The Watch took their online campaign to stamp out racism in online gaming to TwitchCon earlier this month.
Racism and bigotry in certain online gaming spaces have become so synonymous with the culture, most players have just accepted the toxicity as part of the experience. For example, people who play Call of Duty today and use voice chat are generally split into two camps: those willing to put up with an endless stream of racist and sexist comments from random people on the internet, and those who avoid online lobbies altogether in favor of using voice chat alternatives like Discord to speak to their friends.
But Annabel Ashalley-Anthony, founder of “Melanin Gamers,” believes racism, sexism, and homophobia only persists in online games because there hasn’t been a serious industry-wide effort to actually try and address the problem.
“It’s easier to report a cheater than to report someone saying something sexist or racist towards you,” Annabel told Waypoint. “It’s proof that so much of the issue can be solved by the industry actually saying ‘yeah, this is a problem that we have to start facing.’”
So instead of waiting and hoping big publishers like Activision will finally do something about it, she, along with her brother Alan, have decided to take the lead themselves with “The Watch,” an online initiative asking players to record and submit instances of online racism. They hope this more grassroots approach will be a more effective way to report racism, starting with one of the more toxic online communities online today, Call of Duty.
The Watch launched earlier this monthkicking off with a 40-second reel of its earliest submissions from Call of Duty. The Watch hopes other like-minded gamers who are sick of bigots who scream racial epithets and ruin the experience for others, will join the cause and submit their own clips for all to see, leaving publishers and developers no choice but to finally do something about it.
“I do believe that once we hold developers and also publishers accountable for the communities that they harbor, that’s when you can go forward and make gaming a more enjoyable experience for everyone,” Alan said.
The Watch is the culmination of numerous discussions Melanin Gamers, an online community of gamers of color promoting diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the video games industry, has had with its own members over the years.
“We’ve had different discussions, in terms of bullying online, and how to tackle it. We’ve done a workshop on how to survive cyberbullying. Last year, we had a panel on the different abuse that we all face online,” Annabel said. “We’ve always wanted to do something that was more hands-on about the problem.”
The initiative was also inspired by Annabel and Alan’s own experiences with racism online. Alan says he remembers the toxic game lobbies of Call of Duty 4 when he started playing online games in the late aughts. But it wasn’t until his experience trying to make his mark in the competitive Overwatch scene some 13 years later that he finally had enough.
“I was trying to go for the Grandmaster rank,” Alan said. “I managed to find the team and was grinding rank, and I guess I made a bad play or something. It literally was like night and day. Suddenly they were hurling N-words at me and were like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It was very, very vicious and very, very angry.”
When Annabel started playing games online in 2001, she remembers her friends trying to give her the rundown of how to do so as a woman without drawing attention to herself.
“It was ‘oh, make sure you don’t do this,’ ‘use a unisex name,’ do all of these things,” she said. “I couldn’t help but think ‘why do I have to do all of these things? Because someone is going to bully me? But why don’t we get rid of the bully? That would solve all our problems.”
Annabel said she was sick of having to choose between playing the games she loves and engaging with communities that have been allowed to run rampant with bad behavior that wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere else.
“I love playing GTA Online for example, but I’ve also had really bad experiences playing that game. And that’s almost worse,” she said. “It’s this double-edged sword where you’re stuck between ‘I want to play this game,’ and asking yourself ‘am I punishing myself because people aren’t making it enjoyable?’”
That’s not to say there aren’t examples of games that have cultivated a decent culture of inclusivity online. Apex Legends, the popular online battle royal game published by Electronic Arts, has managed to be a mostly decent place for players, Annabel said. The siblings credited the game’s relatively easy reporting system for that, as well as the game itself, which since its launch in 2019 has featured a diverse cast.
“I found that the more diverse a cast of characters is, the less likely you would encounter racism within the community, because everybody has a character that they see themselves,” Alan said. “Whereas games like Call of Duty, historically speaking, have literally been a straight white male lead going forward. It’s only in the two games before the most recent one that they’ve actually started to diversify their roster of characters.”
Meanwhile, developers for games like 2021’s Back 4 Blood, Rainbow Six Siege, and esports phenomenon League of Legends have taken a more hands-on approach to address racist trolling online by directly moderating voice chat channels in its games and vowing to more harshly punish players who violates their guidelines, despite some players pushing back against the idea of continuous monitoring players’ every word.
Part of the challenge with voice chat moderation is that it’s much harder to monitor than text. Many video games that allow players to communicate via text, much like bigger tech platforms, can easily create a banned list of words that the game can automatically censor.
While games like Valorant are testing automated methods to moderate voice communication, these methods still don’t work nearly as well. It’s why many developers rely on players to report bad behavior over voice chat in order to weed out bad actors and take action.
Turtle Rock Studios and Riot Games, developers of Back 4 Blood and Valorant respectively, did not return Waypoint’s requests for comment on how voice chat moderation has panned out for them.
But this approach isn’t the norm however, as many developers have left this problem for the community to address. And while most games have a system for reporting racism, they rarely provide follow-up, making it rare for players to know whether or not a racist player faced consequences for grieving others. Many games are also pretty lenient about how it punishes these players in the first place. Consequences can range anywhere from being banned for an hour to a couple of days before they’re allowed to hop back on servers to continue griefing others. Annabel argues this kind of approach is the virtual version of a slap on the wrist when they’ve proven there are more punitive tools at their disposal to address problematic players.
“The way they punish cheaters, I just want them to punish people who say racist stuff the exact same way,” she said. “Because people think twice about losing all their gear, their skins, everything they’ve grinded for when they cheat. That is a serious ban that reinforces the idea of ’okay, maybe I shouldn’t be doing that.’”
Infinity Ward, the developers behind some of the games in the Call of Duty franchise, vowed to address those concerns in 2020 after international protests sparked by the death of George Floyd pushed dozens of developers and publishers to reassess what they allowed in their community. The developer promised a slew of fixes, including increasing penalties for repeat offenders, making it easier to report racist players, and becoming more stringent on what a player can name themselves.
But there’s been little follow-through on how, if at all, these efforts have changed the experience. This kind of “performance activism” has been all too common, according to Annabel.
“In the wake of George Floyd, a lot of people were like ‘oh there was so much change that happened!’” she said. “But for who? Where? How? And is that change still happening, or was it just localized to 2020 and then after that all that racism no longer exists?”
The Watch hopes that one day players won’t have to make the choice between enduring the trolls and continuing to enjoy the games they choose to play. Ultimately, Annabel hopes The Watch will culminate with direct conversations with publishers.
“We have ideas that we sat down and drafted and what we say to Activision in terms of wanting them taking the accountability of an environment that they have basically ignored,” she said. “It’s not just saying sorry about this or that, but sorry and then we’re doing this. That’s what needs to happen. Follow-through.”
Activision-Blizzard did not immediately respond to Waypoint’s request for comment about The Watch. Epic Games, developers for Fortniteone of the largest gaming communities today, also did not respond to Waypoint’s requests for comment.
While getting the attention of industry goliaths that have ignored these issues for more than a decade might be an uphill battle, Annabel, Alan, and Melanin Gamers aren’t backing down from the dream of making racist trolls a thing of the past in their favorite past time.
“It’s the people who are doing this, but it’s also the people who can also fix them,” Annabel said. “And the people together can like put pressure on developers, because we are playing your games.”