Xbox boss Phil Spencer pledges improved safety and inclusivity in online games

Earlier this month, Microsoft shared some examples of "trash talk" in an Xbox Community Standards update that were amusing in their relative inoffensiveness, substitution of "<profanity>" and "<racial slur>" for actual profanity and racial slurs, and heavy reliance on "potato" as an insult, which I'll admit is a new one on me. But the company seems serious about addressing abusive behavior in games, a point Head of Xbox Phil Spencer emphasized in a blog post in which he wrote that "gaming is for everyone." 

"If you imagine gamers as predominantly men and specifically teen boys, think again. We are a 2.6 billion-person strong community of parents playing with our kids, adventurers exploring worlds together, teachers making math wondrous, grandmothers learning about their grandchildren through play, and soldiers connecting with their folks back home," Spencer wrote. "Most gamers today are adults; nearly half are women." 

Spencer said that the ubiquity of gaming has turned it into the world's leading cultural industry, but also noted that "digital life includes a growing toxic stew of hate speech, bigotry and misogyny." Unlike "rock and roll, books, and TV," however, which over the years have also been portrayed as as frivolous, violent, and/or hate-filled, the social and interactive nature of gaming make it "uniquely designed for equality." 

"Gaming doesn’t just bring stereotype-defying gamers together; it unites us through our universal language of fun and answers our human need to play. Research has shown an effective way to battle polarization and prejudice is through relationships with people outside our own groups, known as intergroup contact theory," Spencer wrote. "This is where gaming excels: forging unexpected friendships with people we might never meet in real life." 

To help foster an environment where those interactions are able to flourish, Spencer committed to three basic principles for Microsoft's online gaming communities: To be vigilant, proactive, and swift; to empowering gamers to safeguard their gaming experience the way they want; and to working across the industry on safety measures. As part of that, Microsoft recently launched a new "For Everyone" page at xbox.com, and Spencer said that more programs are coming including new "Gaming Summer Camps" that will provide young gamers "new ways to explore life skills and practice healthy habits that can be used in gaming and everyday life."   

Spencer said that Microsoft will share its safety innovations with the entire gaming industry, similar to what it's done with PhotoDNA, software that helps detect and delete child pornography, which it shares freely with other technology companies, developers, non-profits, and law enforcement. "Today, multiple teams working in areas like moderation, user research, data science, and others are already aligning with industry partners to share insights, and best practices in areas of safety, security and privacy," Spencer wrote. 

"The gaming community continues to grow rapidly, and the imminent roll-out of new game services such as Apple Arcade, Google Stadia and Microsoft’s Project xCloud, will make gaming available to even more people worldwide. Our industry must now answer the fierce urgency to play with our fierce urgency for safety."