On "Toxic" Behavior

This was [Richard Garriott’s] world: the murders, the violence, the chaos. It was all his and his team’s doing and the game was no longer under his full control. … “I went off to rethink the rules and think about the fact that people are just gaming the system you provide. You can’t really blame the player killers, you can’t blame the people stealing stuff from each other, you can only blame the vision and rules and structure that you put into play.”

– Richard Garriott, on the early, blood-soaked days of Ultima Online, as discussed in Replay: The History of Video Games*

And now, the rabble asks: “What do we do about ‘toxic’ behavior in online videogames?” Everyone seems to have an opinion on this one. Even non-celebrity Wil Wheaton thinks we should banish anonymity in the medium,* because if there’s anyone who understands the reasons that private individuals choose to stay private in their private lives, it’s a man who can gain financially and socially every time he uses his public persona on the internet. But he’s not the only person who feels this way, and in lieu of the “death threats” that are now a common part of every internet “controversy”, “we need to take out the trolls” has become an appealing and rather braindead position to take.

Sadly, that is why it is a moment whose time will come, but as far as videogames are currently concerned, the solutions for dealing with this behavior are being tied directly to the act of playing the game. Most notably, Riot Games built a department of scientists in order to analyze behavior in the League of Legends community.* (One might call it the LOLSCIENCE Department.) Microsoft and Valve have built community filters that, for instance, place problem players into low-priority matchmaking, allowing those players to determine who sleeps with their sister the most.** And as far as public perception is concerned, these systems are working. They don’t merely appear to provide a solution to the problem, but it allows companies to look proactive and progressive in tackling the issue head-on.

Except there’s one problem: These “solutions” are a farce, and they are merely an attempt to appear proactive in lieu of the correct solution. That’s because the matter of toxic behavior is not being approached as a game design issue, but rather, as a social issue. It is being approached from the perspective that the behavior is an inevitable and insurmountable reality of the human experience. And in the process, these companies are ignoring that videogames, moreso than other forms of entertainment, are predicated on the idea of influencing human behavior.

Oh, and before you say it, I agree with you: Human beings are complete assholes. It is in our blood to be assholes, because our biological goal is to pass on our genes, and being an asshole usually works in favor of that. That’s why humans created rule systems and later governments, to discourage people from being assholes in the pursuit of greater things. And guess what? The same ideas apply to the laws, rules, and systems in videogames. The troubles faced by Richard Garriott in the course of building a pioneering online videogame is the same reality that every designer needs to account for, particularly in a world where networking with other players is often an essential appeal of the videogame experience.

If your game facilitates meaningful contact between players—i.e. “not the stupid bird calls in Journey“—then hostility is going to come with the territory. Again, these behaviors are completely natural and they are to be entirely expected. The goal of the skilled designer is to marginalize, discourage, or facilitate this behavior through the design of compelling and interesting game systems. And while there are countless and often subtle design choices that can lead to tension in your player base, the root of this behavior largely stems from one question: Does your game provide systems that promote individual accountability, and does your game place the individual in control of the situation? Because in a game where accountability entirely rests on one’s shoulders, there is no reason for the player to lash out at anyone but himself.

Let’s go over the groundrules. The first rule is that the game needs to make it clear and obvious where accountability lies. It’s the same reason that bad controls or a poor camera tend to drive us crazy, because these things take accountability away from the player’s actions and places fault on the game itself. You don’t merely need systems that make outcomes clear, but if you’re playing a multiplayer game and a teammate is holding down the war effort, then there needs to be systems in place that allow experienced players to either guide teammates in the correct direction or overcome a player’s mediocrity. In such a system, players can clean up the mess left by lousy teammates and the whiners who attempt to place blame on others can be dismissed for the scrubs that they are.

But what if it is necessary to put someone in their place? Then justice is ideally delivered by the player base, and not the developer. Why is this? Because again, videogames, in their finest moments, are about control and power. A system where players can deal with the unruly on their own accord is most certainly a means to that. This isn’t to argue that you couldn’t do some really cool things with, say, a moderation system in an MMORPG where company employees take on the role of overpowered game characters and dispense cold, hard justice. (Good luck getting a player base to sign off on that.) But a system where players can appropriately (or inappropriately) dispense that justice provides a hell of a lot more control and power to players than the all-seeing but inconsistent eye of the developer.

And, quite crucially, the best solutions for dealing with the problem—the solutions that lead to the most compelling and interesting games—are going to emerge from inside of the illusion. That is to say, through systems and rules which are thematically ingrained within that virtual universe and essential to its character. That means justice is not delivered by the company employee who bans your account, because that is a solution which exists on top of the game rules and exists outside of the illusion. Revenge is a dish best served by the players who are sick of Trolly McTrollerson, and it’s done through the thrill of play and competition.

It’s all pretty simple stuff. And if you started playing videogames in the days where singleplayer and one-on-one ruled the Earth, then you may have already figured out what the problem is. The toxic behavior you are now seeing in videogames has little to do with the reduced barrier of entry for today’s videogames and has little to do with the toxic nature of the internet. This behavior is the end-result of a decade-long initiative by game companies to restructure the shape and nature of today’s videogames. It is part of a decade-long initiative to destroy individual accountability. And bear in mind, it’s not just one decision that caused people to go crazy. It’s an entire line of decisions that are part of a common, consistent narrative.

The first thing to happen is that 2000’s Counter-Strike and 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved became disgustingly popular, taking advantage of computer technology that allowed for more moving parts and validating a burgeoning market for team-based shooters. These games had an appeal akin to a team sport, and players specifically pursued these games as a competitive venture. But unlike the prior FPS games that featured excellent team modes, these games significantly reduced the skill ceiling for the individual. They slowed down the action, placed a significant emphasis on high-damage “hitscan” weapons, and generally speaking, did away with the world where dodging the rockets was just as important as aiming them.

These games helped rewrite the rules in an industry where skilled players were already seen as an inconvenience, particularly the world where consoles and computers dominated the market and “easier games” meant “more people buying more software”. Microsoft’s Xbox would build its identity around team-based shooters, following Halo with Gears of War and becoming the popular platform for the Call of Duty series. Defense of the Ancients took Warcraft III—an RTS with a range of excellent team modes—and stripped it down to a team multiplayer game where you control a single unit. And when World of Warcraft became the figurehead for its genre, it was a world where you needed thirty-nine other individuals to fight alongside you in order to explore the endgame content.

Most of these games would reduce the depth and complexity of the individual skillset in a prior game, and in order to regain that complexity, they standardized the experience around large teams of human players. The result was a team-based experience where you are reliant on teammates in order to achieve success. And as these games move towards the idea that you play a specialized (see: simplified) role in a committed team effort, it becomes even more difficult to promote individual accountability. Players can no longer be judged by their statistics or their output, because every role comes with different demands, different statlines, and are reliant on the success of others in order to perform their roles.

In the past, players were offered satisfactory alternatives to these team-based game modes. They could play against the computer, play the singleplayer campaign, or play one-on-one. Assuming those game modes are worth playing, failure becomes nothing but a reflection on the individual. But now, we don’t even offer those as compelling solutions. Versus multiplayer is so profitable—through subscription revenue, through downloadable content—that the alternate modes distract from the company goal of getting players into the profitable setting. So it’s not just that singleplayer modes are being cast to the side, and that players are forced to work as a team in order to play the “real game”. The great truth-teller, where individuals go head-to-head and settle who is the better man, tells us absolutely nothing and cannot be used to settle the grudges that emerge in the course of playing with a team.

But this lack of individual accountability goes beyond the choices that comprise the game’s thematic and core design principles. At the beginning of the online multiplayer revolution, many developers decided that players should subsidize the cost of the game servers and allowed those players to purchase their own server space. As a bonus, they got control over who was allowed to access it. But as networking improved, bandwidth became cheaper, and the matchmaking system in Warcraft III became a standard-bearer for today’s games, companies began to take server control back from players, and asserted that player-controlled servers posed the threat of software piracy.

That was only a half-truth. While player-controlled servers could enable piracy, the servers posed a greater threat to the publisher-controlled command economy, where the developer controls the flow of downloadable content and sets the prices. In order to achieve this system, companies started tying their games (StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Diablo III, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Dota 2) to company-controlled servers, creating games that gain no artistic benefit from the integration. In the process, companies took control away from the players who could micromanage their small slice of the community and replaced it with automated and employee-run enforcement solutions.  At a time when companies have greater access to resources and theory than they ever have, they are becoming increasingly reliant on those outside solutions in order to enforce behaviors which occur inside of the game.

And with some help from the console hardware that has long lagged behind the personal computer, developers began to remove options for local multiplayer, deciding that it does not outweigh the benefits of freeing system power to assure a high-quality one-player experience. (And why the hell not? Got two people who want to play an upcoming console release? Let them each purchase their own copy and play online against each other.) As a result, friends no longer place a check-and-balance on each other with their own physical presence. Even in a cordial setting between those who enjoy hanging around each other, the person who blasted “faggot” over and over would be told to watch their fucking language. Whereas today, everybody sits in their own room on their lonesome and mouths off into the void.

The end result is that this transformation has eliminated individual accountability, individual control, and individual repercussion for the actions of players. And in the process, it has created a reliance and dependence on other people, a world where individuals can’t settle their differences, a world where you must work with other players in order to win, a world where developers are throwing macro-scale solutions at your micro-scale issue. The inevitable result is that you’re going to get mad at the players who hold you back and they’re going to get mad when you hold them back, because you’re both at the mercy of someone you’ve never met in order to get shit done. And with all due respect to the invasion systems popularized by the Souls series, to EvE Online, to the fighting game genre, and the other games which have maintained this accountability through interesting ideas, they are games that are fighting an uphill battle against the reality of today’s market.

Now, believe me, I am not dismissing the role of the videogame player in this. The videogame industry threw a steaming pile of crap on a plate and players said it was delicious. Those players loved the decreased accountability. These new games not only placed less distance between stronger and weaker players, but by standardizing the experience around team game modes, the players who had no interest in getting better could coat-tail the efforts of others in order to achieve winning outcomes. These players embraced the decreased accountability, and now, they decry the ramifications of this accountability. They helped finance and support the game systems that create the toxic behavior they openly complain about!

Obviously, the players who understand the reality created by these games need to recognize that these are the new rules of engagement and that they must adjust accordingly. But being that this body of writing is dedicated to the criticism of games, then there is no hesitation to attack the individuals who created the system. Not simply because they build the games, but because they are supposed to be the ones who know better. I expect a hell of a lot more out of someone who builds games for a living and is surrounded by people who do the same thing.

But let’s be honest: Developers and publishers have no reason to fix this. It’s not just that these games are extremely profitable. The endgame for the videogame industry is a universe where everything funnels through their servers, a world where all players are at the complete and unequivocal mercy of the copyright holder. And that’s what makes this genuinely sick: These developers facilitated the toxic behavior, and now, they can use that toxic behavior to justify why they need more control of their games. What the hell do companies care if the public demands you attach a public face to your virtual profile? It just makes it easier to convince players that they need more control over their game code in order to fix the problem they’ve created.

What the game industry may call “dealing with the issue”, I call damage control. “It’s not that we’re doing a terrible job of designing our games! It’s not that the suits want us to manufacture the games that are profitable! It’s that you need to show some self-control!” It’s a hell of a lot easier for Riot Games to build the LOLSCIENCE Department—casting the notion that the player is toxic rather than the game—than it is to rethink the design of a game that is making Riot and Tencent close to half-a-billion dollars every year. And if you really wanted to marginalize toxic behavior, you would have to create less profitable games and delve back into the world of highly-demanding skillsets that put individuals back in control, a world that is now a secondary attraction in modern game development.

So, I’ll leave one message for the videogame industry and concerned citizens: If you want to stop toxic behavior, then stop buying and building games that encourage it. Obviously, it’s futile to expect that anyone in the business of games is going to heed that message, given that toxic games are good for business. That leaves me to address you, the player. If you are so worried that some idiot from across the country is running his mouth at you, and you are worried that games are not holding individuals accountable for their accounts, then put your money into games which hold them accountable. Let idiots mouth off at each other and go play games where talk is cheap. Enough said.