Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds just released its new rules of conduct, and the first rule on its list represents a rare acknowledgement that multiplayer gaming can be a mess of racial, sexual, and other types of discriminatory harassment. PUBG is one of the most popular games in the world right now, but its lobbies are often filled with players shouting ethnic slurs and other deeply hurtful words. The problem is so bad that players have made guides to teach others how to mute everyone in the game.
“This game is great, I have been having an absurd amount of fun with it,” someone named Rumpleicious1 wrote on Reddit. “My biggest issue with the game, however, is the insane amount of racism and profanity that occurs in the loading zone and on the plane.”
Overt discriminatory harassment in online video games has been such a big problem for so many years that the regulatory organization that rates video games has simply refused to rate them. You’ve definitely seen the stamps of approval from Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, if you’ve ever purchased a popular game. But as more games move online, the ESRB’s rating system has become increasingly irrelevant, because it doesn’t rate online experiences. The only thing it has to say about what to expect from the mob is a euphemistic warning: “Game Experience May Change During Online Play.” Anyone who’s played enough multiplayer games can tell you that means “people are going to shout the n-word at you, among other things.”
I’ve always wondered why online video game companies don’t talk much publicly about harassment. Maybe there are enough people in the industry who have simply given up, or become numb to it over the years. Or maybe because addressing it would come with an actual ESRB rating: “Warning: online experience filled with racial slurs and sexual harassment.” To be fair, there are companies that have worked hard on the problem, including League of Legends developer Riot Games. And some developers have cleverly made harassment impossible by design, like in the tongueless multiplayer world of Journey.
But these examples are profound for a reason — companies simply haven’t done enough to cope with pervasive harassment. And when people do talk about it, they’re often immediately shouted down. When Rumpleicious1 complained about PUBG’s lobby on Reddit, they were dismissed. “Bitching over something so trivial? mute and move on,” one person said. “You’re playing an online game. First time?”, said another.
The harm from harassment in video games is real, and it’s only going to get worse if it’s not addressed as more visceral experiences like multiplayer VR emerge. Last year Polygon surveyed the industry, and found that many companies simply are unwilling to talk about abuse, despite the fact that even the developers themselves have faced abuse from their customers.
It’s nice that the developers of PUBG have the self-awareness to prominently acknowledge the game’s biggest problem. But it’s a shame that seems so special.