If people judged the gaming community by the mask it wears online, they could rightly call it hateful, unstable and xenophobic.

It’s also thoughtful, smart and, at times, even courteous. But too often, the anonymity of online communication offers a refuge for language that is increasingly shut out of public life. It’s difficult to play popular shooters like Halo or Team Fortress 2 on public servers without encountering racial or homophobic slurs. On websites that cater to gamers, visitors routinely spam comment threads and message boards with unhinged, bigoted troll posts. Our self-contradictions become more obvious as gaming matures and absorbs more people into the fold. The ubiquity of intolerant language and belligerent behavior raises troubling questions about what truly lies behind the mask of online identity.

To a degree, the mask itself poses an insoluble problem. It’s comforting to think that we have a “real” self hiding behind all the roles we have to play; the one part of ourselves that is authentic when so much of life is deception. However, that conception of the self might be wishful thinking. During email interviews with Michael Abbott of the Brainy Gamer and Angela Simpson of Lesbian Gamers, both spoke of the blurry line between our online and “real-world” identities. Abbott wonders if “there is no such thing as a fixed identity. … I think we all construct multiple personae to deal with the world, and virtual online spaces have extended and complicated that activity immensely.” Simpson, doubting that online hate-speech really reveals much about the speaker, says, “Social factors play a large role in our behaviors. … You’re not really seeing the ‘real’ people as it’s all dependent on situational or locational aspects.”

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We present different faces to our employers, partners, close friends, families and everyone else we meet; in the online space, we have handles and avatars that enable further transformation. If we do have a true, unchanging self, would we even be able to recognize it? Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and long-time researcher into how technology changes our conception of identity, writes in her article “Computer Games as Evocative Objects”(in Raessens and Goldstein’s The Handbook of Computer Game Studies), “When people adopt online personae they cross a boundary into highly charged territory. Some feel an uncomfortable sense of fragmentation, some a sense of relief. Some sense the possibilities for self-discovery, even self-transformation.” When we consider all the ways people behave online, we have to remember this warning before dismissing them: Some people come into their own with the freedom that anonymity and changeability provide.

It’s not enough to use anonymity as a way to diminish or dismiss the intolerance expressed online, especially among gamers. Not everyone sees the internet as a place to become a “different” person. For some, it’s a place to tap into another aspect of their identity that may not find expression elsewhere. While online personae may empower people to provoke and insult with impunity, it’s striking how often that that behavior is manifested through hate speech. The “bigoted troll” persona appears again and again within this community. Why, out of all the possible roles one can take online, is “playing” the troll so popular?

Simpson finds this behavior counterintuitive, saying, “You would actually think it would work the other way, wouldn’t you? Gaming is inherently about open worlds, new worlds where anything and everything is possible. You would think logically that would actually have a positive gearing effect on those within. There’s also the ‘hero’ archetype in gaming – it feels good to be the good guy.” If the internet represents the only space left where people can say what they want without fear of censure or reprisal, just as effortlessly as they inhabit different characters, what does it mean when the freest speech is often the most hateful?

At the very least, it’s cause for concern about how well society has succeeded in getting over old biases. The public sphere has doubtless become far more progressive in its approach to homosexuality, gender and race, but among gamers (where one might not expect to find a hotbed of antique biases) there is surprisingly deep well of bigotry and resentment. It erupts almost every time the community tries to discuss issues of prejudice and equality. Newsweek‘s N’Gai Croal observed racially charged imagery in the Resident Evil 5 trailer, and almost every discussion of his comments was soon lost in a cacophony of outraged accusations of “reverse racism” alongside personal attacks on Croal and anyone else who appeared to consider his point. Recently, a few feminist blogs and gaming sites raised concerns about the upcoming Fat Princess and the attitudes implied by that game’s central conceit. Elements of the gaming community were more than happy to prove the bloggers’ point: Misogyny and a cruel and juvenile attitude towards the obese are commonplace among gamers. While society at large tries to move beyond these entrenched prejudices, our community seems determined to defend them, immediately mobilizing attacks against anyone critical of their beliefs.

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There’s a paradox on display here. For years, the gaming community has sought to expand and diversify, to transform its pastime from a “fringe” activity into mainstream entertainment. Now that this has largely been accomplished, we’re still acclimating to our expanded user-base. People with different backgrounds and experiences bring different perspectives to the medium, and while the community has welcomed the additional revenue and cultural prominence, it has often been downright hostile to these new attitudes. The prevailing opinion often seems to be: Feel free to buy our games, but do not presume to suggest that anything should change.

But the change has already happened, and gaming is never again going to be the purview of mostly young, white, heterosexual males. Nor should it be. There’s no point in resorting to bigotry in order to preserve a shared identity that was dubious in the first place. However, that’s often why the community turns to hate speech: as a way to “other” gamers, when just being a gamer should be credential enough.

The “othering” tactic may tell us a lot about the people responsible for much of the hate speech we encounter online. Lynne Whitehorn-Umphres, a software creator and content creator in Second Life, sees pent-up adolescent anxiety behind the slurs. “You do to other people what the worst thing is that you perceive someone can do to you,” she says. “Whenever you can cut someone out of a group, that’s what you do. Which is why so many of the insults are about demasculinization.”

That’s a hard conclusion to deny. The prejudices and hatred on display over voice-chat or on message boards often reflect the prejudices of an adolescent, sexually insecure male. Thus, on Xbox Live, one of the most popular slurs is “faggot.” Should a woman dare to make her presence known, the response is likely to be similarly cosmopolitan. Angela Simpson reports that “during the beta for Xbox Live it was a constant barrage of anti-girl gaming to the point where you were scared to open your mouth in a public room. … Personally, I get more abuse for being female than a lesbian, but then my Gamertag denotes I’m a female gamer and not that I’m a lesbian.”

There’s no escaping the assumptions that underlie these choices of expression. The worst thing you can be called, judging by how a lot of gamers insult others, is a homosexual or a woman. The people who use these taunts may not actually hate the groups they’re disparaging, but it’s clear they think membership in these groups is regrettable at best. Within this subset of the gaming community, it’s still wrong to be gay; being a woman is just bad luck.

In the long run, these players will either reform or find themselves marginalized by the community. Even if we don’t care about political correctness (a trivializing phrase for what often should be nothing more than common courtesy), the pervasive prejudice that we find in our ranks means trouble, because it threatens the overall health of the community itself. Every few weeks, it seems there’s another article forecasting the death of the hardcore market, or how the “hardcore” gamers feel abandoned by publishers. If this demographic is having trouble expanding its reach, perhaps it’s time to consider the effect of its behavior. People play where they feel welcome, safe and, most of all, where they can have fun. When new players log into a round of Halo or Rainbow Six and encounter casual hate speech, can we really expect them to think the gaming community is worth joining?

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