Trolling on the internet is nothing new; it’s long been a given that the internet is full of asshats. There’s a reason many people cite “Don’t Read The Comments” as Rule 1 of the internet. Online games are no strangers to this effect; sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty are proof enough. We can’t police the entire internet, but we don’t have to put up with our communities becoming – or remaining – toxic wastelands full of bullies and trolls.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. One of the best examples of the wrong way is, I think, Blizzard’s moderation of the World of Warcraft communities. There are a couple of problems with their approach:
Forum alts: You’ve always been able to use a level 1 throwaway alt for posting on the WoW forums, which diminishes any accountability and allows the trolling-inclined to be jerks to their heart’s content. Blizzard’s attempt in 2010 to enforce RealIDs on the forums was ill-thought-out, but requiring a consistent forum identity wouldn’t have been an unreasonable move and, I believe, would have cut down on the most obnoxious forum behaviour. Plenty of other game studios do it, and it works just fine.
Speed of response: When you report harrassment, it takes Blizzard a long time to do anything about it. For example, Genowen at Untamed Hellcat recounts an incident where she was repeatedly harrassed by an entire guild, yet multiple tickets achieved nothing; it took two hours on the phone to Blizzard to see any action. Three days (or more) of harrassment while waiting for Blizzard to step in is simply unacceptable, and gives far too much power to the bullies.
Lack of commitment: What do harrassers get, in WoW? A three-day ban if they’re really egregious? How often are people permabanned from the game for being asshats that make everyone consistently miserable? That’s right: pretty much never. Blizzard is too willing to forgive their customers for making other players — other customers — miserable.
So that’s the wrong way. What’s the right way?
Honestly, I think it just comes down to “being willing to put your foot down”. This responsibility is twofold, I think. In part, it’s the community’s job to enforce its own standards, which means more of us need to be willing to speak up and say “shut up, you’re being an asshat” when people are making the community toxic. And we need to do it on behalf of the people being victimised or harassed, not just in our own defenses when it happens to us. This is the spirit informing Navi’s Anti-Asshat Week, which I heard about via Stubborn at Sheep the Diamond, and enthusiastically endorse. LotRO’s a good example of this; it’s renowned for having a relatively pleasant community, because the community self-polices and good behaviour is rewarded while the jerks are generally shunned.
But it’s hard – it’s exhausting – to fight the jerks every day when you’re there to play and relax; doubly so if you’re one of the gaming minorities like women or gay gamers whose mere existence is used as hate speech. The ultimate responsibility lies with the game studio, IMO, because they’re the only ones who have the power to enforce actual punishment on people who aren’t swayed by whatever social pressure the community can impose.
I can think of a couple of cases of this done right in recent memory. ArenaNet attracted a lot of attention by banning the first wave of racist, homophobic bullies from Guild Wars 2 within a few days of the game’s release, back in August – and then they took to Reddit to explain why, with specifics when banned players challenged them. Their opening statement:
We want to clear up some of the confusion about GW2 name and behaviour suspensions. To keep Guild Wars 2 a pleasant place to be, we take action against racist names, hate speech and other unacceptable behaviour. We have suspended some accounts involved in the use of offensive character names or inappropriate chat. The number of account blocks is miniscule: less than .001 per cent of our total player base.
Of course, a number of commentators pointed out that ArenaNet had little incentive not to ban players, since their revenue model relies on box purchases rather than subscriptions — although this doesn’t address the issue of lost revenue from microtransactions the banned players might otherwise have made. Still, I have to admit that it warmed my heart to see bullies and trolls being dealt with sternly — and called out for their inappropriate behaviour when they complained. Pleasingly, some banned players even admitted they’d been in the wrong and apologised for being asshats — something I never expected to see, personally.
Red 5, the developers of Firefall, are another studio doing it right. The Firefall Beta Test Agreement includes the following clause:
6. You agree to be nice to everyone else playing the game. No foul language, no insults, no griefing, no cheating, etc. Red 5 Studios, Inc. retains the sole right to determine if you are being a jerk, and to take action on your account, which may include the loss of the characters, items, and any other virtual property within the game that is associated with your account. You may appeal this action through the informal process in clause 5.
I beamed when I read that for the first time. No shying away from the issue, no weasel words; instead we get a straight-up acknowledgement that being decent to other players is the required behaviour, not a statistical outlier. And I don’t think it’s a coincident that Firefall has a pretty decent player community, either. I haven’t heard anyone complaining of being banned, the incidence of general asshattery in zone chat is pretty low, and the forums are both lively and low on abuse. It doesn’t hurt that Firefall’s devs are actively engaged with the community, of course; they talk frequently with their player base, post frankly on the forums, and are happy to join in more casual and friendly discussions as well as the serious meaty developer posts. All of this adds up to an active and pleasant player community; people have little incentive to be toxic assholes to their fellow players, and it’s clearly stated that they’ll face heavy sanctions if they transgress.
I suspect it’s too late for games like WoW and communities like the XBox Live community so depressingly chronicled at Fat, Ugly or Slutty. The atmosphere may well be too entrenched to shift, short of massive (and massively unpopular) intervention on the part of the companies with the power, and those companies’ long-time silence and inaction has set a precedent they may not be able to break. But examples like GW2 and Firefall demonstrate that we don’t have to tolerate assholes in our part of the internet if we’re supported by game studios with the will to keep their games non-toxic and jerk-free. Here’s to ArenaNet and Red 5 and the other studios choosing to take a stand for their communities. Call it naive, but I dream of a day when level 1 forum alts and constant harassment are a cautionary tale from the past, not a reality thrust in the face of all too many of us who’d rather just game in peace.