Massively Overthinking: Overcoming ‘Barrens chat’ culture


Tonight’s Massively Overthinking aims to address a core problem facing the whole internet, not just games: antisocial behavior. Our question comes from Kickstarter donor Katie MacAlister, who wonders,

What can be done to combat the “anonymity on the Internet breeds douchecravats” mentality that pervades MMOs? Barrens chat, trade chat…for every “good” soul, there’s a handful of twits. What can the MMO world do to fight this?”

I asked our writers about the best ways players and studios can overcome this ever-present problem.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): This is a really tough question, and I think if there were an easy solution that everyone were comfortable with, then we’d probably be using it by now. The internet fundamentally allows people to take on a persona that isn’t linked to their real-life person, and in doing so evade all consequences for their actions. Even if MMOs took a zero tolerance approach to in-game harassment and abuse, the worst they can do is ban the offender’s account and force them to register a new one. That might sting a bit if it means buying a new copy of the game or re-levelling a character to endgame, but those barriers are constantly falling away today thanks to the rise of free-to-play games and increasingly casual gameplay. Banning a player can even have a negative effect on the community by forcing the toxic player to start again and interact with legitimate newbies, a fundamental problem that continues to plague free-to-play MOBAs.

Studios have taken a variety of different approaches to the problem over the years, but all of them suffer from the same fundamental lack of consequences because punishments can’t be made to stick against the person behind the account. The only way to adequately combat this social disorder would be to tie each game account to an actual person by requiring players to prove their identity with a copy of any state-issued ID. Bans under this system would be levied against the actual person rather than the account. Once punishments can actually stick to the person behind the keyboard, warnings and incentives to reform will become much more effective and players banned for consistently ignoring those warnings will be unable to sign up again. As for what I do personally to avoid toxic behaviour in MMOs and other online games: I turn off or ignore the chat, try to play with real-life friends instead of strangers, and quietly report and block anyone hurling abuse. There’s enough to stress out about in real life without being drawn into someone else’s abusive tirades in an online game.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t actually think anonymity breeds our problem children. Plenty of people are willing to be horrible, awful people under their own names and faces, in virtual and physical space, and many of them get away with it. Internet anonymity just makes it easier to get away with and gamifies community-destroying behavior, especially when certain MMO studios actively encourage that behavior and dole out mere slaps on the wrists for transgressions. I do understand why some studios are unable to crack down, either because they’re so darn big or because they’re budget-strapped. I was impressed last year when Trion and SOE declared war on trolls and harassers, but I can’t help but remind myself that when Riot Games threw its vast fortunes at this problem, what its metrics uncovered is that most jerks don’t even know they are jerks and can be delicately rehabilitated into model internet citizens… with time, effort, and money that most games don’t have.

Banning perps and telling everyone else to “just turn off Barrens chat” isn’t the solution when the perps will keep coming back without having learned a thing. It’s an action you can take right now to solve an immediate problem, but the real burden is on the studios. These games are their private spaces, and their words and actions are law. They create and govern the cultures of permissiveness that make trolls possible, even through inaction; it’s their job to cultivate something different if they want our money more than haters’.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I actually wrote about this a while back, but the short version is that the problem isn’t the anonymity of the person spewing hate, just the targets. The best thing the MMO community can do, then, is to foster tight communities and groups of players banding together. There’s nothing that can be done to prevent people from being jerks, but it can be made more difficult to lash out at others and feel good about it.

At the same time, this is a two-way street. Companies can’t simply punish bad behavior; they have to reward good behavior. Final Fantasy XIV’s Commendation system is a good mark in that direction, allowing players to flag someone as an asset and a pleasure to have around. You’re not just limited to reporting people you dislike; you can praise those you like. It’s not a problem that can ever be entirely solved, but when jerk behaviors are made less acceptable and positive behaviors become rewarding, it can be addressed.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): There’s nothing to be done about it if you value privacy and free speech (note that I said free speech and not “free speech as long it aligns with your social agenda or world view”).

I mean, you could do what Korea does and require a social security number to play online games. But we’ve got enough big brother crap going on in this country already, so I’d rather deal with the occasional online bunghole than accelerate our devolution into more of a police/nanny state.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): There are assumptions made in this question that don’t sit right with me. And I apologize to Katie because I know that perception plays a huge part in experience, and a bad first impression or one really bad situation can taint future experiences. I don’t think there are a “handful of twits” for every good soul. I think that for the most part people are looking to have fun, and if they were aware that their activities were offensive to someone, they would at very least try to avoid the player they were offending (at best, change their behavior). But what happens is that the “twits” appear to have a voice that’s exceptionally loud. So the part of what can be done is to discourage the twits from having a forum. Unfortunately, not a lot can be done in game, but on the game’s website, moderators and community managers can encourage positive discussion and fun (non-offensive) banter. I think a proactive approach works best. If someone in the community does something cool — like makes a great blog post — why does someone in the community have to post it to the forum? The community manager could do that. CMs could randomly show up at events they read about in the community forums or on a fansite. If all that is ever responded to are complaints and douchiness, then that is how the community going to communicate. It is the community manager’s job to show that although there is one twit causing a ruckus, there are a handful of good souls who love the game they are playing.

Mike Foster (@MikedotFoster, blog): Studios need to take an approach based on reform. They need to be encouraging players to reform their behaviors and become more positive members of their communities. There will always be a small number of players who respond only to punishment, mutes, or bans, but the great majority of players who get reported for bad behavior probably don’t spend every day of their lives shouting curse words in chat. Touching base with those folks and saying, “Hey, that’s not super awesome for our community,” or providing them with better options for expressing themselves are things worth considering. You cannot ban out bad behavior in online games. It’s too easy to make a new account and continue being a jerk. Instead, developers need to look for ways to analyze player behavior, find the reasoning behind it, and provide a system of rewards, reform, and reinforcement that gives players a reason to be positive.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Honestly, I am totally against having anonymity stripped away in games in the form of having to prove your real identity and share that with everyone. It should not happen, period. I play games to step away from life for a bit, not to invite every stranger in the world into my life! And knowing first-hand some of the abuse that goes on in games, why would I open myself and my family up to that kind of harassment? When I log off, I want to to be away from everything in the game except for those people I have expressly invited into my offline life.

That said, while you can’t eradicate the poor behavior of others, you can lessen its impact on you. A decent block system is a must — preferably one that can block an entire account, not just a character. And it should be very easy to utilize, like directly clicking on any name in chat, as well as be large enough to accommodate the masses if necessary. I block those who need to be blocked and move on. If there appears to be a pattern of trouble/harassment, developers need to have a simple system for reporting it in place as well as follow through with an investigation. Again, how about click on a name to report and have it capture a chat log, screenshot, etc. to be submitted? And let’s not forget acting on any serious infractions! Having customizable chat tabs with filters is also a must.

On the player side, I am selective of what guilds I join (or whom I let into mine), what groups I run with, and whom I generally hang out with. If someone is an unbearable problem, I have to be big enough to boot him or leave the situation myself — even if it is a group I have waited eons to get. I control of who has direct access to me by running my own small guilds, I block those who bother me, and I turn off specific chat channels that are habitually cesspools. Oh, and I avoid forums!

One thing that is a big fat no for me is account-wide identification. Developers should never, ever force players to be universally known in order to play. You might think this encourages accountability, but it doesn’t; it allows the troublemakers to haunt victims no matter what alt they play on. What you end up with is the good person leaving the game and the problem remaining to drive others away. Not. A. Solution.

Tina Lauro (@purpletinabeans): I think we need to monitor social interactions more casually and organically, and we should encourage peer review as much as possible. I liked rating party members anonymously in World of Warcraft and would like to see more of that. I don’t think strict formal policing works as well as a whole team of admin-players arbitrating as they play would.

Your turn!

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