XBox Live, Homophobia, and Online Gaming Policy

A post over at The Consumerist has generated a great deal of buzz in the blogosphere today.

From yesterday's post:

Teresa says that she was harassed by other players and later suspended from XBOX Live because she identified herself as a lesbian in her profile. When she appealed to Microsoft, she says they told her that other gamers found her sexual orientation "offensive."

The Consumerist also posted Teresa's letter to them in which she describes the incident. They followed it with:

We've heard of gamers being suspended for identifying themselves as gay in their GamerTag, and even one case of a guy whose name was actually "Richard Gaywood" but his tag was suspended anyway because apparently the word "gay" is so offensive that it doesn't matter if its actually your name.

As far as we know, Microsoft is unwilling to reconsider this position.

The Seattle, WA, based The Stranger had this to say about the situation:

"The story doesn't entirely add up-mostly because The Consumerist prefers to hit copy+paste than do any research or fact-checking (no user name? no request from Microsoft for a response? hello libel?), but also because the way Xbox Live works, this user wouldn't have necessarily broadcast her sexual preference as described. But a user can find him/herself temporarily banned if a boatload of people send complaints through Xbox Live's reporting system..."

The Stranger also noted that Stephen Toulouse, who handles policy and enforcement for XBox Live, updated his twitter feed with this message:

re: the consumerist story. Expression of any sexual orientation (straight or gay or otherswise) is not allowed in gamertags. However we've heard from the user base they want that capability, so I am examining how we can provide it in a way that wont get misused. I can't say any more at the moment, except to say I'm working right now in finding a way to safely express relationship preference.

Since the beginning of this year, GLAAD has been in active conversations with Microsoft, specifically with Stephen Tolouse, about XBox Live and how their policies affect LGBT people. The conversations actually began as a result of work GLAAD did around the launch of Sony's beta for it's new online virtual world, Playstation Home.

At the end of 2008, when Sony launched the beta for Playstation Home, we fielded concerns from GLAAD supporters that the system was not LGBT friendly. It was being reported to us that when people used the chat feature and would type in certain words like "gay" or "lesbian", they would come up as asterisks like "***" or "*******." Typing and sending "I am gay" would actually send "I am ***." Also, people found they were banned from using a similar set of words to name "clubs" in the virtual world.

We reached out to Sony and after a series of productive conversations over a few days, changes were made to the system that removed some of these restrictions. Unfortunately, some still remain. And GLAAD remains dedicated to working with Sony to address them.

Back to Microsoft - While researching the Sony issue, we came across many different articles and blog posts from May of 2008 talking about Microsoft and the banning of users and the many restrictions that were affecting LGBT gamers. Wanting to see if any progress had been made since May, we reached out to Microsoft and got an almost instant reply from Stephen Toulouse.

After talking with both Sony and Microsoft, GLAAD began to notice a common thread in both of the gaming giant's policies - they were both put in place to fight and/or prevent defamation. It sounds counterintuitive to some, and to even us at first, but upon further review and discussion, the issue at hand became clearer.

The online world provides unprecedented anonymity for people. They can, and do, say what they want. Unfortunately, in online gaming that has often translated to homophobic, racist, and misogynistic attacks.

Look at some of these staggering numbers from a survey done in 2007:

88% of respondents said they had heard the phrase "that's so gay" while 84% said they had heard ‘gay' used in a derogatory fashion. Over 50% said they felt that games portray gay people in a stereotypical way, while 42% believe gays are under-represented in games. 15% said the industry creates a culture where gay employees "feel like they must stay in the closet". 52% believed that the gaming community is hostile to gay and lesbian gamers. Only 9% said they "never" encounter anti-gay sentiments from online gamers.

Sony, Microsoft, and many others have been trying to address this by putting policies in place to prevent subscribers from using the online shield of anonymity to harass, verbally assault, and generally defame others. Are they the best policies? No. Are they working to improve them?

In the case of Stephen and Microsoft - they have been nothing but open, welcoming, and willing to discuss ideas for positive and inclusive changes during these conversations. Microsoft has invited GLAAD out to its headquarters in Redmond, WA, for multi-day meetings with developers, executives, and policy enforcers in the upcoming weeks.

As for the rampant homophobia in the online gaming community, GLAAD is also working to address that. In addition to meeting with gaming companies, we're planning to host a panel discussion early this summer in Silicon Valley. We'll be discussing the issue and getting feedback from both the LGBT and gaming community about how to fight the defamation and educate users about the impact of their words and actions.

We're truly in a new era. And with new technologies, come new challenges. LGBT people have fought hard for years to come out of real-world closets - we're not willing to accept virtual ones.

As GLAAD makes progress, we will be engaging the community in a vibrant discussion and work together to find the best solutions to make online gaming safe and enjoying for us all.