The Bigoted ‘Trash Talk’ That’s Tolerated in Gaming

An anti-Semitic slur used during a Twitch livestream embodies the casual toxicity found in gaming culture

Photo: SeventyFour/Getty

My very first experience using live voice chat while gaming was at a friend’s house playing Halo. At the time, it felt novel to talk with strangers while playing a simulated war game online. I had a mix of apprehension and curiosity. And though I enjoyed Halo a lot, I wasn’t the best at shooting games. But I gave it a shot anyway.

I put on my friend’s headset, expecting some form of trash talk. I doubt more than a couple of minutes had passed before the person on the other end asked, “Are you Black? You play like a [N-word].”

We all like to think of what we would do, what we would say, if we ever encountered racism. We paint heroic visions in our head, the fiery energy we’d have to tell the person off and make them feel bad about their bigotry. But I didn’t know what to do. I tried to keep my face unfazed, but emotionally I had sunk inward. I don’t think I told my friend what happened. I just lost and told him I didn’t want to play anymore.

That was my first and last experience with live chatting while gaming. Since then, I have had no intention of gaming online with anyone I don’t know personally. It’s also why I wasn’t surprised to hear that the NBA suspended and fined the Miami Heat’s Meyers Leonard last week for using an anti-Semitic slur while playing Call of Duty on his Twitch channel. A video surfaced where he says, “F — ing cowards. Don’t f — ing snipe me, you f — ing k — b — .”

Since then, the NBA and the Miami Heat have condemned Leonard’s comments, while his coach and teammate and other professional athletes have spoken out, saying they expected better from him. Leonard himself sent out an apology via Instagram, stating that he was “deeply sorry for using an anti-Semitic slur,” and that he didn’t know what the word meant at the time. “My ignorance about its history and how offensive it is to the Jewish community is absolutely not an excuse and I was just wrong,” he wrote.

Leonard’s comments are indicative of the wider swath of young people growing up in gaming subcultures that tolerate bigotry as trash talk.

Though I don’t mean to cast doubt on Leonard’s commitment to rectify and grow from his mistake, I’m extremely skeptical of the idea that he didn’t know those words were anti-Semitic. These comments have gotten a lot of attention because of Leonard’s status as a professional athlete, especially since the NBA has been a vocal advocate for racial justice and equality. But for many gamers, especially the targets of bigotry, Leonard’s comments are indicative of the wider swath of young people growing up in gaming subcultures that tolerate bigotry as trash talk.

Gaming culture is plagued by a kind of transgressive “ironic” bigotry, where players use slurs as a way to troll their opponents. When many gamers, particularly young men and boys, join certain gaming communities, they get accustomed to spaces where racist and sexist language is already commonplace. When you add the element of anonymity and the relative homogeneity found within these types of gaming communities, bigoted speech becomes not just a norm, but a central link to the overall enjoyment of playing the game. The escape that comes with immersion into the world of a video game then doubles as an escape from the responsibilities of life and from having to accept racial and gender taboos.

“Sadly, we’ve normalized these antisocial behaviors,” says Kishonna Gray, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “So the presence of anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, anti-Black, ableist, and sexist communicative practices becomes lumped into ‘trash talk.’”

This behavior works as a form of toxic gatekeeping in two ways: It is a type of hazing—those who get offended are seen as “soft” or “politically correct”—and a way to force out gamers who aren’t from the dominant class of straight white males or won’t accept harassment as a condition for assimilation. In Gaming Sexism: Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games, Amanda Cote, assistant professor of media/game studies at the University of Oregon, writes about how this type of harassment, typically through the mechanisms of sexism and misogyny, is a forceful reaction to “maintain games as a small, exclusionary area with limited audience members.”

Gray thinks that because early gaming communities were dominated by white males, their ways of engaging became core to technocultures that persist today. Though prevalent in all sorts of games and gaming communities, using racial slurs as trash talk is often the most excessive in war games. The simulated violence found in these multiplayer battles taps into toxic masculinity and nationalism to a problematic extreme, where winning the war means defeating foreign adversaries, the otherized “brown enemy,” and seeking full domination. Gray says Call of Duty represents a microcosm of reality in that it raises issues around the military-industrial complex, imperialism, and settler-colonial logic.

“Let’s be honest: All these games can present toxic patterns of engagement,” Gray says. “But maybe there is something to those kinds of spaces that fosters this kind of behavior. It’s like a kind of masculine performance that is accepted, encouraged even.”

He wasn’t merely using a bad word to troll me; he was weaponizing the stereotype that incompetence is inherent to Black people.

As someone who has experienced bigotry firsthand, I find it naive to think Leonard didn’t understand the weight of his words. But I do believe it’s likely he became so engulfed in that toxic gaming culture that he didn’t think about how those bigoted words affected people. Though the person who called me the N-word was a teenager, he knew what he was doing. He wasn’t merely using a bad word to troll me; he was weaponizing the stereotype that incompetence is inherent to Black people. If I could speak to him now, I imagine he’d assert that he had not one racist bone in his body. But once he was done lauding his non-racist skeleton, I would ask him why he used that term and how often did he hear others use it, in contrast to slurs specifically targeted at straight white men.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that Leonard or anyone who plays games like Call of Duty is inherently racist, anti-Semitic, or sexist. But I would argue that games like Call of Duty and the online cultures surrounding them can augment these ideas. And behavior like this is so widespread that calling it a subculture (though technically accurate) misses the mark.

Shedding light on these harmful dynamics in online gaming communities is important. While many justifiably place it within the more macro conversation about race, racism, and anti-Semitism, in the United States, overlooking the specifics of how this is a problem in gaming makes us less equipped to combat it. A study by the Anti-Defamation League showed that two-thirds of gamers report “severe” harassment when gaming online. Gray says that although most people aren’t paying attention to niche spaces like gaming, it’s important to understand the good and bad of gaming communities.

“I think Gamergate and the rise of the alt-right via gaming has brought more attention to the gaming space,” Gray says. “I just hope folks don’t throw it all away because of some bad actors. Black folks, women, queer folks, POC folks all have thriving, beautiful communities inside gaming. We need to shift our focus to them and less on the Meyer Leonards of the world.”

Joshua Adams is a staff writer at Colorlines.com from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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