Toxicity in player bases: Dealing with cyberbullying in online games

The good and the bad

I make no secret that I met some of my closest friends through World of Warcraft over five years ago. To this day we still play together on a weekly basis despite the fact that we let our subscriptions to the behemoth of an MMO lapse a long time ago. Through the guild that we formed we were able to teach each other, level our characters, deck them out in awesome looking gears and defeat some of the most difficult bosses ever implemented into the game. All humble-bragging aside, we were and still are a pretty close-knit group that understood and cooperated with each other extremely well, all without ever seeing each other in real life (until recently). This degree of amicability however is not always the norm for people who choose to enter into an online community.

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He was really quite a pushover for us.

For newcomers and those slow to learn an online game’s mechanics the prospect of dealing with those who are already well acquainted with the world and its intricacies can be daunting, if not entirely overwhelming. This problem is exacerbated for those with any kind of social anxiety disorder, prompting them to disregard these games altogether out of fear. Many of these people will be the victims of cyberbullying of the video game variety.

Your experience with cyberbullying in an online game varies depending on the game you are playing, but in the end it will all involve at least one player harassing another. With the online communities for games growing as the years go by the problem of policing and punishing these offending individuals becomes increasing difficult. The circumstances involving bullying in a game differ significantly from what you might see over social media, where an individual often uses their real name and identity. Over an online game it is often the decision of a player to create a new identity, private and detached from their real life one. While this certainly protects players from harassment in real life it makes punishing trolls, griefers and plain old bullies exceedingly difficult, as there is little in the way of accountability in regards to a fictional identity. This has not stopped developers from trying to create some though, and with recent events in cyberbullying both within games and without the emphasis on making progress has only been intensified.

 

The traditional method

Because of the differences between games policing the communities requires a variety of approaches. In World of Warcraft, developer Blizzard went with and continues to stand by a fairly traditional method. Right clicking a player’s name in chat allows for one to report them for innocuous behavior, i.e. spamming, offensive language, abuse and more. As the tickets for these players mount up eventually a game master will intervene and, after reviewing their chat logs, will punish the player accordingly. In the time I spent lazing about Stormwind City, waiting for my guild to get ready for a raid, I sent many of these reports myself followed swiftly with the addition of the reported to my ignore list.

This simple approach is a relatively common one for MMO’s, with others such as Rift, Guild Wars 2 and more utilizing it. From what I can tell though it is a successful one as well. Reported players often receive temporary bans and even risk having their accounts suspended permanently for repeat offenses. I can honestly say that I never saw the same person offending week after week, but then again I never removed anyone from my ignore list. It was simply easier to mark these people as unpleasant and deal with the people who already knew were kind and helpful. Much like real life the first impressions that these people made had a lasting effect on me, and I ignored them much like I do with those who irritate me in reality.

But what about the games where you don’t get to choose who you interact with? Massively online battle arena’s, or MOBA’s for short, one of the quickest growing genre of online games faces a decidedly greater challenge when it comes to negative player behavior. It’s become fairly common to hear the communities for games like League of Legends or DOTA 2 referred to as toxic. They certainly have a history as such, as I can personally attest to. Due to their harsh learning curve and complex character building structure it can be easy for a new player to fall behind and for a returning player to flounder in confusion for a time. The responses from the players, both on the less experienced player’s team and on the opposing one, is often less than helpful. Making the slightest mistake like missing a skill-shot on an escaping player or even being the wrong person to kill an enemy player can set a toxic player’s sights on you, creating an atmosphere of verbal abuse and negativity.

Item Shop

If this looks confusing to you don’t worry. You are not alone.

The major problem with this situation is that, unlike WoW, you cannot simply ignore this person and go on playing. LoL or DOTA requires you to keep playing with them till the match is over, or you risk receiving a negative report on your own account for leaving early. This is understandable, as leaving would put the rest of your team at a competitive disadvantage, and hopefully they don’t all deserve it. So you play with the troll, possibly muting him so you can avoid his abuse, but nonetheless still sharing virtual space with him. Sadly this rarely improves things, and your team suffers nonetheless. Fortunately, the developers of LoL, Riot Games have taken an interesting and largely innovative approach to the issue.

 

Putting the power in the player’s hands

Riot Games attempts at dealing with player harassment have become a major success story for the company. Recently Jeffrey “Lyte” Lin and Carl “StatusKwoh” Kwoh, the the lead social systems designer and producer at Riot Games, respectively, spoke at MIT regarding the issue. The video is quite long, but worth a watch should you have the time.

If you weren’t able to get through the whole thing, I’ll summarize the main points for you and give you the background necessary to understand. Riot, in an effort to improve the level of discourse and cooperation in their player base, have implemented a number of systems to do so. Players are able to report offending players at the end of a match, which functions similar to WoW’s method of player reporting. These reports prompt the records of the match to be brought to The Tribunal, a form of public trial in which the players of LoL are able to review a case and vote on whether or not the player in question was in violation of the game rules or not. If the community agrees that they are the case is pushed forward to a Riot employee who doles out the appropriate punishment.

The system has been largely successful, especially now that Riot has been sharing the information regarding the Tribunal case with the guilty players as it shows them where they went wrong. As was shown in the video, having the player base actively participate in the process had a very positive effect, as it removed the sense that players were being arbitrarily punished by the developers. Riot’s decision to further incentivize good behavior has certainly helped as well. By giving players a goal and by making that goal reliant on being helpful, kind or at the very least quiet during a game goes a long way in keeping the toxic players out of the loop.

 

What the future holds

Riot’s largely successful approach to cyberbullying in its player base has prompted others to take on similar tactics. Though not everyone is copying LoL in its largely player driven policing structure there are still some noteworthy examples. DOTA 2 for instance, rather than ban their players from playing the game instead have those who receive an inordinate number of negative reports placed into a separate league in which they can only compete against each other, effectively creating a toxic waste dump of negativity. Newer games, such as the recently released Titanfall take a similar approach, putting cheaters and negative players in the same league as one another which they cannot leave. Though I personally feel that the Riot method is more productive, it’s certainly pleases me to imagine awful people being forced to play with only other awful people. It’s like a virtual hell that we get to inflict on others who truly deserve it! Even Microsoft is doing it with the Xbox One, forcing all the negative players into one large pool of hate.

Though I would much rather see more in the way of positive reinforcement strategies I find it hard to complain about toxic players being forced to play with other toxic players. Still, in the back of my mind it just feels less productive than teaching them to be better people. We could argue all day about whether or not creative an incentive to be nice is truly making people better but in the end it doesn’t really matter. It’s simply more rewarding for me to see someone become kinder than to watch them drown in the bile of other people’s hate. Not that that make’s it less funny, though.

 

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Persistent Online Requirements: How much is too much?

The issue at hand

For the most part I think we can all agree that the development of the internet has so far been a positive experience, especially for gamers. We can now play with our friends anywhere around the world, share secrets and cheats without the use of a handbook or magazine and even enjoy an entire genre of video games – the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online – insert additional second genre here). The internet has allowed us a to compete and play together at an unprecedented level, and it should come as no surprise that there are those who would like to further experiment with the still young technology. This has led to tremendous successes such as the video games Demon Souls, Dark Souls and the recently released Dark Souls II – a game series which utilizes a persistent online connection allowing players to share hints, view each other briefly in the game world, and even invade one another’s world in violent and highly entertaining conquest. This feature has been very well received and is, more importantly, completely optional. But what happens when similar features are included into other games without the ability for the player to opt out? How well has the online gaming community responded to these developments and how does it look for the future?

 

SimCity 2013 – A Cautionary Tale

When I first learned that SimCity 2013 would require a constant internet connection to function correctly I was admittedly indifferent to the matter. The game had little appeal to me as a gamer, with far too much emphasis on economy and infrastructure rather than slashing and hacking at orcs, robots and other things that would seem out of place in a city-simulation game (though the day they finally combine them is one I eagerly anticipate). My indifference however was overcome by the enormous debate that such a design feature sparked in the video game community, with the larger part of the consumer base rallying against publisher EA Games rather than with it. My interest was piqued and with a muted but eager anticipation I watched as one of the most compelling controversies in recent video game and internet history played out.

SimCity 2013, the game that could have been.

SimCity 2013, the game that could have been.

Up until the release of SimCity 2013 the series had been entirely single-player focused, with virtually no online connectivity whatsoever. This changed dramatically with the new installment, with each player’s city connected to several other players’, requiring that each one rely on the others for trading commodities and the like. Though this seems relatively uninteresting at first the revelation that the online connection would be mandatory in order for the game to function quickly drew the combined rage of the internet against EA. Despite the various pleas for an offline mode EA insisted that the game would not function correctly without an online connection and that they were more than equipped to handle the launch of such a technically demanding and high profile game. This was not the case. Not long after the game launched server errors and connectivity issues prevented players from enjoying a game whose predecessors had suffered no such drawbacks. To make matters worse it did not take long for people to discover that the game functioned just fine for a limited time when their internet connection was severed. The controversy was amplified when a modder inevitably created his own offline version of the game, allowing people to play at their own leisure without requiring an internet connection. Ultimately the controversy proved to be disastrous for EA, with reviews of the game lambasting them for the shoddy launch and deliberate misreadings. It has gotten so bad in fact that EA has recently announced an offline version of SimCity, to be released soon.

This is a visual representation of EA's PR department a mere day after the release of SimCity

This is a visual representation of EA’s PR department a mere day after the release of SimCity

The puzzling factor in this matter is the motivation for EA’s deception. Why not simply add an offline mode from the beginning? More puzzling, why develop a game that can function almost completely free of error in an offline environment and yet force it to connect to the internet for it to work? Certainly this must be more expensive for EA, with the cost to maintain servers that can handle constant traffic rather than allow the player computer to bear that burden. So what on earth could justify such a decision? Of course we can only speculate, as EA would never openly admit it, but the glaringly obvious answer would be to curtail video game piracy.

It is commonly believed that video game piracy is more significant in computer games than it is for consoles. After all the platform more openly allows people to work around the protection barriers that developers create to prevent such an event. SimCity, being a PC game, was potentially more likely to be pirated than any console equivalent would. The use of persistent online feature would make sense as a preventative measure, one that would ensure that the player’s copy was legal as confirmed through their Origin account – EA’s personal online store. The problems created by the disastrous launch however, more than anything, hurt their chances of selling more copies than they likely would have lost through piracy. There is no way to confirm this of course as no one can yet gather data on how much an online commodity did not sell as an effect of piracy, but nonetheless the damage was done and EA’s reputation took a hit. This is not an isolated incident though, with other publishers trying similar things with their own varying degrees of success.

 

Stoking the fire

The case for a constant online connection has been made by many companies over the last few years, the most major of which have each run into their own fair share of resistance. One of the most obvious that comes to mind is Microsoft and the initial reveal of their Xbox One.

The Xbox One, as the successor to the successful Xbox 360 console, had a simple task to do to ensure it would continue its predecessors success: be more powerful than it and maintain a large video game library. Microsoft however decided to include an internet connection requirement in order for the console owner to access and play the games they had installed onto their machine. The connection would only have to be made once every 24 hours, but it would still have been mandatory. This caveat essentially ensured that those without an internet connection would not be able to play the games they had already paid full price for. Even those whose connection status was shoddy at best might not be able to play should they fail to connect for at least a full day. Regardless to say the outrage among the gaming community was palpable, and after some time passed the feature was eventually dropped. This was done despite their claims that the requirement was built into the core of the machine’s operating system. Truly if that were the case it would not have been so easy for it to have been removed, but that was the story Microsoft went with.

It should also be mentioned that the Kinect camera was mandatory as well. Because that just screams privacy.

It should also be mentioned that the Kinect camera was mandatory as well. Because that just screams privacy.

Other companies such as Blizzard Entertainment, who produced and continue to develop the MMORPG World of Warcraft, have included similar always-online requirements for one of their newer games which has been part of traditionally offline series. Diablo III requires a constant internet connection to Blizzard’s servers to function, and despite a rocky launch Blizzard has no intention of providing an offline feature. At the moment the game is stable but with the upcoming expansion to soon be released we may see the servers taxed once again.

 

A Lesson Learned?

These are just the more notable recent examples of how persistent-online-DRM can succeed and fail. In Microsoft’s case we saw how a radical decision to force an entire library of video games to rely on an internet connection to just be accessed drew a massively negative response from gamers, most of which used the internet itself to voice complaints. Blizzard has produced a game with a more demanding online requirement but has enjoyed a great deal more success, even though the internet connection does nothing for people who want to enjoy a single player experience. The SimCity debacle was the more interesting of the three, as it involved watching the web of lies EA had performed come burning down around them, much like a poorly designed, simulated web would.

The question we must ask ourselves now is what has been learned from these experiences? In EA’s case it would seem that deliberately misleading your customers can severely backfire, resulting in the sales of a product suffering. Microsoft saw how a mandatory persistent-internet-connection can lead to incredibly negative responses from their consumer base and has the foresight to drop the feature when it became clear how their competition would respond. Blizzard has more or less stuck to its guns on the matter, possibly due to their experience in online gaming with WoW, despite the continued requests that they do otherwise. Whether or not they will utilize what they’ve learned for their expansion’s release is yet to be seen.

For many the world of Diablo 3 is less hellish than attempting to play the game itself.

For many the world of Diablo 3 is less hellish than attempting to play the game itself.

Ultimately the practice of a constant online connection is one that still has to be refined. One can hardly blame a company for wanting to protect its products. However if they do so to the detriment of their legitimate customers enjoyment it makes one doubt whether they’ve truly found a solution, especially when the price of their games remains the same as older versions did which actually had offline features. In the end you really are paying more for less, at least as far as accessibility is concerned.

I remain skeptical on the use of the internet as an anti-piracy tool, at least in its current form. With some locations in the developed world still struggling to maintain reliable internet connection it certainly doesn’t seem fair to make the service itself mandatory. Perhaps some day when the internet is more developed and its use is more commonplace than it is even now we will see this kind of protection more often. For now though, it seems more reliable and certainly kinder to give your customers the benefit of the doubt.