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Stiff Upper Lip

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How can we online gamers seek to retaliate against those ignorant, insensitive and discriminatory players who lurk in our communities?

First of all, my apologies if this piece unsettles anyone – I’ll be referring to a number of quite hurtful terms of insult, despite a long-standing objection to using them myself.

In his now infamous ‘new games journalism’ piece, “Bow, Nigger“, Ian Shanahan (writing as ‘Always Black‘) tells of a unique lightsaber duel in Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Even those who haven’t read the piece could guess at its nature – his opponent led the encounter with a racist taunt, and what followed was the sort of awkward confrontation one can often see within online game worlds. I do suggest that you read it now, if you haven’t already!

Shanahan’s article did made quite an impact upon me when I was first introduced to it. Today however, I intentionally sought it out to read, not because of the similarities this incident bore with my own gaming encounters, but for the way it stands out. ‘Always Black’ is telling us that when such an insensitive idiot entered into his play, this mouthy sort could be cut to pieces by a man refusing to stoop to his level. The opportunity to retaliate against an offensive player like him is so often written out of the game’s design document though. We can be left feeling quite hurt, with little or no means of fighting back save for a ‘report to GM’ function, thereby taking the issue out of our hands.

Racist abuse is thankfully something I’ve never had to experience first-hand (being caucasian does, despite all unfairness at the privilege, rather leave me out of these antisocial crosshairs). There have been many occasions however, where I would rather not have paid witness to Orgrimmar’s open chat or stumbled into an immature conversation at Second Life‘s help islands. The sheer bulk of homophobic, condescending and otherwise insensitive chatter that is taken as ‘normal’ within these fora can be overwhelmingly sour. It’s not even limited to insults in the server’s native dialect, as this uniquely British term of condescension on US-Misha might suggest:

I and probably many other users of virtual worlds and online games have, at some point, been left feeling powerless to stop offensive remarks being thrown all about their fantasy space. When ‘Always Black’ was confronted with this discriminatory insult, he was given opportunity to retaliate in a manner which I might say befits the ‘Wild West’ atmosphere of the 3D internet. Whether or not this racist player had an end put to their ways by being humiliated so spectacularly in the duel isn’t important – I like to think that the writer felt justice done on some personal level. So, how might I try to win back some pride in my game from such situations when gender or sexuality are attacked despite their absolute irrelevance?

As a designer, my first thoughts linger upon the world’s very structure. World of Warcraft is, by its making, an immersive experience just shy of role-play. Players may be expected to immerse in the world and, by decree of the community guidelines common to so many virtual worlds, should generally not bring ‘real-world’ issues into the game. It is for this reason that my only apparent means of dispensing vigilante ‘justice’ lie in player-versus-player (PvP) spats between the game’s two factions. As players will already be aware however, it’d be pretty hard for an Alliance player to insult my Horde characters – communication between the two is restricted by means of a garbled, indecipherable language to the use of gestures. It’s also thanks to this limitation that I simply cannot retaliate against a Horde player, who it is assumed will be friendly towards me unless I arrange for a duel, to which both parties must offer consent.

Of course, such vigilanteism is quite petty. The web is awash with injustices, arrogant name-calling and other discriminatory acts which often unsettle the better-natured of us, and companies are often quite right to disallow such self-led attacks lest conflicts escalate. I suppose that the problem I have comes from the way I immerse into these worlds. Not only is my character feeling insulted, but I am feeling hard done-by as a player, for having been brought right out of my escapist play by someone best labelled as a ‘griefer’.

It is widely said that we should not stoop to the level common thuggery when confronted by bullies in the flesh. Where, then, is the benefit of being a demon-wielding, explosive warlock who’s powerless to ‘lay some smack down’ when I’m attacked verbally?