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US lawmakers question top game publishers on online extremism and hate

Dec. 16 letter addresses Xbox, Sony, and more major companies

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Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Seven members of Congress are writing the leaders of 15 video game publishers on Friday to ask how they respond to, and mitigate, extremist and harassing behavior in their online communities.

A draft of the letter, published Thursday evening by Axios, cites the latest “Hate and Harassment in Online Games” report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to express the lawmakers’ concern. The ADL has published a study of extremist and toxic online behavior each year since 2019. The current report, released on Dec. 6, says “[a]n estimated 2.3 million teens were exposed to white supremacist ideology,” in online video games spanning Fortnite, Roblox, Apex Legends, and the Madden NFL series.

“We are writing to better understand the processes you have in place to handle player reports of harassment and extremism encounters in your online games,” say the seven lawmakers, all of them Democrats. “Authorities around the world like the United States’ Department of Homeland Security and the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network are taking notice and launching investigations into how extremists use online gaming spaces to radicalize young people.”

Axios said the letter would be sent Friday to the corporate leadership of Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Microsoft, Riot Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Square Enix, Take-Two Interactive, Tencent, Ubisoft, Valve Corp., and the makers of Among Us, Roblox and PUBG. Notably, Nintendo of America was not included.

The lawmakers ask the companies what data they collect “on in-game player reporting mechanisms and automatic bans for inappropriate behavior,” and whether they would consider “releasing those data in regular transparency reporting.” They also asked the companies how they identify “extremist content in your games,” and whether they have policies in place to address it.

Their letter is not a subpoena or a summons to appear before a committee. But Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) told Axios that “parents like me with young kids are going to be paying attention to how they respond.”

The ADL’s latest report says that only Roblox Corp. “has an explicit, public-facing policy against extremism.” As for transparency, it notes that Microsoft last month published its first report on online moderation, the behavior reported and observed on Xbox Live, and the actions it has taken in response.

Otherwise, “hate and extremism in online games have worsened” since the 2020 report, the ADL says. “For the fourth consecutive year, the already-high rates of harassment experienced by a nationally representative sample of nearly 100 million American adult gamers increased.” The 2022 report notes that it has now collected data on “harassment experienced by pre-teens ages 10-12.”

The report notes that the accused shooter in the May 14 mass murder at a Buffalo supermarket espoused white nationalist sympathies and attributed his radicalization to a player-made game called “Blood and Iron” on the Roblox platform. That game, released in 2009, recreates the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century and references a speech made by Prussian president Otto von Bismarck 50 years later, calling for the unification of German states.

The report and letter also follow a New York Times story, published Wednesday, that said the man who attacked and seriously injured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband on Oct. 22 wrote that he was radicalized by Gamergate, the right-wing online movement begun in 2014 that continues as a backlash to diversity and inclusion in video games and other pop culture media.

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