May 26th, 2024

Gamergate was 10 years ago. How has hate in online spaces changed since then?

By Curtis Ng, The Canadian Press on May 11, 2024.

Sarah Stang sits in her office at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. on Thursday, May 9, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tara Walton

There’s a persistent myth about video games – that they’re harmful and cause violent behaviour.

That’s wrong, says Sarah Stang.

“Game content does not cause real-world violence,” says Stang, an assistant professor of game studies at Brock University.

“We have so many studies that have that no matter how many violent video games you play, that does not mean you’re going to be a violent person.”

But toxicity and harassment persist in what Stang calls the “world’s biggest entertainment medium” which, by some estimates, brings in four times the global box office revenue of the film industry.

The problem made news a decade ago in Gamergate – an online furor in which women and companies were targeted for supporting progressive ideals, like having more women represented in gaming’s traditionally male-dominated world.

Women reported threats of rape and death. Some were doxxed – having one’s identifying information, including home address, published with malicious intent.

There’s a continuum of toxicity in online communities, says MiaConsalvo of Concordia University in Montreal, the Canada Research Chair in digital games studies and design.

“It can be from the more banal and harmless, the trash talking, all the way up to threats of violence,” she says.

The internet is where a large number of people go to hang out. “Games are a huge part of that ecosystem,” says Consalvo.

Government attention

Online toxicity is something society is worried about but not necessarily governments, Consalvo says.

It’s only when there are concerns about democracy or threats against people or government institutions that things become more serious, she says.

The Canadian government announced funding in March to study the “potential for radicalization to violence across gaming platforms.” More than $317,000 is to go to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a think tank based in the United Kingdom.

The Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence, which falls under the federal Public Safety Department, provided the funding.

Brett Kubicek, research manager with the centre, says it was created in 2017 to lead Ottawa’s efforts on preventing and countering violent extremism.

Much of the government’s concern about the risk for radicalization through video games relates to what are called gaming-adjacent platforms, such as the messaging app Discord, the streaming platform Twitch and the digital distribution service Steam.

“A lot of this is about just going where people are,” Kubicek says.

Canada can’t do it alone, adds the centre’s executive director, Robert Burley.

“We need to collaborate with other governments,” he says, pointing to a summit held after the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, as an example.

“It’s part of our engagement with the Christchurch Call to Action, with our allies in the G7 and the Five Eyes countries that we look not just at Canadian projects but projects internationally that are going to help advance this field.”

Some experts suggest the Canadian government’s funding announcement is just playing catch-up.

“Seems a little bit late,” says Jennifer Jenson, a professor of digital languages, literacies and cultures at the University of British Columbia.

“The week of Gamergate, you would have thought that there would have been something that actually came out.”

The project is not one of the Canada Centre’s bigger ones, Burley says, and it may lead to more.

Corporate measures

Games and gaming-adjacent platforms have content guidelines and measures in place to protect users, but rules can be bent or sidestepped. As technology has evolved, so have tactics used by hate groups and people looking to block them out.

Doxxing gained a lot of attention with Gamergate, Consalvo says, but many people have become more savvy about their internet use and may be less willing to share personal details.

With the increasing sophistication of content moderation systems, especially with artificial intelligence tools, some platforms have become less hospitable to hate groups. That’s led them to congregate in lesser-known but less restricted spaces.

Reddit, one of the most popular forums on the internet, employs what it calls a layered approach to content moderation.

A Reddit spokesperson says the platform uses automated tools, user reports and internal escalation processes to flag anything that violates its content policies.

For photos and videos, internal “hashing” technology creates a unique digital fingerprint, or hash, to prevent offending content from being shared again.

A spokesperson for Roblox pointed to blog posts from the company in early April about the importance of civility.

“Many of our safety features and tools are based on innovative AI solutions that run alongside an expert team of thousands who are dedicated to safety,” says a post from Roblox’s chief safety officer, Matt Kaufman.

The number of safety staff is tiny compared to the 71.5 million daily active users that Roblox says it had in the last three months of 2023.

Fortnite, the online game best known for its battle royale mode, introduced in late April an option for players to turn off their ability to see four emotes, or character actions, commonly considered toxic, including “Take the L,” or take the loss.

Solutions and responsibility

Kris Alexander, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University who teaches video game design, espouses what he calls “pixels with purpose.”

“You can be the change,” he says. “You can counteract all this hate speech.”

Some responsibility also lies with parents, he says.

“It’s like you have a McDonald’s that’s open. These kids just keep coming. They keep taking their parents’ credit card and just keep eating McDonald’s. We should close down all McDonald’s?”

Stang, the Brock University professor, says violence and hate are more about culture than they are about the medium.

Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing, what communities they’re part of, what they’re joining and who they’re talking to, she says.

When discussing online harassment, Alexander added, it’s important to ask which games and genres are affected, as well as which groups.

“You talk to any player of ‘Stardew Valley’ … talk to any ‘Animal Crossing’ player. They’ll be like, ‘What are you talking about? We’re building farms out here. We’re grabbing fruits and spoiled turnips.'”

Stang says there have been improvements over the past decade.

“I teach in a game design program at Brock University and I can see the incoming cohorts are very ‘woke,'” she says. “They’re attuned to questions of diversity and inclusivity and equity. They’re primed for discussions about representation.”

She says they want to change the industry for the better because they love the medium.

“I think things are getting better,” says Stang. “It’s just very slow.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2024.

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