Thursday, February 23, 2006

World of Warcraft Teaches the Wrong Things

Open Letter to Blizzard Entertainment—Speech Policy for GLBT guilds in World of Warcraft

Recently, Sara Andrews, a player in Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft (WoW) recruited for a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transexual (GLBT) Friendly guild in the general chat channel on the Shadowmoon server. She was reported to a Game Master by another player, and subsequently sanctioned for “Harassment – Sexual Orientation”. Under the Terms of Use of WoW, it is forbidden to transmit offensive material, including abusive or sexually explicit material.

Ms Andrews was given a warning not to undertake this again. She assumed this was a mistake, but Blizzard confirmed that the sanction and the punishment would stand. An official from Blizzard responded:

“To promote a positive game environment for everyone and help prevent such harassment from taking place as best we can, we prohibit mention of topics related to sensitive real-world subjects in open chat within the game, and we do our best to take action whenever we see such topics being broadcast. This includes openly advertising a guild friendly to players based on a particular political, sexual, or religious preference, to list a few examples. For guilds that wish to use such topics as part of their recruiting efforts, our Guild Recruitment forum, located at our community Web site, serves as one open avenue for doing so.”

As a result of public comments about this issue, Blizzard has reversed its decision and has privately communicated to Ms Andrews that no punishment will stem from this incident. It also has privately indicated that it is reviewing its sexual harassment policy. It has issued no public statement about the issue.

We write this letter as educators, journalists, writers and players interested in the development of virtual worlds like World of Warcraft. We congratulate Blizzard on the courage to rescind its initial decision, and urge it to make a formal announcement that they were wrong to make it. The decision to sanction and punish Ms Andrews was wrong as a narrow matter of interpretation, and as a general principle of policy for WoW and other virtual worlds.

The WoW Terms of Use provide as follows.

“When engaging in Chat in World of Warcraft, or otherwise utilizing World of Warcraft, you may not…[t]ransmit or post any content or language which, in the sole and absolute discretion of Blizzard Entertainment, is deemed to be offensive, including without limitation content or language that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, hateful, sexually explicit, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable, nor may you use a misspelling or an alternative spelling to circumvent the content and language restrictions listed above”

Blizzard does not monitor all chat, and instead only punishes the author of offensive chat when it is reported by another player. In order to reduce the number of reports it must investigate, and to make sense of what is “offensive”, Blizzard only punishes chat which other players might reasonably find offensive. In explaining why it punished Ms Andrews Blizzard indicated that,

“Many people are insulted just at the word ‘homosexual’ or any other word referring to sexual orientation”.

We understand that Blizzard was seeking to defuse the potential for harassment and griefing, but this justification is both wrong and extremely damaging. Let us be clear here: we are not saying that homophobic people should like gay people, or that they should accept gay marriage, or any other hot-button issue within modern American life. We are saying that it is inappropriate for Blizzard to characterize the mere mention of homosexuality as an insult to those who hear it.

It is not possible for Blizzard to claim that it sanctions any mention of the “offensive” categories mentioned in their Terms of Use. If that were the case then we would not see language that is “harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, vulgar, obscene…” But the general chat channel of WoW is an extremely open communication environment, that is routinely threatening, abusive and vulgar, not to mention misogynistic and homophobic. This may or may not be regrettable, but it seems to be part of the game and is now widely accepted to use vulgar language in describing encounters with other factions, or to note that a particular sword is “gay” or that a character is a “fag”. Blizzard does not sanction the routine use of homophobic and misogynistic insults, nor does it sanction all manner of vulgar and abusive trash talk. They should not sanction the mention of the existence of a GLBT-friendly guild.

We are greatly relieved that Blizzard appears to have changed its decision in this specific case, although it is not clear what Blizzard’s general policy is in relation to these sorts of issues. We urge Blizzard to make a public statement that the mention of homosexuality in general chat is not offensive. Beyond this, we also suggest that Blizzard investigate ways of making WoW more inclusive for GLBT guilds and players. WoW is a remarkable place, and we believe that it points to the future of networked communities and communications. Blizzard is supportive of gay players and guilds, and has the difficult job of balancing the interests and playstyles of millions of players. Usually it does an excellent job of this. But its decision in this case was wrong, and as a leader in the development of virtual worlds it should make a public statement to this effect.

It would be deeply regrettable if incidents such as this were ignored, when they might be used to explore how we can live together within the virtual worlds.


danah boyd, School of Information, University of California, Berkeley

Gordon Calleja, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Julian Dibbell, Author My Tiny Life

Roger Fouts, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology

Dan Hunter, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Elizabeth Lane Lawley, Ph. D., Associate Professor of Information Technology & Director of the Lab for Social Computing, Rochester Institute of Technology

Thomas M. Malaby, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Ross Mayfield, CEO, Socialtext

Bart Simon, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec

Douglas Thomas, Associate Professor, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California

Kevin Werbach, Assistant Professor, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania & Founder, Supernova Group LLC

February 8, 2006
An Open Letter to Blizzard Entertainment
Blizzard Gives the Cold Shoulder to GLBT-Friendly Guild


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