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The new ratings system evaluating online toxicity in games

Leo Burnett Canada's Kohl Forsberg on why rating gameplay and content isn't enough for titles like Call of Duty and Fortnite

Games are rated by regulatory organizations such as the ESRB and PEGI, evaluating titles based on their content and subject matter. These ratings aim to inform buyers, especially parents, about what their children could encounter while playing a game.

However, the Toxicity In Online Gaming report says that these evaluations have a gap: they do not provide an evaluation of a game's online community. The report created by The Watch, Melanin Gamers, Leo Burnett, and The Angus Reid Group, aims to take on that task. spoke with Kohl Forsberg, executive creative director of Leo Burnett Canada, about the initiative. He says the published ratings are a step towards creating more transparency and a better understanding of the realities of navigating online spaces.

"This mission of making gaming a more inclusive space for everyone is something Melanin Gamers has been doing for a long time"

Forsberg says, "This mission of making gaming a more inclusive space for everyone is something Melanin Gamers has been doing for a long time. We've been working with them for a few years on this idea and trying to at least help push and lead the work we're hoping developers will start doing to make that space better for everyone."

He explains that disseminating information can be challenging for anyone, especially parents. However, caretakers may not have the time or resources to properly understand online gaming experiences. The toxicity ratings report aims to be another tool; while the current ESRB and PEGI classifications are unable to include warnings about the online experience of a game that hasn't even launched when they're evaluated, these toxicity warnings can indicate what that experience is like long after launch.

"We want parents to be aware of this. There's a whole other world associated with gaming that aren't exactly gamers. It's a really important space for us to be in so that parents can be aware of [this]," he says.

"[Speaking] as a parent who isn't as in touch with everything going on, I grew up with a rating system indicative of gameplay. Now that rating system doesn't speak to the online play. So, as a parent, I'm kind of going in blind on what my kids are actually experiencing in their game."

He continues, "I do believe that there is a need for parents and gamers to have access to an idea of what these online spaces are without actually having to go in them first."

"I do believe that there is a need for parents and gamers to have access to an idea of what these online spaces are without actually having to go in them first"

To demonstrate, the organisations have rated five titles — Call of Duty, Fortnite, Minecraft, Apex Legends, and Valorant — for their online community and published these on the toxicity ratings site.

Ratings are determined by six factors: racism, controlled substances, crude humor, sexual content, violence, and gender discrimination. As of this writing, Activision Blizzard's shooter received the highest rating, 78, and Riot Games' Valorant scored 77. Apex Legends and Fortnite tied at 76. Meanwhile the lowest rated is Minecraft at 62.

Forsberg notes that these ratings require a lot of work and input to be digestible.

He explains, "We have the data collection through the site that is happening. We are [also] working with a specific research company to help us collect data to get it as quickly as possible. We're hoping this continues to snowball and gains momentum, that more and more people are submitting results, and that the results just get more robust."

Forsberg says the larger effort of informing more people about what they could encounter online will take time. The report was created after years of conversations with Melanin Gamers and collaborators. The survey took place over a few months and involved input from nearly 250 people, he explains.

"It was about two to three months and while the data was being collected, we were talking about how do we interpret [this information]? [How do we] summarize it, and make sure that it is true and useful?," he says.

As such, he explains that after the report was released, he received positive feedback from game makers, consumers, and non-game players alike. He believes this is a sign that the toxicity ratings are working towards their intended goal.

Activision Blizzard's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Over the years, online gaming has been a point of concern for many. It has also served as one of the reasons communities and organizations such as Melanin Gamers were created. They were created to foster more inclusive and safe spaces for marginalized people in response to those negative experiences.

Forsberg adds that working with these communities has helped ensure that the ratings report was as robust as possible.

While the toxicity rating report aims to provide more awareness of the harms that can come from online games, the industry has not been ignoring those realities.

Over the years, concerns about online communities have been the subject of multiple reports and studies.

Politicians have also called on companies to address these matters. Over the past year, Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, Microsoft, and Unity, for example, have included more moderation tools and reports to combat toxicity.

Forsberg acknowledged that increased moderation, reporting, and toxicity evaluation are all working in tandem. He says this is a sign that more people are taking on the task of creating a more inclusive and safe playing environment.

"Every time you have a conversation with someone about policy, or a team, or people who develop the games, everybody wants the same thing"

"Every time you have a conversation with someone about policy, or a team, or people who develop the games, everybody wants the same thing. I think we all need each other to push each other," he explains.

"[The] rating systems are a helpful tool. Not just to inform the public but also to encourage the creators to try everything they can to have a product that is as available and open to as many people as possible. There's [a] real incentive to have a good rating on your game. We hope that [the] toxicity rating system doesn't just inform parents."

When considering the report's impact, Forsberg says that it's something he's still processing in real-time.

"The ESRB has been really positive. We've been lucky that we've started chatting with them. They have the same goals as us. So we're really encouraged by that.

"We're also seeing different charities and potential partners coming up and asking how they can help. Across the board, people understand the mission. I think they see that there's something here, and they want to help."

Another positive note was seeing reactions to the report from parents like himself.

He says, "I'll say anecdotally that I have friends who don't know anything about the [gaming] space and have no idea who their parents are. I'm talking about a bunch of dads who look like me and know even less than I do seeing this and messaging privately and saying thank you. This is super helpful, and I think it is encouraging."

When asked what the most challenging aspect of ensuring the rating report meets its goals is, Forsberg tells that it comes down to ensuring it remains a useful resource.

"I think our biggest challenge that we put to ourselves has been making sure that what we're putting into the world is real helpful and valuable. When you understand the gravity of what you're talking about, it puts this extra pressure on doing it right. I think we feel that a lot of this has to be perfect because it deserves that."

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Jeffrey Rousseau avatar
Jeffrey Rousseau: Jeffrey joined in March 2021. Based in Florida, his work focused on the intersectionality of games and media. He enjoys reading, podcasts, staying informed, and learning how people are tackling issues.
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