Bigotry In The Ranks

Death and life are in the power of the tongue

King Solomon (Proverbs 18:21)

I have always been a believer in the power of words.  When I speak or write, I choose my words carefully.  I try to know my audience and consider the ways in which what I say could be misinterpreted.  I do this both because I want what I say to come across clearly and because I understand how words can hurt someone, even if not directed specifically at them.  I don’t want to say something that brings up a particularly traumatic experience, or reinforces prejudices, or just crosses the line of human decency.

Rarely is it necessary to go to such lengths to get your message across.  Yet daily, I see examples of people abusing the power of words in WoW.  Some days, I see people purposely using words to incite others, or to try to hide racist or sexist messages in their guild or character names.

Why do people do this, and more importantly, why do we let them get away with it?

Let me use an example that to this day both infuriates and boggles my mind: the guild name “Sapped Girls Can’t Say No”.  There are more than 120 such guilds on the US and EU realms and over 300 arena teams.  Most of the guilds have five or less members, and many have only one.  These aren’t real guilds.  They are attempts by people to make a joke.  A joke about rape.  There’s no wiggle room here – go do a google search and you’ll find that the top hits replace “sapped” with “drunk” or “drugged”.

If you stood in the middle of a busy city centre wearing a sandwich board that read “Drugged Girls Can’t Say No”, you would at the very least convince passers-by that you were an asshole, and at worst get lynched.  Depending on the country you live in you might be charged with a hate crime or inciting sexual violence.  Yet somehow it’s OK to do the virtual equivalent in WoW, and we (the people who see them displaying that guild tag) let them get away with it.  Under Blizzard’s terms of use, such guild names are clearly not allowed.  All it takes is one report and Blizzard should by all rights force the guild to change its name.

That these names still persist suggests that people either don’t care or think the joke is funny.  But what about those players who have been the victim of sexual violence?  Is it fair that they should be reminded of that dark past just so that some asshat can have a laugh?  Why do we not extend the same human kindness in the virtual world that we do in the real world?  You can’t play these types of things off as “part of the roleplaying experience” – it’s a plain and simple attempt to tell a sexist joke from behind the shield of anonymity that your character provides.

Dredging the Forums

So, what prompted me to write on this topic?  Against my better judgement, I decided to take the pulse of the WoW forum community by browsing the General forum, a decision that was both stupid and tragic.  Among the torrent of nerdrage about the forced Battle.Net merge (more on that next week), I came across this post:

Yes our named got banned because I camped a shadow priest. Tell me what is wrong with the guild name “halaa back naga”. Two of our members that are african american suggested that name, we liked it so we made it. We were getting complements like “man awesome guild name” “Dude can I join your guild its so awesome” etc.  I want a gm to respond to this because that guild lasted 4 months before some scrub that couldn’t get away from me reported it.

Admittedly, this guild name is less offensive than my example above.  But the responses (in which the OP is essentially told that he is an idiot and should have known better) encouraged me to write about the more extreme examples that I’ve seen in the past.  Obviously I’m not alone in my thinking.

It’s not every little thing that I take issue with – just the extremes: racism, sexism and religious zealotry.  I remember an incident from my first EU guild.  I was leveling both my Paladin and Death Knight at the time, and mentioned in guild chat that it would be great it Paladin tanks had a similar spell to Death Grip – call it “Holy Lasso” or something like that.  The response that came back (from the guild leader no less) was that if I wanted a holy spell that dragged people in, it should be called “Islam”.  That was a serious “WTF?” moment, after which I ripped the guy a new one publicly for preaching that level of intolerance.

Calling a Spade a Spade

Let me be blunt: I consider the extremes of this type type of behaviour to be bigotry, plain and simple.  Is that too harsh a word?  Should I try to find something less insulting those those who are only a little bit racist or sexist?  Nope.

A bigot is someone who is intolerant of those whose ideas differ from their own, most often with regards to religion, race or politics.  When you attack or victimize someone who differs from you, you’re being a bigot.  That the attack is passive (displaying something offensive towards another group in a public forum) rather than active is irrelevant.

It’s the degree that is the problem.  Intolerance is such a malleable term.  Some people will observe a disagreement or heated discussion and accuse one or both of the parties of being intolerant.  If any degree of intolerance could be equated to bigotry, nobody would be able to say anything negative to anyone else, and that would be a terrible world to live in.

For my purposes, the line is when you say or do something that would be generally offensive to a mixed group of people you didn’t know in the real world.

Too Sensitive?

Some will accuse me of being overly sensitive, saying that I shouldn’t pay any mind to people who act sexist or racist in the game.  I disagree.

Relatively little of what anyone says in game affects me directly.  My issue with bigotry in the game is that there are plenty of people who are affected by racism and sexism.  Just as I want to have fun when I play, I cringe to think what it must be on the receiving end of these displays.  Imagine for a moment what it would be like to drive by a billboard every day that ripped on your gender or race.  Society prohibits public hate speech, so why should anyone be able to get away with it inside of WoW?

Politically, I identify as a social democrat.  My family and friends are mostly the same (or at least more left-leaning than right).  I believe that people should on the whole be kind and decent to each other.  I don’t like spending time with people who hold an opposing view on that point, and that dislike translates directly to the game.  If you come out and show me that you’re an intolerant bigot, I’m not going to want to group with you, talk to you or have you as a guild mate.

When Has It Gone Too Far?

As I mentioned above, most of the “Sapped Girls Can’t Say No” guilds are vanity guilds with only a few members, usually of low level.  I have to assume that the main character of the owners of the guilds live in normal everyday guilds.  Possibly yours.  I’m sure we’ve all had some experience with a guildmate who just didn’t quite fit in.  Either they were cracking locker-room jokes the day after joining, or had a habit of saying the most inappropriate things during raids.  Sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding, an episode of social awkwardness as we all have from time to time.  Sometimes it goes beyond that.

As a guild leader, you need to ask yourself what the line is that you’re willing to accept, both in guild/raid chat and voice chat.  That line may not exist for your guild, or more specifically be entirely at one end of the scale or the other.  I find that most guilds don’t define what they consider to be acceptable.  Either they take a reactive approach, dealing with the member who crosses an unwritten line or they define it in vague terms like “you are expected to respect your fellow guildmates”.

The problem with these approaches is that they don’t prevent the first offence, nor do they set expectations for your members.  Respect is a multi-facted thing.  I can respect my guild mates but still tell an off-colour joke.  They aren’t mutually exclusive.

I think part of the problem lies with the level of familiarity that people presume to have within a guild.  When I first join a new guild, I tend to be a bit reserved, getting a feel for the level of chat members participate in before speaking up more often.  Even then, I try to match my conversational style to that which existed before I joined.

I’ve known other members who join a guild and presume that everyone in the guild is immediately their best friend and that the conversations they might have with their best buddies is appropriate for guild chat.  What may be appropriate among close friends is not going to be acceptable in guild chat unless everyone in the guild is also your close friend.  This seems simple and obvious to me, but others overlook it completely.

Reactive policies or vague guidelines rely on getting inside the heads of not only the people who cross the line, but the people who may take offence to the trespass.  We are guild leaders – we aren’t psychologists.  I’m sure there are a few Psy.D guild leaders, but to them I have to say “take off the doctor hat when you’re playing WoW”.

Don’t try to out-think your members.  It’s frustrating for you and (to be perfectly frank) insulting to them.  In all aspects of your guild, it’s your job to set expectations and deal with the people who fail to meet those expectations.  Deal with the facts, not with what you think others are thinking.

Issues For Guild Leaders

Beyond the whole “provide an enjoyable environment for your members” angle, there are good responsible reasons to set expectations with regards to extreme speech.  You may have members who let their children play with them.  While this can in and of itself be an issue (“Daddy, why did you kill that man?”), the additional hassle of explaining to a young child what a racial slur or swear means is drama that your members (and you) can easily do without.

It may be wise to avoid this problem entirely by telling your members that you can’t control what children may see as they sit with their parents.  But be clear – this is a passive approach to solving a problem that I do not guild leaders apply regularly.

You should also consider voice comms such as Ventrilo.  Are the rules the same as for guild chat?  Voice chat has less permanence but a more human angle as it’s delivered in the voice of a person, not a character.  On the other hand, the way in which something is said can make it clear that it’s a joke, even if the same words might be offensive in text.  It is also easier to rebut things that are said in voice chat as it lends itself to more spontaneous communication.

Before deciding to have no rules at all on voice chat, consider that not everyone is able (for technical reasons) or willing (for personal or emotional reasons) to get into a fight with someone who has said something offensive on voice chat.  Though it may be closer to the extreme, there should still be a line that members should not cross.

Alternate Forums

If your guild members insist on having a place where they can speak without any limit, try to have that place not be guild chat.  Members can’t leave guild chat, save for silly tricks like setting the text to transparent, and even then they lose everything, not just the offensive bits.  Create a private chat channel and warn people on your forums or in the guild information panel that anything goes.  If they choose to enter that room, they give up all recourse except to /leave the channel.

Zero Tolerance or Finding a Balance?

Before I am accused being a complete prude and advocating political correctness throughout WoW, let me clarify.  I am in no way suggesting that swearing, dark humour or innuendo be purged from guild or voice chat.  I enjoy those as much as the next person, and if I were banned from witty banter among my guildmates, the guild would be a lot less enjoyable for me.

What I am advocating is a clear definition of what is not allowed, and sticking to that without fail.  For me, the limits are obviously racism, sexism and religion.  If a guild member brings any of the three into guild chat, I’m going to shut then down immediately.  Anything else is fair game.  I want this to be enforced regardless of whether I’m online or not – everyone in the guild should consider it part of being a member to not tolerate this kind of behaviour.  If an officer or leader isn’t on and someone won’t shut up after being asked to, take a screenshot and the person will be dealt with – and more harshly than if I saw it myself, as it suggests that they think they can get away with more when I’m not around.

Stand Firm

Hopefully I’ve given you something to think about.  As with all decisions about your guild, you will be best served by setting a clear expectation, making sure members know what that is, and enforcing it fairly regardless of who crossed the line (even if that person is you – know how to admit when you’ve screwed up).  Even if you decide that you want no limits and will allow people to say and do whatever they want, state that where potential members can see it.  Stand behind the decisions you’ve made – don’t just let it happen and shrug.

I might think twice about joining a guild that explicitly promised to put no limits of any kind on what members can say in guild chat, and you are probably doing yourself a favour by not setting unrealistic or vague expectations for new members of your guild.

Likewise, if you are going to have very tight limits on the type of humor and cursing you allow (if any), make sure that people know that.  If it isn’t stated anywhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if people assumed the default stance of a guild to be similar to my description above: anything goes so long as it isn’t hateful.

Until Next Time

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