Is Microsoft taking the gay out of gaming?

Microsoft has recently been accused of being less than accommodating to the gay community on their Xbox Live on-line gaming service.

Last week The Consumerist posted an article containing a letter from a woman named Theresa who claims she was banned from the Xbox Live for stating that she was a lesbian in her gaming profile (Xbox Live is the online service that allows you to connect your Xbox game console to any other user in the world, be they your friend or complete stranger). She claims she was harassed by gamers on the service who followed her into various games where they incited other gamers to turn on her. According to her, Microsoft was unwilling to help her deal with the harassment and instead suspended her profile until she removed her sexual orientation. (Note to The Consumerist. Banning someone is not the same as suspending them until they meet a certain requirement, even if it does make a better headline).

This is not the first incident of this nature. Last year two other gamertags were suspended due to the use of the of the characters G, A and Y appearing next to each other. (A gamertag is your persistent username on the Xbox live service) Two people identifying themselves as “theGAYERGamer” and “RichardGaywood” were forced to change their tags before being allowed back on the service. The RichardGaywood case is particularly surprising as it’s his actual name and has nothing to do with his sexual orientation.

Stephen Toulouse, the program manager for Xbox Live policy and enforcement (he’s the guy that holds the ban hammer), has this to say on his blog.

There’s been a ton of commentary on a Consumerist post about Theresa, an Xbox member who was suspended (not banned) from Xbox LIVE over expression of her sexual orientation in her profile. I don’t know the particulars, because the Consumerist article doesn’t give me much to work with from an investigation standpoint. But since most of the commentary has become rather emotionally charged, I wanted to talk about how things work inside Xbox because I think a lot of people are latching on to some kind of “Microsoft sides with homophobes” meme.

Our current policy for Gamertags and Profiles does not allow expression of sexual orientation under the Terms of Use. That applies to *any* orientation, straight or gay or otherwise. Gamers can however self identify their orientation in voice chat, where context for their statements can be provided.

The idea is your profile is visible to anyone on Xbox live, and because of that it should not contain content that might be considered inappropriate for younger players. That seems reasonable to me, considering that  Microsoft does allow sharing your personal info over in-game chat. You have the means to express your self to people you are interacting with but not to broadcast it over the whole network.

But still, should Microsoft force people back into the closet or perhaps to relive the schoolyard ridicule they were forced to grow up? Toulouse doesn’t seem to think so.

A few months ago when this first cropped up as something that displeased people, my team saw that although the policy was objective, it’s inelegant.  At that time we proactively engaged the LGBT community within Microsoft, as well as external LGBT groups to help inform our policy.

Some people say “hey it’s easy, just stop banning instances of the word ‘Gay’”.  We looked at that as a solution, the problem is when reviewing the complaint data historical record, we found that 95+% of the uses of the word “Gay” were pejorative. LGBT phrases and words were far more being used as insults than self identification.

And GLAAD agrees.

The online world provides unprecedented anonymity for people. They can, and do, say what they want. Unfortunately, in online gaming that has often translated to homophobic, racist, and misogynistic attacks.

Sony, Microsoft, and many others have been trying to address this by putting policies in place to prevent subscribers from using the online shield of anonymity to harass, verbally assault, and generally defame others. Are they the best policies? No. Are they working to improve them?

In the case of Stephen and Microsoft – they have been nothing but open, welcoming, and willing to discuss ideas for positive and inclusive changes during these conversations. Microsoft has invited GLAAD out to its headquarters in Redmond, WA, for multi-day meetings with developers, executives, and policy enforcers in the upcoming weeks.

As anyone that has played in open matches on the live service can tell you, homophobia exists (as does racism and misogyny). I personally have found that it’s not uncommon for some players to use terms like “fag”, “nigger” or “cunt” when they are bested by other players. I don’t think there is any real hatred behind their language (any more than a “your momma” joke indicates an actual desire to bed one’s mother), rather I feel it’s simply ignorant juvenile behavior (still, it’s inexcusable). But it’s there, it’s a part of the culture and Microsoft finds it unacceptable and is actively trying to deal with it.

With more than 17 million users on Live, Microsoft relies on two methods to help them stop these people. Software filters that search for keywords and complaints from other users. Filters will only work on text entered into your profile and are dumb when it comes to deciding context. Users can report behavior and in-game chat but like all forms of user reporting is limited by the number and demographic of the people that choose to make the reports. This may be the reason that, according to gaygamer.net, the service allows heterosexual gamertags even though it claims they aren’t permitted anymore than homosexual ones are. Simply put, no one is complaining about the straight people’s tags.

While I was disturbed by this story  when I first discovered it (as a paying subscriber to the service), further investigation led me to believe that it’s an other example of Microsoft trying to fix an unforeseen problem with their product, and while an answer has yet to be found they are looking. It is my belief that this problem arose out of an attempt to stop bigotry not as a desire to promote it. As Toulouse puts it.

we’re not some monolithic corporation trying to establish social mores.  We’re not enforcing censorship or bigotry.  In fact harassment of gamers of any type be it homophobia or racism or other, is expressly forbidden and my team will take action against it, up to and including a permanent ban.

As technology grows it often surpasses our understanding of how it might affect us and I think this a perfect exmple. As long as companies act responsibly and try to correct issues when they arise we should be patient and not overreact. Even if it increases our web traffic.

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~ by primevilkneivel on March 3, 2009.

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