Tabletop Simulator caught up in competing review bomb campaigns over transphobic moderation complaint

Tabletop Simulator
(Image credit: Berserk Games)

Tabletop Simulator has found itself at the center of dueling review-bomb campaigns on Steam following complaints from a user who was kicked and temporarily banned from the game's global chat channel for stating that they are gay and trans.

The trouble began earlier this month when a Tabletop Simulator user named Xoe said that she had been repeatedly kicked out of the game's global chat channel for sharing the fact that she's gay. Subsequent efforts to clarify the specifics of chat moderation policies ultimately led to a temporary ban from the channel; an email sent to Tabletop Simulator developer Berserk Games went unanswered.

Xoe then went to the Tabletop Simulator Discord, where she was told that the global chat channel was primarily for players looking to join games, and "not a place to discuss sexuality, festishes, [or] politics." But later efforts to push boundaries in the chat, by talking about being straight or in favor of abolishing prisons—sexuality and politics, but not queer—triggered no such response.

One moderator, Tyam, attempted to explain the kicks during the discussion by saying that Berserk Games was simply trying to avoid worse outcomes. "The fact that almost every instance of that kind of language in global chat is being used in a way other than what Xoe is advocating has caused those topics to be on the 'no appropriate' list since the beginning of global chat," they wrote. "As much as I enjoy discussing the merits of internet moderation, there are just keywords that will result in bans, honestly most of them are temporary and automated."

The trouble with that approach, Xoe said in a lengthy Google document detailing her experiences, is that "it is impossible to find queer community in chat, or to ask for queer games in chat."

"You can’t ask for games with gay/trans representation or about gay/trans experiences because you will get kicked," she wrote. "It is considered against their rules."

"The suppression of identity tells those people it’s not safe to be themselves in those spaces. I’d occasionally see some banter of people celebrating their queerness, people saying they love being gay, and the like, and I assume all of them must have gotten kicked the same way I did when I joined in. This sets a precedent that you are not welcome here, that you can be here as long as you leave your marginalized identity at the door."

Shortly after Xoe posted the doc, Berserk Games issued a statement saying that the whole thing was a misunderstanding: Xoe had been kicked from the channel not for expressing her identity, but "for what was deemed disruptive behavior by spamming different key words in an attempt to get flagged." 

A day later, it disabled the global chat entirely in order to rework its moderation policies.

"The purpose of the moderation team was to keep global communication on the topic of board games and to reduce toxicity and hate," the studio said. "Tabletop Simulator recognizes that the current moderation process of our global chat has failed to uphold its original intention and we apologize for this as well as anyone who was hurt or made to feel unwelcome in the past few days as this was never our intention."

One of the moderators involved, Chry, also apologized for "poorly thought-out responses [that] have caused distress, emotional hurt, and damaged a reputation."

Xoe's complaint is fair: "When other people are allowed to speak about their hetero cis experiences but gay and trans ones are silenced, you are using your platform to say only hetero and cis people are embraced here," she wrote. Berserk's response, as far as it goes, also seems reasonable. Xoe also acknowledged that she doesn't think Berserk is "consciously and deliberately trying to bring harm to the LGBT community or that they have an anti-lgbt agenda." But when her experience became more widely known, it quickly—inevitably, really—turned into a culture war conflict on Steam.

Negative user reviews of Tabletop Simulator began to tick up on January 8 and spiked two days later, driven primarily by complaints that the developers are transphobic and homophobic, and statements in support of trans rights. But there's been a similar uptick in positive reviews as well, many of which unfortunately express actual transphobic and homophobic sentiments.

(Image credit: Steam)

The number of reviews in these competing bombing campaigns are relatively small compared to the overall total: 674 negative reviews and 568 positive since January 8, a small fraction of the nearly 30,000 "overwhelmingly positive" user reviews Tabletop Simulator has been given since it launched in 2015. Still, the sudden influx was enough to trip Steam's automated anti-review bomb system: All of the user reviews posted after January 7, positive and negative, have been marked as "off-topic," meaning that they'll remain visible but won't impact the review score calculation.

But while the raw numbers may not add up to much, it seems clear that toxicity amongst the Tabletop Simulator community is a real problem, and Berserk needs to take steps to address it. The studio's initial response seems sincere and encouraging, but Xoe indicated that she's not coming back no matter what happens.

"Thanks for saying trans rights are human rights, but it rings hollow when you’ve told me prior that it would be inappropriate to share with others," she wrote. "I’ll share my pride elsewhere, looks really promising."

I've reached out to Berserk Games for comment and will update if I receive a reply.

Andy Chalk

Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.