The Anti-Defamation League is taking its fight against hate to the world of video games, starting with supporting and training game developers in hopes of eventually reaching the massive 2.6 billion person gaming audience.
“The ADL has worked in digital environments since 1985,” said Daniel Kelley, associate director of the center for technology and society at the ADL. “We’ve been on bulletin boards, websites, and social media. I feel like it’s a natural evolution for us starting to think through what does a digital environment mean. Games are a huge part of that. It’s not just Twitter and Facebook, ‘Fortnite’ is a platform. ‘League of Legends’ is a platform.”
The ADL’s center for technology and society was announced in 2015, but didn’t formally launch until last year. In October, the group was working with the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment in California on a project when they were introduced to the idea of a game jam. Kelley said the ADL decided to run a game jam based on anti-bias education. The jam resulted in 33 games and so impressed the group that they started to look into using the approach on a broader scale. It also kicked off a more in-depth look into the world of gaming and game development.
Kelley said he started having informal discussions with groups like the International Game Developers Association, Playcrafting, Games for Change, and schools like NYU.
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He said he found a group of people who had a “real hunger” for engagement from the ADL to “address some of the problems in games.”
“We did a listening tour of different folks, academics, practitioners, others,” he said. “We read a lot about Gamergate in the press and about the harassment, but we wanted to hear from the community about what the problems are that the ADL can help with.”
That led to a summit of sorts at GDC with special interest groups. The ADL found there were three prongs of gaming that they could address: the culture in which games are made, the culture of players, and the games themselves.
They decided that working with the culture in which games are made was the best way to move the needle on combating the larger issues.
The concept is that if the culture in which games are made can be improved, that could in turn lead to more responsible games and then perhaps impact the people who play them.
“The idea is that there is a multiplier effect for engaging a game developer,” Kelley said. “They have a tremendous reach across the game community and can have a broader impact.”
Kelley is quick to point out that the issues the ADL seeks to address in gaming — issues of bias, hate, and harassment — aren’t unique to gaming.
“A lot of these problems are part of systemic problems, not just part of the gaming community,” he said. “It’s not unique to the game community, but there is something unique to who the community speaks to and something unique to the reach the game community has.”
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The ADL hasn’t yet solidified how it will address some of these issues inside game development studios and with publishers.
“We are experimenting, trying to see what that looks like, talking to game companies and other entities,” he said.
On Friday, Karen Schrier, the director of games at Marist College, will discuss one of those experiments during a Games for Change panel about fostering empathy and decision-making through games. The ADL is also in the process of putting together a framework for another game jam later this year. This time it will be partnering with the Global Game Jam.
“We are going to focus on the building blocks, starting with identity issues, and have folks talk about what identity means and how that can be expressed in a game,” Kelley said. “But it’s not one and done. It’s a lifelong process of becoming aware of ways in which bias is part of life.”
Bias is the largest, base level of what the ADL calls the pyramid of hate. The pyramid’s next level is acts of bias, then discrimination, bias-motivated violence, and finally genocide.
“The ADL works at every level,” Kelley said. “Education is proactive, starting at the base level of the pyramid.”
The approach the ADL plans to use in video games is similar to what it used in schools, where they trained principals and teachers who then passed on those lessons to students.
The group plans to work with the NYU Game Center to create a course this fall that will incorporate the ADL’s work on game-related media designed for impact. They’re also working with the IGDA to create new developer-focused programming to fight hate and bias in the game community.
Finally, Kelley said, it makes sure to be more proactive about being more vocal in its support of people working to make games better, and to call out those who misuse gaming platforms to proliferate hate and bigotry.
While this is the start of the ADL’s deeper dive into issues of hate and harassment in gaming, it’s not the first time the group addressed those issues.
In 2016, the ADL flew five national experts in online hate to Austin for SXSW’s first online harassment summit, an event created in the wake of Gamergate.
Gamergate, Kelley said, remains an issue still today, four years after it kicked off. GamerGate arose in 2014, ostensibly over concerns about ethics in game journalism, and quickly coalesced into a group of self-identified members whose concerns expanded to include the rise of what they labeled “PC culture” and “social justice warriors.” The more vocal of the group typically harass people, more often women and minorities, who question some of the status quo of game content in the video game industry. GamerGate harassment is most often sparked by the expansion of gaming content, settings, and characters to include more women, minorities, and the examination of modern social issues.
Earlier this year, Kelley wrote a post for the ADL’s blog about using video games to reduce bias and fight hate. In it he mentioned Gamergate once, the result was a wave of vitriolic responses, he said.
“Prior to posting it, I sent it to colleagues in the game community and they said you’re writing about Gamergate, look out, there’s going to be a pile on,” he said. “That speaks to the seriousness in which hate bias and harassment in games is impacting people.”
“From our discussions with people in the industry, Gamergate isn’t over, it remains a significant problem, part of a serious issue that needs to be taken seriously and the ADL takes it seriously,” he added. “It impacts people’s lives, impacts a person’s ability to do their job.”