Aaron Freeman plays "Halo 2" online under the name Black Jesus — so he expects to get some flak.
He gets cursed at. He gets run over by his teammates. And he is frequently told, by the anonymous gamers from miles away that he is connected with via his Xbox and microphone-enabled headset, that "Jesus wasn't black, you stupid n---er."
"I think I've come to tune it out," Freeman said. A film media major at Hunter College in New York, Freeman, 23, has been playing games online for several years and can more than hold his own in "Halo." While he admits his gaming moniker can be provocative, he says racism online is uncalled for and all too common.
"Sometimes you get the feeling [people] go online not even to play, just to bother other people," he said. "It's kind of disturbing."
Gamers who have racked up a few kills or won a few races on any online games that can be played with strangers already know that prejudicial remarks are a regular part of the chatter they'll encounter. "If you play every day, you will hear it every day," said 20-year-old Chris Buddhu from Queens, New York.
"The first time it happened I was a little shocked," said 23-year-old Chris Scott of Brooklyn. "It's different from the racism I encounter in person."
Why are some gamers leaving their girlfriends for Mario, encouraged to play in class and getting a crash course in race relations? Watch Overdrive to find out.
Some gamers, and even some in the industry, say unsavory types are unavoidable anytime you're dealing with huge numbers of people, such as the 2 million Xbox Live players or the thousands who play "SOCOM" nightly on their PS2s.
"If you have this large a community, you're bound to have some problems," said Larry Hryb, director of programming for Xbox Live. A Sony PlayStation representative had no comment at press time.
Aaron Greenberg, group marketing manager for Xbox Live, said Microsoft has a zero tolerance policy for any racist remarks made by users of its online system. "We shoot to eliminate it completely," he explained.
To that end, the upgraded version of Xbox Live launching this week with the Xbox 360 will include several new safeguards. They include "Gamer Zones" that allow subscribers to only interact with, say, those who have chosen a kid-friendly area. The new Live will offer an improved feedback system that allows gamers to file complaints about other gamers directly through their system and it will introduce an eBay-style five-star rating system, which may help indicate who is worth playing against.
But Microsoft reps also say that, numerically speaking, racism has not been a major issue on their network. "We've banned over 10,000 people, but that's not just for racial remarks," Greenberg said.
"I game a lot," said Hryb. "I'm not saying this doesn't exist, but from what I've seen it really hasn't crossed my desk that much."
That might be because gamers don't complain about online racism to Microsoft or Sony with nearly the frequency they experience it. Gamers interviewed by MTV News said protesting to game makers about prejudiced players would be futile. "They could ban their accounts, suspend them, but there's loopholes around that," Buddhu said.
Freeman thinks the prevalence of online racism can be attributed to the anonymity of playing online. "It's a godlike power Microsoft gave everybody," he said. That freedom seems to breed a culture where taboos are readily broken. "I've heard mention of all kinds of things you just can't bring up in person," he said "The word 'rape' is pretty much dulled now because of that."
He admitted that the freedom of online chat, combined with the vicarious thrill of online action gaming, can be intoxicating. He recalled one time — the only time, he said — when he let loose on another player. "I just picked out someone and I said, 'You did awful, you should kill yourself, blah, blah blah,' " he said. "I'll admit it was kind of fun."
Having now recognized the inability of Microsoft or Sony to eradicate racism from online gaming, some players have explored other ways of turning the tables. If Freeman discovers that the players he's matched with on a "Halo" team are racist, he'll slip off to make an offer to rival forces. "I'll sneak up to an opposing player with a powerful weapon or rocket launcher and I'll go, 'Hey, kill racists!' and I'll hand it to them and run off," he said. "They say, 'Black Jesus is a freedom fighter. He's a civil-rights worker.' "
For 29-year-old Victor De Leon of Long Island, the solution was to find a narrower playing field. De Leon often games with his 7-year-old son, a "Halo" whiz kid who games as Lil Poison. He used to eagerly engage in worldwide matchmaking games that could net completely unknown gamers as online opponents. But the comments from other players got to be too much, and one incident provided the breaking point when players with a Southern drawl verbally attacked him and his son.
"They just kept on saying 'sp--' and 'stupid n---ers,' " he said. "I was like, 'How can you say this to a 7-year-old kid?' " Now De Leon keep their gaming more restricted, playing primarily against people they know.
Others have taken their gaming offline. Kia Song, 25, and Brian Tang, 24, founded a New York-based offline gaming group called NYClan in part to appeal to gamers beleaguered by online prejudice. "We've had gamers travel to be in our events," said Song, noting that the group offers an alternative "for anybody who is frustrated with people screaming racial slurs at each other and just deteriorating the quality of the game." NYClan late-night gaming parties have attracted 250 gamers since June.
Scott, who has played in NYClan events, said he can't let racism ruin his ability to play online. He's not going to be chased off. "My strategy for this now that it's become commonplace is I just crush them," he said. "That's it. I crush them and let them talk."