Massively Overthinking: How accountable should MMOs hold players for out-of-game toxicity?

Brendan’s discussion with CCP Falcon at EVE Fanfest last week included an interesting chat about out-of-game harassment and whether gaming companies had an obligation to do something about it. Falcon said it wasn’t healthy for a studio to “overstep” its “jurisdiction”: “I think our jurisdiction likes firmly within EVE Online, and I think that of people do break the few rules that we have then we should come down hard on them, especially in cases of harassment or real life threats.”

But over the years, we’ve covered multiple MMO studios who’ve made it their business to utilize content like Tweets and YouTube videos – Blizzard and SOE/Daybreak come immediately to mind – to make disciplinary calls inside their games. And that leads me to today’s Overthinking, proposed by MOP reader Sally: “What is your opinion on in-game vs. public out of game toxicity?” she asks.

“A game company has no rights or responsibility to police Discord, Reddit, et al. The company should not ban in game someone because they are bad (misogyny, racism, homophobia) about OOG people in OOG public forums. But what about people who are obviously ‘bad’ about in-game people/groups? I get the not wanting to police the world and certainly resist the nanny state more than most. But what if someone says something offensive about players/employees on a very public Reddit or Discord? It’s not a free speech issue; in the US you can say most anything. But the game company certainly can determine who can play its game. Do they make more money by letting these people play? I guess at the end of the day, CCP is correct, but it does not feel quite right.”

Doesn’t it? That’s what we’re discussing today. How accountable should MMOs hold players for out-of-game toxicity? Where exactly is the line?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is a tough one. I see game companies trying to avoid responsibility for this kind of thing a lot. For endorsed streamers and esports atheletes, I understand the need to react and police people who another face of the company. For your average, everyday player? That’s where things feel murky at best.

Ethically speaking, let’s think about games as a playground. Are people fighting on the playground? The developer should do something. Did people take something from the playground and cause trouble with it off of the playground? Yeah, the developer probably should still do something. Did the people meet on the playground and then go elsewhere to cause problems? Maybe the developer should do something, especially if that attitude or the results start to affect the playground. Did something happen to someone who spends time on the playground but it doesn’t follow them back to the playground? Nope, no need to do anything.

Admittedly, I may also be looking at this from the perspective of a teacher. I know businesses just want to cover their assets and focus on games, but the last thing we want is for the government to get involved. Self-regulation is best in the long run, and simply trying to cover your buttons is a short-term plan. Putting in some extra credit work shows the rest of the world that you can be trusted to do what’s right.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): I wrote a piece on this topic last year in the wake of EVE Online’s record-breaking political betrayal story, the one in which alliance leader GigX effectively threatened to cut off the betrayer’s hands and attempted to find his real-life home address. How much toxic or antisocial behaviour should an MMO studio tolerate from its community, and what exactly qualifies as part of the community? Do interactions on Twitter count as part of your game’s community? Facebook? Reddit? What about Discord, Twitch, YouTube, or TeamSpeak? Absolutely, they do.

The internet has evolved considerably since MMOs first came along. We now commonly merge our online and real life personas, and every online game community extends outward through a wide range of communication methods and locales. In some MMOs it would be unrealistic to expect players to take part in the community without using out-of-game services, and harmful interactions that occur outside the game client or official forums can still very much represent interactions between two players and in respect of the game.

CCP Falcon is right that studios trying to police the internet would be overstepping their jurisdiction, but I’m not asking studios to police the internet – just their own corners of it. Every studio needs to decide exactly what kind of community it wants to build and what kinds of player it does and doesn’t want to be part of that community. Whether abusive behaviour that breaches community standards is discovered in-game or on Twitch or Twitter is completely beside the point; if you find cancer by accident on an unrelated scan, you still cut it out. I firmly believe that it is a studio’s responsibility to actively curate its community, and the hands-off policies most companies have are no longer fit for purpose.

so spoopy

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I have to admit I share Sally’s reflexive discomfort with the idea that studios would be monitoring the wide expanse of social media at all, even for a good purpose.

On the other hand, if you’re an asshole on social media – especially if you’re being an asshole about my game and my other customers on social media – you’re probably not somebody I’d want in my game because you’ll eventually cost me money, and if I’m a game company, I care a whole lot about my money.

There will always be exceptions, of course; if your game is one giant dogwhistle for griefers and you have openly embraced that type of culture for years, the toxics aren’t costing you money; they are your core constituency. The same can be said of social media platforms like Twitter, for that matter.

That isn’t the case for most MMORPGs; a toxic reputation and playerbase cost them dearly. So yep, do what you need to do, MMO studios. Clean it up.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The problem is that in this particular spot, the big problem is rules vs. principles and the corollary between behavior in one place and the person behind it. It’s easy to argue that, say, Blizzard shouldn’t ban you simply because you made a forum post somewhere that someone dislikes. But at the same time, if you’re known for spouting violently racist comments all over the place and then you start playing Overwatch, odds are low that you’re going to suddenly be a model citizen. Heck, odds are low that you’re even a model citizen before that. But equally problematic is proving that it’s the same person making all of the same posts, and policing everything related to a person to see the sort of conduct that they tend to engage in… and creating a set of rules that everyone can adhere to that’s based on fair standards, not personal judgement calls, which can always be wildly different.

You might say “oh, so you’re saying this isn’t doable,” but the reality is that it’s the opposite of my feeling. I think this is something companies do need to consider. I think that the guys being utter garbage fires outside of the game and technically avoiding any rule-breaking in the game are basically playing Sir Bruce, to use ancient jargon; they’re not actually breaking the rules, but they’re just avoiding breaking the rules so that you can’t technically ban them. It’s the equivalent of someone walking right up against the do-not-cross line and then walking along it with the defense of, “but I’m not over the line, you can’t get mad!”

The reality is you should get mad. And the reality is that these auxiliary places – Discords, subreddits, and the like – are a part of what is visible about the game. The EVE subreddit is part of the forward face of EVE. Wowhead is a part of what people see about World of Warcraft. And it’s very difficult to put limits on what counts as part of the forward face of the game, but the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. It just means, well, it’s going to be difficult.

Companies ultimately get the communities that they put the effort into cultivating. To kick on EVE a bit, this is a game that put its marketing forth, time and again, as “be a jerk, be a shark, be cruel and cold.” You don’t get to then act surprised that a lot of the people who are attracted to that are actually just like that in real life, and when you see evidence of how much toxic behavior spills out into public forums you have an obligation to decide if that’s acceptable. Because if you’re not setting the rules, you’re letting other people set them, and even if the rule is “you can only act this bad in the game before getting banned,” I assure you that people will find ways to act worse if you know the limits.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): If the toxicity is in relation to the game then yes, I feel that studios do have a responsibility for dealing with it even if it is not exhibiting in the game itself. Is it in a medium that is connected to the game, such as Discord, Reddit, Twitch, and such? If you wouldn’t allow it in game, then don’t allow it in the community regardless of where the community is at. For the out-of-game infractions, a first or second offense could be more related to the media it presented in: Suspend or ban folks from there. Let the community know that too many infractions in any community medium can result in in-game consequences as well. Harassment of any player should definitely be handled regardless of where it is happening! I don’t care if it is done in private media such as email; if harassment comes about from the game, the studio should take an active role in ensuring that behavior isn’t tolerated. And believe me, if it is happening outside the game, it is likely happening inside the game as well.

Toxicity is just bad for a community, so unless those are the type of people you want in your community than you need to take action to create and enforce the community you want. For instance, the Code of Conduct on my private servers read: “The server will not tolerate any harassment of other players or moderators. Any attack on another person in-game, on Steam group, on the LFS site, on social media, via email, or anywhere else relating to this server will result in immediate removal and ban from the server and the Steam group.” Yup — I don’t care if you are emailing the person privately, I am not going to tolerate it in my community. I also emphasize that any Patreon related to it will not be refunded.

Your turn!

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65 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: How accountable should MMOs hold players for out-of-game toxicity?"

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Sally Bowls

I think a lot of the comments are missing the issue for the corporation: it is not about policing or toxicity in terms of punishment or teaching them a lesson.

In this and many other situations, the question for the company is “will banning this player increase profits?

It does not even matter if the comment is toxic; if enough people don’t like it enough, the company would be better off without the commenter, especially if they are a repeat offender. That is not fair. Life is not fair. The companies are trying to run a business, not Speakers Corner.

My example: Who should be the next President of the US and who/what, if anything, should be your personal Lord and Saviour are extremely important questions with the highest protection in the US Constitution. But game companies tend to not permit discussion of them because that would tend to annoy people and distract from the game. It’s not that those questions are toxic or deserve to be punished; they just cost the game company money so they are not allowed.

So the question is not scouring the Internet to punish the politically incorrect. It is that if someone is causing enough problems about your game someplace very public like /r/YourGameName, then would you be better off without them?

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Daedalus Machina

The company has a right to monitor for poor in-game behavior. Maybe even on the official game forums (and official game Discords) as well.

Outside of those? They can rightly fuck off. It is not the job of the game creator to stalk players outside of the game. If the actions are happening outside the game and require intervention of law enforcement, then it is up to the victim to file police reports and get it done if necessary.

Other than that? They can put a flag on the person’s account to monitor them more closely but other than that it is not under their jurisdiction if the toxicity is outside of the official avenues.

This whole ‘safe space’ stuff makes me want to vomit sometimes. Infantile so-called adults who are unable/unwilling to understand how the real world works. Reality is not as pretty as the fantasy worlds inhabited by gamers.

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Bruno Brito

Honestly, not much. I would, if i were a community manager, keep myself informed on the worst apples, and see if their behavior was as sickening inside the game.

If it was, and it tends to be, the banhammer would be ready.

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Dro Gul

If someone breaks a law there are mechanisms to punish them that exist in society. There is no universal agreement on what toxicity is. The world is truly becoming a scary place as more and more people fall into GroupThink and their instinctive reaction is to ban/stifle/silence anything that makes them uncomfortable.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

good intentions pave the road to hell, and the very tools that are used to supress “problematic” and “toxic” speech is actively used by the same companies you think are on your side to suppress the speech and far worse in countries in which they do business which do no hold our liberal values of individual freedoms and rights.

individual freedoms and rights we all benefit from like being able to advocate for progress on civil rights even when it is not popular or looked well upon to do so.

how would you feel if these tools were used to get someone fired for coming out of the closet? what if that progressed to him getting capital punishment of some kind along side prison time?

because that’s what these anti toxicity tools are used for far more commonly than defending the weak and downtrodden.

they are in fact purpose built to further put down and nullify the oppresse and downtrodden. to keep the marginalized outside of the good stuff in our society, in our world.

and you may find should they become acceptable to be used wontonly in our corner of the world, that your own positions may become those that are persecuted using them.

ofc not by governmnets, that’d be bad pr. by your employer. by future employers. by social welfare charities. by venues for spreading and disimenating information which you may have previously used to speak out about your experience but are now denied.

the old two edged sword meme and all not that anyone is going to consider that this might be harmful to themselves and used against themselves. no they are what’s GOOD and RIGHT and JUST and there is no room for doubt or consideration. we must stamp out everything that annoys irritates and offends us because history is on our side right up until those we have ceded our civil rights to no longer see us as their desired customer focus.

also would be hilarious if some of these social media harassment/russian bot zergs were unmasked.

Estranged
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Estranged

/standingovation

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Utakata

The question here, and a legitimate one as far as I am aware, is how far is too far? Toxicity is most certainly problem…but so are the cures that can end being worst than the symptoms if they are also not checked. So how much legal weight and jurisdiction does a game company have outside it’s sphere even if you signed for it? And can it be challenged in court if we believe it’s being too invasive into out personal lives?

Gaming companies make games to make money as we’re always told. There is nothing about that that says they can also police us as well outside their products and services to my understanding. Especially when we’re saying and doing stuff that does not actually affect their bottom line.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

No. Are gaming companies our mothers? Your mother gets to berate you for behaving badly. Did you just say a bad word in front of your grandmother? That’s Mom and she’s entitled. And maybe your mate gets to tell you you’re being an asshole and maybe your best friend, if you’re being a jerk. But never, ever a third-party.

This is such an incredibly bad idea, I just don’t know where to start. It’s bad enough when employers, with whom you have a kinda-sorta relationship, feel entitled to do this, but a company providing entertainment? Not ever.

Why do I say this? Because there isn’t a single thing that any human being has thought of that human beings haven’t taken to extremes. And this one is ripe for it.

On the flip side, gaming companies should absolutely ban the butt of every single player that indulges in assholery in-game.

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Utakata

Well, as long as I am still allowed to curse a blue streak at my monitor, I should be okay with this. I think… o.O

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Iridescence

@Sally Yes, but this could backfire. If a popular player gets banned for some minor infraction that was not covered by the ToS and takes place outside the game that could create a ton of negative PR, especially in this current climate where a lot of people already feel under the thumb of “big brother” online.

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Robert Mann

What impact does it have? If it is something that relates to the game and is public, then sure.

That’s pretty much what the entire basis of things like civility, legal actions upon things like threats and solicitation, and so forth are based off. You can’t be a complete asshat just because you aren’t in location X, and not expect consequences when there is proof of that for location X to deal with.

Reputation and blacklisting are not and should not be things that are based solely upon community discretion within game. They can and should extend to companies taking actions against players as needed, even if that comes to the point of seeking legal orders for players not to play games from their company in some form. The companies, and the people who play them and are sick of this, have every right to push for such dissociation (the people by pressuring the companies.) Obviously this means that the punishment is with regard to their products, and not what other companies have (aka, if you post something terrible on discord, and they see it, and they ban you from their stuff that’s not stopping your use of discord.)

That said, there must first be a standard as to what is considered toxic. Otherwise anything could be abused as toxicity, from what you eat to what you wear, or the color of your hair!

Estranged
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Estranged

Toxicity is subjective.

Gaming companies aren’t in the business of policing the world. The concept is somewhat toxic, actually.

Could see being banned for my views on life, if I exposed those on Twitter/Facebook – by an aggressive corporate bully.

People have no forgiveness in them today. One public errant statement and a person is shamed and unemployed.

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Utakata

Err…not really. Peoples reaction to it might be subjective. I think it’s generally understood when someone is acting like an asshole. It’s how far one is willing to defend the indefensible.

…barring that, I am pretty sure each gaming outfit will have a clear rule set to which they think is offensive. And one which you have signed on to when you agreed to play their product. Waffling apologetics becomes less of an issue when company paid lawyers start showing up and that stuff. o.O

Estranged
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Estranged

It is indeed subjective. Cultural norms.

Loud and brash is considered fine in some places, while distained in others.

Some people had rather hear truth, versus lies told for the cause of civility.

I prefer not to homogenize the world. In my opinion, that is toxic.

Also, I don’t need their products. Will entertain myself.

When the Elite attempt and succeed to control culture and communication – we eventually have a Hitler or Stalin.

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Utakata

Indeed it’s not. By claiming it otherwise isn’t going to make the issue of toxicity magically go away. While the term “Elite” can be subject, although it’s most certainly not a pronoun…unless you are speaking of some rock band I am not aware of. But either way, nice Godwin there, bro. o.O

Estranged
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Estranged

I find it amazing how people online can so often pull out their logical fallacy manual (and apply it erroneously), while falling backwards into their own outrage pudding.

Now that is toxic.

By the way, I can create my own pronouns as well as the next person.

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Bruno Brito

At the same time that forbidding speech can create Hitlers and Stalins, allowing it to be completely free can do the same, Estran.

In the end, it all comes to balance. If you know the extremes are bad, balance must be found. Everything is forbidden is dictatorship. Everything is allowed is anarchy. Both are bad in their own ways.

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Utakata

I am not sure how you would want balance when some folks assert without evidence that the matter is subjective, Mr. Bruno. It is this degree of willful ignorance and stupidity that prevents us from moving forward and addressing it appropriately when we still arguing “semantics” in the apologetics and denialism. #TheParrotIsntDeadItsJustResting

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Utakata

That’s interesting, because no one is really doing that here. Just presenting a position that you are quite likely wrong on this. :)

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Armsman

Outside of stuff that rises to actual criminal level (IE a misdemeanor or higher aka real threats, hate speech, etc.) on any internet platform once made aware of it – as long as they behave themselves in the game proper on official sites affiliated with the game or game company; I’d say the game company SHOULDN’T be policing outside internet and social media.

Except as I’ve stated above, it’s none of their business. It’s not a crime to be an assh*le. ;)

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Bruno Brito

Except as I’ve stated above, it’s none of their business. It’s not a crime to be an assh*le. ;)

It is, depending on how you are. Directing your assholery to someone else and defaming them is pretty criminal.