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Inaction speaks louder than words | This Week in Business

Racists are comfortable in gaming communities because platforms haven't done enough to get rid of them

Content warning: Article contains references to terror attack, mass shooting and racism

You probably saw the news last weekend about a white supremacist shooting 13 people and killing ten at a Buffalo supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

The horrifying details are numerous, but for the purposes of this site, two of the key reported facts are that the shooting was livestreamed on Twitch and planned on Discord.

QUOTE | "This terror attack again revealed the depths and dangers of these platforms that spread and promote hate without consequence. The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable." - New York Attorney General Letitia James, announcing that her office will be investigating the role Twitch and Discord (and 4chan and 8chan) played in the planning and streaming of the shooting.

James is mostly right, because social media platforms have long turned a blind eye to hatred because the moral outrage over an accelerating drumbeat of hate crimes pales in comparison to those sweet, sweet hatred-juiced engagement metrics. And the fact a shooting like this could happen is indeed bone-chilling.

I'll take issue with "unfathomable" though, because this one was real easy to fathom for anyone who remembers 2019, when a gunman livestreamed the massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, telling his viewers to "subscribe to PewDiePie" before committing mass murder.

On the one hand, it's no surprise these young men were gamers because everybody games, as the industry likes to say, and young men have long been a key demographic for the industry.

"The industry has a history of cultivating the sort of spaces conducive to stoking and spreading exactly this kind of hatred, and then acting surprised when that hatred expresses itself"

On the other hand, it's also no surprise these violent white supremacists were gamers. If I'm being generous, the industry has a history of tolerating such hatred. If I'm not feeling so generous, the industry has a history of cultivating spaces conducive to stoking and spreading exactly this kind of hatred, and then acting surprised when that hatred expresses itself.

QUOTE | "White supremacism, racism, and hatred should have no place anywhere, especially on Twitch, and undermine the vibrant and diverse community we are working together to build." - Twitch CEO Emmett Shear in a statement released Monday.

Obviously, Shear is right there. But it would have nice if he had been saying things like that when he was starting the platform more than a decade ago, instead of insisting that the Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to stream on the platform (as detailed in our 2020 investigative feature on the company). Or years later, when he brushed aside a request from the Twitch Black employee resource group to remove a raccoon emote that was used for racist harassment.

Actions would have been even better, like considering controls to prevent hate raids and bot-driven harassment when designing the site's core feature set and shaping a healthier culture on the platform instead of waiting for it to become an intractable problem to start managing it, forcing marginalized streamers to organize a protest before taking it the slightest bit seriously.

And if Twitch really wasn't a place for white supremacy, racism, and hatred, perhaps the platform would have taken action on more than 2% of the hateful conduct and harassment reports it received in 2020. That 2% also included warnings, so the actual portion of reports that resulted in any sort of real consequences for offenders was almost certainly even smaller.

Discord isn't much better. The private chat platform for gamers enabled far right extremists to network and build their communities away from prying eyes for years. After a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville ended with one of the attending terrorists driving a car into a crowd of protestors and killing a woman, Discord pulled the plug on one of its far-right servers and banned a number of accounts associated with the rally.

QUOTE | "We will continue to take action against white supremacy, Nazi ideology, and all forms of hate." - Discord, much like Shear above, talking a good game in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy it did nothing to prevent.

A year later, Slate ran a report about the numerous openly white supremacist and Nazi servers on Discord, and how the platform left them active even after the journalist reported them to the service. One of those servers was named "1488," a commonly used white supremacist shorthand. A source familiar with Discord's moderation then told us that the reason the reported server was left active was because Discord had over a thousand servers named 1488, and it couldn't be sure which one was the source of the complaint.

As for why Discord didn't nuke every last one of those servers from orbit -- and every user account on them -- my best guess is that they didn't realize the meaning of the term.

"It's not just Twitch and Discord that have fostered a cozy home for racists in gaming"

Now I don't necessarily expect every random person on the street or reader of this article to recognize 1488 as a white supremacist signifier, but people running one of the largest communication platforms around had better brush up on this stuff, especially after pledging to clamp down on hate groups after the role Discord played in the Charlottesville rally.

It's not just Twitch and Discord that have fostered a cozy home for racists in gaming. You can't forget Steam, which can't even be bothered to condemn racism, much less clean it up when people bring it to its attention.

QUOTE | "Please take a look at the following article for information on how to reporting abusive behavior" - A Steam moderator, linking to the site's generic how to report content page in response to a Steam user asking for a Steam group called "NoNegrosInMyWhiteAmerica" to be banned. Despite the moderation team clearly being made aware of a group with such a clearly indefensible name, the group was not banned until we published an article calling attention to it and numerous other nakedly racist and vile Steam groups that Valve had regularly tolerated.

And of course there's YouTube, which in 2017 was so horrified by Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg's pattern of anti-Semitic humor (for example, paying people to hold up signs that read "Death to all Jews" or "Hitler did nothing wrong" on camera) that it cancelled a side project it had going on with him. But of course, it didn't touch his account or its subscriber base of roughly 50 million at the time. And a couple years later, YouTube decided it wanted to corner the market on Kjellberg's particular brand of caustic edge-lord bullshit.

QUOTE | "I couldn't be more thrilled to continue to grow our roster of creators who are making our platform their exclusive live streaming home to bring fans around the world even more of what they love." - YouTube head of gaming Ryan Wyatt in 2020, positively jubilant about signing PewDiePie to an exclusive deal for the platform.

(That's the same Ryan Wyatt who said the platform made a mistake when it pulled down a series of Red Dead Redemption 2 videos in which a YouTuber murders an "annoying feminist" suffragette for laughs, and said the reviewer who pulled the videos "will be educated," rather than the user who posted them in the first place.)

But yes, let's all sit here and wonder why the very worst people keep popping up in gaming communities and have come to think of this industry as a welcome home for them. It's not like we ever directly and explicitly target them with our PR efforts. Oh wait, I forgot THQ Nordic's 8chan AMA.

A common thread among these stories is that the people who run these platforms have not taken the views expressed on them seriously. Assuming for the sake of argument that they don't actually agree with the hate they're helping foster, then the only reason to look the other way is because they don't think it's a big deal.

QUOTE | "Hate speech was dismissed as teenagers being edgy and thus not as serious. It was almost like it was dismissed as not being real racism." - A source for the aforementioned Twitch investigation explaining that the company had been very tolerant of racism on the platform.

Attitudes like that are a huge problem, because as much as these horrible views will always be around to some degree, they shouldn't always be around in mainstream institutions. They need to be quarantined in their own little backwater toxic corners of the internet and not given the chance to spread their message on the largest gaming communities in the world to random bystanders instead of those people who were already seeking the worst communities imaginable. Because that's how the diehard racists grow their ranks.

QUOTE | "Once they can get somebody to laugh at the Holocaust, it's much easier to work backward and get them to think that white people are being oppressed systemically by Jews and people of color, is their argument." - Southern Poverty Law Center senior research analyst Keegan Hankes, talking with Slate for the above Discord article.

"Everything from here on out will be so much harder because the people responsible for gaming's communal spaces let the rot take hold in the first place"

Normally this is where I would try to be constructive, to point to some takeaway here as to how we can make things in the industry better, something to make this seem more like an exercise with a productive end than a venting of years of incandescent rage at the leaders of the industry who insisted that gaming had the power to change the world, who built their fortunes on that idea but never considered their responsibility to make sure those changes were for the better.

But I don't really have that in me this week.

So much damage has already been done, and everything from here on out will be so much harder because the people responsible for gaming's communal spaces let the rot take hold in the first place. (It is still necessary to fix the problem no matter how difficult it may be, of course.)

This is just a bit of catharsis, a reminder that these problems did not spontaneously manifest themselves, that people with power and influence in the industry neglected their responsibilities and let a cancer metastasize. But it's the furthest thing from a solution.

I can say "Yeet the racists from your platforms" until I'm blue in the face, but it's not the words that matter. It's the action, and all too often in this industry's case, the inaction.

The rest of the week in review

STAT | 5 million - The number of copies of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 5 that Take-Two sold-in during its last quarter, when the game debuted digitally on the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S.

STAT | 6 - The number of consecutive quarters Grand Theft Auto 5 had sold-in 5 million copies prior to this one. I am deeply surprised that a hyped launch on new platforms could only keep the game's sales treading water.

QUOTE | "We think our culture speaks for itself, we're really proud of it. And we're a colleague-first company. We care greatly about all of our people and I think we make that plain. We also pay at the very highest range of the business, and we're very selective, including in our QA division. So I think the same reasoning applies from our point of view, but I can understand why for certain of our competitors, unionization might be an issue." - Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick does not appear to be worried about the QA unionization push coming to his company.

QUOTE | "The biggest issue I have with all this is that senior management and developers from other studios seem to be denying that overtime is compulsory or even happens at all. In QA it's a huge part of the job. We were always under the illusion that all studios crunched as we did but now that seems to not be the case." - A former Rockstar Lincoln QA staffer, telling us in 2018 about how frustrating it is when senior management acts like everyone is well treated.

QUOTE | "There would be material repercussions for us as a whole owned subsidiary... Among other things, any progress that we might make in helping change [Sony Interactive Entertainment's] approach would be stopped dead in its tracks. We'd also probably be severely restricted from doing important public-facing work in the future." - Insomniac CEO Ted Price, telling employees that the studio "fought hard" for the studio to make a statement about reproductive rights in the aftermath of a leaked US Supreme Court decision that would let states outlaw abortion and put other rights in jeopardy, but that it would not be making that statement after all.

The argument to be quiet and go along with the intolerable now in order to protect your ability to speak out against the intolerable in the future has always struck me as absurd. If you'll roll over now, there's no reason to expect tomorrow will be different.

QUOTE | "There will never be a 'muzzle' big enough to stop us from standing up for what's right." - A Bungie senior community manager in reply to a person on Twitter noting that Sony has purchased Bungie and isn't letting its studios make comments about abortion, something Bungie was among the first studios to do when the Supreme Court draft decision leaked. Bungie CEO Pete Parsons responded to the community manager's tweet with a simple, "Yes."

QUOTE | "This is all incredibly concerning on a personal level, and also as a business owner and leader; naked politicization of private health matters is hurting our business in tangible ways, including our ability to recruit staff." - Certain Affinity CEO Max Hoberman, explaining that in light of anti-trans laws and the imminent demise of Roe v. Wade, the Texas-based studio will pay to relocate employees impacted by such governmental actions to states and provinces that are less hostile to their rights.

QUOTE | "The irony here is that the tool was made to address biases, but there's no detail about the people who worked on the very resource itself. It is presented as a neutral, objective tool that sprang from nothing, rather than the product of humans whose own perspectives and biases would be reflected in it." - Our own Jeffrey Rousseau assesses Activision Blizzard's deeply weird attempt at encouraging diversity when designing game characters, the Diversity Space Tool.

QUOTE | "Microsoft has hundreds of thousands of servers and dozens of data centers geographically distributed all around the planet, and Xbox One has the ability to instantly tap in to that limitless computational horsepower." - Xbox One engineering manager Jeff Henshaw in a closed-door meeting with journalists at E3 2013, explaining how "the power of the cloud" would forever change the types of games it was possible to make. It was one of several failed attempts to harness "the power of the cloud" that we went over in an opinion piece that could double as a bonus This Week in Business column, if that's your kind of thing.

QUOTE | "It's now not necessarily a competition to earn an exclusive partnership with a big brand. Instead, it's a competition on who can do it best." - Tencent Games head of PUBG Mobile publishing Vincent Wang talked to us about the evolving brand collaboration process, which has led to things like the Spider-Man: No Way Home movie running collaboration events in both PUBG Mobile and Fortnite.

STAT | Up to 100 - The number of EA Austin employees who the company laid off this week, according to a Kotaku report, with the cuts hitting customer service staff in particular.

STAT | $6.99 billion - EA's total net revenue for the last fiscal year. It reported those results just last week, so this clearly qualifies as a case of Celebratory Layoffs.

EA also posted net profits for the year of $789 million. But if we assume those 100 laid off customer service people were each making almost $8 million a year, you can see why they had to go.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.