Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Important News for the Post-Left Milieu

Game operators face social responsibilities in their online Utopias
by Rob Fahey

This week's controversy over Blizzard's decision to crack down on a guild in World of Warcraft advertising itself as "LGBT Friendly" is far from an isolated incident, but rather is a sign of growing problems with the huge artificial societies created by MMOG titles, argues Rob Fahey.

Anyone who has ever played an online game will probably be familiar with the extent to which language which might elsewhere be perceived as homophobic has become acceptable, if not de rigeur, among many players. You would be hard pressed to spend an evening playing an online RPG or first-person shooter without being informed by someone who's just been killed that his lamentable situation is "so gay" or telling a player who annoys him that he's a "fag" - and while most players can simply ignore such juvenile comments, there's no doubt that a minority of players are distressed by them, while a majority, perhaps, would prefer if they weren't there.

Which is why it's surprising that when a player in Blizzard's World of Warcraft decided to create and advertise a guild - an in-game group - which was "LGBT Friendly" and would be a haven from homophobic comments or abuse, the firm decided to crack down on her actions and forbade her from advertising the group in the game.

An isolated over-reaction? Not in the slightest. Online games may be an escape for their players, but they still have many problems which mirror those found in the real world, as well as a host of their own unique issues, which are becoming increasingly pressing for the operators of these virtual worlds. Just because people are playing fantasy characters doesn't mean that real-world problems of racism, sexism, homophobia or religious or political intolerance just go away - and World of Warcraft, with its massive worldwide subscriber base, is demonstrating the kind of social issues which will become major problems as this medium evolves.

The issue is a simple one. People may start out playing a game, but after weeks or months of time spent in a fantasy world, they have come to know other players in the game well, and can form firm friendships and rivalries - much as they would in real life. Players who met in videogames have become married in real life, have become firm friends - and have been involved in fist-fights (not necessarily all at the same time). Many players who have long since tired of an MMOG will continue to log in for years just to keep up with acquaintances they have made in the game. Under these circumstances, it's no wonder that topics more delicate than killing orcs and mining for gold will come up.


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