One of the Oldest Online RPG Communities Banned Pro-Trump Speech

What a small community of role-playing games fans can teach us about the traps of 'political neutrality.'

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Nov 1 2018, 6:42pm

r. nial bradshaw/Flickr

RPGnet, one of the oldest RPG communities on the internet, has banned pro-Trump speech from its message board. “We are banning support of Donald Trump or his administration on the RPGnet forums,” forum administrators wrote in a public post announcing the new policy. “This is because his public comments, policies, and the makeup of his administration are so wholly incompatible with our values that formal political neutrality is not tenable.”

Every platform on the internet has struggled with moderation, a problem that has become more obvious since Donald Trump announced his presidential ambitions. On the one hand, he is the president of the United States, a politician working to implement policy Republicans have supported for decades. On the other, he promotes racist and sexist points of view that have mobilized the more extreme fringes of the far right. White nationalists marched in Charlottesville and one of them killed Heather Heyer, a pro-Trump man mailed letter bombs to prominent democrats, 11 people died in a Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and a shooter who killed two a Kentucky grocery store told a bystander that “whites don’t shoot whites.”

Media companies and internet platforms have been slow to adapt to these reenergized voices in society. Companies like Facebook and Twitter are updating their policies to more explicitly ban hate speech. None have gone as far as RPGnet, which felt that banning pro-Trump speech was important.

“It's long been clear that support for Trump was support for sexism, racism, nativism, nationalism and a host of other pernicious isms, all of which are on their face violations of our long-established board rules and culture,” RPGnet admins told me in an email. “This just acknowledges and formalizes that.”

It should be noted that the task of moderating platforms as large as Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube are significantly different than moderating a smaller forum (RPGnet has roughly 126,000 members, about 11,500 of whom are actively posting), and that the tactics used vary in many ways (for example, content moderators of traditional forums are usually volunteers who are part of a community and thus have the context needed to make decisions; content moderators for social networks are paid, and make hundreds or thousands of decisions a day on content they often have little or no context for.) That said, the steps that RPGnet have taken are important and will have far-reaching effects on that community.

Founded in 1996, RPGnet has been home to discussions about role-playing games, board games, card games, and other geek topics for more than twenty years. Typical threads involve a poll asking for the correct pronunciation of “Drow,” a discussion of numerology in tabletop magic systems, and an appreciation thread of the new Batman: The Animated Series Blu-Rays. A hotbed of political discussion, this is not.

The RPGnet admins had been toying with the idea of banning Trump talk since 2016.

“Different staff members had their own breaking points, but after Christine Ford's testimony, and Trump's public reaction to it, I don't think we had any more holdouts,” the admins said. “If someone came to a dinner party and decided to mock a sexual assault victim at the table, I think most reasonable hosts would kick them out, or at least not invite them back again.”

The admins aren’t banning all political discussion, that’s still fair game. So are posts criticizing the Trump administration. It’s exclusively pro-Trump posts they’re concerned with. “We aren’t going to take notice as staff if someone wants to argue for the elimination of the estate tax, or if someone makes a reasoned case for why the new tariffs are a good idea,” they said. “The Trump administration promotes those policies, but they aren’t Trumpism. You can be a conservative, or a Republican, and not run afoul of our rules. We think all those things are distinguishable. An idea shouldn’t be excluded from our board only because Trump happens to espouse it for however long it can hold his attention.”

At its core, the new RPGnet rules are about tolerance. The staff does not tolerate political ideologies that they feel stifle speech. “Being a Nazi has been a bannable offense for around two decades, though, and we thought that was common sense. Most of us probably didn’t think of it as ‘political,’” the adminds said. “The biggest misconception about this...is thinking this is a partisan political stance. From our perspective, banning Trumpism isn’t about politics, it’s about ethics. We think it’s unethical to host politics and rhetoric that are toxic and dehumanizing.”

Since the change, RPGnet has dealt with what it calls “drive-by trolls,” new users that make throwaway accounts simply to harass people on the board. Some were driven to the site after an alt-right YouTube personality made a video decrying the decision, but RPGnet’s admins have banned the trolls as they’ve appeared. “This isn’t a great hardship,” the admins said. “Going forward, handling these rules and adjudicating them is going to require careful moderator attention and some allowances for unintentional violations. We're not anticipating it being terribly difficult, but it will involve some hustle.”

The admins also said that the community, in general, is happy with the changes. “We've seen old users return who had drifted away, and a few new users signing up in response to the policy. We were certain when we announced the rules change that we'd mostly be dealing with internal backlash, but we've been heartened by the outpouring of support. On balance, I think we've gained more than we've lost.”

But the admins made it clear that numbers were a secondary concern. “Again, this is an ethical decision and not a political or strategic one,” they said. “We don’t really care how it affects our numbers or any other external measure; we had to do it to maintain our own integrity.”