Massively Overthinking: The war on MMO chat toxicity

    
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Boosh.

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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