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Video gaming

Nationalism, xenophobia and racism in online games an unchecked problem

Online multiplayer games are becoming hotbeds of intolerance, with racist or nationalistic slurs bandied about. Yet Chinese media have praised player group the Red Army, who corner and force others to say ‘China number one’ or die

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 6:33pm

Spend enough time hunting terrorists or wandering dystopian wastelands in online games and you’re bound to come across players hurling xenophobic and racist taunts at each other – from China and Taiwanese players bickering over who is No 1, to the openly Islamophobic in Europe and Korean and Japanese gamers bickering over disputed islands.

Take survival-shooter H1Z1: King of the Kill, currently the third most popular on Steam, the world’s biggest online games platform. Matches in Asia are sometimes interrupted by the Red Army, a band of Chinese players who’ve won praise from Chinese media for championing in-game nationalism. One tactic involves cornering rivals and forcing them to pay tribute to the motherland by saying “China number one”. Those who fail to comply are swiftly dispatched.

Their antics, along with those of peers from a range of countries and ethnicities, are gaining notoriety through countless online videos as the embodiment of a global online gaming phenomenon that’s gathered momentum: the spread of xenophobia and racism. Once limited to consoles in the living room, advances in internet speed and multiplayer technology now let thousands from around the world join the fray, employing microphone headsets to scream everything from encouragement to abuse at each other.

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In marquee titles from Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch to Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege, one encounters players freely exchanging graphic slurs in patterns reflecting real-world tensions. Yet while “Gamergate” exposed the depth of misogyny in the community and Grand Theft Auto triggered calls for curbs on violence, xenophobia in games has yet to draw the same level of attention.

Facebook and YouTube police hate-speech to comply with advertisers: YouTube sensation PewDiePie’s premium show was cancelled over videos deemed to contain anti-Semitic content (he denies being racist). But in the world of online gaming, where competition is the main pursuit, name-calling and verbal abuse are inextricably part of gaming trash-talk for many enthusiasts. In others, it provokes uneasiness.

“When you are online you are feeling a sense of safety behind the screen, which gives you the feeling that you can say anything,” says Larry Rosen, author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. “Lots of antisocial behaviour happens when you feel a sense of freedom to say whatever you want.”

The toxic behaviour is becoming more apparent as gaming goes live via sites such as Twitch and more online titles design play around larger and more diverse groups. Servers that host matches are often assigned to regions rather than countries, creating an international mix of players.

That means Red Army players often end up roaming the same landscape as players from Taiwan or elsewhere. Those online warriors have gained a reputation on H1Z1 in particular for being online bullies: in one video, a half-dozen of them surround an unarmed player and – while making repeated lewd suggestions – force him to declare China’s supremacy (the lone player eventually complies).

Gaming is the world’s most popular form of entertainment. Mobile, console and PC games are part of a US$100 billion industry that dwarfs Hollywood’s box-office and attracts 2.2 billion people – a third of those from the most developed nations play at least an hour a day, researcher Newzoo estimates. But the online worlds they turn to for escapist entertainment have sidestepped the scrutiny accorded other forms of visual content.

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In games like H1Z1, players wreak havoc online via anonymous avatars, enabling them to indulge in behaviour considered unacceptable offline. Adopted usernames in Rainbow Six Siege can run the gamut from anti-Semitic to Islamophobic and homophobic.

The impact of video games remains up for debate, but a number of agencies recognise their influence on the impressionable. Their popularity has made them a vehicle for governments such as China, which uses the entertainment form to promote nationalistic themes, according to Annie Hongping Nie, a researcher at the University of Oxford. The US military designs games to try and boost recruitment.

Once regarded as a virtual silo for escapists, today’s games reflect real-world sensibilities. Global sensation Pokemon Go made headlines last year after Chinese gamers took over one of the many virtual hotspots that players fight over. This particular “gym” was located at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which the Chinese accuse of honouring Japanese war criminals. Provoking outrage, one of the Pokemons overseeing the locale was renamed “Long Live China”.

But to many, such as Hu Yi, a 30-year-old Beijinger who works at a state-owned company, it’s all just harmless fun. “Curse words, racism and abuse is just a natural part of gaming,” he says, adding he isn’t a member of the Red Army. “I’ve been playing games for 15 years, and I don’t behave the same way in real life.”

But policing toxic attitudes are a headache for firms like Sony, where online games are increasingly important to PlayStation revenue. That drives up costs as companies are forced to hire employees and deploy technology for screening. H1Z1 lists abuses such as “extremely foul language” as grounds for suspension and termination, but the myriad languages in use make enforcement difficult.

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Beyond racism, territorial disputes offer ample ammunition for verbal sparring. In Rust, the 12th-most popular game on Steam, Korean players often get into shouting matches with Japanese counterparts over islands claimed by both nations. In Europe, bickering with Russian players is so common that Slavic curse words are part of the gamer lexicon.

“Takeshima is Korean territory, you know. It’s Korean,” one player says in a user video of Counter-Strike, referring to disputed islets in a body of water whose name neither side can agree on. “Korea is Japanese territory,” another fired back.

Curse words, racism and abuse is just a natural part of gaming ... I don’t behave the same way in real life
Hu Yi

Then there’s China and Taiwan, which Asia’s largest economy claims as its own. New Jersey-based AngryPug, who posts videos on YouTube and Twitch of him navigating H1Z1 and other titles, made the mainstream news on the island after popularising “Taiwan number one” as a way to taunt Chinese players. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The sensitivity among Chinese players partly stems from a government that since the mid-2000s has sponsored games with anti-Japanese themes. Titles such as Resistance War Online, based on the struggle against Japan during the second world war, was funded in part by the Communist Youth League of China, according to Nie.

That sentiment may have attained its zenith in the Red Army, which brooks no resistance from foreigners but will spare those who declare their homeland supreme. In another widely circulated video, a hapless English-speaking player runs into a swarm of its soldiers who mow him down in a storm of expletives and nationalistic slogans.

Ultimately, it’s in developers’ best interests to at least try to minimise racially tinged assaults, argues Erik Ryerson, a 33-year-old California-based web designer.

“It wouldn’t be much fun at all if everyone was doing that,” says Ryerson, who’s been playing games since he was five. “Certain trash talk is part of the competitive experience, but there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”