Mar 2, 2023 - Technology

Exclusive: U.S. rep mulls legislative action to press games industry on extremism

Illustration of a flashlight in the shape of the U.S. Capitol.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Major video game companies have been insufficiently forthcoming about responding to a reported rise in white supremacy and other extremism in online games, the office of Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) tells Axios.

Driving the news: Trahan is releasing — and criticizing — summaries of responses from 14 video game companies regarding problematic behavior in online games.

  • Last year, Trahan and other congressional Democrats requested the companies describe their harassment and extremism policies, fueled by an Anti Defamation League report that found a recent rise in hateful conduct in games.
  • The report found that 16% of young players said they’d been exposed to white supremacist comments while playing games, higher than the 14% exposed through in-person conversation, but lower than the 26% through social media.
  • Congresswoman Trahan is actively looking at possible avenues for legislative actions to further shine a light on how extremism exists in online games and explore what can be done by regulators, companies, and gamers to better address the issue,” Trahan spokesperson Francis Grubar tells Axios.

Details: Many of the responses to Trahan’s six-part questionnaire, which come from a range of game companies, including EA, Activision, Microsoft, Krafton, Sony, and Tencent, describe game company policies for combatting harassment, including in-game tools for reporting problematic players.

  • Fortnite-maker Epic Games said it has more than 1,500 specialists to address player reports.
  • Sony mentioned the ability for players to record recent interactions to include in incident reports.
  • Tencent said it prioritizes reports from accounts used by minors.
  • Among Us development studio Innersloth, a much tinier team than the others quizzed by Democrats, noted its game’s randomization of player names for users under 13.

Yes, but nine of the 14 responses don’t detail efforts to assess or mitigate extremism in their games, despite being asked, according to tallies provided by Trahan’s office.

  • A notable exception: Roblox says it has a dedicated team reviewing terrorism and violent extremism.
  • In December, Activision Blizzard said publicly it had reached out to the ADL and wanted to collaborate on improving player safety.

What they’re saying: “I’m disappointed that the majority of companies failed to address some of our most urgent questions, including providing us with their policies around extremism, as well as transparency reporting around these topics,” Trahan said in a statement.

  • That lack of reply could trigger more pressure from Washington.

The other side: “The industry takes this issue very seriously and it’s frustrating to hear it’s not seen that way,” Aubrey Quinn, a spokesperson for the gaming industry’s trade group the Entertainment Software Association, said in a statement.

  • The ESA had sent its own letter to Trahan and other Congressional leaders, outlining the measures the industry has taken with parental controls and moderation.
  • While condemning white supremacy and other forms of hate, the ESA letter suggests the political alarm over games is based on an overly broad use of the term “extremism.”
  • “Suggestions that playing video games expose players to ‘extremist’ behavior cause a false alarm and create a false reality. The reality is that millions of Americans are engaging in fun, positive and valuable play on our platforms. That is because our members place a high priority on creating safe and inclusive environments. And where harmful behavior surfaces, our industry addresses it promptly.”

Be smart: The popularity of online games creates challenges of scale for game companies or anyone else trying to monitor for hateful speech.

  • Human moderators, automated chat filters and parental controls are all existing tools in use industry-wide.
  • Some companies responding to Trahan’s questionnaire also said they currently or plan to use artificial intelligence to help detect problematic comments or content from players.
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