Editorial | Gaming platforms need to do more to address and prevent harm

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Concerned parents and players recently criticized the game “Overwatch 2” for hosting custom user modifications that simulate sexual assault and rape. Although the game’s code doesn’t include these features, the platform still enables the mods to run for any player who properly downloads the file. 

These developments are especially concerning because “Overwatch 2”  has enormous reach, particularly since it’s free to download. About 25 million people played the game within the first 10 days after its initial release in October. Although the game is recommended by Common Sense Media for anyone ages 13 and up, children of all ages can, and do, play. 

These children are potentially exposed to senseless gender-violence in a “team-based action game set in the optimistic future, where every match is the ultimate 5v5 battlefield brawl.” A parent posted on Twitter that their 12-year-old son saw a simulation of female characters being raped while playing the game. 

The media company Blizzard launched the first version of Overwatch in 2016. Since this is the second iteration of the “Overwatch” game, game designers should understand how the game runs and operates, even when custom mods are introduced. While Blizzard manually removed the mod that the 12-year-old stumbled across, they didn’t address the root of the problem — the ability for these disturbing mods to run in the first place. Game designers and coders have a responsibility to prevent harmful content from being uploaded and played in their games, and preventing it should be within their realm of responsibility.   

Many video games already perpetuate and promote harm to women, but such outright demonstrations of violence against women that sexual assault modifications exhibit must be immediately addressed. Unfortunately, though, the problem does not start or stop with Blizzard and “Overwatch.” 

Sexual assault mods exist for many games across different media companies, including EA’s “The Sims” series and Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto” franchise.  

Although there aren’t many suggestions or actions to prevent harmful mods on gaming platforms, a program announced at The Sims 4 Summit may offer a solution. During the summit, executives for “The Sims” announced they’re introducing a new platform for “The Sims 4” players to host custom content. Executives said a collaboration with the modding platform CurseForge will produce a supplementary experience to existing modding avenues, as well as provide a moderated platform with an additional level of security that does not currently exist. 

Although “The Sims” will not require content creators to use the modding platform, it demonstrates a potential avenue to address harmful mods. If creators were required to upload their mods through a monitored and regulated platform, gaming companies could monitor the content created and distributed to players, just as “The Sims 4” summit outlined. 

But as harm exists inside of video games it’s also rampant in the industry as a whole too. 

A large contributing factor to this issue is the overrepresentation of men in the gaming industry. Without the input and consideration of women, it’s easy to understand why women have been repeatedly objectified and sexualized in video games. But the gaming industry is not reliably a safe space for women and nonbinary people. Several high-profile game developers were accused of sexual assault, as outlined in an article from The Verge. 

Simply put, the gaming industry is behind in its attempts to diversify and peel away from the sexualization and harm toward women. The issue is not new, but that does not make it any less harmful or justify gaming platforms from making swift changes. When glitches or coding errors are found in games, teams are enlisted to remedy the issue. That urgency does not seem apparent in how gaming companies handle sexual misconduct in games, and that needs to change to protect gamers of all ages and genders.