She’s well known within the player community of Electronic Arts‘ game, in part because she created modifications that gave characters more racially diverse skin tones and hair. She also started a website for people to share their own mods and other creations, called The Black Simmer.
Often, she’s streaming a live broadcast of her play online, sharing her Sims exploits with hundreds of fans under the username Xmiramira. But every once in a while, people join her stream to cause trouble.
One way they do that is to change their username include racially charged language when they leave comments while she’s streaming. They’d include words “like ghetto, N-word and slurs,” she said.
Virgil isn’t alone.
And there’s a good reason why. Sitting in the conference room nestled in the Loews Hollywood Hotel ahead of the Adam Tanielian, asked the room full of influencers whether any of them had seen or been the target of bullying, harassment online. Nearly every hand shot up., in Los Angeles, EA’s head of community engagement,
“It’s a really crappy thing,” Tanielian said.
So, over the next three hours EA outlined how it plans to combat this issue. It’s going to start releasing regular reports about the health of its online communities. It’s going to offer new tools to players to help tamp down on toxicity. And it’s going to bring together a council of players to regularly discuss these issues and what the company can do about it.
EA said it also wants to inspire its players to help make change too. That includes hearing about positive behavior from influencers they look up to. “You guys have a lot of power to try to solve some of these issues, or at least provide solutions,” Tanielian said.
EA’s efforts come at a time when the video game industry is larger and more influential than ever. Its worldwide sales topped $137.9 billion last year, according to data from industry watcher Newzoo, larger than music and movies combined. Online communities, such as the more than 250 million people who have signed up to play the hit online battle game Fortnite, are swelling with millions of players.
Maintaining those large networks of gamers playing together has caused many companies to rethink the way they approach the lives people lead in the worlds they’ve created.
In the past, companies largely left players to sort themselves out. But now, with multi-player aspects of games like EA’s Battlefield war simulation franchise growing in popularity alongside gaming social networks like Microsoft’s Xbox Live, companies say they’re compelled to start influencing the culture of players in their games for the better.
“There was a period of time where it was accepted — that’s how games are,” said Chris Bruzzo, EA’s head of marketing, who also helped head up its healthy communities summit. “We’ve started to hear more and more from players that this wasn’t something they didn’t want to tolerate anymore.”
Of course, harassment and bullying are pervasive on social networking. And EA isn’t the only gaming company attempting to tackle these issues.
In May, Microsoft posted its community standards, and committed to more moderation tools to help people avoid toxic players. Ubisoft, ahead of its E3 press conference Monday, played a video of the rapper and actor Ice-T talking about how to handle gaming online.
“Video games are for everyone, and we need to keep a safe environment for the enjoyment of all, but not everyone’s cool like that,” he said.
Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, said the company has been more actively discussing these issues in part because he feels it’s part of the company’s responsibility when creating online games that connect players together.
“Because our games are more and more social, we want those games to be safe. We want all the people to come in and feel good,” he said. “It is our job to make sure it’s as safe possible.”
There are also organizations like the Fair Play Alliance, a collection of companies working to encourage healthy communities. And there are anti-bullying nonprofits such as Ditch The Label, which EA supports financially, that promote equality and study the effects of toxic behavior.
“Bullying is real, and it has real and devastating consequences,” said Liam Hackett, head of Ditch The Label, who spoke at the event. He said Ditch The Label’s data found one in 10 victims of bullying have considered suicide, and one in five people have quit a game because of how they’re treated by other players.
An increasing number of companies are taking notice. YouTube last week said it would take away advertising from the conservative personality Steven Crowder for using homophobic slurs against journalist Carlos Maza, a writer and video host at Vox. And some advertisers said they would no longer run ads on at least two gaming YouTube channels whose criticism and personal attacks went against their “strict” guidelines on advertising placement.
Looking to the community
EA knows a thing or two about online behavior. The company’s run afoul of gamers many times.
When EA began promoting its World War II-inspired shooting game last year, players immediately seized on the promotional materials that featured a woman on the cover. It wasn’t historically accurate to show a woman on the front lines, critics said. When the company stood up to them, saying don’t buy it if they don’t like it, the backlash grew got even worse. Ultimately, the game’s sales underperformed expectations despite a positive reception among some critics.
So, it could be easy to dismiss EA’s Healthy Communities Summit as its knee-jerk reaction to all that. After all, EA’s sales and usage of its games are tied to customers being happy. Any effort to help everyone be nicer to one another could be dismissed as self-serving.
But Bruzzo said it’s more than that. A player at a competitive event for EA’s Madden NFL football series shot and killed one of his competitors last year. Bruzzo said the company realized it didn’t just need to make sure the events were safe, but also to make sure there was mental health support for players too.
“On the empathy side, there is work to be done,” he said.
There are no clear answers yet. During a breakout discussion about research EA had done around the impacts of disruptive player behavior, attendees grappled with how involved any company should be in these issues and where the line should be drawn between banter, trash talk and hurtful actions.
Some attendees said they’re frustrated by incessant harassment by other players. Some people in particular try to undermine them in a game, such as by accusing them of cheating. Some attendees said they’re targeted by disruptive players in an effort to make them look bad during a live stream.
“Disruptive behavior doesn’t just disrupt the game, it disrupts people’s actual life,” said Andy Castell a 25-year-old gaming YouTuber from the UK who’s part of EA’s Game Changers influencer program. He often makes videos about playing EA’s FIFA soccer game at his channel, AJ3, which has nearly 1.5 million subscribers. “It’s obviously very important to create as positive an environment as possible in the game.”
Castell said he hasn’t struggled too much with disruptive behavior himself, but he can see why it’s a problem. Solving this issue, he said, will take a delicate community discussion that doesn’t come off as paternalistic.
“It’s hard in the environment that social media currently is, because you look like someone on a high horse trying to tell everyone they’re wrong, and people will take offense to it,” Castell said. “It does feel like the world’s playing catchup to this beast that’s just running out of control.”
For now, EA’s focused on starting conversations. It held the Healthy Communities Summit ahead of E3 with its Game Changers influencers, and it made those commitments to releasing research and building tools to fight toxicity. It also plans to meet with other companies to swap ideas and to work with gamers themselves to come up with features and rules to help reduce these issues.
“It’s going to be challenging to expect any one of the companies in this space will be able to ‘solve it,'” Bruzzo said.
Virgil, of The Black Simmer, said she hopes this represents EA’s first steps toward seeking out more diverse perspectives — and not just from its player base but in its employee ranks as well.
“It’s already hard enough being a content creator,” she said. But she’s often had to narrow her focus on playing with her community, rather than entering public matches for video games like Activision Blizzard’s popular multiplayer shooting game Overwatch, because of the environment she encounters.
“I don’t want to deal with the racism, sexism and general toxicity that comes with being in the gaming space,” she said. As much as influencers might be able to help, she added, companies like EA and platforms like YouTube need to actively help solve some of these issues too.
“It’s up to them to them to foster and create environments, and better moderate the situations that we encounter on a day to day basis,” Virgil said. “It’s up to them, because there’s only so much we can do.”