In the Lego-like world of Roblox, about a hundred blocky avatars march through a lamplit street, wielding Palestine flags that are larger than their own animated bodies. Characters dressed like cartoonish dinosaurs, steampunk zombies and pastel pink pop stars chant together via instant messages in both Malay and English as they arrive at a stage, where leaders of the Roblox server stand together to dictate when the next march around the pixelated streets will begin.
It’s an unexpected demonstration to find within a children’s game, but the larger a platform grows, the more it imitates the outside world. During pandemic lockdowns, more than half of all U.S. teens were playing Roblox, a sandbox MMO game that lets users build their own servers and social experiences; even as kids have gone back to school, the game remains incredibly popular with over 65 million daily active users. But in times of crisis, the game can serve as an outlet for young people to safely engage in political activity and learn about world events.
When 23-year-old Salsabeel (a pseudonym) found out that her younger cousin was attending these protests, she was so moved that she posted on X (formerly Twitter) about it.
“y’all my cousin is 15 and couldn’t join a protest so she just went to one on roblox bro i’m crying,” she said. The post went viral, garnering more than 6 million views. Between her post and some other viral TikToks, more people caught wind of the demonstrations. Now, the Malaysia-based Roblox server has been visited over 157,000 times.
“I remember that people were holding solidarity events on Minecraft, or on Club Penguin before it shut down, and I heard about people holding demonstrations on Animal Crossing,” Salsabeel told TechCrunch. “So, using these platforms . . . it doesn’t surprise you, but it’s still bringing this unexpected feeling of joy when people use whatever avenue they have to show solidarity for any movement — for Black Lives Matter, for Palestine, for justice for anyone who needs justice.”
While conversation in the server hosting these protests did not seem hostile, it’s possible that we did not see more troublesome comments due to Roblox’s existing moderation tools. Oftentimes, messages will be censored with hash marks for containing certain words and phrases, even if some of the messages in question are not malicious. For example, words and phrases like “Jews,” “Hamas” and “Free Palestine” are always censored within the server, no matter what context they appear in. Still, it’s easy for trolls to get around these blocks by using alternate characters.
The choice of censored words is odd and appears arbitrary, showing a limit on the dialogue that can happen on a platform built for children. The word “Jews” isn’t censored across Roblox, but within the Palestinian solidarity server, it is. Perhaps the server censors terms like “Jews,” but not “Jewish people,” since the term “Jews” can sometimes be used in a derogatory, antisemitic manner. But among Jewish people themselves, “Jews” is very normal speech.
Because of this nuance, Roblox told TechCrunch that it monitors the use of the word “Jews” across the platform to protect it from being used in a pejorative way, which would violate community guidelines.
Meanwhile, the phrase “Free Palestine” is censored, yet other similar shows of solidarity with Palestine are not, such as the phrase “Palestine will be free.”
“We value friendly debate about issues and topics that matter to Robloxians,” the platform’s community standards read. “However, to maintain a civil and respectful environment, we prohibit the discussion or depiction of certain political content.”
Roblox prohibits discussion of candidates who are currently running for political office, or who have run for office in the past. Users are also barred from discussing current elected officials, political parties and, notably, “inflammatory content related to real world border, territorial, or jurisdictional relationships.” So, technically, users are permitted to have conversations about the Israel-Hamas War, so long as discussions don’t become “inflammatory” by Roblox’s standards.
“Blocking phrases like ‘Free Palestine’ is consistent with our Community Standards where we do not allow political content, particularly with regards to ‘content related to real world border, territorial, or jurisdictional relationships,'” a Roblox spokesperson told TechCrunch.
While in the server, we did observe some antisemitic messages filter through, particularly after people joined the server to counterprotest in support of Israel. However, the community tended to self-moderate in these instances by telling these offenders that antisemitic speech isn’t welcome. In a way, it’s impressive to see a community regulate conflict among itself, especially in a place frequented by children and teens who may not be experienced mediators. But it seems that Roblox is monitoring the situation to ensure that the server does not become actively hostile; at any moment, the tides could change.
“While our Community Standards allow for expressions of solidarity, we do not allow for content that endorses or condones violence, promotes terrorism or hatred against individuals or groups, or calls for supporting a specific political party,” a Roblox spokesperson said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch. “We have an expert team of thousands of moderators along with automated detection tools in place to monitor our platform and will take swift action against any content or individuals found to be in violation of our standards.”
On Wednesday, the server hosting the protests was taken offline for review for a few hours; however, it eventually returned online. Roblox did not give further comment on the matter.
Roblox has had problems with violent activity in the past. Last year, Roblox had to remove a game that let players fight each other while role-playing as Russian or Ukrainian soldiers. From a content moderation perspective, these virtual political protests may raise alarm bells; even in real life, demonstrations of solidarity have the potential to be marred by calls for violence. Still, Salsabeel sees the value in her younger cousin being able to experience something like a Roblox protest.
“I’m glad that people are showing support in as many ways as they can, even if they can’t physically go there,” she told TechCrunch. “Kids are capable of having productive conversations.”
Updated, 10/26/23, 1:25 PM ET with additional clarification from Roblox.