Developers have long been under pressure to make a stand against abusive online talk. Andrew Testerman asks what progress has been made
Smack talk is a large, often satisfying component of online gaming. Services like XFire and Mumble have provided PC gamers with online voice chat for years. Microsoft standardized voice chat for XBL way back in 2002 well before the technology was the norm, even making it a marketing focus for early XBL games. The line between well-meaning trash talk and verbal harassment is thin and precarious, though, and the anonymity inherent in online play makes it easy to antagonize and bully others with little fear of repercussions.
However, Riot Games has decided to take a stand against hate speech in its game League of Legends, according to an interview from Gamasutra with lead producer Travis George.
George explained Riot’s plans for reducing negative community behavior and promoting positive interactions instead. Riot has even built a team specifically to address the issue of improving their community, called the PB&J Team, or Player Justice and Behavior Team. Consisting of community managers and a handful of psychologists, to name a few, the PB&J Team’s job is to analyze data and metrics regarding player experiences, then actively seek out and address means to improve the community.
Then there’s the Tribunal. Introduced in 2011 as a way to help improve player behavior, the system allows League of Legends players to report those who they feel have violated Riot Games’s various conduct guidelines or display particularly unsportsmanlike actions. The Tribunal’s reception has been largely positive, winning praise both from average players and observers outside the community.
George assured Gamasutra that the Tribunal was “just one half” of Riot’s solution to improve the League of Legends community, though. The PB&J Team is also crunching data and charting behavioral trends, hoping to address the root problems of why players are upset, rather than just treating the symptoms.
Riot showed it was willing to put its money where its mouth was earlier last week, when it banned professional player Christian Rivera, known in-game as IWillDominate, from the Championship Series for one year. Rivera was banned for “persistent toxic behavior,” with Riot citing an in-game “harassment score” that placed him “among the worst 0.7 percent of all North American players.” By treating the pros in the same manner as the wider playing collective, Riot is showing its willingness to do what it needs to protect the sanctity of its community.
A developer taking proactive measures to ensure that its game is welcoming to everyone who wants to play it, and punish players who won’t respect another’s right to enjoy their game in a non-threatening environment?
It’s about time.
Riot actions are notable, but they’re not the only ones making a stand against bullying and hate speech in their games. Recently, several developers have risen to the occasion by calling out – and sometimes taking action against – other instances of toxic behavior in their games.
343 Industries made headlines several weeks ago when studio head Bonnie Ross and Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill discussed Microsoft’s role in curbing sexist language on XBL in an interview with GameSpot UK. According to Ross and Wolfkill, Microsoft has a “zero-tolerance” policy for XBL players found “making sexist or discriminatory comments against others,” potentially resulting in a lifetime ban. Ross and Wolfkill also urged other developers to get involved in heading off disrespectful and offensive conduct, with Ross, saying, “As developers, we have a personal responsibility to think about how our games come across.”
Icelandic developer CCP Games also took matters into its own hands back in March with its space-faring MMO, EVE Online. Eurogamer reported that CCP banned Alexander Gianturco, a highly-ranked player and in-game elected official, for calling out and harassing a player suffering from mental health issues, and for encouraging others to harass the player as well. Gianturco was banned for 30 days and removed from his position of leadership.
Though the actions of Riot Games, Microsoft, and CCP are encouraging, the industry still has a long way to go before online bigotry is seen as outlying behavior, rather than an undesirable norm.
Microsoft may exert a zero-tolerance policy against gamers found making bigoted comments, but verbal harassment and abuse is still an unsettlingly frequent part of playing on XBL. Hate speech is so common to online gaming culture that its impact in general discussion has been diminished, dismissed, with sentiment often turning to “Well, it’s your fault for not muting them.”
High-level play isn’t above gamer-driven bigotry, either. Last year, Event Hubs reported on an interview Dominion Method Gaming conducted with Street Fighter competitor BurnYourBra, in which she talked about having to shoulder disrespectful comments from fellow participants during tournaments.
Giant Bomb reported that competitive player Aris Bakhtanians even suggested that sexism is naturally endemic to the fighting game community. During a promotional event for Street Fighter X Tekken earlier this year, Bakhtanians said, “You can’t [separate Street Fighter from sexual harassment] because they’re one and the same thing.”
He continued, “This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community.”
Capcom made a statement distancing itself from Bakhatanians’s remarks, saying “Capcom believes that everyone should be treated with respect,” and Bakhatanians himself issued a short public apology, though it spent more time on the defensive than actually apologizing. Still, Capcom’s lack of official discipline towards Bakhatanians demonstrates how much further game companies have to go in combatting disrespectful community behavior.
Change is coming, though, as evidenced by the extensive work done by Riot Games to reduce “people being mean for the sake of being mean” in League of Legends. Hopefully, more developers will notice Riot’s efforts and start looking at what can be done to improve their own communities’ inclusivity. More people playing means more people having fun, and that’s a goal everyone should strive for.
Follow Andrew on Twitter: @iamaparade