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Netflix takes a page from gaming's playbook | This Week in Business

In dealing with criticism of Chappelle stand-up special, streaming service CEO borrows a familiar dodge

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

Let's start this week with a story about a company from outside the gaming industry, albeit one that will be here soon enough.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos appears to be well-versed in gaming already, as he borrowed a very familiar argument from it this week in defending the service's decision to air a Dave Chappelle stand-up comedy special featuring a steady stream of transphobic jokes.

QUOTE | "While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn't directly translate to real-world harm. The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last 30 years, especially with first-party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries. Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse -- or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy -- without it causing them to harm others " - Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, in a staff memo reported on by Variety.

Ok, "first-party shooter games" suggests Sarandos doesn't quite grasp everything just yet, but clearly he is echoing the same stance the games industry has adopted in the face of violent video game concerns from parents and legislators over the past several decades.

But there is a difference here, because while violent crime has been down in the US, the indications we have about violence against transgender people suggest it is growing. The Justice Department's statistics indicate 2020 saw a 19% year-over-year jump in hate crimes around gender identity. Since the FBI began reporting hate crime statistics around gender identity in 2013, the number of incidents has grown every year from 31 to roughly 200 in 2019, the most recent year posted. The Human Rights Campaign has been tracking murders of transgender and gender non-conforming people since 2013. 2020 saw the most yet with 44 fatalities tracked. 2021 is on track to surpass that, with 39 such incidents already identified.

The actual numbers are no doubt significantly higher, as prosecutors can be reluctant to charge people with hate crimes for a number of reasons. As for even keeping count of the number of gender non-conforming people murdered, police reports may not mention the victim's transgender or non-conforming status, for example, or surviving relatives may try to keep those facts from appearing in the public record.

So just on the face of it, we have seen an increase in anti-trans violence in recent years. At the same time, we've seen an increase in anti-trans sentiment particularly in the US and UK as legislators and media have focused on denying trans people medical care and/or a place to pee and entertained debates about the basic humanity of trans people at a time when even the most bigoted among us should have more immediate priorities. We're still facing a global pandemic and are having problems getting food onto store shelves, but sure, let's put a pin in all that in the name of being creepily inquisitive about our neighbors' sexuality. (That these laws are so often coming from the same parties that talk such a big game about the dangers of government overreach would be laughable if the world weren't utterly desensitized to the hypocrisy by this point.)

Regardless, a depiction of violence in a game or the words being used in a stand-up show aren't inherently dangerous. That's why violent movies can criticize violence, and why slurs can sometimes be reclaimed by the people they denigrate. What's much more dangerous is when that violence and those words are used to reinforce worldviews that make it OK to disrespect and dismiss people not for their words or actions, but for who they happen to be. Worldviews that deny others their basic humanity, that treat them as lesser beings not deserving of the same respect, rights and privileges as everyone else.

Sarandos echoing the games industry when challenged on this is disappointing, because as much as the games industry was in the right in the fight against violent game legislation, I feel it -- and now Netflix -- largely missed the point of the argument.

The takeaway should have been that games are a creative medium deserving of free speech protections because they are capable of carrying important, world-shaping messages. But I fear the actual lesson everybody took away from that saga was that streaming services, game publishers, and platforms can't be held responsible for the content they choose to tolerate, to feature, or to fund the creation of.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "The settlement amount of $18 million seems woefully inadequate. This would provide the maximum settlement for only 60 workers. If any significant number of workers received the maximum under federal law, there would be little available for many other workers adversely affected." - The Communications Workers of America union objects to Activision Blizzard's proposed settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a deal we discussed in this column previously.

QUOTE | "Two DFEH attorneys -- who play leadership roles within the organisation -- previously served as EEOC who helped to direct the EEOC's investigation into Commissioner's Charge No. 480-2018-05212 against Activision Blizzard, Inc. These same attorneys then proceeded to represent DFEH in connection with these intervention proceedings, which seek to oppose the consent decree that arose out of the very investigation they helped to direct while at the EEOC." - After California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing objected to Activision Blizzard's settlement with the EEOC, the publisher's lawyers accused them of ethics violations.

Personally, I don't think it's a terribly strong defense to point out that the people who think your $18 million settlement offer is an insult to the victims are the same ones who led the investigation and know all the dirt the EEOC has dug up on you in exacting detail. Then again, I'm not a lawyer for Activision Blizzard, and I'm sure they only hire the finest legal minds.

QUOTE | "But team chat also plays an important team coordination function, so the potential value it brings is much higher, even if it can also host some negative experiences." - League of Legends game director Andrei van Roon and lead gameplay producer Jeremy Lee explain why they are allowing team chat to continue in the game even though they have disabled the /all chat feature because of increasing verbal abuse. At the same time, they're demonstrating the very common belief in the industry that the actual harm enabled by design decisions like this is a secondary consideration, and pales in comparison to vital needs like... helping people play their game better?

(This would have been the main thing I talked about this week but it was another issue covered in a recent This Week in Business column, so...)

QUOTE | "We've committed that content purchasable with real money in Marvel's Avengers will be aesthetic-only additions, which will ensure we can keep the game fresh for years to come." - Crystal Dynamics head of studio Scott Amos in 2019. Last week publisher Square Enix added the ability to buy consumables to speed up player progress.

QUOTE | "The current XP 'curve' isn't really a curve at all. In most RPGs, the amount of XP you need to level up increases as you gain levels in a curve, but our system is a straight line. This has led to pacing issues, such as skill points currently being rewarded too fast, which may be confusing and overwhelming to newer players." - Square Enix, in March, explaining why it was slowing down player progress.

STAT | $500 million - The funding Magic Leap raised in its latest investment round, an amount that values the entire company at about $2 billion.

STAT | $3.5 billion - Roughly the amount of investment poured into Magic Leap since it was founded in 2010.

STAT | 6 (out of 15) - After just one week on sale, Metroid Dread ranked sixth in terms of lifetime UK retail revenue for a Metroid release.

QUOTE | "This attribute could effectively become another harassment and discrimination tool available to the group's management, rather than one used to fight against it." - French union STJV explains its objection to Ubisoft's decision to add an "Act as a role model" criterion to its performance evaluation process for all staff.

QUOTE | "I have been to meetings where I'm the only woman in the room, and I say 'Hey, I really think we should go this direction, based on my experience', and someone looks at me, and they say, 'You know what, you're just here as a token hire. So I think you should be quiet about this.'" - One of a number of women who have worked at Paradox and spoke with Eurogamer and/or Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet for those outlets' reports this week alleging a discriminatory work culture at the company.

STAT | $1 billion - FIFA's reported ask for licensing rights around each four-year World Cup cycle in negotiation with Electronic Arts for the FIFA franchise, according to the New York Times.

QUOTE | "Ensuring player privacy is extremely important, and the prospect of a kernel-level driver may give some players pause." - Activision announces its new Call of Duty anti-cheat system will require all PC players to give the game full access to their systems beyond the normal user level. Because who can you trust with issues of computer security if not the company that once ordered its head of IT to hack into employees' computers and email to dig up dirt so they could be fired. (Valorant also rolled out a kernel-level anti-cheat system a year ago and promptly ran into problems where it blocked some other non-cheat software that users had running on their machines, causing all kinds of problems. So this should be fun.)

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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