Litigating Bounds: Video Games Provide Test Case for Speech Boundaries

Last year, I wrote a policy brief for The Brookings Institution about how video games are going to be the new global front for free expression: what is acceptable to say or do, and who gets to set those boundaries. Setting the stage, I referenced the infamous 2019 “Blitzchung Affair,” where Activision Blizzard harshly punished a professional gamer for using a tournament press event to speak up in favor of the pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Conflicts over free speech in video games go far beyond Hearthstone. Whether in the chat features of video games or in the narrative decisions made by video game designers, the censorship demands of countries around the world are increasingly shaping the digital entertainment consumed by the world’s more than three billion gamers. These demands create a difficult challenge for video game companies: balancing the need for business growth with a commitment to free speech.

But the way video games are shaping our ideas of free speech, and where its acceptable boundaries lie, are not exclusive to government pressure. On their own, game publishers and tournament hosts are struggling with what kind of audience they want to cultivate, who they want to feel welcome, and how they are going to communicate that – all balanced against the need to run a profit-making business during (yet) another downturn.

This week, NickMercs, who is a popular member of FaZe Clan, a professional Esports team that has been aggressive (and modestly successful) in expanding and cross-branding beyond Esports tournaments, recently tweeted something homophobic in support of the fascist thugs who attacked parents at a Glendale school board meeting. In brief: the school board met to affirm its recognition Pride Month for the fourth year in a row, and because of the ongoing violent pogrom against queer existence, a violent gang of fascists showed up to harass and beat people who supported the measure. To repeat: this was the fourth year of Glendale schools doing this, but only this year, again because of a fascist campaign of terror against queer people, did it “erupt” into violence. Here is what NickMercs tweeted, which endorses and amplifies the blood libel that fascist activists have deployed to encourage violence against queer people:

NickMercs’ tweet in support of fascist violence against queer people

While it caused some backlash, we should also be clear that plenty of gamers in his replies thanked and supported him. While he tried to walk it back on a livestream and claim he wasn’t engaged in supporting violent homophobia (“It wasn’t an anti-gay tweet,” he insisted), it is inescapable that he picked the side of fascists against queer people. “I’m not apologizing about the tweets,” he said. “I don’t feel like it’s wrong.” In other words, he tried to doubledown while also weaseling out of taking responsibility for his views. Queer rights are not a given in the US anymore, and they never have been in the most vocal gaming communities.

Activision decided, fairly quickly, that despite the contested nature of NickMercs’ tweet they opposed it on principle and took the rather mild decision to remove a custom skin he had designed from their stores for Modern Warfare II and Warzone. He wasn’t barred from competition, they did not sever their broader relationship with FaZe (despite a rather troubling history of FaZe Clan members engaging in hate speech and homophobia). It was just a removal of some vanity skins from the game store.

The backlash to the backlash to the backlash – too many gamers are comfortable with violence homophobia – is ongoing, but this raises an important point about how we, as a weird local-yet-globalized culture, are trying to negotiate the proper bounds of free speech in the world’s most popular cultural medium. Does supporting a fascist gang beating up parents with queer children constitute legitimate speech, however legal it may be? To be crystal clear, I support Activision doing reputation management and rescinding NickMerc’s skins for violating their policy on hate speech — both structurally (companies should control their own reputations) and morally (homophobia should be just as unacceptable as racism). But that does not make this issue less salient just because I happen to agree with this one outcome. It is like a Wild West with no real norms or expectations yet, hence the boundary-testing. And this year’s move to punish routine corporate pride with violence, death threats, and boycotts has raised the stakes of this discussion dramatically, at least for queer gamers like myself.

I remain most concerned about censorious authoritarian governments forcing global censorship especially toward queer people, which too many gamers are perfectly comfortable with. Disney supposedly fired Victoria Alonso for refusing to remove a pride flag from Quantumania, for example, due to government pressure about queer visibility in China and Russia and possibly other markets like India.

Alonso, a gay Latina, had been barred from the “Wakanda Forever” press tour after she gave a speech accepting an award from glaad which criticized Disney’s handling of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. When her team was then asked to edit out rainbow flags and other pride symbols from a San Francisco street scene in “Quantumania” for certain release territories, she refused, and the outside film she’d produced was used as a pretext to fire her. (“It’s not credible,” the former executive I spoke to said, of this narrative. “We’ve been doing whatever was asked of us by China, Russia, and the Middle East for twenty years.”) After her lawyer threatened “serious consequences,” Alonso reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with Disney.

In the Brookings brief, I argue that consumers have a role to play, alongside companies, in shaping global norms over censorship and speech regulation in video games. Because gaming is prone to embracing destructive expressions of abusive masculinity (I have an academic paper under peer review exploring this concept), it is a community that will be resistant toward tolerating queer people as a fact of life. The infamous “vagina bones” meme, where some men reveal they do not understand anatomy when complaining that a publisher stopped rendering iliac furrows on female characters, is emblematic of how disconnected from reality these debates can be. That is why making normative stands now, before they have a chance to drift into the bizarre metadiscourse of forums and Twitch chats, is important. I argue:

The challenge of protecting free speech in the video game industry has no easy answers. It is the result of structural pressures and a gap between corporate and democratic values. Shifting those values will not happen overnight, and they cannot be legislated into existence. Community pressure from gamers that demands full speech rights from the owners of game platforms and services can help to set a norm that speech rights need to be prioritized, not discarded, when localizing products. There are no clearly defined norms and expectations around how speech is best defended in a globalized market, and gamers arguably have an opportunity to shape them…

By carrying out direct forms of activism — boycotts, walkouts, live protests at gaming events, and persistent pressure on social media — players can hold companies’ feet to the fire when they behave undemocratically. However, public outcry can only go so far. It is unreasonable to expect coordinated player response for every instance of misconduct—ultimately, such an expectation places a higher and higher onus on players, while absolving the company of developing agency over its own policies.

It is encouraging that Activision acted quickly to distance itself from plainspoken anti-queer speech. But it is also risky considering just how violent this year’s campaign of terror against queer existence has become. The company, already embattled over numerous sexual harassment lawsuits and a troubled attempted acquisition by Microsoft, is eager to manage its reputation better than it has in the recent past. But those sorts of structural pressures do not apply to move vido game companies, and it isn’t something queer people can or should rely on when we think about how the boundaries of speech about us should be resolved. Setting norms about acceptable speech, however legal it may be, is a pressing issue as our culture continues to debate how much our existence should ever be accepted.

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