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*
The crowning achievement in the videogame industry’s war on “toxic behavior” was the 2012 announcement that the billion-dollar Warcraft III mapmaker Riot Games was constructing a team of scienticians to determine why the fans of their Warcraft III map, League of Legends, are so angry all the time.1 In other words, the creator of one of the most popular videogames on planet Earth needed scientists in order to determine why their game sucks.2
Or at least that would be the simple narrative, but it’s complicated, because a couple of years ago, a generation of individuals that would scream the youth are wasting their time in front of a computer screen found out about portable computers that make phone calls, and with these computers, they can now explore fantasy worlds — better known as “social media” — where we all learn grandpa wasn’t being ironic about his happy childhood days in the Hitler Youth.
So on today’s internet, everyone is angry at something, because technology shapes your social norms, and the platforms and the rules and the systems of the modern internet allow them to be mad at everything, to spread their venom and vitriol with public personas across massive media platforms where you can curate the most extreme versions of what you imagine your opponents to be, and on the way there, you can get trolled by the Russian propaganda farm that Boris claims is an abandoned borscht factory.
And I believe Boris, because he is a great American, he even SAYS that he loves baseball and apple pie! But since we aren’t going to choose the Deus Ex Dark Age ending and we’re not blowing up the internet, the companies and individuals that helped shape the shitstorm can appear to be proactive and responsible by trying to solve the issues that their platforms and algorithms created in the first place. And that is when my cutting-edge childrens’ toys enter stage right.
So it’s not just Facebook or Twitter or even game developers like Riot. Microsoft and Valve create the community filters that place problem players into low-priority matchmaking, allowing the toughest and strongest to determine who sleeps with their sister the most.3 4 Ubisoft can determine that screaming choice words doesn’t contribute to the mission objective in Rainbow Six: Siege, and the company can automate furious retribution.5 Blizzard can even sidestep the question and destroy my childhood by making it impossible to scream at your opponents in Heroes of the Storm. 6
And their solutions are a farce, because they are approaching a game design issue as a social issue, because people react to their environment. It’s not enough that these outcomes occur on a mostly-anonymous platform where there is little consequence for being an asshole, or that we have been creating online platforms that curate the nasty content and archive it into perpetuity, or place communities at the mercy of massive and impersonal mechanisms that lead to sweeping changes and unhappy communities.
The videogame companies that have been building games to work with those online platforms, and who gave their players incredible amounts of agency to define the experience — to decide who they wanted to play with and how — have now spent two decades dismantling the systems (both physical and digital) that ultimately provided players with control and accountability. Today’s videogame developers are now lashing out at PLAYERS and blaming PLAYERS for the failure of the rules that the DEVELOPERS and CREATORS have built.
So back in the day, in spearheading a mostly uncharted form of videogaming with thousands of individuals connecting in real-time, Richard Garriott figured out what any good designer should know: Games are systems of rules, and much as in real life, those systems can influence the behavior of players to an incredibly subtle means. The ultimate goal of the creator is to get the desired result out of their players, and if the game fails to do this, it is the responsibility of the developer to understand what is going wrong and then to fix it.
But it is a hell of a lot easier for Riot Games to build the LOLSCIENCE Department—a game developer casting the notion that their players are at fault—than rethinking games that have millions of simultaneous players and make billions of dollars by the blessing of the benevolent job creators, our most valuable natural resource. But the public eats it up, and in order to understand why this is, in order to understand the scourge of “toxic behavior”, we must firmly understand the root of the cause: Humans is dumb.