It’s been a rough month in the gamer community. The furor surrounding Anita Sarkeesian opened up the floodgates for endless discussions of gender in games and gamer culture — and that much, at least, is good. Even if we don’t all agree on the same points, the fact that lots of people are having conversations about it is a healthy thing. But I’ve been bothered. Not because there are people out there saying things I disagree with, or those who disagree with the things I say. That’s to be expected. No, what’s been bothering me is the vitriol. The people who think that disagreement is license for cruelty, or who are just cruel for no good reason at all. Online harassment is a well-established problem, but the casual hatred and bile being thrown around left me disheartened. To see this level of ugliness in a community that I love, one that is based around playing games with friends…it’s just wrong.
But encouragingly, there are folks out there trying to make a positive difference. Meet Sam Killermann, a gamer on a one-man mission to make our community a more welcoming place. In late June, he launched a site called Gamers Against Bigotry, which asks visitors to sign a pledge against using hateful language and identity-based slurs in-game. A few weeks after the site’s quiet debut, Killermann is now running an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds needed to make GAB a non-profit organization. I got in touch with him to learn more about the project, and to pick his brain about the issue at hand.
Becky Chambers: One can safely assume that the people who sign the pledge aren’t the ones using bigoted language to begin with. How does putting your name on a list help to address the problem?
Sam Killermann: The pledge benefits folks who are already avoiding bigoted language in-game because it unites them and shows them they aren’t the only ones who feel the way they do. At times, and depending on the game you’re playing, it can feel like you’re the only one who is put off by the bigoted speech that’s tossed around in game chat. Every additional pledge is another person speaking up, publicly, that bigoted language isn’t okay. As our numbers grow, we’ll get a better sense of where the gaming community really stands on this stuff.
Also, while that assumption seems safe (and is certainly widely assumed), in the first two weeks it’s proved to be quite inaccurate. About a dozen of the pledgees have contacted me saying things like “I never realized doing this actually hurt people,” or “I just thought it was part of the culture, so I played along” and ended their messages with “but I’m going to try to stop now.” And those are just the gamers in those situations who have gone out of their way to get in touch with me. We can safely assume more signed with those sentiments and didn’t let me know (see what I did there?).
BC: On the GAB website, you specifically mention that swearing and getting angry is A-OK. The folks I’ve gamed with over the years all have mouths like sailors (as do I), and we talk our fair share of smack. We see cursing and giving each other a hard time as all in good fun, but that’s the same argument that a lot of people who use slurs in-game put forward. And to be fair, there are people who find four-letter words offensive. What’s the difference between garden variety profanity and identity-based insults? Why is it okay to accept one and not the other?
SK: Identity-based slurs are designed (and have been historically used) to make an individual feel worthless because of some perceived in-born deficiency that they had no control over, like having happened to be born a woman, or Black, or gay, or — brace yourself — a gay, Black, woman. They cut to the core of people and remind them that one permanent aspect (or more) of them is seen as bad, and no matter what they do, that will never change.
Garden variety profanity goes against the grain of society as a whole — it’s a social taboo, and using those words breaks an unwritten social law. They aren’t personal, they aren’t laced with a long history of violence and identity-based hatred, and they aren’t likely to push someone into a downward spiral leading to depression or worse.
To sum it up: profanity can be seen as offensive, but identity-based slurs are always just downright shitty.
BC: The usual counter-argument on this issue is that asking people to refrain from using slurs equates to censorship, or that it somehow impedes their freedom of speech. What’s your take on that?
SK: This idea of “freedom of speech” is a bit of an urban legend that is perpetuated when it’s convenient. Would you be free to walk into a grocery store and start yelling “I love killing n*****s because the only good n***** is a dead n*****”? (That’s a direct quote from the last time I played Call of Duty.) Absolutely not. If you were lucky, you’d be escorted out by a manager (and not a torch-bearing mob). Then why is that okay to do in a gaming lobby?
Further, you’d be thrown out of that same grocery store just for constantly yelling (even if you were yelling “I LOVE BABY CARROTS! OH SWEET GOD I LOVE BABY CARROTS!”), because it ruins the grocery shopping experience for everyone else.
It’s not a matter of infringing on free speech as much as it is a matter of infringing on a gamer’s ability to play games without being subject to identity-based, bigoted, hate speech. The ultimate question I urge people to ask themselves is “How would not having bigoted language present in gaming be a bad thing?”
BC: Tell me more about your gameplan for GAB if the IndieGoGo campaign is successful. I know that you’re raising money for a 501(c)3 non-profit application, as well as to keep the website running and to help get the word out. If GAB does become an official non-profit, what’s the next step?
SK: Our ultimate goal is to end bigotry in gaming, and there are a few paths we want to be able to take to that goal.
Getting the word out about the pledge to all gamers, and giving them a chance to decide whether or not they will sign, is crucial in understanding exactly where the community, as a whole, stands on this stuff (something we don’t truly have any idea of at the moment). If we can advertise the pledge through a variety of channels, we can increase the odds of that opportunity cropping up.
We also want to work with game developers to improve the current systems that prevent bigoted hate speech and promote a stronger gamer community. While working on this, we want to create outlets for GAB pledgees to form our own gaming community by making it easier to connect and play with other people who care enough about others to not degrade their identities.
And on the other path, we want to provide resources and opportunities to help educate the people who are currently the biggest offenders. I don’t believe that most people who use bigoted language in games are actually bigots. They are simply power-tripping on the amplification to their voice gaming gives them, and enabled by anonymity. If someone created something that helped people realize that their in-game behavior has real-world, seriously harmful effects, they might just reconsider. We can be the someone to create that something.
The problem is that all of these things take a significant amount of time and human effort and money. Several people have mentioned that they won’t donate unless the organization is a legit 501(c)3. I think that’s reasonable because actually filing the application and getting approved lends a lot of credibility to the organization, and also creates a system of accountability. All good things.
BC: Thanks for your time.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.