They want you to fight

Online harassment is a huge problem modern society is facing. Even calling it online harassment pretty myopic, when you consider the scope of it and how it is increasingly breaching the boundaries of the interactive world and becoming manifest in our real lives.

A former co-worker of mine was the victim of an attempted swatting, or rather a bystander of it as the swat team meant for her was sent to her mothers house. Some time later the harassment struck her again as a panel she was scheduled to speak on at SXSW was targeted with threats and subsequently cancelled, presumably by #gamergate, or if not them “formally” then someone using similar methodology as all these other harassment that the #GGers later denied was them and said was “radicals”. The point is online harassment, when we refer to it, is not simple acts of anonymous name calling anymore. Maybe we need a new term, because performing an act against someone that has the real world implications of someone getting hurt or killed has probably crossed some sort of boundary where it becomes assault or criminal endangerment.

But how did we get to this point?  One would assume that no one goes from nothing to swatting someone. There has to be a ramp up, a “gateway drug” that people take to get to this level of behavior. Most would point their fingers to online gaming as the breeding ground for this, though really any method of interactive communication can be to blame. Many other theories such as that of Toxic Masculinity exist to try to explain it, and though I don’t want to get into a gender discussion in this article, I personally do not think that is the root cause. Harassment and violence have existed long before these new methods of employing them came about.

As a gamer I am a staunch advocate for and defender of my hobby. I do not believe video games cause violence as some political figures would have you believe, the same way that I do not believe that rock music makes you worship the devil. I do not want the government to step in and regulate gaming as it tends to do whenever any industry gets too large or faces a problem too big for itself to manage quickly. Up until this point the gaming industry has at least taken some steps to self govern, the ESRB or PEGI ratings systems being notable if not fully effective examples. But just because gaming is not responsible for it, does not mean they do not have responsibility to try to stop it.

I also happen to believe that the gaming industry has to take some blame for the chain of events that have taken place over the years that have lead to the escalation in online harassment. Game makers and the cottage industries that have sprung up around gaming such as fan forums, reddit, and video solutions like Youtube and Twitch have made it easier than ever for people to harass others, and have put the responsibility to solve these problem on the shoulders of the communities and the victims. I would contend that not only does the industry not do enough to self regulate, but it often seems as if they want to encourage foul behavior. At the least they are far more reactionary than proactive on the matter. To them the benefits of these systems often outweigh the negative stigma of online harassment, if only from a financial perspective.

I’ll use the example of Hearthstone, which I play regularly. I am a good player, not a great one, but I enjoy the game. It also happens to be a game where because of the swingy and random nature of some of the mechanics and cards, upset come from behind victories are not uncommon. People get salty when they lose to a sudden top deck or a random aberrant roll. Anyone who has had a board full of minions and then lost the 1 in 8 roll against a Ragnaros knows how bitter a pill that can be to swallow.

Hearthstone is a game that requires no communication between players to function. There are no team mechanics in the game that would require communication, it is a 1 on 1 match up between two opposing players. Yet Hearthstone has two communication methods within the platform that can enable people to harass their opponent. The game is part of Battle.net, and as a result has retained the buddy list and messenger system that some of Blizzards other games use. Those other games have team elements contained within them that Heartstone does not, so the communication is important if not critical to some of them. I have received more friend requests after a bitter sweet win from my opponent who wished to tell me something I didn’t know about my sexual orientation than I have ever received genuine buddy requests. In fact I have never received an unsolicited buddy request in Battle.net that was anything but someone telling me about what an unskilled player I was or about my mothers sexual prowess. I have friends on the buddy list from the real world, who if I did not have this list I would speak to with other means like AIM or Skype, but no friends who I causally met after a good game. There is no method to know that the person requesting your friendship is not doing so simply to call you names and threaten you, though at this point anyone who has played an online game for more than 10 minutes should know that it is pretty much 100% of the requests you will get.

I have a friend who I know from playing Magic. He is a very good Hearthstone player and regularly hits legend rank, which is the highest tier you can get within a months gaming season. Now to hit that rank you have to beat a lot of people, so certainly some of them are going to be miffed that he knocked them back down the ladder when they were on a hot streak. It seems that every month my friend gets some new buddy requests from players simply to tell him that his mother is going to rot in hell because he managed to beat them in some sort of “unfair” way. The images below are some of the more colorful examples, posted with his permission.

Now beside players who are young and relatively new to the game, it’s not hard to ignore these requests. They are immensely frustrating to receive and still potentially toxic to younger players, of which Hearthstone has quite a few being a very PG-13 title, but still manageable. But what about the other harassment that takes place in the game, one that is infinitely more innocent and yet even more toxic?

There is an in-game emote system in Hearthstone that has some predefined speech bubbles, a system many other games also employ. The emotes range from saying thanks all the way up to taunting your opponent. But in reality each and every one of them is a taunt depending on the context and the stage of the match you are in. This system is often used solely to add insult to injury to a game you are about to lose. Some of the more colorful players will often use out of context emotes like hello over and over again, just burning time and making you sit there before they beat you. I would say it is unsportsmanlike to do something like this, but this behavior is not only tolerated by the community but also the games developers all the way up to the tournament level. The devs did willingly add this feature, it is not like it’s a community mod. If you did something like this at a game of Magic or a sporting event, ran up to your opponent after the game was over and kept saying hello and good game over and over again, you would be penalized or tossed out, where as in Hearthstone it is often cheered.

To further make this feature frustrating, you can disable it but only for each instance. I, and I assume many other players, have no interest in taunts or being taunted. I do not feel obligated to say good luck to my opponent in an anonymous online game, so why is there not a global feature to disable this communication? Yes I can silence a single person who is being a jerk, but it does not prevent them from wasting time taunting me since they do not know they have been silenced. Without a global mute setting, I either have to mute my opponent every single game, or wait until they start acting up to mute them. It puts the onus on the player every single time.

Non-global mute settings are not anomalous to Hearthstone, and it permeates plenty of games, even ones geared to younger players. At some point last year I was playing Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare on my PS4 (they gave it away for free for some weekend event.) It’s a perfectly great game and obviously acceptable for most all ages (the ESRB rates it E for everyone.) So in a game that openly invites young children to play, you would assume something like automatically on voice chat would be disabled, but you would be wrong. Not only is it enabled for every random kid to shout some gibberish slurs into their mic, even if you are not using a headset, but you can only disable it by muting that person though a convoluted menu system, that happens while you are playing the game, assuming you know who said it. It does not seem like a great system for kids, or reasonable adults.

If I had a kid playing an otherwise perfectly acceptable game like this, I would think I would want some parental control over this. Not only do I not want my (non existent) child to be exposed to this in a place that should be a safe space for their own safety, it is this kind of behavior that feeds itself. Young minds observe this lack of tact and think it is the norm, and learn to reciprocate it. This is one of the main factors that has lead to the ever increasing propagation of this behaviors that we see today.

These channels for harassment, or trolling if you want to make it seem less damning, exist in both intentional and unintentional forms. But game companies have been all too keen on enabling it even when they identify the problem and have a solve for it. Teabagging in FPS games is an all to common occurrence that came out of unintentional means. Having a crouch feature in most games is a relevant game play ability, but more often than not it seems as though it is only used to insult. Halo was notorious for this, and even after having removed to encourage better conduct, it was re-enabled in Halo 4. But why?

I would postulate that for the gaming companies, when it comes to their financial bottom line, find it much more lucrative to leave this type of behavior in the game than to remove it. Even though in some cases it borders on irresponsible for them to leave it in, the conflict these things create generate buzz. Conversations about how badly a player trolled someone, or videos of people flipping out on voice chat are everywhere online, and they are in effect free marketing for the games. Even bad press is still press, and people are more likely to hear about your game in this very crowded gaming market this way. It is the same reason you see obvious trolls in most every online forum. Even though these posters often provide nothing to a conversation other than negativity, they are playing within the rules, or at least just enough to not get booted for it. They tend to post more, they create conflict that creates more posts that creates more conflict that create more posts, and that generates more page views and in turn ad revenue. It’s not hard to see why the path of apathy is the path to revenue in this situation.

Now most of these platforms have reporting tools, where you can submit complains about people who are over the line, but what the line is for one person may not be the same for another, and may not be actionable within the platforms rules. Realistically being a jerk is not against the rules most places. It also once again puts the responsibility on the person who was the victim of said harassment, or if not them at least a concerned party who had visibility into the exchange. This is problematic for a few reasons. One is because why should it be the victims responsibility, but also why should they do anything as opposed to go elsewhere? That is the stance most of the pubs have taken if you base it on their actions, why should the users feel any different? It creates a self perpetuating downwards spiral, where bad behavior begets worse behavior and increasing apathy. People who go in the other direction are labeled narcs or social justice warriors and often targeted themselves for doing the right thing. The people behaving poorly have been doing so for so long they feel entitled to it, because it is the status quo.

Not all gaming companies are deserving of this finger wagging mind you. Riot games, makers of League of Legends, has taken several steps towards combating this issue, realizing the negative effect it has on current and potentially new players. Some of it still makes it incumbent upon the players to take actions, such as awarding commendations to players who exhibit good behavior, but some of it is behind the scenes or automated. One great thing that they did was to make communication via chat optional, requiring a user opt in before being subject to chat or being spoken at in game. This at least puts up a barrier to prevent toxic chat from targeting players who may just want to play, and allows the game devs the ability to track a smaller subset of users who much first opt in.

So what is the solution? Do we create rigid policing methods that border on identifying thought crime? Certainly not, as even the most jaded of us (here, here) can see there is inherent value in communication tools in game. But taking the very free market stance of giving them the tools and letting the people sort it out has already proven to fail tremendously in many cases. Where as being harassed online used to be an anomalous experience by internet early adopters who frequented chat rooms, it has now become the norm to the point that we have to have after school specials on it to teach our kids. I would suggest to the developers of the world, take a long hard look at your games and ask a few questions:

  • Is chat integral to the game or is it a superfluous feature? If it is not a requirement for game play remove it or at the least disable it by default. Teams who want voice chat can run Skype or Ventrilo in the background.
  • Do you have global communication settings in your game and are they easily accessible? There is no reason this should not be the case.
  • What level of chat does this game need? If it is only something needed during matches for instance make it so it only works there.
  • Can you add automation or safeguards that prevent abuse in the first place? Some words need never be said or typed, so if you can identify them block them and automate penalties.
  • Do you have a set of rules and punitive measures set for people who abuse it? If not, make one asap.

Simple steps like the above can lead to great results both immediately and in the long term. The internet is not going to change over night, and there will always be those who truly enjoy being disruptive more so than playing the game, but at least you know you performed your due diligence to safeguard people and perhaps over time can contribute to a positive change. Never forget that these are people playing in your creation and that your image is tied to them. You want your game to be remembered as a reflection of your effort and love for its creation, not for what a hostile environment it was.

 

Protoaddict

Linguist, Archeologist, Musical Savant, Robot, Asshat. Only one of these apply to this guy. The host of the show, who also sometimes writes and makes videos!