US lawmakers take aim at gaming’s “harassment and extremism” problem

US lawmakers take aim at gaming’s “harassment and extremism” problem

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) has asked Valve to addres the prevalence of neo-Nazi accounts and content on its Steam platform.
Enlarge / Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) has asked Valve to addres the prevalence of neo-Nazi accounts and content on its Steam platform.

US Congress members are once again turning their eyes toward the game industry. But this time the focus isn’t on loot boxes, Hong Kong, or even video game violence. Instead, lawmakers want to know what gaming companies are doing about “player reports of harassment and extremism encounters in your online games.”

That language comes from a letter that seven Democratic legislators plan to send later today, as reported by Axios yesterday evening. The lawmakers—including Reps. Lori Trahan (D-MA), Katie Porter (D-CA), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—are asking for more information on how those reports are handled, what data is collected regarding them, and whether the companies have “safety measures pertaining to anti-harassment and anti-extremism.”

Recipients of the congressional inquiry will reportedly include a veritable who’s who of major video game publishers, including Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Epic, Microsoft, PUBG Corp, Riot Games, Roblox, Sony, Square, Take-Two Interactive, Tencent, Ubisoft, and Valve. Nintendo is notably missing from that list, as are other Asian gaming giants like Bandai Namco, Sega, Capcom, and Nexon (not to mention the American Warner Bros. Interactive). Among Us maker Innersloth will also receive a copy of the letter, an addition that likely reflects that game’s impact rather than the company’s size.

Steam’s neo-Nazi problem?

Ahead from that joint letter, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) is also taking particular aim at the prevalence of “users displaying and espousing neo-Nazi, extremist, racial supremacist, misogynistic, and other hateful sentiment” on Valve’s Steam platform. In a letter sent to Valve and obtained by Vice, Hassan points to the “pervasive” use of “terms and images commonly associated with neo-Nazi, extremist, and racial supremacist ideologies” on Steam.

“The exposure to explicit, unambiguous, and pervasive symbols, visuals, and words and phrases associated with racial supremacy, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, gender-based violence or harassment, homophobia, and other hateful and harmful ideologies restricts and inhibits many Steam users from participating in communities free of harassing, abusive, and threatening behavior,” Hassan’s letter reads, in part. “Furthermore, allowing racist, extremist, antisemitic, and other hateful ideologies an unimpeded space in which they can flourish online allows for the very real threat of violence in offline, physical spaces.”

Both letters cite a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League, which suggests 15 percent of gamers aged 10–17 and 20 percent of adult gamers were “exposed to white-supremacist ideology and themes” via multiplayer games in 2022. Those numbers both showed stark increases from 2021, according to the report, as did the incidence of “identity-based harassment” against groups like Jewish and Latino gamers.

The letters also come amid the ongoing trial of David DePape, who allegedly attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband at their California home in October. DePape’s writing suggests that the Gamergate movement served as his entry into a world of increasingly paranoid right-wing conspiracies regarding the Pelosis.

While both letters request responses from the companies, neither comes with any explicit threat of follow-up action if those requests are ignored. That said, cooperating with lawmakers’ requests could pay dividends if and when it comes to future hearings, proposed legislation, and/or threats of executive branch actions on these or other issues.

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