Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kids and Moms Harrassed in XBox Live

An infuriating story is currently being covered by about the systematic verbal harassment of a clan of kids and moms in XBox Live. The clan, called "The GR8 Clan", or "The Greats" for short, is an after-school initiative for kids aged 8-16, moderated and led by a few of their gamer moms (by the way, how cool is that!?!). The plan is to create a kid-friendly space within the adult-dominated world of XBox Live, where kids and their parents can play competitively and learn "teamwork, loyalty and sportsmanship" (says their MySpace page). Recently, however, the clan has been subject to insults and inappropriate comments via the live voice feature of XBox Live, which is surprisingly not currently regulated by the phone harassment laws that regulate VOIP and cell phones. According to WomenGamers, this loop hole "has provided a lawless internet frontier where Microsoft has not put in safeguards for children on its own." One of the adult moderators, GR8 Anhialator, contributed the following to the discussion thread:
Yesterday, I asked the GR8 kids if it was my imagination, or, if it was true that more and more people online, in the multiplayer gaming community (specifically XBOX Live), were getting meaner and more hateful toward us. Each of them said that, "people are getting meaner."

Remember that The Gr8 Clan is a group of children known as The Greats, aged from 8 years to 16 years old, chaperoned by GR8 Anhialator (sic). And we play to have fun. Yet, there is an increasing number of foul-mouthed males (different ones each day--proving my theory that more and more people are slipping into "hate" mode) who take it upon themselves to hurl vile insults, and even threats, at a group of children and women.

I've telephoned XBOX Live regarding this matter, and they responded by telling me that there was nothing that could be done.


[M]y clan is a group of children, and that these jerks come in and call us names as soon as they hear the kids' voices over the headsets. They call us names when we lose, and they call us names when we win. I'm not talking about schoolyard names here, I'm talking about street-slang, gang-banging hateful names, usually referencing genitalia or degrading sex acts.

According to "GR8 Anhialator" one of the reasons the XBox Live support/complaint system can't (or won't) do anything to help them is that the clan itself has received numerous complaints from other payers for censoring speech in their room, kicking people out of their room for saying inappropriate things to the kids, and generally controlling who gets to play with the kids. Some of the harassment also comes from players who disagree that children should be allowed to play M-rated games (they're currently playing Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas (rated "M"), Ghost Recon (rated "T") and Gears of War (rated "M"), among others).

The GR8 Clan has taken the position that ESRB ratings are voluntary and that the kids are playing the games under adult supervision. I find this element of the phenomenon a bit of a contradiction - the gamer community is generally quite vocally against making ESRB ratings mandatory, and yet here the ratings seem to justify an all out assault on young (not to mention female) players. The harassers seem quite keen on establishing XBox Live as an adults-only place...making a kids' clan something akin to bringing a bunch of kids into a strip club. And perhaps certain games and areas should be adult only...these harasser-guys obviously need somewhere away from other people where they can be their horrifying selves. Boundaries can be good, if managed and established correctly -- without undue discrimination, for example. But there is no way that it's ever OK to establish these boundaries through abuse, bullying and threats. These players should take note that the ESRB ratings refer to game content, not the words and behaviour of the real-life people playing them.

This is yet another case of children becoming the locus of larger social tensions -- the disapproving adult-players take out their anger on the kids, and the kids have no legal or even quasi-legal (terms of service rules) recourse other than to remove themselves from M-rated games because adult players can't behave themselves. Where in this scenario do adults ever have to take on some of the responsibility or self-restraint? I really hope this story hits the games blogsphere and gets some attention from XBox, who are in this case failing miserably at making their system more "family friendly."

I also wonder how the kids themselves feel about it, and if there is any difference between girls' and boys' experiences of trash talk in XBox Live and other forums. There is a wonderful forthcoming article by Sonia Livingstone wherein she explores how kids use the Internet to experiment with taboo talk and roles, including sexual themes and flaming in chat rooms...I seem to remember that the boys were more likely to engage in trash talk and flame wars, and I wonder if this carries over into the XBox example. Is this something they engage in, and then it goes too far? Are girls participating in it, or are they merely subjected to it? I'm assuming that the GR8 moderator represents the children's position as well as the moms' on this one, but it would nonetheless be great to hear what these kids think about the whole thing, as well as how this experience differs from other games (maybe E-rated) and multiplayer forums they might also engage in.

This article comes at a pretty interesting time in my own research. Recently, I've been writing quite a bit about restrictions on interplayer communication in child-oriented MMOGs and how this limits opportunities for community-building and creativity. This case is a good counterpoint to keep in mind whenever I get carried away with participatory rights and freedom of expression issues...although I'm still not convinced that it's the kids who need the censoring.

*****Update: Please see Comment section for important corrections to this story from one of the members of the GR8 Clan.******

****Also, check out this recent announcement by Playstation about their plan to ban anyone who becomes overly "abusive" on their Playstation Home feature. From the
Escapist article: "He added that Sony was not looking to offer a kids-only environment, and that adult users would have access to products and brands that would be kept out of the reach of children. "A large portion of our demographic is over 18 so we will make a point of catering to that demographic - we certainly don't want to dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator," he said."*****

1 comment:

Jen said...

I just wanted to add that we do not encourage young kids to buy and play M rated games. Most of the older kids in the clan are the ones playing Gears Of War and the other M rated games.

Most of the kids in the GR8 Clan we met on games like GRAW, RB6 Vegas, and others. These kids would pop in and out of our rooms and the GR8 Clan just came to be what it is today and that is a clan that consists of some adults that watch out for these kids online. It is like a big brother big sister relationship. We have never gone out and looked for kids to join this clan, somehow they just find us.

Whether a game is rated E, T, or M no one should have to put up with some of the abuse that goes on online. I am not talking about the occassional competitive smack talk. I am talking about statements that are so disgusting and horrible I will not and cannot repeat them.

We always make are own rooms when online and when an individual comes into our room they are expected to be respectful of everyone. We do not tolerate discrimination or racism. If they can't deal with these rules then they get the boot.

The GR8 Clan has been around since 2003, and hope to be around for the kids for years to come.