Erica L. Neely

A pair of lips, crossed out

Civility in games

Recently, Blizzard Entertainment has done something, well, rather entertaining to try to combat online incivility.  In their first-person shooter, Overwatch, they have had issues with players typing “GG EZ” after a game.  While this may seem like a random collection of letters, “GG” stands for “good game” – but “GG EZ” basically means “good game, easy win.”  It is essentially denigrating the accomplishment by claiming that it was easy and thus the comment is intended as an insult.  (If this sounds strange to you, I agree; my first interpretation of “GG EZ” was that it was a compliment meaning something like “Good game – we won that easily!”  The internet is apparently a much nicer place inside my head.)  In any case, Blizzard currently has a feature on the public test realm for Overwatch in which “gg ez” will be automatically replaced with some kind of amusing line instead.  (For example: “Well played.  I salute you all.”)

Unsurprisingly – this is the Internet, after all – this move has provoked controversy.  (Reading the comments on a story like this should give you a sample of what’s out there.)  There are a number of common objections I have seen:

  • This is censorship.
  • Why is everyone so sensitive/they shouldn’t object to what people say online/everyone is too PC
  • This won’t work – people can just type something else insulting.

First, on the issue of censorship.  Clearly Blizzard is within their legal rights to do this; being a private entity, not a governmental one, they can put restrictions on speech if they wish to.  Much as you don’t have the right to come start talking trash in my living room, you don’t have a right to speech that Blizzard objects to on their servers.  But what about ethically?

From an ethical point of view, it’s not clear that Blizzard needs to enable player communication at all; it is a nice thing to do and may, theoretically, make the game easier to play if players can coordinate.  But ultimately the gamespace is created for the purposes of playing the game, not for serving as a marketplace of ideas.  There are many other venues for exchanging opinions and ideas – there are even many other ways of doing so while playing a video game, such as by having a Twitch stream.  In-game communication is not essential to preserve this aspect of communication.

Furthermore, having enabled player communication does not imply that players have a moral right to say whatever they wish.  Indeed, I think it would be nearly impossible to defend the ethical position “It is ethical to say whatever one wishes” using any major ethical theory.  Words have consequences.  Words are uttered with intent.  Placing limitations on speech which has the consequence of upsetting other players (and which is pretty clearly done with that sole intent) is entirely reasonable.  (Note that while I am a Kantian, this conclusion is not restricted to this ethical theory – the utility generated by careful limitations on speech almost certainly outweighs the disutility; similarly, the virtue of compassion will absolutely require some limitations on speech.)

At this juncture, the second objection pops up: aren’t people just being too sensitive by reacting to this?  Once again, it is not clear why anyone would have the duty to accept being insulted.  True, this is not an unethical act of the same magnitude as genocide.  But ethics isn’t just about the big actions; there are small acts of unethical behavior that are still wrong to do.  (Thus you can’t embezzle just a little bit of money from your employer and expect that it will be forgiven.)

Since eventually this post should end, I’m going to stick with a Kantian perspective here.  Essentially, there are two possibilities:

  • A player utters such statements with the intent to harm others
  • A player utters such statements without the intent to harm others

The first is morally indefensible; other players are essentially being used solely as a source of entertainment or as a way of alleviating frustration.  This definitely violates the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, since you are using them as a means for your own ends.  What about the second possibility?  Well, either such a person cares about causing unnecessary harm or does not.  If the player cares, then he or she is unlikely to continue upon learning that the actions are causing harm.  (In essence, this would apply when someone is cluelessly unaware that their words are causing harm.)  Blizzard’s actions in limiting speech, particularly in an entertaining fashion, is a fairly gentle way of trying to clue people in to the standards for behavior that are desired in the community.  If the person does not care about causing unnecessary harm, they are also violating the second formulation.  Sometimes causing harm is necessary – but we should never simply dismiss the harm caused to other persons as unimportant, which is essentially what is happening here.

Thus, for a Kantian, the first two objections fail.  What about the third?

As a tongue-in-cheek reply, I would probably answer that Kant never seemed too concerned about whether his ethics was actually possible for humans to follow.  As a more serious reply, I would say this: no solution is perfect.  This is true for any ethical problem.  However, this does not make it pointless to attempt to alleviate harm when we encounter it.  Even if we only alleviate some of the harm, it may be worthwhile.  Moreover, what Blizzard has done here is raise the opportunity cost – it now takes slightly more effort to be offensive.  This means that a) people have to consciously circumvent the ban, thus making it clear that they are intentionally committing these acts (and robbing themselves of a certain line of defense against the charge of being unethical) and b) some people may just not bother.  A lot of times we do things because they are easy, but if we have to exert effort (or take the time to think about it), we may decide against the action.  So while Blizzard’s action may not weed out the people most dedicated to causing offense, it may well prevent more casual offenders.

This system, of course, is far from perfect.  It is completely a reactive system; to be effective, it would have to be updated with new insults as players find creative ways to insult each other.  Personally, I’m waiting for the day where only Shakespearean insults slip past.  Nothing shows your disdain for other players like typing “Thou are pigeon-liver’d and lack gall.”  If you’re going to be unethical, at least be entertaining while you do it.


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