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We can all help with Overwatch’s toxicity — but Blizzard must lead

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Jeff Kaplan talks about building Overwatch at DICE Summit 2017. These characters were the work of Arnold Tsang.


Recently Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan spoke in an Overwatch Developer Update video about the issue of toxicity and bad behavior in Overwatch. In it, Kaplan addressed some key improvements being targeted to improve the recently released reporting system for consoles and for reporting and moderating bad behavior overall in the game’s ecosystem. He also conveyed a sense of responsibility that the Overwatch team now owns for trying to discourage and prevent toxicity. These are all the kinds of things you’d expect when a developer is addressing a prominently discussed and rising issue in a game, and they were done well.

But then the video took a very strange turn.

Kaplan put forth the conventional wisdom about why players behave badly online: anonymity makes people feel more free to speak their mind and thus, be toxic. He then attributed what appeared to be an equal level of responsibility towards the Overwatch community for making itself less toxic, calling for better behavior in the community and thinking before typing. While careful to state that he wasn’t laying a guilt trip on players, the fact that he talked about systems that could have been worked on instead of having to divert resources towards player behavior appeared to convey a sense of almost parental dissatisfaction towards the Overwatch community. When you combine that with an idea that the community has equal power to end its own toxicity, it’s not something I can wholly agree with — and here’s why.

The appeal to the community to look inward and behave better, to play a role in reducing toxicity by being better people, and to realize everyone is playing to have fun is not unfamiliar to players with any history with player-versus-player competitive games. It’s a clarion call to action from a developer that, were this 10-15 years ago, would have carried more weight.  But for Jeff Kaplan, who has plenty of online experience from those days, to expect the same strategy that worked back in the early days of PvP to work now is at best extremely idealistic and at worst, unaware of the frequency of players’ powerlessness in general to fight toxicity in Overwatch, League of Legends, or any other competitive online.

Yes, the community shares a small part of responsibility in creating a better environment for itself, but it is the developer that has to set the stage to enable that to happen. Toxicity in online games today is a constant war fought just as hard as anyone fighting over control of Ilios or Lijiang Tower. The community, for all of its numbers, are at best soldiers in this war. The developer, however, needs to be the general — leading the charge and crafting the strategy to win the battle on toxicity. How do they do that? By knowing and understanding that you have to have the infrastructure in place from the beginning to deal with the worst of the worst, and by knowing you carry primary, not shared, responsibility for doing so.

The good old days of PvP

I’m a PvP hound like a lot of Overwatch players — we relish the thrill of competition and testing our skill against players of relatively equal skill. Yeah, it gets intense but at the end of the day you want to feel in your competitive games that you fought the good fight and that the enemy team knows and respects that.

I like Jeff Kaplan. I respect him and respect how he owned the toxicity problem from his end of things. But he’s very much passing the buck in the last part of this video, attributing an unrealistic amount of responsibility to the community to be able to police themselves when it comes to raising the quality of communication between players and how they act towards one another. It isn’t the early 2000’s anymore.

Here’s what I mean by the early days of PvP. I used to play Dark Age of Camelot, which in its heyday was one of the best PvP games out there, putting 3 factions against one another for control of territory and for bragging rights as the best and most skilled fighters. If you were a jerk in DAoC – whether that was interrupting a duel, abusing lag, or were generally nasty, you got called out on it. You were named, you were shamed, and lord forbid the IGN boards got hold of whatever jerky behavior you were up to. You were marked, and while there were plenty of toxic moments in DAoC, toxicity wasn’t the common behavior of the day. There were consequences, and you heeded them — especially in those cases when the studio got involved and shut down the truly awful players or exploits. It wasn’t perfect, but there wasn’t a sense of a systemic toxicity issue.

I don’t cite DAoC as some kind of old man yelling at a cloud example, I do so to make the point that it worked because generally competitive communities were smaller. PvP’ers were less common, and there was, with fewer players, less of a likelihood that you’d run into some creep with a mic who felt like spamming the N-word in chat while talking up how godlike they were  every time they would kill you.

Less toxic communities start with the development team

In 2017, past the awfulness of Gamergate, the constant issue of social media harassment incidents, and the increasing amount of anonymity and the ability to sidestep antiquated mechanisms for curbing bad behavior, it’s short-sighted not to build the right reporting systems, not to have enough staff and resources, not to think about worst case scenarios with how players can be abusive. To chalk it up to a lack of player responsibility and the general notion of a certain well-known Internet theory  is just as effective as the people who respond to toxicity by  saying “it’s the internet” and shrugging your shoulders. And that’s just not acceptable to me. It never has been — because saying that and doing that means you are continuously lowering the bar for expected behavior.

We should absolutely hold ourselves to a higher standard online — but that starts with the companies and studios having the tools in place to enforce that higher standard. They need to lead that charge with the right systems, the right level of resources, and a clearly drawn line in the sand against tolerating toxicity that players not only hear but see regularly..

As far as Jeff Kaplan’s theory on why we have toxicity, I can say that as someone who works in Community Management dealing with toxic behavior, it isn’t just anonymity. It’s also not just community responsibility, and it’s not lack of consequences. It’s the fact that there’s an audience of players out there that aren’t shown that being toxic doesn’t pay. Without robust policy enforcement systems in place, the result is a distinct outcome wherein toxic players are never actively discouraged from bad behavior, while good players have their game experience diminished by being helpless bystanders to toxicity.

To be fair, Blizzard isn’t the only studio struggling with this. It’s a systemic issue. But until the industry realizes that it isn’t as much on the players to fix it, it’s going to continue to be an issue. Better enforcement, better and more meaningful display of punishment for toxicity, better ability to identify players dodging suspensions or bans and acting accordingly, and generally displaying to the player audience that you’re not going to take this crap while being professional about it are all big challenges. But they aren’t insurmountable ones. If the trolls can be inventive about ways to be jerks, then studios and moderators can be just as creative at combating it. But make no mistake about it — it starts with the developers, not the players.

They should lead, so the community can follow. It’s a competitive game in 2017, and to win the war on toxicity, those of us who work in the industry should be aware that fighting that war effectively means building the systems to fight it accordingly, enforce behavior policy more visibly and more aggressively, and generally make it easier for players to help us do so. While we may never truly end the war on online toxicity in games, we can at least make sure our players and communities know we have the weapons in place to keep it in check.

Frank Sanchez is a veteran in Community Management for the games industry, with roles at Curse for EA Mythic’s Warhammer Online, BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, and currently, Gazillion Entertainment’s Marvel Heroes Omega. 

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®‘s Game Dev program.



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