The Virtual Locker Room: Perceptions of Hate Speech in Online Gaming

Ryan Rogers

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Abstract

This exploratory study examines how gamers using the Microsoft Xbox online gaming feature, Xbox Live, perceive the use of hate speech in their online gaming community. The popular press has noted that hate speech against women, homosexuality and race is prevalent in online gaming (Good, 2011; Meunier, 2010). To explore this under-researched phenomenon, this study examines Xbox Live gamers’ perceptions of the regularity of hate speech in online gaming, the nature of hate speech in online gaming and the context in which it occurs. To address these topics, in-depth interviews with online gamers were conducted via headset using the Xbox Live feature on the Xbox 360 console.

Online gaming is typically understood as video game players logging onto the Internet via a personal computer or a video game console (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, etc.). Players experience game content by playing together (competitively or cooperatively) and they can usually interact with one another through text chat via keyboard or voice-based chat via headset. Considering the ubiquity and growth of online gaming, it is as important as ever to understand new media such as online games. In this study, the researcher focuses on players using Xbox Live.

In addition to gamers indicating the presence of hate speech in online gaming, data shows four main findings: 1. the mediated nature of video games leads gamers to feel distanced from hate speech in the online gaming community, 2. mediation encourages gamers to describe online gaming experiences distinct from in-person or “real” experiences, 3. the act of playing online games and the content encountered makes gamers feel more accepting of hate speech, and 4. gamers indicated that specific aspects of a video game’s design encourage or discourage certain types of interactions.

The Virtual Locker Room: Perceptions of Hate Speech in Online Gaming

While video games have received a fair amount of attention from game players, researchers and the popular press, we know little about hate speech in online gaming. Hate speech is defined as language degrading someone’s gender, race, sexual orientation or social class among other dimensions (Greenwalt, 1995; Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado & Crenshaw, 1993; Zingo, 1998). Importantly, this is not a legal definition of hate speech. Some online gamer interaction has become charged with racial, homophobic and sexist comments. As a gamer, I have encountered gaming sessions that contain hateful comments. Recently, a teammate in Gears of War began calling me a “faggot” because he did not approve of my playing style. Not long before that a teammate referred to the non-player characters (NPCs) in Left 4 Dead as “bitch niggers.”

The Internet and online gaming have become forums in which hate speech is prevalent (Bakalar, 2010; Good, 2011; Meunier, 2010; Rogers, 2012). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology GAMBIT Game Lab has published the following video documenting occurrences of hate speech in online gaming: (http://gambit.mit.edu/projects/hatespeech.php). Furthermore, video games are a huge industry and a major part of modern society. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), an organization dedicated to the business affairs of the video game industry, reports the video game industry made over $25 billion in 2010, with 72% of American households playing video games (theesa.com, 2012). These figures do not just account for the stereotypical gamer, the socially withdrawn white male. Many African Americans, Hispanics and Asians report using some form of gaming device (Packwood, 2011) and female gamers are a large part of the gaming community (theesa.com, 2012).

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To date, video game research has examined game content in terms of violence, race, gender and sexuality (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Anderson & Dill, 2000; Dill & Thill, 2007; Everett & Watkins, 2008; Ferguson, 2011; Gentile and Anderson, 2003; Glaubke, Miller, Parker & Espejo, 2001; Shaw, 2008). To summarize, researchers have shown that video games can, in some cases, increase aggression while some groups are underrepresented or stereotypically represented in video games. While these studies do not address the issue of hate speech in games directly, they do help describe the current climate of video games and video game studies. Little research has been devoted to hate speech in online gaming communities. Studies have focused on prejudiced/stereotypical game content but not on the users’ perceptions with regards to hate speech. As a result, this exploratory study focuses on gamers’ perceptions rather than game content.

RQ: How do online gamers using Xbox Live perceive hate speech manifested in online gaming?

Background and Rationale

This section describes how the structure, users, and goals of online console games, as well as the social and psychological dynamics of online interactions, may make the online gaming medium and genre conducive to hate speech. In terms of structure, decisions are made by game programmers to determine the race, gender, and sexual preference of each in-game character. Likewise, many video games allow players to choose their character’s race and gender from a pre-determined set of options. Oftentimes, these decisions concerning race and gender determine a character’s skill set. For example, in video games some races are more intelligent, more agile or even more “evil” than others (see World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim). Thus, a hierarchy is programmed into the game universe. This creates objective and obvious connections between avatar appearance and in-game performance. When these connections are based on race, gender or some other cultural dimension, players could become accustomed to judging one another based on race or gender. These judgments might resemble hate speech.

This, combined with the fact that the online interactions are structured as impersonal, might contribute to hate speech in online gaming. The lack of content regulation on the web and the flexibility for gamers to come and go as they please can promote hate speech in online gaming (Rajagopal & Bojin, 2002). Similarly, most online users’ identities are protected by screen names and the impersonal nature of the Internet makes users feel they can say things they may not say otherwise (Li, 2005; Shariff, 2005). If there is no recourse for sharing hateful messages and if individuals can escape an uncomfortable situation with the click of a button, there is little reason to refrain from making hateful comments.

Expanding on the social aspects of online gaming, gamers may learn how to behave based on how they see others behaving while playing the game. Through socially learned behaviors, video games are capable of teaching people specific lessons (Bandura, 2004). For example, a gamer may learn to use certain terminology (terms specific to game content) or certain tactics (using certain weapon combinations or controller layouts) by witnessing others using those terms or tactics. People playing games socially will be compelled to emulate the behaviors of others because those who define themselves as gamers will try to act like those they perceive as gamers. Individuals are satisfied when they act in accordance to their self-conception (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). Therefore, if a gamer, playing socially online, hears and sees other gamers acting in a certain way then he or she is more likely to replicate the observed actions. Likewise, when observed actions do not have negative consequences, like making hateful comments online, people are more likely to mimic those actions (Bandura, 2002). This phenomenon could help explain how hate speech might be adopted as a norm for gamers.

On the topic of norms, gamers have already forged a social group with apparent roles and social structure. Consider the “Gamer’s Bill of Rights,” which details institutionalized expectations, or the specific gaming terminology such as “newbs” (rookies) and “pwned” (when another gamer is outplayed). Taking part in online gaming means playing certain games, playing by certain rules and performing specific actions. Being part of an in-group, like gamers, can lower self-regulation and cause the “disinhibitory effect,” which encourages derogatory comments and the dehumanization of out-groups (Bandura, 2002; Larose, Lin & Eastin, 2003). As a result, identifying as a gamer and enjoying a video game could lead to performing gamer norms, which may include sharing hateful messages.

Ultimately, enjoyment is an end goal for game play. After all, games are meant to be fun. When a player is enjoying a game he or she can get lost in the game (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) and if one is lost in a game self-regulation is reduced (Lee & LaRose, 2007). Flow theory describes enjoyment of a task brought about by immersion accompanied by lower self-awareness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1994; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Sherry (2004) suggests that video games are optimized to induce flow states because they allow game challenge to meet gamer skill. While flow and enjoyment are typically understood as positive experiences, the lack of self-consciousness and lowered self-regulation that accompany the enjoyment of games could explain how and why gamers encounter hate speech in video games.

Thus, video games, based on their structure, the norms of their users and the end goal of enjoyment, might encourage the use of hate speech. On top of influencing the presence of hate speech, these characteristics likely inform the way players perceive hate speech in their online gaming communities.

Method

To conduct this exploratory study, I performed 10 in-depth interviews with gamers who use the Xbox Live feature on the Xbox 360. Xbox Live is a service Xbox 360 players may fully access for a fee. This service allows online play with other gamers, chat via headset, exchange of text messages and development of friendship networks. There are currently 40 million users of Xbox Live (Goldfarb, 2012) and Xbox Live is regarded as the preeminent online gaming service for consoles (cbsnews.com, 2010, Rodgers, 2008). Based on the popularity and laudability, Xbox Live is a service worthy of study.

The sample was, as stated, Xbox Live users. Informants were found using a veteran username/gamertag (a series of characters used to identify someone online) on Xbox Live with a previous gaming record. After a match, a text or voice message requesting an interview was sent to all match participants.

Gamer zone is a profile feature in which gamers can identify their level of gaming professionalism and their expectations of online interactions. The four zones are: Pro, Recreation, Underground and Family. The chosen zone is displayed on a gamer’s profile. Gamer rep or gamer reputation is a score of 0 to 5 stars that represents other gamers’ attitudes toward a specific player. If other gamers prefer playing with that player then the stars go up. If gamers choose to avoid that player then the stars go down. Gamer rep is also displayed on a gamer’s profile. Gamer zone and gamer rep were used to define how each interviewee fit into the overall community.

Example of Gamer zone and gamer rep

Figure 2. Example of Gamer zone and gamer rep. Retrieved from http://www.oxmonline.com/files/u12/myideaoffun_rep.jpg

Interviewees were identified by their usernames/gamertags and no other personal information. Gamertags are self-generated and show how a gamer chooses to represent his or herself in the gaming community. The official Xbox description of a gamertag says it “reflects who you are in the Xbox Live community (Xbox Live, 2009).” Usernames/gamertags are a major part of online gaming. Some names are created to instill fear while others are intended to be funny. In any case, usernames/gamertags help define a gamer in the Xbox Live community. Omitting the usernames/gamertags from the findings would be a disservice to the study and trivialize this aspect of gaming.

The interviews were conducted over Xbox Live chat. With this feature, gamers can converse in real-time via headsets. The data were recorded, transcribed and analyzed. Performing interviews in this manner preserved the natural gaming setting. This is particularly important when discussing sensitive issues like racism, homophobia and sexism. Since the anonymous nature of gaming likely encourages hate speech, maintaining anonymity during the interview was paramount. Also, gamers are comfortable with and accustomed to communicating via headset on Xbox Live. Players are, presumably, at home or in some other comforting surrounding. This means they enjoy all of the amenities of their normal gaming conditions. Also, conducting interviews in this manner provided access to many different gamers using Xbox Live.

My role as the researcher is a white, heterosexual male who is also a gamer, mostly fitting the gamer stereotype. I attempted to keep these facts about myself from informing my perspective on hate speech and online gaming. Most of the common hate speech in online gaming was not directed at my demographic.

Basic questions were asked about gamers’ favorite games as well as the gamers’ time spent playing online. From there, gamers were asked to describe instances when they encountered hate speech while playing online games. I found that 10 interviews were sufficient as this provided theoretical saturation due to the exploratory nature of this study. The interviews lasted between 30 and 65 minutes. Given the sensitive nature of this topic, approval from a Northeastern University’s Institutional Review Board was acquired before data collection.

Results

To begin, informants ranged widely in their gaming experience. Some were new to online gaming and played only a few hours per week, while others considered themselves hardcore gamers and played for several hours per day. All but three of the gamers were “5 star” gamers confirming that they had good Xbox Live gamer reputations. Five of the gamers were in the “underground” zone, while the other five were in the “recreation” zone. None were in “family” or “pro.” This means that the gamers were informal about their gaming and not necessarily looking for a “clean” experience. Please note, this section using many direction quotations. Thus, some of the quotations include grammatical errors, which reflect the quotations verbatim.

Informants unanimously agreed that hate speech is present in online gaming. Lucifer614 stated that hateful comments happen “more than often” and Dr Frankenrock said that he hears these comments “all the time.” Even gamers who did not believe that hateful comments were quite as prevalent as Lucifer614 and Dr Frankenrock concurred that hate speech does exist in online gaming. For example, DebatingBeeftek said that while it is not the first topic of conversation, some gamers do use hate speech.

Each interviewee could recall specific instances of hate speech and specific hate speech phrases that they had heard while using Xbox Live. Common phrases were “nigger,” “faggot” and variations thereof. In most cases, these phrases were described as insults directed at another player. LightningTear stated, “We were playing Gears of War and someone was black…and the white person started making comments like ‘nigger’ among other racial slurs.” Meanwhile, AJ Vampire said, “In chat rooms…they say ‘newb this, gay that, faggot that.’”

Other themes that emerged consistently in each of the interviews when discussing hate speech in online gaming were: 1) game design, 2) real world vs. fake world, 3) acceptance of hate speech and 4) distance from hate speech. Each of these themes contributed to the gamers’ opinion of the use of hate speech on Xbox Live.

Game Design – “In Halo it’s a lot shorter games and you only have to deal with it for a couple minutes.”

A large portion of the interviews focused on game design and the important influence game design has on a gamer’s thoughts and actions. These findings suggest games do not encourage hate speech because they are mediated but how they are mediated.

Each interviewee cited the programming of anonymity as a reason for hate speech. AJ Vampire said, “The anonymity of it brings out the worst in people.” LightningTear said, “The Internet doesn’t keep racism away even if we are just voices on a screen.” LordDoomhammer went so far as to say that issues of prejudice don’t exist in online gaming because you only exist as a voice. He went on to explain that in real life you could choose not to play a black guy in basketball because of the color of his skin, but that is not the case online. Most gamers shared this sentiment and focused on the idea that anonymous gamers can say anything they like and face no consequences. The decision to keep gamers anonymous by providing them with gamertags and making it difficult to link comments to a gamertag are game design decisions that, according to these Xbox Live users, promote hate speech in the online community.

Beyond anonymous design, interviewees suggested the programming of different game types influences gamers’ use of hate speech. Gamers stated that certain game types featured more hate speech than others because of the way the interactions were designed. In other words, some game designs are more impersonal and fragmented than others. Games that encouraged team play and cooperation had far less hate speech than games that were head-to-head or free-for-alls. DebatingBeeftek said, “If you’re playing Left 4 Dead there’s a common goal as a team. It’s much more constructive.” AJ Vampire said, “In death matches you’re bound to hear that stuff.” Death matches are head-to-head, statistic driven game types. Lucifer614 described the online game mode of Grand Theft Auto as “a whole bunch of one-players on one map…it’s like you’re in a conference room.” He credits this openness and lack of team play with the prevalence of hate speech as opposed to team games where it is “pointless to be aggressive.”

Often, gamers credited the spirit of competition with promoting hate speech. Most gamers thought hate speech was a way for people to distract opponents and get a competitive advantage. Johnnykom82 said, “Like in a sporting event, teams talk trash to each other.” DebatingBeeftek said hate speech is “a way to just piss another person off and get them distracted thinking about the comment instead of the game.” Gamers also discussed hate speech as “heat of the moment” dialogue. Gwen666gore said, “It’s always in-game when people are adrenaline packed and screaming random crap.” Dr Frankenrock described the tense situations in which he most commonly hears these comments as, “people are shooting each other in a sort of war-like setting.”

Good game design was important to the gamers interviewed in this study. Quality game design made up for other unsatisfying game elements like plot, character development, etc. Informants would even tolerate hate speech to enjoy quality game design. This emphasis on game design distinguishes gaming from other forms of media where interface is not as pronounced. In fact, when asked about their favorite video game characters nearly all of the informants picked characters based on game design rather than personality traits. Gwen666gore and Dr Frankenrock both listed Link as their favorite character simply because they love the game play of the Zelda franchise. DebatingBeeftek was more attracted to minor video game characters because game designers “didn’t have a chance to ruin them.”

Naturally, game design or the structure of the medium helps determine how gamers behave and respond while playing games. The Xbox Live users interviewed for this study credited game design with causing hate speech through anonymity, game types and competition.

Real World vs. Fake World - “You’re just playing a video game, you know?”

The real world vs. fake world theme describes the gamers' view of online gaming versus other parts of their lives, such that gaming is a “fake” experience while other non-gaming experiences are considered “real”. Gwen666gore said, “If you were just walking around with a group of people yelling racist or homophobic comments like that, somebody would speak up but here you can speak up and it’s like whatever.” Johnnykom82 stated that he makes “evil” decisions while gaming that he would never make in real life. To him, “games are games and reality is reality.” These findings indicate that mediated interactions do not feel real to these gamers.

Expanding on the fake world notion, gamers feel their online interactions and online relationships are not real. LordDOOMhammer said, “Who do you really meet?... I had a conversation with this guy in a chat room last night but I didn’t actually meet them.” Meanwhile, SlushyWesticles makes a distinction between his real friends and people online. “When I’m playing online I usually only talk to friends that I have in real life.” This suggests gamers feel a division between themselves and their online relationships.

Gamers also indicated that games offer an idealized experience that cannot be experienced in their real lives. Enhanced and inflated self-efficacy proved to be salient to gamers in their online gaming experiences. Givemethebusket described his attraction to the Metal Gear Solid franchise as “being able to accomplish a lot by yourself in the game, that is what appealed to me.” When asked about designing his avatar, a virtual representation of himself to other members of Xbox Live, AJ Vampire said, “Hopefully it looks like me. Or how I want to be.” Often, online gamers get to see themselves as they wish, picking and choosing desirable traits over less desirable ones. This process seems to widen the distance between reality and gaming for these interviewees.

Examples of Xbox Live avatars

Figure 4. Examples of Xbox Live avatars. Retrieved from http://cache.kotaku.com/assets/images/9/2009/02/nxe_tlad_02.jpg

Likewise, informants described gaming as a means of escape. Lucifer614 described games as an alternative to negative activities. “I got a past I really don’t care to repeat and games not only keep me on the right track but it gives me an alternative.” AJ Vampire stated that video games allow us to escape the “negative environment of our lives.” This sense of escape creates even further distance from reality.

Finally, gamers indicated a conflict between the gamer stereotype and real life. Essentially, gamers acknowledged a gamer stereotype but asserted its inaccuracy in relation to them individually. However, informants assumed other online gamers fit the stereotype. Dr Frankenrock said that he has called other gamers “nerds” and “virgins” because he hopes, “It will strike a nerve with someone who plays a lot of video games.” SlushyWesticles and givemethebusket described gamers as “dorks with no girlfriends” and “nerdy white guys,” respectively. Once again, this demonstrates how gamers are inclined to distinguish gaming from reality.

Both game design and the gamers’ distinction between the real world and the gaming world contribute to gamers’ perceptions on hate speech in online gaming. Specifically, if video games are not viewed as real then hate speech in online gaming will not be treated with the gravity of a significant issue.

Acceptance of hate speech- “If you’re blowing up people and getting 500 kills per play through, I don’t know, it’s already desensitized on one front. Why do other things matter?”

Most informants excused hate speech on Xbox Live, indicating acceptance of hate speech in the online gaming community. Gwen666gore asserted numerous times that hateful comments were “just jokes.” She also said, “I just laugh it off.” LightningTear also described gamers making jokes about black characters, “No one is racist, they don’t appear racist. They just play with an old cliché.”

Lucifer614, a minority gamer, said of hate speech, “It is just up in the air like it can be not directed towards anybody. It can go in one ear and out the other.” While describing a specific game’s content givemethebusket said, “It’s racist but at the same time you’re playing an action video game. What do you expect?” SlushyWesticles said, “It’s more like something-- let’s say like black people say the N-word and it doesn’t mean anything.” Givemethebusket echoed this sentiment calling hate speech, “innocuous and meaningless” and that hate speech is used “like a swear word.” These sentiments indicate that these gamers are tolerant of hate speech on Xbox Live.

Despite this acceptance, informants rejected hate speech and questionable content for certain out-groups like children and non-gamers. Lucifer614 said, “That’s not very welcoming. If I turned on my Xbox and my son was around and it was like that, I would turn it off immediately.” DebatingBeeftek said the presence of hate speech “immediately makes the players of that game and the association of that game look less legitimate.” Also, gwen666gore “would not want any kid exposed to that.” These quotes indicate that gamers feel more concern for out-groups than for those inside their own Xbox Live community regarding hate speech.

Distance from hate speech – “I do it only because it is fun and it isn’t something I need to think about a lot.”

The final theme indicates mediated interactions on Xbox Live can encourage gamers to feel distance from hate speech in online games. Informants’ comments demonstrated how they distanced themselves from the hate speech used online. Gamers felt removed enough from the gaming community that they were not affected by hate speech.

DebatingBeeftek said this about hearing hate speech, “You get used to it, I guess. You get numb to it.” Likewise, Johnnykom82 stated, “It’s gotten to the point where I’m not fazed by it. It doesn’t affect me.” Meanwhile, Dr Frankenrock did not see online gaming as a true community with authentic concerns, “I just don’t think this is a venue that I want to have anything like making real friends or talking to people about serious things. This is a venue for entertainment and nothing more to me.” When asked about hate speech, AJ Vampire said, “I don’t pay attention to it.” Each of these comments exhibits that these gamers have disengaged themselves from Xbox Live’s content and community.

Discussion

The fact that gamers credited game design with promoting hate speech echoes the literature on video games influencing user behavior. The results of this study indicate that game design does, in fact, determine behavior. However, it is clear that game design, according to players, was not the only factor promoting hate speech. Expanding on this idea is the “game type” finding. Informants stated that different game types were more competitive and therefore more prone to hate speech. In other words, hate speech is now expected and, perhaps, the norm for certain game types.

Another important finding was the emphasis gamers put on quality game design. This suggests that much of the game content is secondary to the game play. Game play is what keeps gamers interested and engaged, not violence, sex or colorful language. While those controversial traits likely play a role in appealing to gamers, they are not the main attraction. Gamers are willing to accept insufficient storylines, characters and even hate speech for superior game play and a quality gaming experience.

The real world vs. fake world theme relates to the theory of flow experience. Informants demonstrated that they lost themselves in gaming in a variety of ways, especially in terms of escaping from negative aspects of their lives and achieving enhanced efficacy. Informants described individualized experiences, which can relate to the personal nature of flow experience. Even though flow experience is largely regarded as positive in terms of enjoyment, informants’ comments indicated that flow experience occurs in conjunction with distance from the Xbox Live community.

Social cognitive theory offers a possible explanation why gamers accept hate speech in online gaming. Through consistent data, it became clear that informants learned through their peers how hate speech was used and how to negotiate hate speech on Xbox Live. Furthermore, there is no negative consequence for hate speech and thus little reason to not emulate it. If gamers are accepting of hate speech while gaming but not in other parts of their lives, they may be exhibiting a lack of inhibitions and a lack of self-regulation while gaming.

But why do gamers distance themselves from online gaming? Bandura (2002) mentions that individuals use moral justification in order to explain a behavior. The distancing informants described explains how gamers justified hate speech in their online community. By claiming distance from the online gaming community, informants have no moral responsibility to it.

Interestingly, gamers rejected the gamer stereotype for themselves but applied it broadly to their peers. Individuals in stigmatized groups often develop coping mechanisms (Fiske, 2010). In this case the coping mechanisms is distance from the community and, in turn, this distance likely informs perceptions of hate speech on Xbox Live.

Limitations

This study had several limitations. First, the pool of gamers was narrow. Most of the informants were gamers that were playing popular action video games. It is possible that the population of gamers that exclusively plays other genres was excluded. Nonetheless, these games are popular enough to represent a diverse cross-section of gamers and, it is worth noting, all informants indicated playing other games.

Also, some informants identified themselves as minorities, female or gamers outside of the gamer stereotype despite my deliberate avoidance of collecting demographic information. Since I did not systematically collect demographic information I could not make meaningful connections between gamer comments and demographics. This study could be repeated to include demographic information and emphasize how demographics influence perceptions of hate speech.

Future Research

Each of the stated themes could be examined more thoroughly. Research could focus specifically on gaming competition, the real world vs. fake world distinction and the influence of game design. Future research should also include positive social interactions brought about by online gaming. Many gamers described online gaming as a positive experience and a unique way to keep in touch with friends. These positive aspects likely play a large role in the online gaming community.

In conclusion, hate speech is prevalent on Xbox Live, specifically against race, gender and sexual orientation. Social cognitive theory and flow experience offer possible explanations why hate speech is prevalent in online gaming. Game design is critical to the use and acceptance of hate speech such that certain game designs can encourage specific behaviors. Similarly, allowing anonymous users helps promote hate speech in online gaming. While this study is exploratory in nature and does not provide a complete picture of hate speech in online gaming, it helps us gain a deeper understanding of the issue and calls for more study on the topic.

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Biography

Ryan Rogers is a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has a B.A. in Film, Television and Theatre from Notre Dame and a M.A. in Media Studies from Syracuse. Prior to graduate school, he worked in the entertainment industry.

 
 
 
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