While many are staying at home and escaping into virtual worlds, it's natural to discuss what's going on in the physical world. But Nintendo is shutting down those conversations with its latest Switch system update (Sep. 14, 2020) by adding new terms like COVID, coronavirus and ACAB to its censorship list for usernames, in-game messages, and search terms for in-game custom designs (but not the designs themselves).
While we understand the urge to prevent abuse and misinformation about COVID-19, censoring certain strings of characters is a blunderbuss approach unlikely to substantially improve the conversation. As an initial matter, it is easily circumvented: while our testing, shown above, confirmed that Nintendo censored coronavirus, COVID and ACAB, but does not restrict substitutes like c0vid or a.c.a.b., nor corona and virus, when written individually.
More importantly, it’s a bad idea, because these terms can be part of important conversations about politics or public health. Video games are not just for gaming and escapism, but are part of the fabric of our lives as a platform for political speech and expression. As the world went into pandemic lockdown, Hong Kong democracy activists took to Nintendo’s hit Animal Crossing to keep their pro-democracy protest going online (and Animal Crossing was banned in China shortly after). Just as many Black Lives Matter protests took to the streets, other protesters voiced their support in-game. Earlier this month, the Biden campaign introduced Animal Crossing yard signs which other players can download and place in front of their in-game home. EFF is part of this too—you can show your support for EFF with in-game hoodies and hats.
Nintendo has the right to host the platform as it sees fit. But just because they can do this, doesn’t mean they should. Nintendo needs to also recognize that it has provided a platform for political and social expression, and allow people to use words that are part of important conversations about our world, whether about the pandemic, protests against police violence, or democracy in Hong Kong.