Gaming can be toxic toward women and minorities. Electronic Arts wants to help fix that

When Amira Virgil is playing the world-building game The Sims, she likes to craft different characters, create houses for them and tell stories about their lives.

She's well known within the player community of Electronic Arts' game, in part because she created modifications that gave characters more racially diverse skin tones and hair. She also started a website for people to share their own mods and other creations, called The Black Simmer.


Often, she's streaming a live broadcast of her play online, sharing her Sims exploits with hundreds of fans under the username Xmiramira. But every once in a while, people join her stream to cause trouble.

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The Sims world-building game is one of the most popular video games ever made, selling more that 200 million copies. 

Electronic Arts
One way they do that is to change their username include racially charged language when they leave comments while she's streaming. They'd include words "like ghetto, N-word and slurs," she said.

Virgil isn't alone.

Which is why EA held its first large-scale meeting, called the Building Healthy Communities Summit, with 230 gaming influencers it calls Game Changers that it flew in to the meeting to discuss the problem.

And there's a good reason why. Sitting in the conference room nestled in the Loews Hollywood Hotel ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles, EA's head of community engagement, Adam Tanielian, asked the room full of influencers whether any of them had seen or been the target of bullying, harassment online. Nearly every hand shot up.

"It's a really crappy thing," Tanielian said. 

So, over the next three hours EA outlined how it plans to combat this issue. It's going to start releasing regular reports about the health of its online communities. It's going to offer new tools to players to help tamp down on toxicity. And it's going to bring together a council of players to regularly discuss these issues and what the company can do about it.

EA said it also wants to inspire its players to help make change too. That includes hearing about positive behavior from influencers they look up to. "You guys have a lot of power to try to solve some of these issues, or at least provide solutions," Tanielian said.

EA's efforts come at a time when the video game industry is larger and more influential than ever. Its worldwide sales topped $137.9 billion last year, according to data from industry watcher Newzoo, larger than music and movies combined. Online communities, such as the more than 250 million people who have signed up to play the hit online battle game Fortnite, are swelling with millions of players.

Maintaining those large networks of gamers playing together has caused many companies to rethink the way they approach the lives people lead in the worlds they've created.

In the past, companies largely left players to sort themselves out. But now, with multi-player aspects of games like EA's Battlefield war simulation franchise growing in popularity alongside gaming social networks like Microsoft's Xbox Live, companies say they're compelled to start influencing the culture of players in their games for the better.

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EA's Chris Bruzzo said the company feels a responsibility to work on these issues.
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"There was a period of time where it was accepted -- that's how games are," said Chris Bruzzo, EA's head of marketing, who also helped head up its healthy communities summit. "We've started to hear more and more from players that this wasn't something they didn't want to tolerate anymore."

Of course, harassment and bullying are pervasive on social networking. And EA isn't the only gaming company attempting to tackle these issues.

In May, Microsoft posted its community standards, and committed to more moderation tools to help people avoid toxic players. Ubisoft, ahead of its E3 press conference Monday, played a video of the rapper and actor Ice-T talking about how to handle gaming online.

"Video games are for everyone, and we need to keep a safe environment for the enjoyment of all, but not everyone's cool like that," he said.

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