HONG KONG/TOKYO – Spend enough time hunting terrorists or wandering dystopian wastelands in online games and you are bound to come across players hurling xenophobic and racist taunts at each other, from Islamophobes in Europe to South Koreans and Japanese bickering over disputed islands.
Take the survival shooter game “H1Z1: King of the Kill,” currently the third-most-popular on the world’s biggest online game platform. Matches in Asia are sometimes interrupted by the Red Army, a band of Chinese players who have won praise from local media for championing in-game nationalism. One tactic involves cornering rivals and forcing them to pay tribute to the motherland by saying “China No. 1.” Those who fail to comply are swiftly dispatched.
Their actions, along with those of peers from a panoply of countries and ethnicities, are gaining notoriety through countless online videos as the embodiment of a global online gaming phenomenon that has gathered momentum: the spread of xenophobia and racism.
Once limited to consoles in the living room, advances in internet speeds and multiplayer technology now let thousands from around the world join the fray, employing microphone headsets to scream everything from encouragement to abuse at each other.
In marquee titles from Activision Blizzard’s “Overwatch” to Ubisoft Entertainment’s “Rainbow Six Siege,” one encounters players freely exchanging graphic slurs in patterns reflecting real-world tensions.
Yet while the “Gamergate” controversy exposed the depth of misogyny in the community and “Grand Theft Auto” triggered calls for curbs on violence, xenophobia in games has yet to draw the same level of attention.
Facebook and YouTube police hate speech to comply with advertisers. YouTube sensation PewDiePie’s premium show got canceled over videos deemed to contain anti-Semitic content.
But in the world of online gaming, where competition is the main pursuit, name-calling and verbal abuse are inextricably part of gaming trash talk to many enthusiasts.
In others, it provokes uneasiness.
“If you speak Russian, for example, there is a genuine hate from people towards you,” said Jan, 25, a university student in Denmark who plays “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Rainbow Six Siege” on European servers. “Due to the crisis in Syria and all the immigrants coming in, if you speak with a Middle Eastern accent you’ll hear a lot of obscenities too,” he said, asking not to be identified with his full name because he is worried about attracting online abuse.
The toxic behavior is becoming more apparent as gaming goes live via sites such as Twitch and more online titles design play around larger and more diverse groups. Servers that host matches are often assigned to regions rather than countries, creating an international mix of players.
That means Red Army players often end up roaming the same landscape as players from Taiwan or elsewhere. Those online warriors have gained a reputation on “H1Z1” in particular for being online bullies. In one video, half a dozen of them surround an unarmed player and — while making lewd suggestions — force him to declare China’s supremacy. The lone player eventually complies.
Gaming is the world’s most popular form of entertainment. Mobile, console and PC games comprise a $100 billion industry that dwarfs Hollywood’s box office and attracts 2.2 billion people. One-third of players from the most developed nations play at least an hour a day, researcher Newzoo estimates.
But the online worlds they turn to for escapist entertainment have sidestepped the scrutiny given to other forms of visual content.
In games like “H1Z1,” players wreak havoc online via anonymous avatars, enabling them to indulge in behavior that is considered socially unacceptable offline. Adopted usernames in “Rainbow Six Siege” can run the gamut from anti-Semitic to Islamophobic and homophobic.
The impact of video games remains up for debate, but a number of agencies recognize their influence on the impressionable.
Their popularity has made them a vehicle for governments like China, which uses the entertainment form to promote nationalistic themes, according to Hongping Annie Nie, a researcher at the University of Oxford.
The U.S. military designs games to try to boost recruitment.
Once regarded as a virtual silo for escapists, today’s games reflect very real-world sensibilities. Global sensation “Pokemon Go” made headlines last year after Chinese gamers took over one of the many virtual hot spots that players fight over. This particular “gym” was located at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which the Chinese accuse of honoring war criminals. Provoking outrage, one of the Pokemon overseeing the locale was renamed “Long Live China.”
“When you are online you are feeling a sense of safety behind the screen, which then gives you the feeling that you can say anything,” said Larry Rosen, author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.” He added, “Lots of antisocial behavior happens when you feel a sense of freedom to say whatever you want.”
As online gaming moves into the realms of professional sports, the scrutiny is starting to increase. Professional gaming team Toronto Esports jettisoned a player last month after he streamed a match-up during which he screamed the N-word 60 times.
To many, such as Hu Yi, a 30-year-old Beijing resident who works at a state-owned company, it is all just harmless fun.
“Curse words, racism and abuse is just a natural part of gaming,” he said, adding he isn’t a member of the Red Army. “I’ve been playing games for 15 years, and I don’t behave the same way in real life.”
But policing toxic attitudes are a headache for firms like Sony, where online is becoming increasingly important to PlayStation revenue. That drives up costs as companies are forced to hire employees and deploy technology for screening. “H1Z1” lists abuses such as “extremely foul language” as grounds for suspension and termination, but the myriad languages in use make enforcement difficult.
Other titles, like the smartphone hit “Clash Royale,” limit users to pre-determined phrases. Once infamous for a vicious community, Tencent Holdings’s “League of Legends” was able to alter behavior through rewards for sportsman-like conduct.
“This particular game showed that players will police themselves if given the right tools and incentives,” said Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. “Online games are businesses, after all, so aside from the moral implications, it is in these companies’ interests to police their games to ensure they appeal to the widest possible customer base.”
Ubisoft said in an email that “harassment and personal attacks have no place in the video game community” and said it relies on chat filters and community managers to spot bad behavior, which can result in penalties. Sony spokeswoman Kaede Bun said the company monitors for behavior that violates its online terms of service and asks users to report it to “ensure the development and preservation of an enjoyable and pleasant community.”
Beyond racism, territorial disputes offer ample ammunition for verbal sparring. In Europe, bickering with Russian players is so common that Slavic curse words are part of the gamer lexicon, says Jan, the Danish student.
In “Rust,” the 12th-most-popular game on the Steam distribution platform, South Korean players often get into shouting matches with Japanese players over islands claimed by both nations.
“Takeshima is Korean territory, you know. It’s Korean,” one player says in a user video of “Counter-Strike,” referring to disputed islets in the Sea of Japan, which South Korea calls the East Sea.
“Korea is Japanese territory,” another fires back.
Charlie Lyang, a 21-year-old undergrad at Boston University who plays “Overwatch,” said: “Sometimes they don’t even know what they’re saying. They picked it up somewhere and they’ll go off on a guy for no reason. They’re kids. In the video game world, we call them ‘squeakers’ because of their high-pitched voices.”
Then there are China and Taiwan. New Jersey-based AngryPug, who posts videos on YouTube and Twitch of him navigating “H1Z1” and other titles, made the mainstream news on the island after popularizing “Taiwan No. 1” as a way to taunt mainland Chinese players.
The sensitivity among Chinese players partly stems from a government that since the mid-2000s has sponsored games with anti-Japanese themes. Titles such as “Resistance War Online,” based on the struggle against Japan during World War II, was funded in part by the Communist Youth League of China, according to Nie, the Oxford researcher.
That sentiment may have attained its zenith in the Red Army, which brooks no resistance from foreigners but will spare those who declare their homeland supreme. In another widely circulated video, a hapless English-speaking player runs into a swarm of its soldiers who mow him down in a storm of expletives and nationalistic slogans.
Ultimately, it is in developers’ best interests to at least try to minimize racially tinged assaults, argues Eric Ryerson, a 33-year-old California-based web designer.
“It wouldn’t be much fun at all if everyone was doing that,” said Ryerson, who has been playing games since he was 5. “Certain trash talk is part of the competitive experience, but there are certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”