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Halo 4, Sexism, and Online Gaming Culture
The confusion around Halo 4's "sexism ban" says a lot about the state of many distributors' harassment policies

Image via Flickr

This past year has not been a particularly good one for women in games, both those who play and those who are in them. I can only think of five major titles from 2012 that have female protagonists (Final Fantasy XIII-2, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Gravity Rush), and trying to figure out if there were more I’m missing mostly yields “Top 20 Hottest Female Video Game Characters” articles. It’s not looking much different this year, either — in fact, one of this year’s most anticipated titles, The Last of Us, recently revealed that marketing actually wanted to keep their female character, Ellie, off the cover entirely. A “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian game” was created in response to her starting a Kickstarter to raise funds for a web video series that would take a critical look at the issue (because heaven forbid), and then Toronto activist Steph Guthrie was harassed and threatened after she exposed the identity of the man who made it.

The incidents of sexism seem to go on and on, and the ‘newsworthy’ stuff only scratches the surface of the small, everyday sexism that women who work and play in the industry experience. (If you want to know more about that, check out #1ReasonWhy tag on twitter or Fat Ugly or Slutty Personally.) I don’t play games online, and if I do, I make sure I don’t make it incredibly obvious that I’m female (it helps that I don’t have a mic or a camera, especially given that this guy exists).

I’ve gone into game stores and had the clerk immediately assume that I needed a gift receipt, and have waited in line to play a game demo where the guys ahead of me wouldn’t stop talking about “how terrible [at the game] that one girl is.” I know girls who’ve worked in these stores and been sexually assaulted by customers who thought they were only there as eye candy. And definitely never, ever read the comments on most major game websites that are written by women and deal with these issues, because the result will ruin your day.

When Halo 4 was released in November, it was announced the game’s executive producer Kiki Wolfkill (seriously, that’s her real name) and Bonnie Ross, head of the studio behind Halo 4, had instituted a zero tolerance policy for sexism and discriminatory comments against other players on Xbox Live. Those found in violation would be banned from the network. However, it soon came to light that these women were talking more generally and their comments were misinterpreted — it’s an already existing policy that Xbox Live has, which includes all hate speech. The goal is to make online multiplayer a much safer and inclusive place for women and other minorities, because online gaming is well known as a realm where sexist, racist, and homophobic comments go to thrive. But the fact that these comments were misconstrued at all should be a big hint to Xbox that what they’re doing isn’t working.

Obviously, a lot of questions need to be asked about why people think this kind of behavior is appropriate, as well as what kind of policies within the games and systems themselves can be instituted to stop them. Looking into Xbox’s banned user forums, very few of the banned accounts are for offensive content or player harassment. I’m personally a PS3 user (and have had one since launch), and didn’t even know I could file “grief reports” for being harassed. Obviously, Xbox Live users were similarly confused about this policy too, given the misunderstanding about Halo 4. With Sony, it seems that you can only do it with written messages, and you have to still have the message to send the report. There is a thread about harassment on the Sony forums, but no one in it had any idea how you were supposed to report it to Sony.  One commenter even says he knew someone who got banned, but it was only a week, and he just created a new account and kept playing (you can’t ban an IP guys, really?).  

Similar confusion can be found at the Steam forums, though it is possible to report a user for harassment. As people are quick to point out, blocking users is a possible option as well, but it doesn’t stop a truly determined troll from creating new accounts to harass you with, or even going through mutual friends. Sometimes games have their own, separate banning policies (or at least this is what Xbox’s website leads me to believe when they say that if you have a problem with someone in a particular game, you should report them to the game publisher). It’s all very confusing, isn’t publicized enough, and in the long run hasn’t done anything to make online gaming a more pleasant experience for the majority of people who like to play them. A good place to start would simply be making these policies more transparent, easier to understand, and making it easier to report users in the first place. As for the gaming culture itself that allows hate to propagate, we’ve got a ways to go on that one. The good news is a small but vocal minority, like Gamers Against Bigotry and the aforementioned #1ReasonWhy, are starting to take a stand and make their voices heard. But whether this small shift in climate can spark any lasting change? This may be one instance where hope is not enough.  

____

Megan Patterson is the Science and Technology Editor at Paper Droids and currently a Toronto Standard intern. She has also written for WORN Fashion Journal, Elevate, and Salon Magazines. She also tweets more than is healthy or wise. 

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard and subscribe to our Newsletter.

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