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When "Old Republic" Strikes New Media

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This past Tuesday, a few of GLAAD's supporters tipped me off to a story over at the site Kotaku.  From the Kotaku post, by Luke Plunkett:

BioWare take their Star Wars role-playing seriously. So seriously that the developers are shutting down talk on Old Republic's message boards about homosexuality, because it's a term that does "not exist in Star Wars".

Yes, if you care to trawl around the site, there are a few threads that either began as, or devolved into, discussion of how the game - or the game's future player base - would handle gay relationships. And those threads are now locked. 

According to Plunkett's post, the community manager over at BioWare, Sean Dahlberg, posted this message on a closed thread:

As I have stated before, these are terms that do not exist in Star Wars.

Thread closed.

The story was also reported on prominent LGBT gaming sites like GayGamer.net and LesbianGamers.com.

GLAAD immediately reached out to BioWare on Tuesday to get clarification on the situation.  In the email, I wrote:

If this is the case, and BioWare is not allowing people to either talk about gay relationships or to use the words “homosexual,” “lesbian,” or “gay,” we would like you to explain exactly why this is.  Also, what are their other restrictions and other words not allowed on the message boards?

I’m looking forward to a prompt response, as many people – both within the gaming word and the lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender community – are beginning to discuss this issue and calling on GLAAD to take action. 

While BioWare did not respond to GLAAD on Tuesday, I did receive an email from a Vice President at Electronic Arts, Inc. (EA), the parent company of BioWare, on Wednesday.  EA also owns, amongst many others, the popular Sims and Madden NFL series.

In the email from EA, the Vice President responded by stating:

We made a mistake in constructing a filter that was intended to deter hateful language in one of our online communities.  The filter was too broad and included the words "gay" and "lesbian."   When this mistake was brought to our attention, we corrected the filter, and apologized to the community with a statement to say that it was never our intention to restrict any specific group in the community.

The email also contained a series of facts about this specific situation and information about EA's overall policy on comment thread moderation.  Important among them was this statement:

The words "gay" and "lesbian" are NOT filtered in communities related to other EA games - however I have initiated a review to ensure this is the case with all EA sites.

Also:

Filtering the words "gay" and "lesbian" was clearly a mistake; but one made with the intention of providing a civil atmosphere for players - certainly including gay and lesbian players.

In closing, the Vice President wrote:

I hope that you and everyone associated with GLAAD understand that this was a mistake based on a sincere effort to filter hateful language off of our web site, and not to discriminate against anyone in the player community.

After receiving the email, I also received a call directly from the Vice President at EA.  During the call, EA again expressed regret about the Old Republic message boards situation, we discussed the problem of homophobia in online gaming, and EA extended an offer for GLAAD to come out to California and address their staff. 

I was also able to talk with EA about a new initiative that GLAAD's Digital Media team has launched - GLAAD's Project on Homophobia in Virtual Communities.  I'll have much more to say about this new initiative in a separate follow up post, but for now I will say that both Microsoft and EA have committed to collaborating on the project.

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The situation with EA and the Old Republic message boards was an unfortunate one, but it highlights the problem at hand - how to fight defamation and homophobia in virtual communities without restrictions and/or moderation that either force LGBT people into virtual closets or ruin the gaming experience for everyone, LGBT people included. Then, there is the problem of how to educate these fast growing virtual communities about the real and negative impacts of homophobia.  

There is no doubt these are significant problems, but GLAAD is actively working with a broad range of gamers, new media specialists, and the many companies that own and operate virtual communities to help solve them. 

LGBT people, like everyone else, are looking for fun and safe spaces and communities online.  The response from Electronic Arts, Inc. and their commitment, along with Microsoft and others, to collaborating with GLAAD on this project is very promising.  

I, for one, am hopeful that this focus and commitment may soon lead to a new day and better experience for LGBT people and the many others who are currently bullied, harassed and discriminated against online.

More to follow soon, so be sure to check back often...

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