In mid-May, Jordan Wolfowich turned on his Xbox One and booted up Neverwinter, a popular online role-playing game that he’s been playing since 2013. But he was greeted with an odd message: his username was banned because it suddenly violated the game’s terms of service. His username was “Jewpac Shalom.”
“This is an issue I do find very, very offensive,” he told The CJN. “It makes me wonder why can I not discuss anything that has the word ‘Jew’ in it.”
Jewpac Shalom was born in 1999, when Wolfowich was working as the house DJ for a cruise-ship company in Toronto. A Jamaican guest walked up to the sound booth to request a song, and when he found out that Wolfowich was white, he grabbed the mic and yelled to the crowd in surprise, “We got a white Jew on the DJ!”
The man dubbed him “Jewpac” – a pun on Tupac Shakur, the famous rapper.
“Everything online that I was doing turned into Jewpac,” Wolfowich explained. From email addresses to gaming usernames, he even carried Jewpac with him when he made aliyah for four years.
Getting abruptly banned from Neverwinter, which boasts 15 million registered users in 110 countries, was a shock.
For software developers, however, this is simply part of a growing problem of the toxicity of online gaming culture. Most companies have created broad lists of banned words to keep the peace, but the results have been imperfect.
“People think there’s this huge staff of people who are overseeing these issues. There isn’t,” said Kate Edwards, the founder of Geogrify, a digital consulting firm that specializes in cross-cultural sensitivity. “These companies do the best job they can … but it is a very daunting task when you’ve got millions and millions of players.”
Edwards formerly worked at Microsoft, where she headed a team tasked with combining derogatory-word lists from Internet Explorer, MSN and Microsoft Word into a single master list. They developed automated tools with a manual review process, so they could double-check if any words got mistakenly flagged.
But even with a human eye, her team sometimes had trouble figuring out whether terms were being used sincerely or mockingly.
“It’s hard for them to discern intent,” she said. “And that’s the key issue they’re looking for: what is the intent? For most cases, it’s easier to err on the side of caution.”
This is an issue I do find very, very offensive.
– Jordan Wolfowich
In gaming culture, “Jew” is often a synonym for “cheap.” In-game money (usually gold coins) are sometimes referred to as “Jew gold,” a joke made infamous by South Park over a decade ago. Consequently, the word “Jew” often lands on banned-word lists.
“We don’t want to take the risk of having people of Jewish faith being offended by someone using it in a context that’s not respectful,” Edwards said. “In a better world, we wouldn’t mind if people represented their cultural association. But it’s been safer for a lot of companies to avoid causing offence.”
Perfect World Entertainment, the publisher of Neverwinter, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In an initial email sent to Wolfowich, a customer service agent simply reiterated the company’s decision.
“It looks like we’ve received player reports about your character name,” the agent wrote. “While I get that you had no bad intentions in using this name, kindly choose another name, since other players may be offended by it.”
Wolfowich fought back and eventually won – Jewpac Shalom is now an acceptable name, though he says the word “Jew” remains banned in chat rooms.
“There’s absolutely nothing offensive about the word ‘Jew’ whatsoever,” he said. “They need to understand the difference between somebody being offended and something actually offensive.”