Games culture is struggling with a pervasive lie: that it’s simply not possible to stop players from behaving like abusive jerks.

Log in to any online game or popular stream and there is a good chance you’ll run into hostility, trash talk and aggression from strangers over voice or text chat. As it does everywhere online, this hostility disproportionately affects the marginalised: women, people of colour, LGBT people. The common use of slurs and other demeaning language creates an unwelcoming space.

It is certainly not an easy problem to solve, but neither is it an inevitability we have to live with. When game developers choose to prioritise the issue, they can have a highly positive impact.





the Overwatch league grand finals in New York in July.



The Overwatch league grand finals in New York in July. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

After a long struggle with toxicity, Blizzard Entertainment recently introduced endorsements and “looking for group” features to its shooter Overwatch. The former allows players to commend one another for teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership, while the latter means they can avoid random assignment and form balanced teams.

Blizzard subsequently reported that abusive chat was down by between 15% and 30%. Still far from perfect, it is nonetheless proof that encouraging good behaviour works and, more broadly, that there are measures companies can take to make their communities less abusive and more welcoming.

Not long after, Ubisoft implemented instant half-hour suspensions of the accounts of Rainbow Six Siege players if they were detected typing slurs into chat. A second offence leads to a two-hour suspension, and a third leads to an official investigation that may result in a permanent ban.

Researcher Kat Lo studies online harassment and community moderation, and says that these steps make her “feel very hopeful”. Though it’s not yet clear how Rainbow Six Siege’s new system has impacted the game, she explains that having clear consequences for harmful behaviour: “sends a message to the community that the developers are taking measures to instil less toxic community norms, and most importantly that they’re willing to enforce those expectations.”





Rainbow Six Siege, whose developer, Ubisoft, implemented temporary suspensions for players detected using offensive slurs.



Redrawing the battle lines … Rainbow Six Siege, whose developer, Ubisoft, implemented temporary suspensions for players detected using offensive slurs. Photograph: AP

Setting clear boundaries and sticking to them is especially important while there are still high-profile players attempting to defend behaviour such as using homophobic slurs during livestreams. Simply knowing what is unacceptable can make a huge difference to the actions of community members. For example, in a talk at 2017’s Game UX Summit, Twitch data scientist Ruth Toner described how channels that require people to read and agree to their code of conduct see markedly lower instances of toxicity.

“A common understanding of fighting toxicity in games is that it primarily involves suppressing toxic language or behaviour,” Lo tells me. “However, as companies are working more closely with community managers and player behaviour researchers, we’re finding that more effective approaches involve fostering norms that sustain healthy environments that are, crucially, resilient to toxic individuals or toxic spikes in the community.”

In other words, actions such as those taken by Blizzard and Ubisoft can have a positive knock-on effect. “When toxic behaviour is less tolerated, more players in turn are able to be present and active in the maintenance of healthier cultures in these games,” says Lo.

However, despite awareness of the issue and established steps that can be taken to tackle it, games companies are often slow to react. It was 16 months before Overwatch’s developer announced it had reassigned developers to work on the toxicity question, and 10 months after that that the features were implemented. When Overwatch was released in 2016, console players didn’t even have the option to report abusive behaviour.

The anti-toxicity measures being rolled out now are not new ideas. Famously, Riot Games introduced League of Legends’ “Honor” system in 2012, allowing players to praise one another for teamwork, positivity and strategy. And in 2015, Lead Game Designer of Social Systems Jeffrey Lin wrote about the success of the game’s Tribunal system, which gave players an opportunity to vote on what behaviours were unacceptable and punish offenders accordingly. “Verbal abuse has dropped by more than 40%, and 91.6% of negative players change their act and never commit another offence after just one reported penalty. These results have inspired us, because we realise that this isn’t an impossible problem after all,” Lin wrote.





Gamers playing League of Legends, which as seen verbal abuse drop by 40% since it introduced an honor system.



Gamers playing League of Legends, which has seen verbal abuse drop by 40% since it introduced an honour system. Photograph: Anthony Anex/EPA

There’s still a stubborn perception in the games community that online abuse is just a fact of life – or worse, that dishing it out is an integral part of enjoying a game – and that anyone bothered by it needs to grow thicker skin or stop playing all together. These assertions are constantly used to rebuff those who want to speak out about their experiences, which only helps abusive players to be tolerated.

But Lo sees things changing: “Dealing with toxic game chats doesn’t seem quite as impossible as it used to, in many ways because of the research coming out of recent anti-toxicity measures by game companies. Decisive and contextually sensitive moderation alongside the proactive development of community norms is increasingly how we’re seeing effective, sustainable ways to fight toxicity in gaming.”

The actions of Blizzard, Ubisoft and others are only the tip of the iceberg. But they demonstrate some approaches to the necessary task of tackling abuse, and their successes ought to put an end to the lie that there is nothing that can be done. Change is possible, but it requires a dedicated, ongoing effort.



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