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Toxicity Bans Are Not Censorship

Earlier this month, rude gamers got a rude awakening when players of the online shooter Rainbow Six: Siege began receiving bans for typing derogatory slurs into the game’s chat. Defying widespread stereotypes about the apathy of gamers, banned players and allies of their ignoble cause leapt into action, passionately assailing the Twitter account of Ubisoft, the game’s developer, and taking to Reddit to express their outrage. Ubisoft responded to complaints by stating fighting toxicity is a real and important issue.

But the mob could not be mollified, and the complaints of the “victims” were legion. Some moaned about thought-policing and censorship, curiously choosing to evoke the brutal and violent repression of journalists and activists in authoritarian regimes. Some said that it was hypocrisy to ban “adult” language in a game rated for Mature audiences, mistaking a game’s content rating as a guarantee of a right to obscenity. Many simply seemed shocked that something as innocuous as language historically used to attack and oppress minorities could be considered offensive at all (after all, they are just words, right?). The outrage was real.

This is all rather difficult to take seriously. The outrage, I mean, not the banning—if developers and publishers had started tamping down on toxic behavior twenty years ago, gaming might have begun to shed its unsavory reputation much sooner (and I may have had more dates in high school). I read dozens of arguments on Twitter, Reddit, and in the comments sections attached to stories reporting the bans, and I found it difficult to even parse the sincerity of gamers incensed by Ubisoft’s actions. Did these gamers actually hold these myriad excuses and defenses of their vile language, most of which were absurd on their face? Were they trolling? Or is toxicity so deeply ingrained on this strange island of culture we call online gaming that contact with actual civilization and its norms seems like a military takeover?

Companies like Ubisoft are under no obligation at all to spend their time and money hosting players who engage in hate speech.

I don’t know. I doubt I will persuade the slur-spewing hordes over to the side of common decency with this article, either. I would, however, at least like to respond to the arguments cited above, as well as make a special appeal to gamers who identify as Christians and have adopted hate speech as one of the features of online play. Let’s dig in.

Is Ubisoft’s policy of banning players from online play “censorship?” I suppose it depends on how loosely one defines the term. Generally, censorship is a government action; it’s suppression of language or ideas by the state, enforced by legal levers and police power. Think of China jailing artists for producing work critical of the government, for example. Is Ubisoft a branch of government? No, although in 2018 anything can happen. For now, they are a private company hosting game events on private servers, which players are allowed to join after agreeing to abide by the company’s Code of Conduct. Violating the Code of Conduct leads not to jail time or the offending player’s being seized in a raid, but rather a half-hour ban from a videogame for the first time offense, and a longer ban for the second. Think less Ai Weiwei and more “guy who gets kicked out of IHOP for being a jerk.” If, however, you define censorship as a basic requirement to respect human dignity when you’re in someone else’s house, then yes, it’s censorship.

(In general, if you are ever sanctioned for bad behavior in a videogame, you should realize you are not one of history’s great political martyrs. You are the guy—or gal, let’s be modern here—who gets kicked out of IHOP for being a jerk.)

Next there’s the argument that Rainbow Six: Siege’s Mature content rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board includes a free pass for players to use toxic language in the game’s chat channels. This one is somewhat puzzling, as there is an assumption baked into the argument that first needs to be defended by itself before the broader argument can be made. The assumption is that the ESRB has rated the player and their hate speech. They have not and even state this clearly in their rating. As far as I am aware, the ESRB has never attempted to rate player interactions, although they perhaps should. Assuming that a Mature rating for the game’s content gives free pass to vile behavior is like assuming a ticket to an R-rated movie gives you free pass to hurl slurs at other theater-goers and strip off your clothes to engage in lewd conduct. It does not, and if you do this in the same theater I am in, I promise you I will dial the police.

We also have the argument that either the speaker doesn’t intend the hateful meaning of their words (e.g., “We’re just joking around”), or that the words themselves aren’t meaningful at all. This doesn’t even rise to the level of coherence. If you are attempting to argue that words don’t have meaning, you are literally speaking gibberish; it’s the curse of Babel all over again. Rather than speak, it would be just as meaningful to cup your hand around your armpit and crank out fart noises. If words in general don’t have meaning, your speech would just be noises falling out of your face. If particular words, like terms of hate speech, don’t have meaning, you would not be using them at all, ever; they would not have entered our shared vocabulary. You don’t get to take words loaded with hateful historical and cultural baggage and strip them of meaning at your own pleasure. That would be denying the very power and purpose of language in itself.  You might as well be speaking in farts.

Finally, a word to my Christian brothers and sisters who might find themselves on the receiving end of one of these bans: Come on. There is no world where you should casually engage in hate speech and slurs. A litany of Scripture verses come to my mind, as I’m sure it does to yours. “The tongue is a fire.” “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” “Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” “Love your neighbor,” “the fruits of the Spirit,” etc, etc, etc. We could do this all day. You, your fellow gamers, and every other human being is stamped with the image of God, the imago dei, and you have a sacred duty to treat them that way. That includes choosing language that edifies and builds up and eschewing language that tears down. There’s no footnote in the Bible that has an exemption for a heated Rainbow Six or Call of Duty match.

The arguments and excuses for toxic behavior in gaming are endless, and the soul wearies to combat them all. The fact of the matter is that the culture can be incredibly vile, well beyond anything one encounters in any other sort of public space—and, honestly, well beyond the day-to-day language I encountered for five years in the U.S. Marine Corps. It’s hateful and alienating, and there’s zero excuse for it. Companies like Ubisoft are under no obligation at all to spend their time and money hosting players who engage in hate speech, and if all offenders have to offer are paper-thin excuses for trolling, all the better. Good riddance to hate.

Associate Editor
Chris Casberg is an Associate Editor for Love Thy Nerd, veteran of the United States Marine Corps, and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He writes from his home in Central Oregon, where he lives with his wife and daughters.

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