However, forward-thinking companies like Riot Games have been (not so quietly) researching online toxicity for years now. And one of their biggest takeaways is that when it comes to online behavior, as a society we’re still in the discovery stages… and we have a long way to go.
Luckily, we have experts like Riot’s brilliant Senior Technical Designer Kimberly Voll to help guide us on the journey.
A long-time gamer with a background in computer science, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science (told you she was brilliant), Kim believes passionately in the power of player experience on game design. She also happens to be an expert in player behavior and online communication.
We sat down with her recently to discuss the current state of online discourse, the psychology of player behavior, and how game designers can promote sportsmanship in their games.
You say you want a revolution
Two Hat: As an industry, it seems like 2017 is the year we start to talk about online behavior, honestly and with an eye to finding solutions.
Kim: We’re on the cusp of a pretty significant shift in how we think of online digital play. Step by step, it’s starting to mature into a real industry. We’re at that awkward teenage phase where all hell keeps breaking loose sometimes. The internet is the fastest spreading technology that humans beings have ever faced. You blink, it went global, and now suddenly everybody’s online.
“How do you teach your kids to behave online when we don’t even know how to behave online?”
It hasn’t been culturally appropriated yet. It’s here, we like it, and we’re using it. There’s not enough of us stepping back and looking at it critically.
TW: Is it something about the nature of the internet that makes us behave this way?
Kim: The way we normally handle etiquette is with actual social settings. When you go to a kid’s club, you use kid-friendly language. When you got to a nightclub, you use nightclub-friendly language. We solve for that pretty easily. Most of us are good at reading a room, knowing how to read our peers, knowing what’s okay to say at work, versus elsewhere, knowing what it’s okay to say when you’re on the player behavior team and you’re exposed to all manner of language [laughs]. We’ve been doing this since we moved out of caves.
But we don’t have that on the internet. You can’t reliably look around and trust that space. And you find with kids that they go into all of the spaces trusting. Or they do what kids do and push the limits. Both are not great. We want kids to push the limits so they can learn the limits, but we don’t want them to build up these terrible habits that propagate these ways of talking.
On the internet, you don’t get the gesticulations, you don’t the presence that is being in the room with another person. There are certain channels that right now are completely cut off. So right now we’re hyper-focusing on other channels — for a long time that’s just been chat. These limitations mean that you end up trying to amplify and bring out your humanity in different ways.
The nature of things
TH: As a gamer and a cognitive scientist, what is your take on toxic player behavior?
Kim: I think the first step is understanding the nature of the problem.
There are different ways to look at toxicity and unsportsmanship. We can’t paint it all with the same brush.
“Are there people who just want to watch the world burn? They’re out there, but in our experience, they’re really, really rare.”
Not everyone else is being a saint, but not everyone is the same.
MOBAs [Multiplayer Battle Arena Games] are frustrating because they’re super intense. If something goes wrong you’re particularly susceptible to losing your temper. That creates a tinderbox that gives rise to other things. Couple that with bad habits and socio-norms that have developed on the internet, and have been honed somewhat for a gaming audience, and they’re just that — they’re norms. Doesn’t make them necessarily right or wrong, and it doesn’t mean that players like them. We find that players don’t like them, overwhelmingly. And they’re becoming incredibly vocal, saying “We don’t want this.”
But there’s a second vocal group that’s saying “Suck it up. It’s the internet, it’s the way we talk.” And the balance is somewhere in the middle.
It’s always a balancing act
TH: How can game designers decide what tactic they should use to promote better behavior in their game?
Kim: There is obviously a line, but it shifts a bit. Where that line falls will depend largely on your community, your content. It’s the same way the line shifts dramatically when you’re out with friends drinking, versus at home with the family playing card games with your kid cousins.
There has to be flexibility. The first thing to do is understand your community, and try to gain a broader perspective of the motivation and underlying things that drive these behaviors. And also understand that there is no “one size fits all” approach. As a producer of interactive content, you need to figure out where your comfort level is. Then draw that line, and stick by that line. It’s your game; you can set those standards.
There is understanding the community, understanding it within the context of your game, and then there’s the work that Community Sift does, which is shield. I think that shielding remains ever-important. But there has to be balance. The shield is the band-aid, but if we only ever do that, we’re missing an opportunity to learn from what that bandaid is blocking.
There’s a nice tension there where we can begin to explore things.
You don’t need to fundamentally alter your core experience. But if you have that awareness it forces you to ask questions like, “Do I want to have chat in this part of the game or do I want to have voice chat immediately after a match when tempers are the most heated?
Change is good
TH: Do you have an example of a time when Riot made a change to gameplay based on player behavior?
Kim: Recently we added the ability to select your role before you go into the queue, with some exceptions. Before it used to be that you would pop into chat and the war would start, because there are some roles that people tend to like more.
Before, it used to be that you would pop into chat and then the war would start to ensure you got the role you wanted. Whoever could type “mid” fastest ideally got the role, assuming people were even willing to accept precedence, which sometimes they weren’t. And if you lagged for any reason, you could miss your chance at your role.
We realized we were starting the game out on the wrong foot with these mini-wars. What was supposed to be a cooperative team game — one team vs another — now included this intra-team fighting because we started off with that kind of atmosphere.
Being able to choose your role gives players agency in a meaningful way, and removes these pre-game arguments. It’s not perfect, but it’s made the game significantly better.
Trigger warnings, road rage, and language norms… oh my!
TH: What kinds of things trigger bad behavior?
Kim: There is a mix of things that trigger toxicity and unsportsmanlike behavior. Obviously, frustration is one. But let’s break that down: What do you want to do when you’re frustrated? You want to kick and scream. You want the world to know. And if somebody is there with you, you need them to know, even if they had nothing to do with it.
“Put yourself in a situation where you’re locked behind a keyboard, your frustration is bubbling over, and you’re quite likely alone in a room playing a game. How do you yell at the person on the other side of the screen? Well, you can use all caps, but that’s not very satisfying. So how do you get more volume into your words? You keep amping up what you’re saying. And what’s the top of that chain? Hate speech.”
It’s very similar to road rage. I remember my mom told me a story about some dude who was upset that she didn’t run a yellow light, He actually got out of the car and started pounding on her hood. And I bet he went home afterward, pulled into his driveway, greeted his kid, and was a normal person for the rest of the day.
You’re not an actual monster; you’re in a particular set of circumstances, in that situation, that have funneled you through the keyboard into typing things you might not otherwise type. So that’s one big bucket.
In the 70s and 80s, we used to say things like “You’re such a retard.” Now, we’re like “I can’t believe we used to say that.” There are certain phrases that were normal at the time. We had zero ill intent — it was just a way of saying “You’re a goofball.” That sort of normalcy that you get with language, no matter how severe, when you’re exposed to it regularly, becomes ingrained in you, and you carry that through your life and don’t even realize it.
We’ve sent people their chat logs, and I truly believe that they when they look at them, they have no idea what the problem is. Other people see the problem, but they just think, “Suck it up.” But there is a third group of people who look at it and they think “This is the way everybody talks, I don’t understand.” They’re caught in a weird spot where they don’t know how to move forward. And that can trigger defensiveness.
The thought process is roughly “So, you’re asking me to change, but I don’t quite get it, I don’t want to change, because I’m me, and I like talking this way, and when I say things like this, my friends acknowledge me and laugh, and that’s my bonding mechanism so you can’t take that away from me.”
Typically, no one thinks all those things consciously. But they do get angry, and now we’ve lost all productive discourse.
There is a full spectrum here. It’s a big tapestry of really interesting things that are going on when people behave this way on the internet. All of that feeds into the question how do we shield it?
“Shielding is great, but can we also give feedback in a way that increases the likelihood that people who are getting the feedback are receptive to it?”
Can we draw a line between what’s so bad that the cost of the pain caused to people is far more than the time it would take to try to help this person?
Can we actually prevent them from getting into this state by understanding what’s triggering it, whether it’s the game, human nature, or current socio-norms?
Let’s talk about toxicity
TH: What can we do to ensure that these conversations continue?
Kim: I think we need to steer away from accusations. We’re all in this together; we’re all on the internet. There’s a certain level of individual responsibility in how we conduct ourselves online.
I’ve had these conversations when people are like “Yes, let’s clean up the internet, let’s do everything we have to do to make this happen.” And the flipside is people who say “Just suck it up. People are far too sensitive.”
And what I often find is that the first group are just naturally well-behaved online, while the second group is more likely to lose it. So when we have these conversations, what we don’t realize is that our perspective can unconsciously become an affront on who they are.
If we don’t take that into account in the conversation, then we end up inadvertently pointing fingers again.
We have to get to a point where can we talk about it, without getting defensive.
Redefining our approach to player behavior
TH: Your empathetic approach is refreshing. Many of us have gotten into the habit of assuming the worst of people and being unwilling to see the other person’s perspective. And of course, that isn’t productive.
Kim: Despite our tendency to make flippant, sweeping comments — most people are not jerks. They’re a product of their own situation. And those journeys that have got each of us to where we are today are different, and they’re often dramatically different. And when we put people on the internet, we’ve got a mix of folks for whom the only thing connecting them is this game, and they come into the game with a bunch of bad experiences, or just generally feeling like “Everyone else is going to let me down.”
Then somebody makes an innocent mistake, or not even a mistake — maybe they took a direction you didn’t expect — and that just reinforces their worldview. “See, everyone is an idiot!”
When expectations aren’t met it leads to a lot of frustration, and players head into games with a lot of expectations.
I believe very viscerally that we have to listen before we try to aggressively push things out. But also we have to realize that the folks we are trying to understand may not be ready to talk. So we may have to go to them. And that applies to a lot of human tragedy, from racism to sexism.
We come in wagging our fingers, and our natural human defense is “Walls up, defenses up — this is the only way I will solve the cognitive dissonance that is you telling me that I should change who I am. Because I am who I am, and I don’t want to change who I am. Because who else would I be?” And that’s scary.
TH: It sounds like we need to take a step back and show a bit of grace. Like we said before, the conversation is finally starting to happen, so let’s give people time to adjust.
Kim: Think about the average company. You’re trying to make a buck to put food on the table and maybe make a few great games. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to do a lot of extra stuff. You may want to, but you may also think, “I have no idea what to do, and I tried a few things and it didn’t work, so what now? What do I do, stop making games?”
“At Riot, we’re lucky to have had the success that we’ve had to make it possible fund these efforts, and that’s why we want to share. Let’s talk, let’s share. I never thought I’d have this job in my life. We’re very lucky to fund our team and try to make a difference in a little corner of the internet.”
It’s harder for games that have been out for a long time. Because it’s harder to shift normative behavior and break those habits. But we’re trying.
Want to know more about Kim? Follow @zanytomato on Twitter