by

As Technology Evolves, New Forms of Online Racism Emerge

Austin, Tex.—New forms of online racism are emerging as video games add audio-chat features, and as popular online games draw a more global audience.

That was the message of a panel of academics and journalists at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference, an annual event that brings together video-game designers, social-media leaders, and cultural critics looking for the latest technology trends.

A famous New Yorker cartoon has long summed up the anonymizing power of cyberspace: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” But in some popular video games and in social virtual worlds like Second Life, voice chat features have been added in the past few years, essentially proving the cartoon outdated. The addition of human voices has led people to make assumptions about the players based on their speech, often on the basis of race. That’s according to research cited at the conference by Lisa Nakamura, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

One of the most recent studies she mentioned was one done by Gambit, a video-game lab run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Singapore. The study is known as the Gambit Hate Speech Project, and its leaders have released highlights of their findings in a series of online videos.

Ms. Nakamura said she has been more surprised by completely new kinds of racism on some popular online video games that now count players around the world. For instance, in China large numbers of users began earning a living playing Lineage 2, winning virtual weapons in the fantasy role-playing game and selling their online loot to people in the United States who did not have time to play as many hours to arm their characters. Many of the players chose to play as a female dwarf, a class in the game that can more easily win treasure on solo missions. And so other players began killing all dwarfs in the game, often adding anti-Chinese slurs in the chat section of the game as they did, says Ms. Nakamura.

“What happened was that female dwarfs become an unplayable race” in the game, she said. “They basically became a racial minority,” she added, “with the same status as immigrant workers—they become a race, which is an interesting thing.”

“Race doesn’t happen because of biology—it happens because of culture,” she concluded.

W. James Au, author of the book The Making of Second Life, said online games and forums where participants are anonymous seem to be growing more slowly these days, and the most popular networks, including Facebook, match users to their offline identities. When anonymity disappears, people are generally more civil. “The shift to real identities online helps get rid of racism,” he said.

All of the participants on the panel, including the moderator, Jeff Yang, a blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle, said the topic of race online is rarely discussed, despite frequent instances of hate speech in online environments. “The topic is talked about less than it should be in talking about the power of digital media,” he told the audience when introducing the panel.

In an interview after the session, Ms. Nakamura, who co-edited a new book due out in a few weeks called Race After the Internet, said that more attention to the issue has been paid lately, as part of discussions of cyberbullying.

What would it take to draw a broader discussion of the issue?

“There has to be a high-profile killing probably—I hate to say that,” she said. “It has to be a big media event.”

Return to Top