Dev 📓 Journal

Notes and rants.

Valve’s Language Filter is a Cheap Bandage for Toxicity

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of racial, sexual, homophobic, and transphobic slurs in video games, specifically Dota 2.
Dota is in no way unique in its toxicity. I’m using Dota as a case study due to recent events, but that does not excuse other games. People have been trash talking each other in online gaming since online gaming was popularized. I remember playing Halo 2 as a tween and having players yell homophobic and racial slurs at me as commonly as greetings (often even as a greeting). Some games are worse about this than others, reflective of their culture. Call of Duty, for example, is notorious for its crude, violent playerbase, whereas you’d be hard pressed to find such frequent transgressions in Animal Crossing.
Nonetheless, the issue is systemic.
June 7, in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter protests following the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murder, Reddit user u/BrianaBessler made a community plea to the Dota 2 subreddit.
This is a common scene for Dota, two players trash talking each other in-game. I’ve written extensively about my experience with Dota, including how toxic of an environment it can be. What do I mean by toxic?
I mean that this behavior is routine. Dota is a high-pressure game. You can spend an hour trying your hardest only to lose because of a teammate’s mistake. This on top of anonymity causes players to throw tantrums and say things they would never say to another player face to face.
This post blew up. With over 11k upvotes at the time of writing, an outlier for r/DotA2, it hit the front page of Reddit. The discussion following in the comments is telling.
Users made hundreds of comments like the one above, citing their experience with racism in the game. While most of the discussion centered around the in-game community, there was plenty around the subreddit’s culture.
r/DotA2 can be thought of as a decent, although narrow sample representation of the game’s culture. Again, I do not consider this to be unique. League of Legends, a game often compared to Dota, has a similar or worse community.
Some users remarked that Dota is a worldwide game, and tackling racism stands out in America in ways it does not in other countries.
While all of this may be true, the problem is as pervasive as ever. These comments and the fact that this thread even exists is evidence enough.
In my personal experience, spanning nearly 6000 hours of Dota 2, I’ve been called every slur in the book. Perhaps the strangest part is that usually I won’t have said anything to the people who flame me. Unlike having the “F”, “N”, or “T” word yelled at you on the sidewalk, these people have no idea who I am. They can’t see what I look like and make snap judgments about my character based on race, gender, orientation, or anything else. All they have to go off is how I play the game.
In other words, they’re projecting how they feel about minorities or groups they believe are lesser onto anonymous players in a game. Someone plays poorly? They must be “x” minority.

A brief history of racism in Dota 2

If these were isolated incidents, they would be bad enough. The problem, however, is that these incidents create a self-perpetuating culture.
One of the most noteworthy examples is Peruvian players in Dota 2. For years, there weren’t stable servers in South America for Dota players. The connections were so poor, that it was actually better to play on a 200 millisecond ping (0.2 second lag) by connecting from South America to a North American server, due to how much better equipped the N.A. servers were. Dota is popular in Peru, so Peruvian players wanting to get a better Dota experience would play on N.A. servers.
You can probably fill in the rest of the blanks.
N.A. players didn’t suffer the same 200ms ping. They enjoyed close to no ping. For reference, I average ~20ms playing from Ohio on a decent internet connection. Dota requires split-second decision-making, so playing even a fifth of a second behind other players is debilitating. Hence, Peruvian players were at a distinct disadvantage, and it reflected in their play.
North American players knew this and hated them for it. They concluded they were “game ruiners” and should “get their own servers”. This frustration snowballed into judgments about Peruvian people as a whole.
Speak Spanish in game? 
Hispanic accent? 
Pick a bad hero? 
Make a bad decision? 
Before long, if a player was played poorly, they were automatically labeled as “Peruvian”, even if they weren’t Peruvian at all. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me to “go home Peru”, even when I explain to them over voice chat that I’m an American in Ohio. It became a way for people to categorically put other players below them, an explanation to tie to a poor performance. And just like other forms of racism, it was caustic and ignorant.
Valve’s (responsible for Dota 2) “response” was to add better South American servers, more South American tournaments, and add options for players to only play with those who speak their language.
However, this was only a band-aid for the racist behavior of the Dota community. Players are still racist toward Peruvians, even if they don’t play with them as often.
Unfortunately, this behavior is common in other areas of the world, too, particularly in the Europe and South East Asia regions where Dota is popular. Europeans blame Russians. South East Asians blame the Chinese. No matter where you are, there’s an “other” who foots the blame.
So, you would hope that in all their years of game development and building communities, Valve would have learned something about how to better address the toxicity present in their games.

Valve’s response to the June 7th call against racism

Not a week after the Reddit post above, Valve quietly added a default option to filter language in Dota. It was a tiny patch with a note on the update site.
I found out by opening the game and noticing that certain words were being censored with asterisks. Weird, considering Valve has been forward in the past about how Dota is an adult game with adult language. Why choose to add a censorship option now? Players noticed immediately and within hours a new post blew up on the subreddit.
Obviously, Valve took notice of players asking for an answer to the rampant in-game racism.
And this is their answer: a half-assed language filter, so that instead of seeing the full spelling of profanities, you now get to play guessing games as to what slurs players are yelling at you.
The filter isn’t even intelligent — it just censors anything remotely offensive. For instance, “Arse” in the above “Arsenal of the Demonic Vessel” is censored. Players joked that the hero Phantom Assassin would now be “Phantom ******in”.
As pointed out above, you can disable the filter, and this brings me to my main point.

This is not a solution; it is a weak band-aid

Instead of acknowledging the issue, Valve is dressing it up in its Sunday best, handing out concessions, and asking everyone to look the other way, which spoiler alert is how oppression has always been handled, particularly in America.
People aren’t going to stop being toxic because of a few asterisks, and the recipients of racism, homophobia, and more aren’t going to suddenly feel safe because they can check a box that coddles them from bad words. Worse, it trivializes the harm caused by these slurs by lumping them in the same category as commonplace profanity. Arse and the N-word are not on the same playing field. This filter changes nothing. If anything, it highlights that Valve misunderstands the issue.
I understand that Dota is a worldwide game and Valve is trying to please a lot of people. I’m sure their investors are at the top of the list.
But come on, we can do better than this.
You know what would have been a start? Identify the problem. Condemn racism. Stand up for your players who are affected by it. Ally yourselves with those that are mourning the deaths of people in their community. You have an audience who cares deeply about your game. Write a blog post and say you’re aware of the problem and open to suggestions. Your audience consists of people who theorycraft what a +1 armor increase means for an entire meta.
You’re sitting on some of the most talented designers, developers, and artists in the world and the best you can come up with is a language filter?
Say something!
In the past, Valve has responded to racism when the community has been divided on comments made from pro players or casters. Where is that response now when it is needed the most?
Toxicity in games, especially racism, isn’t something that is going to be solved over night. These are intricate, systemic issues built on hundreds of years that have rolled up unassumingly and trickled into ordinary facets of modern life, like video games. I get that. As long as we take complacent baby steps like this, these issues are going to be around for a long, long time.
And it’s not all on Valve. We as players need to speak up. Posts like the one I mentioned are a good first step, but if the rest of the world is organizing against oppression, we cannot sit idly and play our games like nothing is changing.
Call people out in your games. Talk to your friends who make racist off-hand comments. Don’t just mute everyone and anyone who says something that you don’t vibe with.
Devon Wells © 2022