XBox Allows Sexual Orientation. Will Apple and Walmart Follow?

Last Updated Mar 5, 2010 9:28 PM EST

In a bold move, Microsoft will now allow users to include sexual orientation and/or identity in their XBox Live "Gamertag". The Gamertag is the nickname people XBox 360 gamers use online, not unlike a Twitter name -- and game companies like Microsoft have generally been reluctant to allow this level of self-expression before.

From the updated Xbox Code of Conduct:

What you can do:
  • You may use the following terms to express your relationship orientation in your profile or Gamertag:
    • Lesbian
    • Gay
    • Bi
    • Transgender
    • Straight
Other terms regarding relationship orientation are not allowed. In addition you may not use these terms or any other terms regarding relationship orientation to insult, harass, or any other pejorative use against other users.
It isn't the right terminology -- Microsoft is lumping sexual orientation (straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual) with sexual identity (transgender) -- but it still marks a serious shift in online policy.

As a rule major entertainment companies avoid discussing sexual orientation and identity. Highlighted in my book Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture, notables include:

The Microsoft decision folds nicely into Apple's current dilemma of how much sexual expression to allow on its app store. Let's look a little deeper. Here's an excerpt from today's member letter from Mark Whitten, General Manager of the XBox Live online community:

The Xbox LIVE Terms of Use and Code of Conduct are designed to create a place where people can safely enjoy all of the ways to interact on our service, be it online multiplayer gaming, photo sharing, Netflix parties, or social games such as 1 vs 100, without fear of discrimination or harassment. As the service evolves and our customers provide us with feedback, these rules evolve to incorporate new features or changes in how people wish to interact.

With that in mind, I'd like to announce an update to the Xbox LIVE Terms of Use and Code of Conduct which will allow our members to more freely express their race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation in Gamertags and profiles. Under our previous policy, some of these expressions of self-identification were not allowed in Gamertags or profiles to prevent the use of these terms as insults or slurs. However we have since heard feedback from our customers that while the spirit of this approach was genuine, it inadvertently excluded a part of our Xbox LIVE community. This update also comes hand-in-hand with increased stringency and enforcement to prevent the misuse of these terms.

I truly believe that our diversity is what makes us strong: diversity in gaming and entertainment options, and diversity in the people that make up this amazing community.

Microsoft's change comes a year after the infamous "Richard Gaywood" incident where a user was banned -- for using his real name. Oops! Here's the point: Corporations aren't smart enough to pre-filter.

When it comes to adult topics, entertainment corporations have two choices:

  • Restrict the expression to protect the audience
  • Actively protect the audience to keep the expression
Suppression doesn't work in digital communities, as shown by Blizzard's PR nightmare, Microsoft's Gamertag criticisms and, as we've seen, the hell raised over Apple's "ethical" app decision. Maybe Walmart can get away with heavy filtering, but it also doesn't claim to be a goldmine for new ideas. In the digital world, judging expression rarely gains supporters -- even if it's for the user's "protection". It will be interesting to see how long it will take Apple to learn from others' mistakes -- and how much longer it will enjoy unnecessarily being the bad guy.

Photo courtesy of dbking / CC BY 2.0 Related: