The Soapbox: Getting to the heart of toxicity in MMOs

The world needs heroes willing to put up with SO MUCH crap.

So we’ve gotten another post from a developer saying that they’re going to really 100% be better about rooting out toxic players from their games. Seriously, we mean it this time. The latest one is from Blizzard, but let’s be real, this is something that’s always happened. We always get periodic statements from companies that this time they’re really going to address toxic behavior, someone links that inevitable Penny Arcade strip, nothing really changes, play laugh track, roll curtains.

I’d like to be happy about this, I really would, but it’s so much empty posturing, and it came out only shortly before the announcement that everyone who plays the game can now be signed to the Overwatch League. I think the two are pretty closely connected. And I think we need to actually start talking about this because this sort of darkly toxic problem is at the core of the designs of these games, even though on some level it’s entirely separate. The problem isn’t that these games are designed to be toxic; it’s that they’re designed to encourage toxicity.

Getting rid of individual toxic players, as Blizzard purports to do, is merely treating the symptom. We need to discuss the disease.

Sort of a symptom and a cause at once, oddly.

Rest assure that it is a disease because it helps keep far too many people away from these games. I know people who were really curious about World of Warcraft back in the day who were pushed off just by player reputations. Even though the worst of WoW‘s populace has never made up a sizable portion of its players, the reputation is there. There are people who might love League of Legends, but they’ll never know because they’ll never play the game in the first place.

And yet there are islands of brightness despite this. I’ve found plenty of people praise Final Fantasy XIV‘s community as just being less toxic in some often hard-to-define way. It’s not that people are all friendlier or less likely to be jerks or something. it’s just that really nasty attitudes tend to be quietly discouraged rather than tacitly encouraged.

I think that cuts to the heart of the matter, and it’s why WoW has gotten a worse reputation over time. It’s a pretty simple issue to understand: These games encourage you to treat other people as, functionally, impediments.

The closer your game is at its heart to telling players “other people are what stands between you and what you want,” the more toxic players it’s going to attract. Simple and straightforward.

Of course, none of the games people mark as toxic are games that go out of their way to say “other people are scum, step on them until you have what you personally want.” This is Overwatch, not Gordon Gekko’s Gospel of Greed Training Simulator. But the elements are still baked into the core of the game design due to a number of design decisions, the sort made very early on.

The first part is that these games have a strong competitive element at their core. This is, of course, part and parcel with games; most games have a strong competitive side. That’s a large part of what makes them games and not just interactive online stories. But in the most toxic online competitive games, the emphasis is not on “let’s overcome this as a team” but on “let’s win.” EVE Online makes screwing over other players a core feature of its gameplay, part of its sales pitch. And you know full well that the point of LoL isn’t to revel in the game’s lore — it’s to beat the pants off the other team.

WoW doesn’t have a PvP focus, but it does have gearing that basically allows players with more dedication to exist on a stratum above that of every other player. In some ways, it’s even worse in that regard; the high-end progression scene stretches so far for such a small segment of the population that it fosters an idea of elitism that shoots through all of the game’s systems. (Compare this to the aforementioned FFXIV, where progression gets you marginally better gear for a short time and then everyone catches up; there’s not as much sense of “I’m better than you” when you just have a 3% leg up on someone for two months.)


Next, these games decouple character and player. I’ve heard it said that online fighting games are some of the most vile cesspools you can imagine in terms of community, and that makes sense because when you look at the other player, you see Just Another Chun-Li. You aren’t really seeing your teammates in Overwatch, you’re seeing Hanzo and Mei and Lucio. As I’ve been picking on WoW here, I’d like to point out that this is the point where WoW most firmly diverges, with its big contribution being that armor sets and characters tend to look rather similar based on the limited character creator and rather… monolithic armor design. EVE, however? You don’t even see the avatar, just the ship, which is pretty recognizable just by its silhouette.

This is one of the many, many reasons I despise the Penny Arcade strip someone is inevitably going to link in the comments so I’ll just do it for you. This is not about the offender’s anonymity. What’s happening is not that you’re anonymous and thus act like a jerk; what happens is that your targets are anonymous. That’s why decoupling player and character matters. Yelling at someone who has a distinct look feels like yelling at a person, but yelling at a generic character feels like yelling at Bowser in a single-player game. It’s an AI component; it doesn’t have feelings.

For the third point, these games ensure that clearing is better than complaining. I have had some runs with some truly atrocious people in various games, and in many cases as much as I might have wanted to get rid of them, I also recognized that the faster option was to just take a deep breath, soldier on, and get the match/dungeon/whatever over and done with. Complaining (or leaving) just slowed things down, and depending on circumstance, it might actually get me into a worse situation (like lowering my season rating or locking me out of battleground and dungeon queues).

By discouraging people from leaving matches early, a lot of games subtly reinforce this idea. You don’t want to drop out in the middle of a LoL match, even if one of your teammates is a terrible human being. You need to just finish the match. So it becomes a case where you’re inured to the idea that this is just something that happens and not something you should act upon.

We go together, and by we, I mean you.

Concurrently, it helps when these games put obvious emphasis on individual success or failure. This one is a little more complex, but I think Overwatch’s payload maps are a perfect example of how this can happen. Not every character is well-suited to parking on the payload and helping it move; Tracer, for example, should be zipping out and harassing the enemy team. It’s very possible for a player to do this successfully but find that the other team members are not guarding the payload. Thus, you emphasize the feeling in a player’s mind of the other people being impediments rather than allies.

Last but not least, these games are environments where offenders are punished in only the weakest of ways. To some extent, this is just going to happen; after all, Blizzard may really hate the transmisogynistic jerk in Overwatch chat, but the comapny wants his money more. Heck, EVE goes so far as to celebrate these people. (Yes, technically the game celebrates being cutthroat and ruthless, but it’s such a short walk between those points that you can sit down and have coffee while occupying both.)

Put all of this together you’ve created a garden where toxic weeds are going to grow. You have a system where players are not given incentives to report this behavior, but players who are inclined to this behavior anyway will flock to you. Like the Stanford prison experiment, it’s less of a proof of how people act in a vacuum and more a proof of what happens when you give people who want to feel important a chance to treat others as impediments, act like bullies to targets they won’t feel empathy toward, and then be rewarded for their combative impulses.

“So how do we solve it?” you ask. Frankly, that could be another equally lengthy diatribe (which I’m not writing today because this is already pretty sizable), but in brief: Don’t design these elements as the beating heart of your game. If your core gameplay is predicated on these problems, you are going to keep finding toxic players. You can ban some of them, but more will show up just as surely.

And if you don’t acknowledge that these are, in fact, the breeding grounds – if you act like toxicity isn’t a problem that has to be addressed at the root level – then you’re still basically encouraging the problem. We cannot treat the symptoms. We have to treat the actual disease.

Or we have to acknowledge that these games do, in fact, want to be infested with toxic players from top to bottom. Which seems like a bad choice to me, but hey, I already don’t play them.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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