By Joe Skrebels.
It’s a sign that things have got out of hand when you start offering people rewards for staying within the law. Riot Games’ recent decision to give exclusive League of Legends character skins to those who hadn’t been banned in the previous 12 months has the air of a dystopian future where good people get sent to prison because it’s the safest place going.
MOBAs have long been the world’s greatest source for creative takes on being told to kill yourself—the intense need for teamwork, huge time commitment and highly specific tactics becoming the crucible in which anonymous internet dicks are forged. But with the meteoric rise in popularity of online games as a spectator sport, companies are forced more and more to consider how to keep their chatlogs as clean as their bugfix lists.
“Curbing bad behaviour is a constant battle for many game developers,” says Hi-Rez Studios’ Austin Gallman. “A lot of research has gone into finding the best ways to do this. I don’t feel that anyone has really found the perfect solution yet, but having a punishment/reward system certainly helps.”
It seems that the traditional system of temporary and permanent bans simply isn’t effective enough in a world where games have the populations of countries, and where players—so often spun into a frenzy of competitive ire—have the mouths not just of potties, but of entire sewage reservoirs.
For a company like Hi-Rez, the problems become clear when you look at its games slate. With even automated ban systems requiring a human support response, and players from across the world working their way onto the naughty list, multilingual teams need to be assembled, growing as the games do. That’s not to mention the different kinds of bad behaviour that different games engender.
“MOBAs are typically more team-oriented,” Gallman explains, “so we’ve seen a bit more in the way of poor behaviour with Smite than we did with our shooter titles. Cheating, however, is a different story entirely. Attempts at cheating were much more common in our shooters.” Working on online games for so long has helped Hi-Rez cultivate a good sense, and an efficient system, for punishing infractions, but the tide now seems to be turning towards a more holistic approach.
“Obviously, it is near impossible to eliminate bad behaviour in games entirely,” Gallman adds, “but cultivating a fun gaming environment is always step one. We also think it is important to model positive behaviour via Twitch.TV streaming of the game, game-oriented video content, and other community oriented activities.”
Simply teaching people that good behaviour is the norm, and creating role models for younger players, could be the way forward for an industry plagued by literal problem children—and including Riot’s Pavlovian “be good, get nice things” approach is the kind of positive-reinforcement ethos that the industry seems to be pushing for as of late.
But it’s by no means the only way—at least not if you ask CCP. The EVE Online developer’s famously laissez-faire attitude to its bewilderingly enormous universe extends to its punishment policies, too. In a joint statement, Sigurður Ævarsson and Davíð Einarsson, men with the privilege of having the job titles of senior and lead game master respectively, explain: “Many actions lie outside what we consider to be fair play, especially with regards to socially unacceptable behaviour, but EVE Online remains unique in the sense that we have an extremely relaxed ruleset that governs the way the game is played. Many actions that would be a bannable offence in other MMOs are often considered fair game in EVE.”
Theft, corporate espionage, piracy—this is the stuff of EVE legend, and the kind of high-level assholery that would have you out of most online games at the push of a Del key. In the cutthroat world of Icelandic space warfare, however, it’s par for the course. Accepted wisdom would have it that lugging around a cargo bay filled with real cash is just begging to have it stolen by either other players or the cruel pull of the void.
This doesn’t mean that anything and everything goes—CCP’s ban protocols are regularly updated and robustly enforced, and, as they put it, “our players are extremely creative, and often find ways to breach our policies in ways that we could never imagine” (see the above boxout for more on that). The key to EVE’s relatively sedate community is acceptance of the fact that it’s not the developers who will cause you problems should you ever step out of line, it’s the other people playing the game.
Ævarsson and Einarsson again: “Promoting largescale warfare and violence in EVE Online is a large part of the game. Regardless of this, for the most part our community remains extremely close-knit, civil and friendly toward one another. This tends to be due to the fact that in EVE, reputation is everything, and can make or break your career in New Eden. With this in mind, our community tends to police itself. EVE players are free to use any in-game tools to wage war and aggress each other, and we recommend that they resolve their differences within the game environment.”
While the methods taken are wildly different, there’s a parity between Hi-Rez and CCP’s approaches, and one that marks the biggest swing in policing online gaming. Whether it’s by staying hands off or reminding players that playing nice is the way to have more fun, both companies are creating a status quo, boundaries that players can understand intuitively simply by participating in the community enough. To co-opt the words from some old book: give a man a ban and he’ll be salty for a day. Teach a man what will stop him getting banned and, with any luck, we’ll all avoid our grim prison-planet future.
[Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously placed CCP about 2,200 km east of Reykjavík, Iceland.]