Online game warns gay-lesbian guild

"World of Warcraft" publisher tells guild that it risks being banned if it doesn't cease its recruiting activities.

Longtime virtual gamer Sara Andrews didn't know she would cause much of a ruckus when she began recruiting new members of her "World of Warcraft" virtual gaming guild, which mostly caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender players.

In recruitment messages she posted on WoW, she wrote that the guild was not "'glbt only,' but we are 'glbt friendly.'"

To WoW publisher Blizzard Entertainment, however, Andrews' message was out of bounds. The Irvine, Calif.-based game publisher said her recruiting was a violation of the game's harassment policy, specifically the section of that policy regarding sexual orientation. Andrews was quickly warned in an e-mail to stop recruiting inside the game and to take all such efforts to forums outside WoW's virtual world. Andrews was also warned that if she didn't stop recruiting for the guild inside WoW, she risked being banned from the game.

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A member of a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender virtual gaming guild posted a welcome message on the "World of Warcraft" site saying that the guild was "glbt friendly." She was warned by the site publisher to stop on-site recruiting, or risk being banned from the site.

Bottom line:
The incident has generated debate about the way the site's rules are being enforced by the game's publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, which says it is only trying to protect the guild from harassment by other gamers. The GLBT guild and others in the gaming world dispute that contention.

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In essence, Andrews and gay and lesbian rights advocates charge, Blizzard was trying to keep a lid on harassment in its gaming world by blocking players from doing things that could prompt other people to harass them.

"Their (terms of service) statement was clearly crafted to protect the GLBT community," said Ron Meiners, a longtime virtual worlds consultant who has served as a community manager for companies like Ubisoft and There.com. "And I think they wanted to basically protect them in this instance, too. But they seem to have overstepped what was appropriate."

Andrews said she thinks Blizzard, or at least the game master (company employees who control game play and make decisions about low-level controversies) who issued the warning, wasn't being fair. The specifically prohibits language that "insultingly refers to any aspect of sexual orientation pertaining to themselves or others." Since Andrews was hardly insulting herself, she couldn't understand how or why the harassment policy was being applied to her.

"I wasn't sure that it was Blizzard that felt this way at first," she said. "I kind of felt like a bad (game manager) took care of the situation poorly. But the more I see Blizzard backing up the decision, the more I believe Blizzard to be handling the situation poorly."

With more than 5.5 million players since it was launched in 2004, WoW is arguably the most successful online fantasy game in America. So how it defines gaming rules and says what people can and cannot do can have a wide-ranging impact in virtual communities.

A Blizzard spokesman said it was only trying to enforce a policy designed to protect all WoW members from being harassed. And in fairness, in a gaming world where many players are young, male and prone to hurling insults, that the company wants to avoid potential problems makes sense.

"We encourage community building among our players with others of similar interests, and we understand that guilds are one of the primary ways to forge these communities," the company said in a statement. "However, topics related to sensitive real-world subjects--such as religious, sexual or political preference, for example--have had a tendency to result in communication between players that often breaks down into harassment." In an interview with CNET News.com, Blizzard public relations manager Gil Shif said that the company is reviewing the harassment policy and plans to modify it in the near future. The policy will likely be broadened, Shif said, to go beyond limiting prohibited language to that which is insulting and to include "any language that could result in situations where players are going to break down into harassing debate. It's just not appropriate for a gaming environment."

To Andrews, however, Blizzard's position doesn't hold water in a game that provides keyboard commands that allow characters to say things like, "Homogenized? No way, I like the ladies!"

"They state that they don't want mention of sexuality in their game, for fear it may cause people to harass others," Andrews said. "Yet they have things like this in the game already that (were) put there by them."

To some observers of online games like WoW, Blizzard's decision to warn Andrews gets harassment protection backward.

"It's often very hard to try to guide communities in positive directions," Meiners said. "I think they failed here. Cleary the issue blew up, causing more community difficulty. And I also think they sent a bad message to that community."

Some gay rights advocates said Blizzard's theory that gay-oriented groups assigning such labels to themselves might invite harassment is the wrong way to go.

"We recognize that stopping harassment is extremely important," said Brian Chase, a staff attorney at , an organization that promotes civil rights for the GLBT community. "But the way to stop the harassment of gay people is to stop the harassers, not insist gay people be quiet."

In any case, Andrews' guild, Oz, is hardly the only gay-oriented guild in WoW specifically, or in the broader world of online games.

According to Alexander Sliwinski, who was first to write about Andrews' run-in with Blizzard, for In Newsweekly, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender newsweekly, WoW itself has eight GLBT guilds. Other online games, such as "EverQuest II," "City of Heroes" and "Final Fantasy XI" have them as well.

Players "form whatever associations and social groups they would like" as long as they adhere to the company's rules of conduct, said Chris Kramer, public relations director for "EverQuest II" publisher Sony Online Entertainment.

Those rules state that players agree not to transmit language that is "unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortuous, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, that may be invasive of another's right of privacy or publicity, hateful, racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable."

The problem with parsing the meaning of such wording, especially in cases like Andrews', however, is that it leaves much to the discretion of individual game managers.

Blizzard, of course, said that it is only trying to keep individual players or groups from being subject to harassment by others and that Andrews was only warned to stop recruiting for her guild in-game.

It's an odd argument, say people like Meiners, Chase and San Francisco attorney Jason Schultz.

"I think it's unfortunate that Blizzard has chosen to punish the very people who are discriminated against under their supposed 'harassment policy,'" said Schultz. "Queer folk (have) always been told to hide themselves and who they really are in the real world. I would hope that in these new online worlds, people wouldn't be punished for being honest about themselves."

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