Racism in Atlas becomes a problem as Western and Chinese players clash

We saw this very toxic culture emerge in the [Atlas] subreddit. ...There were lots of derogatory slurs.

MisterWoodhouse, Atlas subreddit moderat

Atlas is a sandbox pirate MMO where players can do anything from farm crops to explore ancient ruins. But take a look at Atlas' most popular subreddit and it's quickly apparent that many are occupying their time with a different objective: Warring with Chinese players who inhabit Atlas' North American and European PvP servers. Over the past month, the rising tensions between Eastern and Western players has been a hot topic among the community. And while a little bit of smack talk can be okay, it's also boiled over into outright racism and xenophobia.

"A lot of it stems from ARK: Survival Evolved," MisterWoodhouse, a moderator on the Atlas subreddit tells me. "There was a pretty decent amount of East versus West tension there in the official PvP servers, but it really got out of hand with Atlas because it's a large-scale MMO-style game."

Though the two games share a lot in common, players in ARK are divided into discrete servers so interaction is limited to those who are also play on that same server. Atlas, however, stitches dozens of servers together into one massive world map that can house around 40,000 players at one time. Players start in one of several safe beginner servers and, by sailing to the edge of the map, transfer to adjacent servers that each hold a maximum of 150 players. It's similar, in a way, to EVE Online, which also has one world that everyone shares together albeit with a much bigger limit on how many people can occupy one area at one time. 

East versus West 

Atlas' two PvP servers (one for America and one for Europe) are meant to encourage war between player-run guilds called companies. Beyond the safety of the beginner servers, anyone can kill you without consequence. But shortly after Atlas' release many began complaining about the presence of Chinese players who appeared to be highly coordinated and highly aggressive. "Literally everyone is getting shit on by them," wrote redditor 'manicscanic' in late December. "They don't care [what level you are]. They will find you and kill your raft. It's not even about skill or anything all they have is numbers completely obliterating everything they see."

Manicscanic detailed a personal encounter with Chinese players that ended in their death and the destruction of their ship—a widespread occurrence given the number of Reddit posts that echo similar stories. In both PvP servers, Chinese companies have become some of the largest and most influential. On The Kraken's Maw, the North American PvP server, a Chinese group called CTSG has claimed a significant portion of the map. On the subreddit, players frequently recount their battles with these Chinese groups. Other threads claim Chinese players are also using exploits and hacks to gain an unfair advantage in combat. As MisterWoodhouse explains, many of those discussions became hotbeds for outright racist and toxic behavior. "We saw this very toxic culture emerge in the subreddit," he says. "Lots of people were going beyond saying, 'Hey this is the West versus the East', and were getting into pretty racist comments. There were lots of derogatory slurs." 

According to MisterWoodhouse, players were even going so far as to share around a list of words that they hoped would trip China's strict censorship monitors. The idea was that, by spamming these words into Atlas' in-game chat when you were near a Chinese player, they might end up getting investigated by the Chinese government and potentially arrested.

As the tide of anti-Chinese sentiment began to rise in the Atlas subreddit, the moderation team (MisterWoodhouse and two others) finally had to take a stand. Last week, MisterWoodhouse created a stickied thread warning that "Racism will not be tolerated." In that thread, he encouraged players to report any racist comments they saw and warned that offenders wouldn't be given second chances. That zero-tolerance policy has curbed the problem, MisterWoodhouse tells me, though he expects it'll flare up now and again.

"Basically I look at each situation individually," MisterWoodhouse says. "If the post or comment has value in terms of discussion or politics in the game and doesn't have any objectively derogatory slurs, I'll let it fly. They're just wanting to discuss what people are experiencing as natural tension between these two cultures in the game, and it's something that I think the game will be known for. It's interesting to see these real-world politicking going on, but we draw the line when people get into slurs or offensive stereotypes and things like that. If they're just discussing like, hey, we're going after this Chinese company or join our alliance of North Americans, it's probably going to fly."

But knowing where to draw the line between actual racism and regional smack talk isn't always easy. In Atlas, players can customize their ships in a variety of ways including painting or importing graphic designs to display on their sails. Naturally, that's become one of the ways players are displaying their loyalties to one side or the other. Some are pretty innocent, like this galleon sporting an american flag, while others subtlety hint at more troubling political stances or weaponize Japanese-Chinese history. This post, for example, shows players how to play Star Spangled Banner on their in-game instruments as they ride into battle, which is tame. But another post shows a lone Chinese player's corpse hanging from a noose (players can take prisoners and execute them), which is disturbing. 

These posts also call into question what methods Studio Wildcard (which is developing Atlas under the name Grapeshot Games) is taking to prevent toxic behavior in-game. Currently, Atlas has no method for players to report one another in-game, which is baffling. Taking a quick browse through Atlas' official forums and the subreddit, I didn't have to look hard to find posts complaining about in-game harassment, griefing, and toxic behavior going unpunished.

While many players seem to enjoy the rivalry, others want Studio Wildcard to ban all Chinese players outright or give them specific Asiatic servers they can play on instead. This isn't the first time Chinese players have been accused of disrupting a multiplayer game, though. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds also faced a similar predicament when Chinese players began to flood its western servers.

There are some practical benefits to this solution, as MisterWoodhouse points out. "People definitely worry about latency when it comes to global games like this," he says, pointing out that part of the frustration with fighting Chinese players is that their high latency makes them harder to hit. He also points out that this would help alleviate the problem of players waking up in the morning to find their bases and ships destroyed by Chinese players overnight and vice versa, because each region is active at opposite times of day. But those hoping for this solution shouldn't hold their breath. Studio Wildcard already said that region locking was out of the question and releasing a videogame in China comes with its own obstacles. One solution, though, would be to base servers in other Asiatic territories with less restrictions on gaming.

For now, it seems like Chinese players are here to stay, and volunteer moderators like MisterWoodhouse will have to shoulder to burden of keeping their respective communities free from toxicity and racism. "With the ARK subreddit, we noticed that these things come and go in cycles," MisterWoodhouse says. "If there was a dominant tribe that was taking over a server and there was issues of glitching or duping, that would bombard the subreddit for a couple of weeks. But then it would die down. I think we're going to see that in Atlas."

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.