Tuesday, 03 December 2013 18:10


Written by Petya Yankova


Brilliant sunshine, Hungarian cats and a ‘gossip box’ accompanied the various talks at the GAME OVER Hate study session in the European Youth Centre, Budapest, at the end of September. What do human rights have to do with art, what happens ‘behind the scenes’ in computer games and why is Europe at the heart of it all?

You might be wondering what GAME OVER Hate is. Unless you have been offline for a year, you can’t have missed the large European campaign against hate speech online. Do you remember a casual encounter with the ‘No Hate’ red heart;? Yes, that’s the symbol of the first youth campaign for the recognition of human rights online. The heart represents the chief European values of solidarity and respect in the context of online communication. 

The dangers of gossip, labels and assumptions


The GAME OVER Hate study session is just one of the activities developed in the framework of the No Hate Speech Movement.  GAME OVER Hate was dedicated to discussing and coming up with practical solutions for combating hate speech in computer games. The ultimate goal of the session, as Martin Fischer, one of the organisers put it, is “to create an inclusive gaming atmosphere, an inclusive gaming environment”. Gamers, game developers, human rights activists, bloggers and geeks of all ages and backgrounds gathered for a week in Budapest to discuss the emerging problem of verbal abuse in online gaming communities. A small cardboard box intended for gossip notes was present in the room at all times. It helped the participants visualise the intoxication of anonymity, the speed with which information spreads, and, once the gossip was read out loud, the powerful emotions it could stir.

The gossip box was just one of the unique learning methods the organisers of the session had planned. Apart from its obvious goal, the gossip box also kept the participants entertained and in good spirits, which was necessary when dealing with such a grim topic as the proliferation of hate speech in online communities. GAME OVER Hate followed a natural sequence of identifying the problem, discussing its definitions, evaluating solutions already in place and coming up with new solutions to address areas which haven’t received much attention until now.



The first day of GAME OVER Hate was dedicated to exploring the related topics of identity and discrimination. The morning session included a simple educational game in which the players received a label and were treated accordingly. What are usually considered innocent qualifications proved very heavy burdens for those who carried them. All participants admitted that being unwillingly labelled as ‘attractive’ is just as limiting and even degrading as getting defined as ‘easy-going’, or ‘lazy’. Although cross-cultural understanding and semantics play a large role in interpreting labels, we still “need to be aware that we are not aware of our assumptions”, as a game developer from the Netherlands concluded. He went on to explain that for him “labelling is discriminatory by nature, because it focuses on only one trait of a person’s identity to the exclusion of all others, in order to fit that person into someone else’s understanding of reality.”


We need to talk about hate speech online


It soon emerged that all the participants in GAME OVER Hate have not only noticed and thought about the problem of discrimination before, but they have also paid attention to the methods and strategies for dealing with hate speech online. The pros and cons of responding to offensive speech with humour, by fighting back, by appropriating labels, or by ignoring the comment in question were all weighed. Soon the discussion turned to psychology when one of the participants brought up the factors of anonymity and the invisible, but enormous audience online. In many games players are not easily identifiable, and this may make them feel uninhibited, which in turn may be reflected in their language. Then the problem blows up quickly because every comment reaches much larger audiences than the author imagines. As a participant who organises campaigns both online and offline suggested, the audience in front of the screen is often much larger than the audience we can have in real life, and as a result every offence reverberates with much more people than originally intended.

In fact, recent research from the US shows that negative comments online heavily influence the so-called ‘lurkers’, that is people who follow but do not participate in online discussions, in forming an opinion about a certain issue, regardless of previous knowledge or pre-conceptions. The experiment included a neutral blog post followed by highly polarised comments with the end result being a highly polarised readership, as the commentators were given the same amount of attention as the author of the article received. Perhaps the same happens in gaming communities where verbal attacks contain even stronger language, because players are usually more emotionally involved than readers or ‘lurkers’ who are not obliged to participate in discussions. Hate speech in gaming communities often targets not only the opinion, but the skills of a player. Further, it is not uncommon for a player to be attacked for their perceived gender, sexual orientation, religion or other characteristics even though a person’s personality has nothing to do with his or her performance in the game. This is illustrated by a short experiment devised by MIT researchers, the findings of which are summarised in this short video.

One of the minds behind the MIT video, Todd Harper, also joined the study session to share his observations on the problem of hate speech in online games. Having written his thesis on gender discrimination in gaming communities, he revealed that female players receive the worst treatment since the powerful discrimination against them is backed up with so-called “scientific” claims proving male superiority. This, however, is part of the bigger problem of discrimination and abuse, which could be solved only by education and respect. “The more of them you know, the more you see them as individuals”, Mr. Harper pointed out. The more you recognise and educate yourself about the differences which exist between people, be it gender, race, religion or any other point of difference, the more you recognise and respect it, the same holding true for gaming communities. Mr. Harper expressed his strong belief that small changes in games, such as making the protagonist a black female instead of a white man, can have a great impact on the community without necessarily interfering with the plotline.

After watching the video, the participants observed that, sadly, the findings are not surprising. One of the participants who had studied the phenomenon of aggression suggested that hate speech could be explained by the desire of the so-called “haters” to gain peer acceptance since the more extreme the comment is, the more attention it gets.  Put in gamers’ jargon, “Do not feed the trolls.” It was also proposed that hate speech serves to divide the community by creating unnatural barriers of “us” and “they”, before piling negative characteristics on the isolated minority and positive ones on the chosen few. This sharp division prompted one of the participants at GAME OVER Hate to propose the ideal solution:  “We have to get to the critical point where hate speech provokes two kinds of responses and the offender is in the minority.” Identifying hate speech and peacefully disagreeing with it gives a good example and if this example is followed, abusers might find themselves in the minority, deprived of peer acceptance and the status it gives. This will lead to the abuser dropping hate speech, reconsidering and perhaps also changing his or her stance on the question.

The discussion continued with an outline of the concept of hate speech. This was achieved by comparing two of the most popular and accessible definitions, one created by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1997 and used for the purpose of the European campaign, and the other devised by one of the biggest social media channels, Facebook. According to the No Hate Speech Movement’s all-encompassing definition, “Hate speech covers all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance”.  The definition used by the popular website, on the other hand, clearly underlines that while users are encouraged to “challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices,” individuals or groups are not allowed “to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition”. The Facebook community standards, however, permit “clear attempts at humour or satire that might otherwise be considered a possible threat or attack”. Despite the efforts at identifying the dimensions of online hate speech, there are as yet no clear measures and regulations for dealing with it, neither on a national, nor on a European level.

After the heated discussion on defining hate speech, the participants had a chance to discuss the phenomenon with Jari-Pekka Kaleva from the European Games Developer Foundation. He offered a new perspective on the problem by drawing attention to the similarly increasing levels of harassment game developers are experiencing.  Some of the solutions he proposed included creating clear community policies and handing over moderation to volunteers in order to cut down expenses, creating national policies and ethical guidelines, as well as adopting good practices from young organisations and NGOs. Prompted by a question from the audience, Mr. Kaleva also emphasised the important role of gaming communities, which could share their positive experiences from a game in addition to the negative critique that is by now the predominant form of feedback for the majority of online games.


GAME OVER for hate speech online


The talk continued with a short evaluation exercise in which the participants had to choose a game and review it on three points: hate by design, player behaviour and community management. Hate by design is present in games where the goal involves hurting or killing the opponent, while the other two categories are more player and community oriented. The second point identifies whether players are allowed or prone to hurting or abusing their opponent in that particular game, while the third note of evaluation addresses the presence of a community which censors this behaviour.

This exercise brought back the question of the relationship between the in-game world and reality. Reviewing the controversial Grand Theft Auto V game, a participant asked, “how much of a social commentary is this game, and how much of a perpetuation of stereotypes?” Two main justifications for hate speech in games are often given. Firstly, games adopt hate speech in order to create a more convincing, realistic portrayal of society, for instance, society from a particular historical or even semi-historical period. Secondly, hate speech in games is also excused by claiming that games are pieces of art and therefore do not have to obey social norms. This magic circle concept, however, does not capture the opposite process – the impact games have on real life. A recent study conducted at Stanford University shows that avatars do affect the players who choose them.  It seems the widespread justifications could be contrasted with scientific research which sheds more light on the relationship between games and reality.


Brian Crecente, a news editor for the Polygon website, commended the study session as the only other initiative addressing hate speech in online games besides the Australian Iron Ribbon one which aims to create a fair, safe and inclusive online gaming community. The European movement, however, is much larger and has follow-up events both online and offline in a variety of countries across the continent. The No Hate Speech Campaign has been running since 2012 and will continue until 2014. It encompasses a wide range of activities – both on a national and on a European level, including surveys, training courses, workshops and seminars, study sessions and dedicated European Action days. In addition, there is a website, a blog, an online hate speech watch, and other tools and materials for recognising and combating hate speech online.

The last speaker to join GAME OVER Hate was John King from EVE Online, who shared some of the best practices for dealing with hate speech which have been introduced in that game. He pointed out that teamwork pays off more than killing fellow players, thus making an argument for cooperation as the best strategy for winning the game. Mr. King also revealed how EVE Online deals with cases of hate speech attacks online: the game developers do not intervene directly as this would interfere with the sandbox concept of the game, but instead support and encourage groups who send out positive messages and have altruistic goals.  In conclusion, Mr. King advised gamers to enjoy the game without preventing other players from doing so, thus implicitly promoting collaboration and mutual support rather than destruction.

The study session in sunny Budapest concluded with laughter at the latest gossip from the gossip box, a spicy story about a trip to the famous Cat Café and its cats with strong opinions, and plans for future collaborations. It ought to be pointed out that at the same time the Game Over Hate study session was taking place, hate speech online was the object of discussion of another European event, the annual Trygve Lie symposium on Fundamental Freedoms hosted in its 2013 edition by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Peace Institute. One of the speakers at the symposium, Mr. Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression observed that “the best remedy to hate speech is knowledge: we hate what we don’t understand and what we see as different,” a conclusion which the GAME OVER Hate study session also came to. Young people and politicians being on the same page is always a good sign, especially in the context of hate speech online, which will need the combined efforts of both sides to leave the online gaming communities once and for all.









Photo credits: Petya Yankova; No Hate Speech Movement campaign logo.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 December 2013 19:02

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