A decade ago this week, Microsoft flicked the switch and turned on Xbox Live. It was not the first console online service, let alone the first major online gaming service, but it has a strong claim to being the first truly successful marriage of console gaming and online gaming - and it has certainly been the most long-lived. Ten years later, Microsoft's online vision has become a default part of the gaming experience on just about every platform that matters, and it has unquestionably changed gaming forever - with the idea of the videogame as a networked, connected experience which it popularised being now deeply ingrained in almost everything our industry creates.
"There is a dark underbelly to the service and to online gaming as a whole - and a strong suggestion that existing services may be an evolutionary dead end."
The positive aspects of the revolution in online gaming which was ushered in by Xbox Live can't be overstated. Online gaming and services bring us together, connecting us with friends around the world and giving us shared experiences which long distances or other barriers would otherwise deny us. Human opponents and collaborators are more interesting and more unpredictable than the finest AI yet devised; our victories over other humans are sweeter, our shared triumphs more memorable, than those which simply involve cold silicon logic. Even in single-player games, social features can make us into a part of a playing community; can spark conversations with old friends ("how far in are you? Enjoying it?") or let us extend our rivalries with Achievements, GamerPoints, Trophies and Leaderboards. For developers, too, Xbox Live and its ilk have become a treasure trove - not just of digital distribution opportunities, but of data, and a chance at last to see what players actually do with your games once they bring them home from the shop.
Moreover, it's easy to forget that Xbox Live was not necessarily a natural evolution of console gaming. It's not the case that Microsoft simply did first what someone else would have done eventually. In fact, several major publishers intensely disliked Xbox Live at the outset. Considering themselves market leaders and masters of their own customer relationships, they wanted to run their own online services. Without Microsoft's insistence (self-interested as it may have been), we could still be signing up to separate online services for every publisher, juggling multiple friend-lists and payment accounts, and completely robbed of cross-game chat, messaging or achievement systems. Microsoft's effort at knocking publisher heads together until they agreed to conform to Live's rules of engagement is not dissimilar to Apple's triumph when it forced mobile networks to play by its rules for the launch of iPhone; both were industry-defining moments which no other market player seemed to have the will or the ability to push through.
Yet I think it's important, as we celebrate Xbox Live's milestone, to note that the success of Microsoft's service does not mean that online gaming is a solved problem - or indeed that our online services are in anything other than their infancy. Many commentators are quick to attack other platform holders, especially Nintendo, for not following the trail Microsoft has blazed with online gaming. However, this fails to recognise that alongside the positive stories about Xbox Live, there is also a dark underbelly to the service and to online gaming as a whole - and a strong suggestion that existing services may be an evolutionary dead end.
Alongside the immense success of Xbox Live, it would be hard to miss the fact that the service also has a widespread reputation as a pretty unpleasant place. Supercharged by anonymity and, perhaps, by the innately aggressive nature of many multiplayer games, the voice chat on Xbox Live is regularly racist, sexist, homophobic and otherwise vile. Even those who turn off voice chat to avoid such abuse are not necessarily spared - a trawl through the archives of a site like Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which chronicles messages received by female gamers, is at once grimly amusing and absolutely appalling.
"There are hard-working staffers who track abuse and ban players accordingly, but as online gaming grows this becomes a problem too big to be dealt with by humans"
The other thing you'd be hard-pressed to miss after a couple of hours on Live is that, in spite of the fact that the average age of a console gamer is well into the 20s now, most of those playing - at least, most of those playing and speaking - appear to be waiting impatiently for the onset of puberty. Aggressive male teens and tweens make up a very large proportion of the "visible" playerbase of Xbox Live, even though all logic and research suggests that they're a relatively small proportion of the actual playerbase. Why is that? I'd hazard a guess that the simple reason is that the anonymous and largely unpoliced nature of Xbox Live is a toxic environment which ends up only being tolerable or accessible to those poorly socialised adolescents.
There are solutions to this, of a sort. From a player's perspective, you can effectively withdraw from Xbox Live (and other online gaming - I should be clear that I'm not singling out Xbox Live here) as a public service, treating it instead as a closed network in which you only interact with your real-life friends. That works, to an extent (it's largely how I play these days) but most games are still going to insist on pairing you up with public players at some point; some won't even let you advance in multiplayer without playing on public servers. From the service operator's perspective, there are hard-working staffers who track abuse and ban players accordingly, but as online gaming grows this becomes a problem too big to be dealt with by humans. Besides, humans make mistakes; witness Microsoft's utterly daft policy, after years of conference talks prattling on about how Xbox was all about self-expression, of banning anyone who mentioned being gay on the service, rather than the knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who abused them as a result.
The result is that online gaming can often feel like a cesspit - a bullies' playground in which the only choice for most players is to keep your head below the parapet and hope it's not you that gets the inbox full of hate. However, don't misunderstand - this isn't an attack on gamers or on gaming culture, because this isn't a unique problem. Visit the comments section of any major website (YouTube is a good place to start) and you'll witness a similar culture at work - abusive, nasty, intolerant and aggressive. The majority of gamers are good people who want to play games and have fun together; the problem is that the naive ideas of the early internet, where we decided foolishly that everyone would want to speak to everyone else (and be spoken to by them) have turned out to be utterly wrong. Anonymity and (largely) freedom from repercussions turns a small, loud minority into abusive monsters, and there are enough of them to ruin it for everyone else.
I don't doubt that when Nintendo extends cautious, careful toes into the online waters, this is one of the things foremost in its mind (the other, of course, being the ever-present risk of media crucifixion at the slightest hint of children being "groomed" on a Nintendo online service). Other companies, too, are starting to think about how you fix this. Unmoderated comments are gradually becoming a thing of the past on many websites, who recognise that what they have created is not a "community", but an echo-chamber full of horrible madmen (or perhaps "the shit room", to use the unmistakeable parlance of British political comedy The Thick Of It). They're recognising that these problems can't be fixed by policing and moderation, or by threatening to wield a banhammer; the services are just too large and the problems too subtle for that to work. Solutions must be systematic, baked into the very nature of how the services work - and for established services like Xbox Live, that's going to require a major overhaul.
"Where a community can deal with its reprobates individually, society must build systems and facilities to deal with a much larger volume of them"
There are promising ideas out there, though. League of Legends, an online game absolutely infamous for the outright nastiness of its community, recently introduced a system whereby, rather than downvoting those who behave badly, people can award karma points to those who behave well - with rewards for players who get upvoted frequently. By all accounts, it's working extremely well. Positive reinforcement for good behaviour appears to encourage people to play ball, where the threat of punishment merely incites the foul-mouthed Che Guevara in every pasty-faced teenage rebel. Linking social networking accounts to game accounts and forcing people to take ownership of their own actions and statements isn't the universal panacea we hoped for (it turns out that some people are happy to be abusive bigots even under their own names) but remains helpful and promising. Above all, the simple idea of using the social graph as a core part of the matchmaking process seems to be incredibly powerful - playing with people they know, friends of friends or even slightly more distant acquaintances, players are more likely to have an enjoyable experience with like-minded people.
These solutions, and others yet to be dreamed up, are going to be absolutely vital as online gaming proceeds into its next decade. The first decade of Xbox Live has been a remarkable success story, but its social structures were defined on a naive dream - the dream of people like myself, no doubt, who remember online gaming from the days of QuakeWorld and its ilk, and believed that similarly tight-knit, fun communities would continue to be at the heart of online gaming. We forgot that as a service scales, it stops being "community" and starts being "society" - and where a community can deal with its reprobates individually, society must build systems and facilities to deal with a much larger volume of them. The next decade will be even harder on that front, I fear; online gaming will grow and grow, and an embittered band of testosterone-fuelled egos will be determined to make the newcomers as miserable as possible. It's up to everyone involved - service operators, game developers, publishers, players, even the media - to counteract that; to take this amazing thing that we've created, the world's first truly connected media format, and make sure it's a good place for everyone, not just the adolescent bullies.