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Pushing the trolls back under the bridge

Dealing with abusive behaviour and trolling in games is an old problem, but rarely has the issue been so serious, or the responses so lacking, as in 2017

Community moderation may not be the most glamorous part of the industry, but it's something that has been a challenge for game companies and creators since the earliest days of the medium. The moment network play become an aspect of games - a moment which dates back almost to the dawn of video games themselves - the question of how to build systems and procedures to stop ill-willed players from ruining the experiences of others became an issue, and it's one that has never gone away.

Right from the outset, back when networked games were still largely played in text, some games embraced the trolls; sculpting open worlds where malice and trolling are only limited by the danger of repercussion from other players. Other games sought to protect the experiences of the majority of players by controlling potentially malicious actions, either through hard limits on what players could do, or through the manual intervention of "GMs" when things got out of hand.

"If abusive behaviour is tolerated by some of the industry's biggest players it will be harder to prevent it from cropping up just about everywhere"

As the decades have rolled by, the resources available to companies to moderate their in-game communities have improved, but by and large they have not kept track with growth in the magnitude of the challenge. Voice communications, forums, streaming and offline events have vastly expanded the range of channels that a malicious player may abuse, while the expansion of the audience to encompass a broader range of demographics has expanded the kinds of abusive behaviour for which a game may unwittingly become a channel. The stakes, too, are higher, especially in an era where in-game items or progress can carry a real financial value thanks to real-money transactions of various kinds.

This has not been a banner year for efforts in this field. Companies who have publicly devoted themselves to rooting out malicious and abusive behaviour in their communities are finding the resources they need to devote to the task snowballing, while many others - including well-to-do industry leaders - have taken the approach of sticking their fingers in their ears and hoping the issue will just go away. On the consumer side, discontent with everything from cheating to abusive behaviour is rife, and there can be little question that it's driving away potential (and existing) consumers that an industry with spiralling development costs can ill-afford to lose.

Yet attempts to moderate abusive behaviour are consistently met with outraged push-back from a vocal minority of players who insist that an atmosphere of abuse and aggression is "gaming culture". Consumer figureheads, in the form of popular streamers or YouTubers, face almost zero censure from the games industry itself when their own widely publicised behaviour falls far short; it's left to YouTube's valuable FMCG advertisers to vote with their substantial wallets, creating a collective punishment that often hits innocent parties hardest.

"The communities that sprang up around early MMORPGs and online shooters were often filled with racial minorities, LGBT youth and physically disabled people"

Those companies who are genuinely engaged in trying to make their online communities a better place - companies like Riot and Blizzard, pioneers in the online gaming space who show a genuine desire to make those spaces as welcoming and fun for everyone as possible - are absolutely to be praised, but one can't help but feel that their work is being undermined at every turn by the companies and creators who aren't pulling their weight. No amount of working in your garden is going to make much of a long-term difference if all your neighbours allow theirs to go to seed. If abusive behaviour is tolerated by some of the industry's biggest players (and yes, I'm giving Valve significant side-eye here), it'll be all the harder to prevent it from cropping up just about everywhere.

There are two fundamentally different approaches or beliefs, I think, which drive those companies who are not pushing hard on community moderation and tackling abuse. One is the belief that these problems can all be solved with the right data and algorithm, and a tendency to throw hands up in defeat when a few attempts at tweaking those things doesn't magically change player behaviour overnight; it's this kind of na´ve tech-utopianism, I think, which is behind Valve's failure to handle the culture of abuse on its Steam platform.

The other, which is more visible in the attitudes and behaviours of large publishers, is simply a desire to avoid confrontation with consumers - at least when the subject at hand is something that doesn't have a direct profit motive. Fights over loot boxes are worth having; but pushing back against racism, homophobia or misogyny? Creating mechanisms to prevent brigading, or tweaking matchmaking or game designs to rob in-game trolls of the capacity to ruin experiences for their fellow players?

These are things whose benefit is only tangible in the mid- to long-term. There is no payday for them tomorrow, or the day after, and many companies simply aren't willing to put their foot down and battle the aggressive minority who'll lose their minds over such changes.

"Many companies simply aren't willing to put their foot down and battle the aggressive minority who'll lose their minds over such changes"

This problem isn't going away, though, and its long-term damage could really be significant. There's a philosophical argument at the core of it that it's worth everyone engaging with just for a moment: the question "To whom do games belong?" Appeals to some kind of 'gaming culture' or tradition from those who insist that abusive behaviour is all part-and-parcel of the experience (appeals usually made, it should be said, when someone has just been called out for being awful in some context) suggest that there's a very specific audience to whom games belong; everyone else is just here on sufferance, with no right to speak out against the holy pillars of abuse and trolling.

Yet anyone who's been around the block over the past few decades in this industry knows that's simply not true. In online gaming more than any other aspect of the medium, minorities have always been heavily represented; the current failure of both industry and community to address abusive behaviour is infuriating precisely because online gaming was historically such an important space for minorities of all stripes to escape to.

Back in the 1990s, before most of the people making the "it's gaming culture, deal with it" argument were even born, online games were welcoming and hospitable spaces for marginalised people. The communities that sprang up around early MMORPGs and online shooters were often filled with racial minorities, LGBT youth and physically disabled people, and while in-game chat may have been rough and tumble, the communities themselves were open and supportive. Right from the outset, such groups have had every bit as much claim on videogames as the current soi-disant defenders of some warped and unpleasant version of gaming culture; even leaving aside the simple morality of the matter, their loss as consumers if the community climate simply becomes too unpleasant would be keenly felt by the industry.

As companies think about how they're going to prioritise this kind of issue in the New Year, it's also worth bearing in mind that it's not just minority consumers who are watching their efforts. As we saw this week on both sides of the Atlantic - courtesy of an intellectually dishonest campaign against upcoming game Detroit from the UK's Mail on Sunday, and a proposal to legislate against loot boxes in the USA - the industry's 'victory' in the long-running public debate over violent games doesn't mean it's escaped the kind of media and political scrutiny which can, given sufficient negative focus and the right political climate, lead to regulation and restriction.

Thus far, the media has not paid that much attention to the industry's problems with abusive behaviour, or the worrying tendency for its communities and games to become channels focusing abuse on minority groups. This lack of attention is not guaranteed to last, and companies would do well to start the process of proactively tackling these issues before the tabloid press or, worse, the government comes knocking.

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