Last weekend, Muhammad Zakir Khan, an avid gamer and assistant professor at Broward College in Florida, booted up his PC and tried to sign up for Epic Games’ MOBA-inspired game. Paragon beta. However, what Khan did not know was that his name – along with many others – is on the US government’s “Specially Designated Nationals List” and as such was blocked from application.
“Your account creation has been blocked due to a match with the Specially Designated Nationals list maintained by the United States of America Office of Foreign Assets Control,” the form read. “If you have any questions, please contact customer service at email@example.com.”
Understandably alarmed, Khan tweeted a screenshot of the form saying “@EpicGames My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist. #Islamophobia”
Most will never have heard of the “Specially Designated Nationals list” published by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). According to the US Treasury Department website, the blacklist is designed to track down criminals working in the US.
“The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury Department administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security objectives against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international drug traffickers, those involved in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other threats to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”
The question is – regardless of the actual security benefits – why was this government listing associated with something as simple as signing up for a video game beta in the first place?
Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney replied to Khan’s tweet, explaining that the company blocked his application because his name was on a list distributed by the US Treasury Department. However, the filter was never intended for use in consumer products, but rather in Unreal Engine 4, which the company licenses to developers to create games.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) January 10, 2016
“Sorry, this is not the intention. We are working to resolve this as soon as possible. Cause: Filter too broad due to US trade restrictions,” read one of Sweeney’s tweets. “Understood and sorry. This is bad filtering code. It checks a list of federal export restrictions by name only!” read another.
While Khan noted that he didn’t experience the same blockage using services from the likes of Blizzard, Valve, and EA, at least the error on Epic’s side seems to have been fixed. Khan later went to Twittersaying, “I’m surprised they didn’t notice it sooner, but I’m thankful @TimSweeneyEpic apologized and his team worked hard to correct the error.”
This isn’t the first time the gaming industry has been insensitive to user policies. In 2008, Microsoft was criticized for banning Xbox Live gamertags with the word “gay” in them. This not only affected those who happened to live in places like Fort Gay or went by the last name Gaywood, for example, but also those who wanted to legitimately convey their sexuality through their gamertag. Microsoft changed its policy two years later, allowing recognition of sexual orientation, religion, race, and nationality in usernames and profiles.