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The thin line between profiting from online harassment, and preventing it (update)

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The free-to-play MMO War Thunder allows players to use cosmetic items to decorate their WWII-era tanks and planes in game. But nationalism, racism and plain old trolling have become a serious problem in the game's online community. To combat abuse, developer Gaijin Entertainment has started charging players for national flag decals that used to be free. Gaijin sees it as making it more painful for bad actors to abuse other players, but many in the community see it simply as monetizing harassment.

Lots of free-to-play games make a pretty penny off of cosmetic items, and War Thunder is no exception. Many of their vehicle decals are pulled from museum pieces and old photographs. They are historical artifacts; period nose art from ace pilots or kill markings shown on the hulls of famous tanks.

Before last week, Gaijin included the flag of every country in the U.N. for free, part of a set of starter decals that helped get players used to the idea of personalizing their vehicles. It allowed players to create obscure historical tanks and warplanes and, alternately, have a little fun.

"Say that you want to recreate a historical aircraft in the game," Alexander Trifonov, Gaijin's head of public relations told Polygon. "We have, for instance, official artwork of some Mexican Thunderbolt [fighter planes]. If you are a huge fan of history, or if you are simply a Mexican player, you can put the Mexican flag on your Thunderbolt in order to achieve historical accuracy. That was our intention for including these flags.

These last few months though things have gotten out of control, leading to many complaints.

"What we have seen is that in some cases people are using these flags in inappropriate ways." Those ways include, Trifonov said, images and symbols of Nazism that are prohibited in many European countries.

By charging a fee, is Gaijin profiting from harassment?

"In the U.S. it is okay to use swastikas in the media and video games or whatever," Trifonov said. "But in Europe, and in Russia, it is strictly forbidden in video games. So when someone tries to put these kinds of symbols into the game, Gaijin can get into a lot of trouble."

But it's not just swastikas that were creating a furor in War Thunder's community. Many players were using combinations of flags in ways that were offensive to many nationalities and religions. There was also the issue of realism.

"It was quite a dilemma for us," Trifonov says. "The thing is that most of the countries that we had flags for in the game, the didn't exist during WWII. Like Israel, for example, or the Russian Federation, for that matter. And when you see the flag of some country that didn't exist during WWII it destroys that realism."

Also at stake was game balance. Certain ultra-realistic modes remove HUD indicators from friend and foe alike, forcing players to rely on camouflage for stealth and close communication to avoid friendly fire. In high-stakes, team-based events having someone on your side whose tank is painted front to back with a giant American flag decal puts your team at a disadvantage.

There were also clever players who used these decals to fool people into thinking they were on their side, literally using false flags to confuse the enemy.

But simply removing the flags, or limiting their use, would be unfair to their players Trifonov said. Instead, Gaijin made the difficult decision to charge for flags that were once free, effectively making it more difficult to abuse them.

History is inherently political

"It wasn't a decision that was taken lightly," he said. "Sometimes you have to pick the lesser evil, one might say. And we are trying to be as open about this as we can."

In the end, Gaijin isn't stopping anyone from doing all the game-breaking, offensive things its community has complained about, it's just making that abuse more expensive. So is Gaijin merely profiting from players desire to abuse others?

"No," Trifonov said. Then he hesitated. "Well, our idea is to prevent this behavior and we think... It wasn't our intention in any way to profit from this.

"We don't want to remove these options completely for those people who want to use them to recreate real, existing vehicles. War Thunder even supports user-generated content [on the client-side] and has for some time now, so if you really want to drive around with a Union Jack-covered tank, you can still do this and do it for free."

History is political, and even a decades-old conflict like WWII has left behind echoes of ill will around the world. For companies like Gaijin, who set their games in reality, these kinds of issues will continue to crop up. So too will players try to exploit and abuse systems designed to entertain them. War Thunder and games like it will simply have to adapt.

Update: Trifonov reached out to Polygon via email to add a few things to this story.

"I wanted to clarify that there are no Nazi symbols in the game, of course," he wrote. "But, some players used the creative combination of existing decals and flags to create offensive imagery like this.

"There is a reporting mechanism in the game, and anyone can report the offending player. And we take measures, of course. We believe that the fear of ban for several days greatly outweighs the desire to offend other people, especially now that you have to spend some money to abuse the flags.

"Many players don't want to pay for anything, much less for something that doesn't give a bonus (like other premium options of War Thunder), so we think charging for flags will be a very effective measure."