Massively Overthinking: The war on MMO chat toxicity

This week, The Ancient Gaming Noob posted up an image of RIFT Prime, where Trion asks people to… play nice. “Just a neighborly reminder that 1-29 chat is for RIFT chat, ideally things relevant to level 1-29 gameplay,” the UI HUD reads. “Please be good to each other. We’ve muted some and shall mute again. Have a great evening!”

Meanwhile, over in Trion’s Trove, I’ve had to report-and-block dozens of fellow players just in the last few days for disgusting slurs in multiple languages, stuff the filter doesn’t catch. For a free-to-play game that’s also on console, yeah, I guess I expect no better from the playerbase. But but but RIFT Prime is subscription-based. Surely that means a strong community, where such polite warnings from developers aren’t necessary? Yeah, not so much, as anyone who played old-school MMORPGs can tell you. This is a problem even in games whose devs prioritize community and care a whole lot.

So this week, let’s talk about in-game chat. Do you use it? Do you watch it? Do you turn it off? Is it really terrible everywhere, or just in some games? Which one is the worst and the best, and what should developers do about chat specifically?

MCDONALD'S! MCDONALD'S! MCDONALD'S!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I don’t think I’ve ever turned off chat. Ever. In any game. I’m mute/block happy, for sure. I’ll put text that’s spammy in another window that I rarely check, but not outright delete it. Especially since I tend to end up as a guild officer, I keep chat open so I can find potential connections and recruits. You never know who’s going to become a big-time raider or a well connected PvPer with an army of high-end crafting alts.

That being said, I’ve also been doing less core MMOs these days. There’s a lot of junk in chat, especially on American servers these days. I have a lot of political BS to wade through and even as a registered independent, I can see the current administration outright lies so much that if this were the scientific community, it’d be outright ignored for its habitual willful deceptions. The fact that I’m dealing with this on a professional/political/real-world level means getting it from the unwashed masses is a million times worse. Games are supposed to be fun, but MMOs, in particular, are supposed to be social. I don’t have the gamer connections I used to, and the ones I do are small and self-contained in a time where I really need to be meeting new people. As MMOs’ mechanics are generally behind the innovations we see in single player/small scale multiplayer mechanics, the social aspect is very important to me.

I think chat is more of a symptom than the actual issue. Policing people is just too hard without putting a lot of money into admins or having a lot of filters in play. A “politics” channel might help alleviate some of this, but trolls wouldn’t care. The issue, to me, is more about social systems. For example, China’s social credit system is scary in real life, but in games, it could be useful. If you know a lot of people getting banned or getting toxic scores after grouping, you’re probably similar to them or should get away from them- a lesson I learned as a child. Having a unified identity and reputation you carry around IRL might help players police their communities better, especially in larger games or platforms such as Steam or the Blizzard’s Battle.net.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): It’s always been bad. But it flourishes in specific games that attract antagonistic players of one form or another, either because the game’s marketing and theme is meant to do so (“harden the fuck up,” say CCP’s old ads, obliviously) or because the studio simply does nothing to stop the onslaught, effectively granting abusive gamers safe haven. Shifting political climates make specific types of in-game chat abuse more culturally acceptable and pervasive, too, which is what many games are facing down right now – with different degrees of success.

The obvious solution, which is to make chat abuse bannable instantly without piddly warnings and second chances, requires more moderation power and money than most MMORPG studios can afford, especially when it’s cheaper and easier to tell players to use ignore features and turn chat off. This is of particular concern in the free-to-play age, when most players are a drain on the GM team without paying into the ecosystem, and acquiring a new account to continue troll antics is no challenge at all. But even the companies that could afford that can’t realistically be everywhere at once, meaning that some measure of community intervention – like reporting – is essentially necessary, in video games as it is on any website.

That said, if your community is so toxic that everybody has to turn off chat just to get by, that’s not really a community, and it’s certainly something that’s harmed MMORPGs over the years, when nobody is talking – or listening – because most of the talk is runaway garbage. This isn’t ideal for decent players at all, and it’s certainly not healthy for the games.

That’s why I’ve been so happy to see studios focus on handling toxicity (and so frustrated when they fail or don’t go far enough). Yes, you can accomplish a lot with guidance and patience and rehab, but guidance and patience and rehab for trolls haven’t really worked in two decades, so I’m good with the banhammer. Swing hard and don’t miss. Maybe I’ll feel more sympathetic tomorrow, but I’m feeling a bit take-no-prisoners today.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I have mixed responses to chat. Generally, I leave it on, because it makes me feel connected with the community, occasionally delivers useful information, and can entertain me while I’m questing. Seeing people discuss the game in real time that you’re playing helps with the excitement and engagement level, and I sorely miss a public chat channel when I’m playing solo RPGs like Fallout 4 or Pillars of Eternity.

That said, not all global or even regional chat is good, and there are times that I turn it off or switch over to guild-only chat when it gets out of control. Some people like to stir up arguments — political, religious, “which MMO was the first,” or comparisons to World of Warcraft — that are as tiresome as they are unproductive. Some players just troll, and it’s painful and annoying to witness. I don’t need to be spending my relaxing game time being subject to a jerk who feels as though he or she has a soapbox to spew hate and inanity to an audience of thousands.

Are some MMOs better than others? Probably. I definitely have not has as great of an issue with, say, LOTRO that I have with other games. Probably the worst time for any MMO’s chat is when there’s an influx of new or returning players for a launch, patch, or expansion, so those are the times that I shy away.

But as for what developers should do, I think it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than report-and-ignore tools. Just let us flag players who are abusing chat and others and also let us squelch those who are filling up our chat boxes with nonsense, and we can go on with our gaming lives.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Do I use in-game chat? The answer used to be heck yeah, all the time! Now, it depends on the game and situation. I used to use it solely: I am a social creature, and chat is where there be peoples! Chat is still everything with roleplay, but when I started using voice more for shooting the breeze, Over the years I have stopped watching it because I hate the garbage and stupid arguments spewed there. I followed general chats a little less while being focused on groups and guild. RP stayed in chat. In some games like EverQuest II, I still follow chat channels, but usually not the general one as much; crafting, housing, and RP channels are the focus. In other games I only stream occasionally, I usually don’t watch chat at all except for group chat. I just ignore it or put it in a different tab. For PvP games, I have gotten to where I don’t even watch group chat because of how nasty some people are. The only time I really turn chat off completely is when I am streaming (more than not I just change tabs). I don’t want the audience subjected to the garbage either! For that same reason I turned off all chats but group for my kids when they were and playing with me.

Over the years, I have felt that general chat feels more toxic in free-to-play games. Perhaps it is just easier access for the largest number of trolls. Perhaps because having so many easy options, the really toxic can go so many places even if they finally get drummed out of one community. But it does seem worse. And PvP games – oy, some of those get brutal too with nastiness and insults and slurs. I do think developers need more emphasis on policing chat. There definitely needs to be a way in-game to report offenders, and those reports need to have a result. Even if it is just a temporary chat ban in game for using certain words, etc. Repeat offenders need to have serious repercussions.

Patron Archebius: In yet another way that Guild Wars 1 was the best MMO in the world, general chat basically didn’t exist outside of cities. I always left general on, would step inside a city, and be flooded with conversations, requests for advice, vendors hawking their wares, and the inanities that general chat tends to fill with. It was great – in a way, it felt like you were actually stepping into a living city after traveling through the peril-ridden countryside. And then, when you were ready to leave again, you’d step back through the portal, and into blessed silence.

Hm. Maybe that’s only ideal for my introverted self.

Either way, my habit of leaving general chat on stuck with me, even as I went to other games that didn’t limit it to certain areas. And I’ve always found a mix of good and bad – sometimes you get interesting debates, sometimes you get hilariously random conversations, sometimes you get helpful advice or find friends or just bask in the feeling of unrestrained community, good and bad, polite and rude, grammar nazis and everyone else.

But in every game I’ve ever played, there have been occasions where I’ve had to silence it or block everyone currently talking or go somewhere else. Graffiti is a constant – we found it in Pompeii, we find it in bathroom stalls, and we find it in our online games. I don’t know what instinct lurks deep inside man to project the cesspit of his soul onto any convenient surface, like some sort of verbal projectile vomiting, but it’s apparently pretty universal. And in most cases, I don’t think developers need to deal with it. Let people spout what they want to spout; the chat will scroll by, people will be blocked, no lasting damage done.

The only time that moderators should get involved is when people cross clearly-defined lines. Graphic sexual or violent (or both) talk, spamming slurs, or yelling death threats or suicide suggestions at other players, should always be monitored, warned against, and ultimately, banned. To that end, developers need to have good logging and reporting tools, so they can easily verify offensive comments and take action. They also need to know what the limits of free speech are inside their game, and enforce that limit consistently. We’ve all had that moment where we moved from “This guy is a jerk” to “This community is awful, and I feel alienated.” It is the responsibility of developers and moderators to allow jerks, while preserving the community.

Your turn!

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61 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: The war on MMO chat toxicity"

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Cosmic Cleric

Swing hard and don’t miss. Maybe I’ll feel more sympathetic tomorrow, but I’m feeling a bit take-no-prisoners today.

Quote of the day.

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Alex Willis

Multiplayer games in general, and their communities, can be incredibly fatalistic when it comes to tolerating bad behaviour in chat. Even here on this message thread, there’s lots of variations on “that’s just how it is” or “people are just bad and there’s nothing you can do about it”. These kinds of perspectives on chat and communication often fall alongside ideas of free speech/First Amendment that are rather a red herring when you consider that the forum is not the grand arena of society, but a feature of a private enterprise/product. Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but I find the level of acceptance of bad behaviour in chat to be very peculiar, and very much a culturally-specific feature of American entertainment. (Which is occasionally heavily ironic, given that culture’s religiosity and thorough Puritanism with respect to sex, in particular.)

My thinking is that truly toxic behaviour in chat should never be tolerated, and that people should speak out against it. I also believe the burden of responsibility lies with the community, and for the company to enforce those community-determined needs. I agree with some of the fatalism to the extent that it is very economically challenging for a company to police this behaviour: it can be a full-time job to moderate this stuff. And that’s a tall order for an organization to fill, financially. I get that and I sympathize. But the community has to want it for it to work. They need to demand the company create a space that is safe for people to enjoy without being subjected to hateful vitriol. I’m not speaking about political disagreements here: people of all persuasions and beliefs should be able to play a game and even discuss ideas that disagree wildly with each other. But the minute that crosses into speech that infringes on the safety and basic dignity of another person? Any fair-minded community should work to shut that down. (And I’m very happy that MOP is one such place. It’s why I enjoy coming back here.)

As a side note, I gravitate to RP communities partly because I like RPing, but also because they tend to be thoughtful in moderating how people interact with each other in sub-chats and private forums/Discords. That doesn’t mean “being nice to each other” or “not swearing” or “not being offensive”. But it does mean that chat in those communities is curated to the extent that certain types of speech aren’t tolerated: misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. (We all know the usual culprits.) Often, I remain in those communities simply because they’re just more civil to each other, rather than because they’re RP superstars.

John Artemus
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John Artemus

Finally, someone else calls out what I called out in my initial post. This is a uniquely American problem. That’s not to say other international communities don’t have their trolls and issues, but it’s American communities that are consistently the worst, regardless of the game. They are filled with the most vile hate speech and trolling. And, unfortunately, that’s not a new thing. It’s an American thing.

There was a thread on the FFXIV forums a few weeks ago asking why the North American community was so much worse than the Japanese one. The responses were interesting to say the least. Most of it boiled down to culture.

It’s a shame that our culture is the one that is the least cultured.

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Alex Willis

I wouldn’t say ignorance and online toxicity is a uniquely American phenomenon. (Hi, Russia!) But what *is* uniquely American about it is the pride with which your country addresses it: the whole “everybody is entitled to their own opinion” line as a response to toxic behaviour stems largely from America. At times in your history, this line has had value. Other times…not so much.

John Artemus
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John Artemus

I mean, hell, look at the front page of CNN right now (3/16):

https://www.cnn.com/

Top headline: “Plan to take on Neo-Nazis dies in 36 seconds.”

That is America as it exists today.

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Cosmic Cleric

… it is very economically challenging for a company to police this behaviour: it can be a full-time job to moderate this stuff. And that’s a tall order for an organization to fill, financially.

I really wish that this narrative wasnt so prevailing, as I feel that it is a false one.

Just have a computer flag bad words, have an intern/minimum-wager look at the flagged conversation queue, then push a yes/no button on each conversation.

Even if the process is not 100%, getting the low hanging fruit would send a message, and go a long way to curb that kind of bad behavior.

It’s not a success/fail scenario, it’s a degree of success scenario.

IMHO, the real truth of the matter is that companies want to create, and profit, from communities, but not police them.

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Alex Willis

Just have a computer flag bad words, have an intern/minimum-wager look at the flagged conversation queue, then push a yes/no button on each conversation.

Thing is, I’ve seen this used before, and…it doesn’t work very well. Warframe has (had?) it and it has resulted in a lot of false/accidental bans. This means the work at front-end moderation simply moves to the back-end, where mods are fixing accidents and responding to appeals rather than actively confronting problems as they occur.

Not saying you’re wrong, but I’m not confident the math works out differently from a financial/salary point of view.

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Cosmic Cleric

… it has resulted in a lot of false/accidental bans.

That’s why the AI just flags/queues it for inspection, and the human makes the decision. Near zero false-positives in that scenario.

mosselyn
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mosselyn

I have always dumped all global chat channels to a tab that I leave hidden most of the time. World, trade, lfg, map, etc. I only pull it forward if I’m looking for something specific.

In games that don’t enable you to do that (are there any these days?), I disable global channels entirely. Nothing I might want is worth the garbage and inanity of global chat.

GW2 doesn’t even have world chat. I thought it very strange when I first started playing, but I’ve become a fan. Map chat is even tolerable in that game most of the time, and dominated by actual helpful information, like call outs for events or requests for help.

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Mark

I only turn off chat in games I am limited in terms of ignore – like WoW. In RIFT, I’ve never reached an ignore limit…and I think SWTOR, too. And I very much am ignore happy. I mean, if I see crap spilling from your digital mouth, why not ignore? I would certainly do that if I met you in real life and you were behaving that way.

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Arktouros

Anytime you have a global chat people are going to abuse it. The larger it goes, the worse it’s going to be. You’re basically giving people a soapbox that will involuntarily reach the “ears” of people of course someone is going to abuse that. This arose because of the misguided people who seem to confuse a chat window with community. They’re the same group of people who think dungeon finders are bad and somehow making everyone spam in chat while looking for group is the height of the social experience. Except no one wants to sit around in a town doing nothing but spamming and so companies started to make chats more and more global. So hey, lets make a global chat so you can just go play while you wait for a group right? What could go wrong?

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Loopy

I rarely turn off chat, unless it has obviously crossed into an unsalvageable pile of steaming poo. I’ve been around gaming communities since online gaming became a thing, so i understand what comes with it. Toxicity is not a new concept, nor is it inherently worse now than it was before. But just like the internet itself, it has simply reached a critical mass. All those toxic people existed before, they just didn’t have an outlet to let their vomit soup of words flow.

How do we fight this? if the answer were so simple, it would’ve been done by now. Developers can only do so much to stifle such sentiments, but i think providing players with tools and options to ignore toxic people is an effective method. Muting, reporting, “avoid player”, and other related systems work well, especially in environments where a simple name change is not an option.

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Robert Mann

Chat is chat. Even the best MMO chats are 20-30% toxic crud. It’s just a symptom of our society.

Simply put, this is normal outside MMOs, so it isn’t abnormal to be in them. What is abnormal are the things that go beyond being an obnoxious jerk. It may not go to this extent, but people still act similarly enough that you can tell who actually might be nice to other people in general, and who would just as soon kick somebody when they are down.

Consequences are the thing that makes that general difference in level. Sadly, in most of our society the consequences for being a jerk are rather muted right now… but even then it does mitigate the issue to some extent.

John Artemus
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John Artemus

Not to go too off-topic, but this has been my BIGGEST gripe in real life today. Lack of consequence. There just isn’t any. In fact, the opposite is true. Bad behavior is often rewarded. Trolling is encouraged.

But it’s not just big things like politics and religion. It’s little things, like noticing your cable bill went up a couple dollars or something, and then when you call the cable company to find out why, you get the runaround, or realize there’s nothing you can do about it, except maybe cancel. Then you just feel like you’re being whiney. Stuff like that. It all gets to be a bit much.

There’s a LOT of frustration out there right now, and I think it boils over in online environments like game worlds, because there’s anonymity, and to some folks, it’s also probably cathartic.

Some of it is just trolling. But a lot of it is genuine anger and hate. At least in the US.

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Alex Malone

It’s a symptom of the games really. The anonymity of the web makes us all feel safer when expressing our opinions so I actually think it’s a great tool for actually tracking the progress and opinions of society.

In real life, a lot of these people aren’t outwardly toxic due to the fear of consequences.

We need those consequences to exist in game. In older MMOs with a good focus on group play, interdependency and all that, the consequences for being toxic were that you stopped getting invited to groups, or got targeted more often in PvP. It was a minor consequence so there were still toxic people, but far less than today.

With the solo focus of modern MMOs, combined with group finders, mega servers / cross servers, F2P letting the masses in etc, those consequences are simply gone. If you are a F2P player and you’re an asshat, the worst that happens is you get banned and maybe lose a bit of stuff from the cash shop.

So, I think the first step is improved design of MMORPGs. Maybe once someone actually designs a game that is massively multiplayer, the consequences of being toxic would be more pronounced. I like the idea of China’s social rating being used in games, perhaps as your rating drops you stop getting access to the auction house, or can’t use global chat, or your put to the back of every queue. Maybe the game would only ever match you up with other asshats so you can drive each other insane and let the rest of us continue as normal?

On the other hand, there is also a part of me that thinks “it’s only words”. My personal preferences for games has generally kept me away from games full of toxic people so I can’t help feeling that if you had better taste in games it’d be easier to avoid toxic people. But, that’s probably too narrow minded. For example, I refuse to play F2P games but in this modern age, that’s your only option for MMOs.

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Anthony Clark

The absence of proper of a proper guild, clan, chat in Destiny 2 on pc is terrible. Having to rely on third-party tools for something that’s such a basic need is just bad design and poor programming.

styopa
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styopa

Fwiw, I believe the so-called toxicity problem is merely a symptom of increasingly bitter and irreconcilable factionalism in our world generally. If you let people talk, their views will come out, heightened by the safe harbor of anonymity.

Maybe that should be the punishment: if your speech is found to be offensive, your game name is replaced with your real name? But then you run afoul of the Cult of Privacy.

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Robert Mann

Real names don’t stop it either (as so often pointed out on this site by a fair few.) The punishment (consequence) has to actually affect the person, not merely have some potential for getting multiple people in trouble for illegal actions…

styopa
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styopa

True, it’s not an absolute punishment.

There’s also the question of adequacy and proportionality: let’s remember too that this is ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE.

There’s little to no due process, and ultimately, saying bad things to someone isn’t illegal.* We’re talking about comfort levels, not lawbreaking.

*at least, up until recently it used to be so; now there’s a whole host of words that are ACTUALLY LEGALLY considered too naughty to say; curiously, some people can say them and others can’t which one might say is the antitheses of a theoretically objective code of laws in a participatory democracy but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.