Thursday, 8 November 2012

A Sexist Start for Halo 4

IMPORTANT: This was intended to be a blog about 343 Industries -- the developers of Halo 4 -- cracking down on misogynistic comments from online players. However, while writing this blog and looking over the Gamespot article, I realised that I was mistaken; the Gamespot article uses only gender-neutral terms, such as "sexism" and "gender-specific slanderous comments". So I wrote much of this article based on my misunderstanding of the original article.

However, I don't wish to waste what I've written for several reasons; firstly, my issues with the idea of cracking down on sexist verbal abuse online may still turn out to be true. It may only be for misogynistic comments. We don't know at this point and I can't imagine many people actually receiving lifetime bans for being sexist against men, so my arguments here may still apply. I certainly respect 343 Industries more for using gender-neutral terms but we'll have to wait and see what the outcome is. Secondly, all the arguments about racism and homophobia are definitely relevant and I didn't want to discard them. Thirdly, and this might sound strange, but it felt misleading to backtrack and say "oh, no, really, I knew all along what they were going for". I didn't and I want you to read my honest thoughts on the subject as I wrote them. As of this writing, I still haven't finished writing this blog post, so I intend to continue under my original (presumably incorrect) assumption; if 343 Industries were only cracking down on sexism against women. Knowing what I know now, it's difficult to write as if I don't know the language used was gender-neutral -- it's a bit like trying to do an impression of myself -- but I'll do my best.

So here it is. Hope you enjoy it.

It should come as no shock to anybody reading this blog that verbal abuse during online multiplayer games is a big problem. So fortunately, 343 Industries, the developer of Halo 4, has finally decided to do something about the problem:

You can probably tell what it's about from the name of the link but for those of you who didn't click it, it states that discriminatory language during online play will be punished with a lifetime ban ... but only if it's sexist. And by "sexist", I mean "sexist against women".

I don't play online very much but I've experienced plenty of online abuse. The one I recall most clearly is, "you, you're a butch lesbian and I'm going to stamp on your f***ing head". Being threatened by people during online games is easy to laugh about though -- if it wasn't, there wouldn't be so many Youtube videos featuring Call Of Duty players getting angry -- so it doesn't bother me. I'd be very surprised if there was anybody who played online who hadn't heard abuse at some point, if not experienced it themselves.

Now, I'm going to put the idea that men can be verbally abused online to one side for now. The only thing I'll say on that particular subject is that men are the vast majority of online players and as a result, receive the vast majority of the abuse. Picture the scene; someone hurling insult after insult towards a male online player, as harsh as they want for as long as they want, and the player being unable to make his abuser face a punishment. We don't know how many sexist insults a female player has to receive before her abuser receives the lifetime ban but the fact that the abuser can be banned in this scenario but not the previous one is discrimination based on sex in itself. So by attempting to crack down on sexism, 343 Industries are endorsing it in a much worse way.

The way the article is written, I actually have to question whether the developers have ever played a game online or not. Have they experienced any abusive language first-hand or are they going off the information of people who say "there's lots of sexist language against women online"? I can't believe that's the case ... but what are we meant to think, if not that? That's the only logical explanation.

The elephant in the room here is the discrimination of other groups, such as gay people and non-whites. I'm not quite sure how 343 Industries could be aware of abuse online but not be aware of discriminatory language against people with those characteristics. Because I certainly can't accept that they have heard that abuse and are simply refusing to take action against racists and homophobes.

This is the implication from the article that frustrates me the most; before now, I had no idea that developers had a way to punish the verbally abusive online players. I figured players could file complaints but I also believed verbal abuse was unable to be proven. If it could be, then why is it so prevalent? Wouldn't it have been stamped out earlier? So what we have now is an from a developer that they can punish verbally abusive people online ... but they will only cater to the groups that they care about. You're gay? Sorry, if someone calls you a "fag", they're allowed to do so as much as he or she wishes. You're black? If you were just called a "n*gger", you have no choice but to put up with it. You've been putting up with it for centuries now. You're female? Oh, excuse us while we put our cloaks over this puddle, so you don't get your shoes wet ...

This is when a case of supposedly "positive discrimination" -- or female privilege, to use its proper term -- is actually very damaging. It's this kind of special treatment of women that really irks me. The little things. The benefits that are granted to them when they aren't needed, solely because of their sex. If you want to frame this debacle in terms of how it affects women, it's cases like this where women are infantilised the most and treated like children who need protection. If 343 Industries want to do something about online verbal abuse, fine, but stamp out all verbal abuse. If they're cherry-picking the minority groups they want to support while they could help out the rest anyway, they might as well be insulting those people themselves.

One thing I'll say in defence of the above article on discrimination, if it could be called a defence, is that we don't have enough information on this yet. The article is vague enough that 343 Industries may be considering lifetime bans for other forms of discrimination. That's the closest that this issue gets to a silver lining. However, unlike with Rhianna Pratchett and Lara Croft's portrayal, this is a significant real-life issue rather than a quibble about a video game characterisation, so I'm not willing to give 343 Industries the benefit of the doubt on this one. Sexism is still the issue focused on, rather than racism or homophobia. Take a look at one of the turns of phrase used:
"Speaking to GameSpot, Ross and Wolfkill said there is zero tolerance for Xbox Live players who are found to be making sexist or discriminatory comments against others, with a lifetime ban from the network as penalty."
That's the one mention of discrimination that has nothing to do with sexism in the entire article. With the way gender issues dominate the article, I'm lost as to whether this includes all discriminatory language or not.

Maybe we don't know enough yet to come to a proper conclusion. If female online gamers make sexist comments against women, will they receive lifetime bans too? Or will they not be deemed sexist because it was a woman who made the comment?

If ever there were examples of why the stamping-out of verbal abuse online should (A) not be confined to a single sex, whether abuser or victim and (B) certainly not be confined to gender discrimination, here's a female Call Of Duty player who threatens a fellow player with violence and uses the homophobic slur "poofs" at one point. Even worse, here's a female CoD player who is apparently unable to string a sentence together without a homophobic or racist slur. Both videos feature strong language, so watch at your own discretion.

I'll leave it at that. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me at

Reminder: Most of this article was written when I was under the assumption that 343 Industries considered "sexism" to be "misogyny", rather than something gender-neutral. This may still be the case, which is one of the reasons I posted the article. Everything after the Gamespot quote was written after I was made aware of the gender-neutral language used by Kiki Wolfkill and Bonnie Ross of 343 Industries. Although I tried to make it as accurate as possible, it may not reflect my original feelings on the matter.