The term “toxicity” is often used when talking about the way people treat each other while playing multiplayer games. It describes the angry and often discriminatory way people communicate when they’re upset or simply bored.
At the University of California, Irvine’s Esports Conference 2019, keynote speaker Kim Voll, the co-founder of Stray Bombay Company, said toxicity inadequately describes what is actually a far more deep-rooted problem that has long plagued the gaming community. This problem is most prevalent for marginalized gamers, like women, people of color and those who identify with the LGBTQ community.
Voll puts common online gaming behaviors like extreme hate, harassment, mimicking, trash talking, negativity, bad habits, being annoying and ambiguous behavior under the umbrella of “disruptive behavior.” This term makes it easier to draw hard lines about the way people communicate and understand the pain of players experiencing these behaviors.
Voll said that understanding, in turn, should make it easier for researchers from a multitude of fields to study what might eventually create solutions to these problems. This is crucial, Voll said, because the gaming industry has largely turned a blind eye to the negative environment many players face on a regular basis.
“We are the architects of human culture in this industry, and that has significant repercussions for how we as human beings relate to one another,” Voll said. “And I think that there is a deep social responsibility that comes with that.”
She added, however, that these behaviors stem from a fundamentally human problem, which is why she gives latitude to gaming companies. After all, when the industry was young, many developers were just trying to make fun games. In addition, early multiplayer games were played at arcades or on couches, with all of the human fixings that make it easier to communicate.
But now that most people play multiplayer games digitally, alone behind a screen, it’s clear to people like Voll how impoverished communication systems are in video games. As an example, while people can subtly signal their discomfort with a rude comment in person and discourage that behavior, it’s impossible to do so in almost any major multiplayer game today.
Many people often attribute these disruptive behaviors to anonymity, but Voll said that’s a myth, pointing to the way people treat strangers on Facebook with their identity fully on display. In reality, the problem is a lack of social consequences and the unnecessary division between our digital lives and “real lives.” Voll said that even if digital lives seem different from real life, putting them in separate categories makes it seem as if it’s less important to treat each other well online.
To fix it, Voll said, the gaming industry needs to understand how games currently fall short in four areas: proximity, similarity, reciprocity and repeat exposure. The first refers to a sense of closeness that’s missing from online gaming, while similarity is our ability to find common ground. Reciprocity is the normal give-and-take of human interaction, like asking for and giving a high five. Repeat exposure is what it sounds like -- interacting with the same people more than once.
When these elements are missing from games, Voll said it’s hard for players to build trust. It’s difficult to explain thoughts while playing most games, and language barriers exist in global gaming communities. Digital avatars and usernames don’t help either, as they don’t create the kind of identity that sticks in the human mind.
This is exacerbated by the massive size of gaming communities, which makes it difficult to form connections. Voll said many people think larger-scale games are always better, but people rarely want to hang out in the same space with 100 million people in real life. When combined with society’s low resilience, Voll said, it’s hard for gamers to give each other the benefit of the doubt. After all, she said, our opinions of people change depending on how close we are to them.
Finally, these problems normalize disruptive behavior, Voll said, since those that can’t handle the harassment stop playing and those that stick around accept it as a fact of life. She added that many companies overlook this fact, and that is why designing social features in games should be a core part of the development process.
“We're still stuck in the mindset that the people that want to play are there, and that the people that don't want to play they've just self-selected out,” Voll said. “Rather than that, I think it's more we have created places that are antagonistic to a broader spectrum of people. And through survivorship bias, we have hardened around that antagonism, and now we justify it as a core part of the game.”
While Voll said companies aren’t doing enough to uphold their social responsibility, they’re also overlooking a business incentive to improve their games. After all, if people are the primary driving force of the video-game market, making it more hospitable for more people will increase their share of a market that is currently gate-kept by disruptive behaviors.
In addition, Voll said she thinks future gamers will be a major factor in creating a more positive environment in multiplayer games. If they grow up with a better understanding of digital citizenship, the game developers that enable positivity will win their business.
“I think it's going to take the next generation coming up and just, you know, kicking us in the shins as old folks and railing against the archetypes and expectations we currently bake into our games,” Voll said.
In the meantime, Voll has already worked to foster better communication tools in multiplayer gaming. As a former principal technical designer at Riot Games, she helped create the new honor system in “League of Legends.” This gives players a better way to reward good in-game behavior alongside the reporting system, which is for disruptive behavior.
Since leaving Riot Games in June 2019 to start her own company with prominent games writer Chet Faliszek, Stray Bombay’s small team is putting Voll’s advice into practice. Every decision they make is informed by the way cooperation fits into the picture.
“My co-founder and I both feel strongly that when you start from a position of cooperation first and build on that, that it helps you,” Voll said. “It helps you reframe the problems and forces you to be more true to that goal.”
Voll also is a key part of the Fair Play Alliance, a collection of gaming professionals and companies from around the world who share their experiences to set best practices for the industry. She said this includes the prioritization of social features in an effort to foster healthy gaming communities. They meet throughout the year at open and closed meetings to talk and work on white papers that can create industry wide policies.
Outside of Voll’s work and organizations like the Fair Play Alliance, Voll said the gaming community can help change the industry by holding developers accountable. The best way to do that, she said, is by openly asking what the companies are doing to prioritize healthy player interactions and community cohesion.
In addition, Voll said gamers and video game developers should stop supporting disruptive behaviors from prominent members of the community. While there’s room for trash talk that’s within the spirit of competition, Voll said being a jerk is unacceptable. As a result, there should be more importance placed on good sportsmanship.
In the end, Voll admitted she doesn’t have all the answers, and that this is just one perspective on a complicated issue. She said she just wants to encourage more thought on the subject.
“Ultimately, my hope is to get companies to take it more seriously, and to help fold this in as a core part of their development process,” Voll said. “Player dynamics is what makes a game what it is.”
Jason Krell is a masters of sports journalism student at Arizona State University