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A decade on, Xbox Live must face its biggest challenge

A decade on, Xbox Live must face its biggest challenge

Fri 16 Nov 2012 7:45am GMT / 2:45am EST / 11:45pm PST
Online

As we celebrate the immense success of Xbox Live, let's also work on taking online games back from the abusive, bigoted bullies

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.

15 Comments

Dave Herod
Senior Programmer

521 748 1.4
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.
I like this idea. Use people's competitiveness to make an actual game side advantage to not behaving like a dick. Unfortunately I can imagine big groups of them awarding each other points regardless.

Great article, Rob. I think online play has enough of a bad reputation that it really needs repairing soon.

Posted:A year ago

#1

Dan Howdle
Head of Content

280 810 2.9
Popular Comment
Great article!

I have to confess that this is the thing that has always irked me the most about Xbox Live. That there are, for example, no options to report racism, homophobia, sexism, outright neo-nazi hatespeak. That you can report someone for 'voice chat' of a negative kind, but that this is seldom investigated and the instigators rarely if ever punished. It's an underestimation on the part of Microsoft as to the level of moderation required.

Xbox Live is still a lawless frontier town and it's about time it had a sheriff with ideas as well as guts.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 16th November 2012 9:05am

Posted:A year ago

#2

Harrison Smith
Studying Games and Graphics Programming

75 4 0.1
Giving power to the player is and will always be the best solution. But for the hate speak and trolls, I say disable in game voip, not by the player choice but simply disable it for everyone and every game. Instead have it that players can set up chatrooms server in xbl/psn like in the pc space with teamspeak, where the players have admin powers to kick people out and set up sub rooms. These chat rooms would act as gaming communities within PSN/XBL where players can organised to play games together like co-op and mp games, and since public chat is no more, trolls would need to join these groups which they would be kicked out by the players.

That would be a way to clean up the gaming space when it comes to hate speak and bullying. As for general in game trolling/teamkilling etc, well again player control is the best solution and giving players the ability to create and manage the games and kick/ban trolls would be better than voting and downvoting. And with that the ability to find those games run by people in say your chat group or a player run event would be much better than hoping with luck that the match maker puts you with good people.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Giles Smith
Studying maths

12 6 0.5
It is more important this currently open environment remains free than that it becomes 'clean'. While the atmosphere in these places is often a hostile one it is better for the health of the community if these problems are dealt with on an individual basis i.e if you find some behavior unsavory then act against it. The last thing you need is another corporate run forum were all healthy discussion is closed down, liberty is paramount in these situations.

Posted:A year ago

#4

Dan Howdle
Head of Content

280 810 2.9
Popular Comment
@Giles
We're not talking about banning 'healthy discussion' we're talking about repercussions for antisoclal behaviour.

Right now, XBLA is not a place you'd want your kids to experience. Microsoft needs a system whereby chat is recorded and when reported, investigated and bans issued. Defending free speech when said speech is calling eight year-olds 'Fucking faggots' is a hiding to nothing. I think we can all agree that that's not on, and if we can agree on that, then we should also agree that steps need to be taken to prevent it.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 16th November 2012 10:52am

Posted:A year ago

#5

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

480 451 0.9
Obviously there are situations (like team-based multiplayer games where you should be co-ordinating with your team mates) where voice chat is very useful, but generally I find voice chat actually detracts from a lot of games, as even when it's not a bunch of pre-teens screaming homophobic abuse at each other, it's often completely irrelevant to the game, barely audible mumbling, full of background noise, people talking in Dutch, and/or otherwise distracting and pointless.

I can't even imagine how annoying it must be to have friends pestering you with cross-game chat on XBLA while you're trying to play an intense multiplayer match or an atmospheric single player game (can you disable that feature?). And imagine if Journey had come out on XBLA and was forced to have voice chat to meet the Xbox 360's TCRs? Yikes.

Posted:A year ago

#6

Dan Howdle
Head of Content

280 810 2.9
@John

Yeah, it doesn't work like that. You can only hear people in your conversation or party. You have to invite them or accept an invite. You're in control.

Posted:A year ago

#7

Daniel Hughes
Studying PhD Literary Modernism

436 496 1.1
I still play online with strangers, I just mute voice-chat, and only use voice-chat for games with friends and family. Great article Rob, and some great comments.

Posted:A year ago

#8

Tom DuBois
Digital

4 6 1.5
THis really is an outstanding article and doesn't get talked about enough.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Kieren Bloomfield
Software Engineer

92 79 0.9
The very reason I cancelled my gold subscription and stopped playing online games. I've got better things to do with my time.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Paul Jace
Merchandiser

900 1,330 1.5
Nice article. I have long suggested recording voice chat. If all voice chat was recorded and the ability to send a recording was as easy as clicking "report recorded chat log XX, etc" then alot of these problems would go away. And for the last freaking time, people need to start accepting the fact that it isn't just little kids and preteens saying all the racist, homophobic, abusive speech. A lot of times it's people aged 22-40. Immaturity, trolls and bigots are not restricted to a certain age group.

The other thing that would help is hiring more gamers who just regular play on XBL, such as myself. If you pick people like that(who play 20 hours or more a week on XBL) than they are much more likely to run into the abusive players and will be able to quickly ban them. If I was hired the first games I would patrol were the ones with small lobbies where you can easily track every single person and report what they specifically say. You'd be amazed how much abuse and hate speech takes place in a small 4 person lobby of UNO but that happens alot more than it should when a minority walks into a random game of UNO.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 16th November 2012 7:06pm

Posted:A year ago

#11

Daniel Chenoweth
Editor

14 5 0.4
Great article and clarified some of the difficult to explain reasons why I still much prefer most PC gaming communities over what's to be found on console.

However, I do disagree on one point. You make brief mention of those of us that fondly remember the camaraderie of the Quakeworld days, but I remain unconvinced that the same vibe cannot co-exist on the console model.

The reason that teenage keyboard warriors in the Quake days were less of a problem (they of course existed, but could be very easily dealt with) is the same reason that they are much less of a problem in games like Team Fortress 2, or Natural Selection 2 today: Because the games servers are community operated and moderated --there are nice gated communities within the bigger society of the game that you can play in without the pests.

Publicly hostable dedicated server binaries, or even player-rentable ones like Battlefield 3 put moderation control of the game in the hands of the players themselves, who can then police the server as their own property; kicking and banning any troublemakers far more efficiently than a commercial platform-holder.

So I disagree with the conclusion that it's an unmitigated consequence of society versus community scale. That might hold true for games like MMOs, where it would be much less feasible for a community to self-moderate, but for any games under around 64 players, giving players an option of running their own playgrounds, with the ability to enforce their own rules has been a workable solution in PC first person shooters with dedicated servers for a long time.

There is no real good technical reason why console platform holders and console game publishers can't get dedicated servers happening in their games. There are dozens of commercial game server providers worldwide that would love to add console game servers to their rental options, and would cost the publishers nothing in hosting costs.

Persistent stat tracking, and noob-friendly match making can all still work with this model too (albeit a less open one), as we've seen with Battlefield 3, where EA/DICE have done deals with GSPs to run their ranked servers on PC.

Are there still jackasses in BF3 on PC? Sure. But there are also plenty of servers to play on that are moderated by good people and offer a semblance of that sense of community we used to have back in the good old days.

It's kind of funny to think back to Gearbox's PC version of the original Halo: CE and it's free publicly-hostable dedicated servers. Whereas Halo's success on Xbox supposedly legitimised the subscription costs for Xbox LIVE. That they're still charging people $50 a year, 10 years later, is simply a master stroke in consumer conditioning.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Peter Dwyer
Games Designer/Developer

481 290 0.6
I suppose they could always ask to borrow the CIA,s or GCHQ's monitoring system to process all the voice chatter and simply issue an immediate ban to anyone using derogatory terms during a game. Would certainly cut down or totally stop the abuse overnight. Imagine the scene.

13 Year old Kid: "Hey my Nig..."
XBOX Banhammer (Computerised voice): "You have been banned from this service. Please read the terms and conditions and file an appropriate appeal if necessary"
*Disconnect*

Alternatively we could just hold parents responsible for what their kids get upto online and maybe ask then to actually do some responsible parenting for a change ;)

Posted:A year ago

#13

Curt Sampson
Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
I agree that Xbox Live's lack of a good system for reporting and recording abuse is rather shocking, especially given how much they charge for (and how much they make from) the service.

I''m not a big fan of bans, since when used on a mass scale they almost invariably go wrong at times and punish the innocent. However, there are plenty of other ways of partitioning the players that are not being explored, and I wonder why that is. For example, being able to say, "Prefer not to (or never) put me in a match with that player again because he's abusive" might well let the player community divide itself into various sub-groups that are more or less tolerant of abuse. Is it just that I've not heard about researchers looking at things like this?

Posted:A year ago

#14

Eric Leisy
VR Production Designer

116 125 1.1
Can someone clarify what the article meant by ... "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). "

What is being inferred by being "Groomed" on a Nintendo Online service? Is this inferring to sexual predators trying to trick children into meet ups?

Posted:A year ago

#15

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