black people who might use this in their everyday speech practices are gonna be the ones that get punished from this. So I get what you’re doing, but you need to have more people at the table to help, to be a part of this decision-making process.
Ocbazghi: It’s not just diversity in employment, either. Terrence says a showcasing of diverse players could also help fight racism.
Miller: In the fighting game community, there’s a lot of people of color, and I feel like you don’t really get these kinds of stories coming from that game.
Ocbazghi: When I reached out to Microsoft, they told me that keeping everyone safe was a priority for them. That’s great to hear, but further measures need to be taken. What happened to 12-year-old me should be an outlier and not the norm.