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Why Garry’s Mod recently decided “nazi glorification” crosses the line

Garry’s Mod server or a WWII documentary? Who can say, really?”>
Enlarge / A scene from a Garry’s Mod server or a WWII documentary? Who can say, really?

In the realm of online game moderation, the official Server Operator Rules for Source Engine physics sandbox Garry’s Mod have always been pretty forgiving. For a long time, the only things that could get a server explicitly “blacklisted” by developer Facepunch Studios were sexual violence, unmarked NSFW content, fraudulent server information, or “malicious actions” that essentially hacked a player’s local game installation.

On April 20, those scant rules were updated with one more specific prohibition: “Display of swastikas, the nazi salute or other glorification of nazism is prohibited, even for ‘roleplay’ purposes.”

That new rule represents a change of heart for Garry’s Mod creator Garry Newman, who told Ars his outlook on what should and shouldn’t be allowed in online spaces has changed since he became a parent to two children (currently 9 and 6 years old).

“When I was younger, in my 20s, I had the attitude that anything goes,” Newman said in a direct message conversation with Ars. “People shouldn’t be on the Internet if they can’t handle the real world. It’s not my job to babysit your kids.”

Now, as a parent, Newman said his attitude became “less black and white. There’s a gradient of time where you’re giving your kids more freedom online and you’re trying to let them into new areas to explore because you think they’re safe. We really should make sure as much as possible that the assumption is correct.”

“I think to myself, what if they get on one of these servers with these [nazi] nutters,” Newman tweeted. “What will they learn? What will come to be acceptable to them?”

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“A bunch of guys that really seem to love the nazis…”

Garry’s Mod’s newest rule came after Newman ran a Twitter poll gauging player interest in banning “nazi gamemodes” on the game’s many roleplaying servers. When Newman asked, “There’s no legit reason for [nazi gamemodes] to exist.. right?” nearly 74 percent of the nearly 50,000 respondents agreed, saying, “Yes, ban them.”

The new rule against “glorification of naziism” was implemented the next day.

In a follow-up tweet responding to “a lot of worry” over the new rule, Newman sympathized with the “huge majority of the [roleplaying] communities” that create “engaging + interesting + compelling + educational” content around survival/war scenarios. “Humanity’s lows are always gonna be a rich seam for games/movies/tv/books/etc… We don’t really want to police these games.”

The problem, he said, was in the roleplaying servers that contain “a bunch of guys that really seem to love the nazis… that creates problems.” In a seeming allusion to the Nazi bar problem, Newman wrote that the prevalence of those players on certain servers might “turn the game more towards” nazi glorification and away from more thoughtful roleplaying on those servers.

Enlarge / If everyone is Hitler then… is anyone really Hitler?

Speaking to Ars, Newman estimated that those “nazi gamemodes” were limited to “really a handful of actual players… For the most part Garry’s Mod is pretty drama free for us, but the few concerns we have gotten are about these type of servers.”

Server economics could play into the problem as well, Newman told Ars. “There’s a worry that the server creators taking donations are incentivized to lean into the celebratory stuff,” though he added that worry is more “theoretical” than anything at the moment.

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“…crossing some kind of line”

In the past, moderation on Garry’s Mod servers has generally been left as a job for the individual server owners (aside from the few rules noted above). As the Server Operator Rules note: “If you do not agree with a kick/ban reason, you can play on a different server. All Garry’s Mod servers are hosted by the community. Your access to community server(s) is at the discretion of their administration.”

But the direct glorification of Nazi symbols was a situation where Newman suggested those server operators might “need more direction from us,” as he tweeted.

“All this stuff has to be a judgment call,” Newman told Ars. “If we’re getting involved and banning servers, then it should be really obvious what went wrong; the people involved should be in no doubt that they were crossing some kind of line.”

Even with a bright-line rule in place, though, figuring out when World War II roleplaying crosses from “educational” to “nazi glorification” can be “a 4D problem,” Newman said. That’s partly because “servers change as time has gone on,” Newman told Ars. “Some reports are half a decade old, and the servers have changed ownership and ideology multiple times since videos and screenshots were taken. These are things we have to keep in mind.”

To those who have pushed back on what they see as an attack on their “freedom of expression,” Newman tweeted a simple “nope.”

“This isn’t a loss of freedom. This isn’t an attack on your free will. This isn’t mind control. This is nothing new. We have taken servers down before, we have blocked unsavory activities, and we’re going to keep doing that.”

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