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Riot Games and the bigotry iceberg

Riot Games and the bigotry iceberg

Riot Games and the bigotry iceberg
June 19
13:31 2020

In the wake of worldwide activism following the killing of George Floyd, countless corporations with no previous stakes or input in racial discourse suddenly posted tepid statements of solidarity in droves, either by their own volition or after sustained requests to do so. In the past weeks, however, video game developer Riot Games has joined the esteemed ranks of those who put forth significant donations for organizations dedicated to social reform. But the questionable circumstances surrounding their enthusiasm for diversity point to much more insidious issues in both the gaming industry and community.

On June 10, Riot executive Ron Johnson was placed on leave after making an inflammatory Facebook post suggesting that George Floyd died as a result of his “criminal lifestyle.” Following widespread outcry and swift condemnation of his statements from Riot, Johnson resigned two days later.

From this situation’s onset, the fallout is all too predictable. An executive is fired for their thorny personal opinions, and after they resign in disgrace, the usual argument ensues between whether or not someone’s politics should cost them their jobs, or if trendy social movements demanding things as trivial as basic equity should encroach on the structural infallibility of a corporation. But the main problem with Johnson’s commentary is not only how damaging it is on its own, but how truly exhausting addressing issues like this has become. And worse yet, these myopic attitudes have the potential to legitimize an already rampant culture of toxicity in gaming.

While Johnson’s comments come into direct conflict with Riot’s more sensitive June 5 statement on the mobilization of their Social Impact Fund, the prejudiced sentiments they represent are unfortunately not off-color for Riot in particular. In the summer of 2019, Riot employees staged a walkout over pervasive workplace issues, primarily forced arbitration for sexual discrimination cases. Though at the time this was a step in the right direction, it was only after an investigation had revealed that a rampant culture of sexism permeated Riot’s already demanding work environment.

One could argue that the bigotry apparently rampant in the gaming industry’s ranks should not be the standard by which the gaming community itself is judged, but the gaming community has unfortunately always been more than willing to drag people through delectable selections of slurs for no reason. While gamers are diverse in a universal sense, the gaming community has long been identified as a breeding ground for harassment and extremist hatred, with at least two-thirds of players experiencing harassment in online play, many specifically for being identified as minorities.

In fairness, game developers are well aware that their player bases are not perfect, and measures are often taken to moderate online interactions. Riot themselves implemented AI and a tribunal system in the moderation for their flagship game “League of Legends” to surprisingly successful ends. However, as Riot continues to expand their scope of games past “League’s” tedious MOBA format — from “Valorant’s” take on competitive shooters to the more casual appeal of “Teamfight” Tactics and “Wild Rift” on mobile — moderation efforts have had clear trouble keeping up with Riot’s rapidly expanding player base. Following “Valorant’s” recent release, people found that its reporting system simply could not keep up with the sheer amount of toxic behavior being reported. And though “Valorant’s” predecessors have supposedly tightened up their moderation systems, it does not take much playing or searching to find droves of bigoted usernames and unchecked racist chats that have fallen through the cracks.

The larger problem here isn’t that things have fallen through the community’s cracks, though. The problem is that these are the industry’s cracks, and they have allowed torrents of bigotry to spew through until PR reminds them that in the face of global protests challenging white supremacy, having a non-zero percentage of usernames with the N-word in the community is not a good look.

As a gaming community, it is important to remember that while statements of solidarity from developers in this time of upheaval may be reassuring, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing bigotry in gaming. Fighting to reform the toxic mindset of a community that largely gets its kicks from domination through aggression in an online space is no easy feat. Gaming has long been dominated by voices that seek to use the online space to exercise free speech for the sake of making noise, and in a time when racial upheaval demands the exercise of free speech to call for real change, the last thing the world needs is a verifiable safe space for unfettered hatred.

While the demand for gaming companies to make their intent to do better known is a step in the right direction, it is important to remember that moderating boisterous executives is only part of the problem. If solid steps are not taken to step up user moderation and better identify dangerous behavior within games themselves, then the gaming community will continue to be a community bound by spite and vitriol.

With slow steps seeming to be in the future, the most we can do now is hit mute, report and hope your report isn’t received by the enlightened likes of Ron Johnson.

Featured Illustration: Austin Banzon

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Vincenzo Favarato

Vincenzo Favarato

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