Video game playing fields are too often venomous playing fields.
A bisexual player in Activision Blizzard’s popular online first-person shooter game “Overwatch” reported being sick to his stomach after being subjected to transphobic and homophobic slurs.
A Jewish player says he was told in an unnamed online game that he belonged in Auschwitz.
And an African American participant claimed to be harassed in yet another multiplayer game for “sounding black.”
These were among the U.S. online gamers who anonymously voiced their experiences as part of a new survey on gaming and harassment, released today by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Technology & Society.
Toxicity, prejudice, and outright hatred have long occupied the darkest corridors of cyber-gaming. Just think back to 2014, when the vitriolic threats against women known as “Gamergate” peeked.
The fresh ADL study (conducted in collaboration with data analytics firm Newzoo) brings some welcome news: 88% of the gamers (aged 18-45) surveyed who play across PCs, consoles and on mobile platforms, reported positive social experiences. But the findings also reveal a disturbing window into just how prevalent online harassment still is, especially in some of the most popular gaming environments.
Three of four survey respondents claimed to have experienced some form of harassment, with two-thirds describing that harassment as “severe.” The worst cases included physical threats, stalking, and sustained harassment, with some players being exposed to hateful propaganda and extremist ideologies (white supremacy, falsehoods about 9/11 and the Holocaust).
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Just over half said they were targeted based on their race, religion, ability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. And 29% of online gamers say they’ve been “doxed” in a game, meaning that their personal or private information was publicly exposed without their consent.
Moreover, an arbitrary examination of 15 popular online games, found that each of the titles had at least half the survey respondents reporting some harassment with those games.
The five games where players reported experiencing the most harassment were “Defense of the Ancients 2” or “DOTA 2” (79%), “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” (75%), “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (75%), “Overwatch” (75%) and “League of Legends (75%).
Most of the harassing behavior players experienced was communicated through in-game voice and text chats, though some comes through secondary chat apps and out-of-game texting.
How getting harassed impacts gamers
To be sure, harassment impacts the games people play and how they play them: 38% of respondents attempt to manage who they play with; 23% avoid certain games altogether.
“Dota 2” (37%), “Fortnite” (36%), “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” (36%), and “NBA 2K” (33%) were identified in the study as the games most players either quit or at least approached more carefully after being harassed.
Harassment affects players in other negative ways. About one-fourth (23%) reported being less social in the aftermath of such attacks; by the same percentage, players described themselves as feeling uncomfortable or upset after playing. By smaller percentages, some said they felt isolated or alone, some reported being depressed or suicidal, and some even contacted with the police.
“Online hate causes real harm. Every time someone in an online multiplayer game physically threatens or harasses another player repeatedly because of who they are or what they believe, that experience doesn’t just end for that individual when the game is over,” says ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.
How to combat online harassment in video games
The overarching question: How to solve the problem?
Among the players in the survey, 62% said video game companies themselves should do more to make online games safer and more inclusive. More than half (58%) said the targets of online gaming harassment should have more legal recourses. Another 55% indicated that the games should use technology to monitor in-game chats, a recommendation echoed by the ADL.
The organization also calls for the gaming industry to work with outside experts to modify its ratings system to give more “meaningful information” to consumers about the nature of an online community. Among the half-dozen games in the report that fostered “widespread” harassment, only two carried a “mature” (17+) rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).
The ADL also urges government to strengthen the laws against the perpetrators of online hate and to improve training for law enforcement.
“Players want to make the internet a safer place, and that includes raising the bar for online game interactions and user-generated content,” said Carlos Figueiredo, director of community trust and safety at Two Hat Security and a co-founder and steering committee member of the FairPlay Alliance. “I’ve long recommended that all game publishers proactively implement strong and clear community guidelines, and I hope the industry will give the rest of ADL’s recommendations the serious consideration they deserve. Enforcing standards of behavior fosters productive interactions and improves the gaming experience for everyone.”
For its part, Blizzard is using artificial intelligence tools to monitor chats and make sure reports by players of inappropriate behavior in Overwatch are accurate. “One of the big problems we had is that when we received a player report can we trust it – do we know that that behavior that the person is reporting actually happened? It’s really easy to do for one report, really hard for millions of reports,” says Jarrod Doherty, who manages the process.
The company says it has also improved the feedback it is offering players who file a report against another person. Players who demonstrate a pattern of bad behavior will be suspended or banned outright.
Blizzard is also now letting players identify and reward teammates and opponents who exhibit friendly behavior and sportsmanship within “Overwatch” with “endorsements” that the company hope will encourage more positivity to the community.
Those initiatives have resulted in a 43% reduction in the daily rate of matches that contain abuse or harassment, a 172% increase in player trust in the company’s reporting systems, the game maker says, and a 69% decrease in how long it takes Blizzard to take action against players who are being abusive or attack others.
Harassment “is a broad problem that plagues a lot of online communities,” says “Overwatch” lead game producer Andrew Boyd. “The way I look at it is the work is just beginning. The fact that we see these reports that not everybody feels safe means that we haven’t done everything that we could do yet. It’s not to say that there’s going to be one technology that’s going to come out or one silver bullet solution that’s just around the corner. There are going to be a lot of factors that play into making our game a better place for everyone to play.”
The ADL surveys were conducted from April 19-May 1, 2019 and garnered 1,045 respondents, including individuals who identified as LGBTQ+, Jewish, Muslim, African American and Hispanic/Latinx.
Gamers, have you experienced harassment playing your favorite games? Please send email to firstname.lastname@example.org; Tweet to @edbaig on Twitter.