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Hate speech in video games deserves attention

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A recent headline is sure to catch your attention: more than 200 recent divorcees cite addiction to the video game Fortnight as the root cause for calling it quits.

When it comes to video games, what were once low-def social games for some generations have morphed into life-consuming, alternate realities. And the implications are stark: huge portions of the U.S. (and global) populations spend endless amounts of time glued to video games, detracting from needed personal growth and maturity, participation in the burgeoning economy and potentially blurring well-established moral lines. Ample research shows that video games rest at the center of young males delaying basic things like moving away from home or entering into meaningful interpersonal and romantic relationships.

Yet what is less talked about – among the media, policymakers and the public – is the downright troubling behavior that occurs when gamers – typically using Xbox or PlayStation – strap on the headset and get to playing. In all too many cases, the language and actions are reprehensible, with racist, misogynistic, ant-Semitic and homophobic language being the norm, rather than the exception. It is a ripe area for improvement by private actors – particularly companies that make the gaming systems and video games – as well as pressure from our nation’s leaders to ensure progress.{mosads}

Consider that Microsoft, the maker of Xbox, recently notified the social media website Gab that it must remove two anti-Semitic user posts, or Gab would be kicked off Microsoft’s Azure cloud services. This came on the heels of Xbox executive Phil Spencer acknowledging that this kind of toxic environment is not just a problem among online gamers, but it is also a problem within Microsoft itself.

Unfortunately, this threat seems to have been the exception for Microsoft, rather than the rule. Even though hate speech and threats of violence remains pervasive on Gab, Microsoft has taken no further action.  

Perhaps the Seattle giant is more committed to getting good PR than to combating hate speech. The company, as well as Sony and other video game entities, could take a couple easy steps to live up to the standards it sets out in its terms of service. At the same time, those in positions to hold the company accountable – especially those with large public platforms – should push for these to be met.

First, video game companies should enforce their terms of service more vigorously. If needed, they must cut off the service of websites, companies or people who are found to be “communicating hate speech, or advocating violence against others,” whether it is Gab, popular streamers, or individuals using systems like Xbox services to harass and demean.

Secondly, video game companies should publish the underlying data showing the extent of the bigotry and hate speech problem online, the breadth and depth of filed complaints, and, last, what concrete steps are being taken to address the root problems.

Ideally, Congress would consider this issue, just as they have in trying to ensure greater diversity among major tech companies in recent years, to ensure proper oversight. While these elected officials may not spend time on these platforms, their constituents certainly do. If video games continue to consume as much ample time of the U.S. population, this problem within the gaming arena is not one government can afford to overlook.

In the end, it is not sufficient for video game companies to maintain unenforceable policies and let bigotry stand. They must be held accountable, spending less time discussing action, and more time solving the very real cultural problems it has allowed to flourish.

Jeremy White is a former special assistant for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and a national diversity advocate. He served as coordinator of youth programs at the Unique Learning Center in Washington, D.C., and was a program and policy analyst for Public/Private Ventures of Philadelphia. He co-authored the Manhattan Institute’s study on Faith-Based Programs for At-Risk Youth in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is the founder and president of Restore Hope Consulting.

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