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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Profanity filters, homophobic slurs, and Blizzard's shaky relationship with the LGBT community

Profanity filters, homophobic slurs, and Blizzard's shaky relationship with the LGBT community

Warning: This post may contain language that is offensive to some.

Yesterday on the official World of Warcraft forums, a poster brought up the fact that the word "transsexual" gets censored by Blizzard's mature language filter. Almost immediately after, another poster brought up the fact that the word "homosexual" is censored as well. The obvious follow-up question has stirred a hornet's nest of controversy: Why are these considered bad words?

Predictably, that forum thread quickly spun out of control. It was ultimately locked by a moderator, but not before Blizzard Community Manager Bashiok chimed in:

"Transsexual" censored by filter
We've reviewed our filter list and there are a few words there that should not be blocked as profanity; we'll be removing them in a future patch.

So case closed, right? Well ... hold on. Before we simply close the books on the matter, there are some important questions to be answered. Namely this: Why was "transsexual" censored in the first place?

A well-meaning policy?

The censoring of the words transsexual and homosexual is not new to the game. They've been sitting on the list of banned words since the game launched on Day One. We just never really took notice because the default setting for the profanity filter was off. But now, thanks to a bug in patch 4.3, the new default setting is on. (This should be fixed in patch 4.3.2.)

But why did Blizzard censor the words in the first place? To find the answer, you'll need to travel five years into the past, back when the company had a very different outlook on the inclusion of sexuality in its game.

In 2006, a World of Warcraft player named Sara Andrews decided to start a guild that was LGBT-friendly and began publicly recruiting players. The guild was touted as a safe haven free of judgment and intolerance. Though many would assume the act innocuous, Blizzard's initial reaction to Andrews was extremely hostile. Specifically, Blizzard said that "advertising sexual orientation is not appropriate for the high fantasy setting of the World of Warcraft." Andrews was -- inexplicably -- in violation of the company's harassment policy. Follow-up conversations with the company only confirmed the company's stance: Recruit for a gay-friendly guild in chat, and your account will be banned.

Andrews went public with her story, and predictably, the news spread beyond WoW to even the mainstream news. Blizzard's public statement defending their position to disallow Andrew's guild, while not malicious, was horrendously misguided:

Topics related to sensitive real-world subjects -- such as religious, sexual or political preference, for example -- have had a tendency to result in communication between players that often breaks down into harassment.

Eventually, Blizzard crumbled under public and legal pressure, allowing Andrews to create her guild and issuing her an apology. Since then, numerous LBGT-friendly guilds have popped up on numerous servers, with the bulk being concentrated on Proudmoore (US).

Looking at the 2006 statement, it's quite easy to see where Blizzard got the idea to censor the words transsexual and homosexual -- the company thought it would protect those communities from harassment. Removing those words from the censorship list is simply an act that should have happened six years ago. A simple oversight.

So the issue is dead, right? Well, not quite. There's a follow-up question that might be even more damning than the initial one. Namely this: If saying "homosexual" gets eaten up by the language filter, then why the hell do the words "fag" and "faggot" sail right through?

An ugly culture

The answer to that question reveals a very ugly side of male-centric gaming culture. Words like "fag" and "faggot" are terribly common in MMOs. Just last night, the word was used multiple times during one of my Raid Finder runs. Insults and taunts are a part of playing video games, and to an adolescent boy, there's no greater insult than to attack his manhood.

That's not especially news, of course. Gaming culture is what it is, and though there have certainly been strides to change aspects of it (just look at last year's Penny Arcade Dickwolves outrage), progress is slow. But while it's easy to understand why an insecure 13-year-old might endorse a culture that thinks "faggot" is acceptable, it's harder to understand why Blizzard would want to be a part of it as well.

The words fag and faggot are nothing new. The words existed in 2004 when Blizzard first crafted its anti-discrimination policy, and they existed in 2006 when Blizzard reaffirmed it in an effort to stop Andrews. And faggot is certainly said with an exponentially higher frequency than the fairly benign homosexual and transsexual. Shouldn't it have been filtered out as part of Blizzard's overzealous sensitivity to "real-world subjects ... such as sexual preference?"

Without a doubt, the fair answer is yes. If we're not allowed to say "homosexual" because it opens gays up to harassment, then "faggot" should certainly be off the table as well if the policy was to be enforced evenly.

Am I suggesting that Blizzard is an anti-gay company? No. It's certainly butted heads with the gay community on an uncomfortably high number of occasions. Most recently, Blizzard wound up in hot water over a video the company produced in which the singer of Cannibal Corpse used numerous anti-gay slurs. Blizzard eventually apologized for that, just like it eventually made good with Andrews. It's is not an especially proactive company when it comes to treating gays with respect, but at the very least, it's highly reactive in making up for its past mistakes.

Banning the word homosexual, while simultaneously allowing the word faggot to go uncensored even to the eyes of a 10-year-old, is another sharp insult to the gay community. It's an endorsement of the gamer culture, a message that says that the word faggot's place in the gamer culture should be protected. A message that the company thinks that the n-word is to be censored, but an insult like faggot is no big deal.

I have little doubt that Blizzard will make good with gays here, much as it has when it's made missteps in the past. But this incident should serve as a powerful wake-up call to a company that makes millions of dollars in yearly revenue from the gay community. And for all of us, maybe it's time to wake up to the reality that some aspects of the nebulous gamer culture might not be worth preserving.

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