Xbox Live: Defense Against Racism or Free Speech Restriction

Microsoft's promises to work "towards improvements" in restricting online harassment.

I usually like to keep things really lighthearted when it comes to talking about video games. It's my hobby, not my job. I don't want to feel stressed or depressed or any other "essed" when a joystick is in my hand (I still haven't gotten one of those fancy "control pads"). Today, however, is gonna be really freaking heavy. So let me get this out of the way: If you are offended by political advocacy, sexual harassment, crude language, violent language, other people's opinions, or ducks, I suggest you not read this. Some of the content is down right vulgar, but it's necessary to demonstrate both sides of what is almost undoubtedly the next forum for the debate on free speech. That said, let's talk about Microsoft's promise to work "towards improvements" in restricting online harassment.

1. What The Future Holds...

In response to some fairly accurate criticism that Xbox Live and online gaming as a whole has become a haven for hate speech and violent, ignorant ranting perpetrated by the absolute worst of society, Microsoft has announced that it will begin making moves towards limiting the possible outlets for that kind of speech on Xbox Live. The move from Microsoft to put an end (or at least curb) to online harassment has yet to be followed by any announcement of official plans. Microsoft is one of the most visible corporations on the planet, at the moment, and they know that no visible entity can go around restricting people's rights to say whatever they want without drawing massive negative attention. And so, the Xbox Live team is taking their time and playing their cards close to the chest. So why did Microsoft say anything at all about their upcoming plans? Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that James Portnow called them out on their lack of action. For those of you who don't know who James Portnow is (and don't feel like clicking the link), he's a respected professor, developer, journalist and consultant in the gaming community. When a guy like James Portnow calls you out like he did in this Extra Credits Flash video, you can't just ignore it. While Microsoft itself hasn't announced any of their plans, they seemed to imply in the above promise that Portnow was pleased with what they presented to him as potential solutions. That gives us very little to go with. But, one can take a leap and guess that the strategies suggested by Portnow in the video were among those considered by Microsoft. That may or may not be true, but it's all we have to go with right now, so let's look at those options. 1) Automuting - Internal programming automatically detects players whose "muted" rate is exceptionally high, and automatically mutes their output to other players at the beginning of a match. This presumably would filter out folks who get muted often (for acting like pricks) but leave the other players able to un-mute the muted player. 2) Message Response Counters - This option would detect players who sent an abnormally large number of messages that were not responded to. It would then restrict that player to only messaging friends in the future, under the assumption that unanswered mails are either spam or harassment. 3) Earned Communications - Rather than allowing players to immediately use communication tools, social gaming networks would require players to achieve a certain gamer score, reputation, or other measurement to ensure that their accounts are invested in. Once they had put in the investment, they would then be allowed to communicate directly with others. 4) Clan/Guild Reputations - The idea behind this is quite simple. If you punish the group with which the individual is affiliated (assuming he or she is part of a group) by reducing their reputation points, the other members will pressure the individuals to act more socially acceptable. This, of course, only works in highly social gaming communities. As I said, these are not solid policy plans, these are the suggestions of an avid gamer, developer, and industry leader. But more than that, they are frightening. These policies (whether you support them or not) would restrict the ability to communicate with the outside world. True, the goal of restricting hate speech and harassment is far from tyrannical. But, the decision still has to be made about whether or not we should allow this to happen. So which society gets to make that decision? In the end it's Microsoft. However, we as gamers are our own society; independent of national borders or religious organizations. Our gaming crosses the globe as easily as it crosses the language barrier. And anytime people's ability to speak their mind without restriction is impeded, we as a society have a responsibility to ask ourselves if the means justify the ends. The first step to doing that is looking at the unquestionably horrible things that anti-harassment policies would seek to eliminate...

Clayton Ofbricks hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.