Blizzard's failure to curb toxicity undermines Overwatch's inclusive message

Just two months after Overwatch's massive launch, Blizzard acknowledged that its game had a toxicity problem. "Since Competitive has been live, we've been doing some under the hood tuning and tweaking on [the report function] to be more aggressive about handling toxic behavior," Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan said at the time. "But [toxicity] is not just in Competitive Play. I think as the game ages a little bit, people's dark sides tend to come out a little bit more." 15 months later, the company's attempts to address the situation have proved painfully slow and ultimately ineffectual. 

Blizzard's most recent acknowledgement is a developer update video entitled Play Nice, Play Fair, which celebrated the release of player reporting on consoles, a feature that should have been present from the start. In the 15 months it took to implement, more than 480,000 PC players were hit with "disciplinary actions" by Blizzard—340,000 of those the direct result of player reporting—more than a thousand per day.

Unfortunately these disciplinary actions seem largely toothless. When a recent forum post complained about an apparently unjust week's suspension, Kaplan jumped in noting the account had accrued 2247 reports—"one of the worst offending accounts we've seen." The week's suspension was certainly warranted, but why were they still allowed to play at all? If anyone should be banned from Overwatch, it was seemingly this person. 

Hurting those most vulnerable

Toxicity is a nebulous term, but today it's a container for all the ways that other players can make a multiplayer game a miserable experience. It's hardly an issue unique to Overwatch, but the difference in this case is that from the start Blizzard has consistently presented the game as the inclusive shooter. The game's diverse cast of characters, though certainly not perfect, seems to have succeeded in netting a wider audience than most FPSes—twice as many women play it than the genre average, for example. Yet it's these marginalized players who are most hurt by Blizzard's failure to stem the flow of bad behavior within its game. 

Marginalized individuals often face toxicity purely for playing the game.

People often say that anyone can be insulted in online games, and that is true. But these insults often rest on oppressive foundations. Accusations of being LGBTQ+, female, autistic, a person of color, and so on are meant to hurt, and therefore inherently imply that these groups are lesser. Marginalized individuals often face toxicity purely for playing the game, as evidenced by a recent video from female streamer nweatherservice chronicling many of the insults thrown her way just for speaking up in voice chat. 

In other words, it's easier to have a "thick skin" and "just ignore" toxicity when people don't constantly erase your humanity, both in and out of game. And ultimately, it's hypocritical for Blizzard to use claims of inclusivity to sell Overwatch while simultaneously doing little to help its marginalised players.

Ironically, the Play Nice, Play Fair update itself gave us some insight into why progress has been so slow. Kaplan does not speak about those most affected by toxicity—in fact, he seems to forget they exist. "We've all taken part in this behavior," he said; a falsehood that only creates sympathy and even legitimacy for bad actors, treating their behavior as normal or even unavoidable. He also talks about needing to redirect developers from other areas to create the console report system, suggesting that dealing with toxicity in even this most basic way was not a priority. 

Blizzard has made more than $1 billion from Overwatch alone. The company could, and should, spend money on a hiring a new set of employees for whom toxicity is a specific focus.

Kaplan also recently tried to address concerns that Overwatch's development team is simply understaffed, passionately describing a dedicated bunch of "just north of 100 developers." Yet he also described a system of overwork, where "Overwatch doesn't stop because it's 5 o'clock on a Friday evening. Overwatch doesn't stop because it's our kids' birthday," and admitted that he had recently been "extremely fatigued." It's understandable that a tired team would be wary of adding another responsibility to their plate. 

Having said that, it's important to remember that Blizzard has made more than $1 billion in profits from Overwatch alone. The company could, and should, spend money on a hiring a new set of employees for whom toxicity is a specific focus—Riot established a team of more than 30 scientists and social systems designers to focus on toxic League of Legends player behavior in 2012—for the sake of the players and other developers alike. There isn't a magic bullet for toxicity, but adding bodies to the task does help. In any case, toxicity is a problem that shouldn't require the redirection of resources. It's a core issue of all modern competitive games that affects the entire Overwatch experience, and Blizzard should have dedicated resources to it from the start.  

Learning from League

Luckily, Blizzard doesn't have to start from scratch—several other games have made inroads in dealing with toxic players. League of Legends, for example, is infamous for constantly having to deal with toxicity problems, but also for turning that issue into an opportunity to innovate. When unveiling its Instant Feedback System, the company noted that "homophobia, racism, sexism, death threats, and excessive verbal abuse are both overwhelmingly rejected by the community and hard to mistake." As such, League now uses an algorithm that is able to punish players who were reported for bad behavior within 15 minutes of a game's end—delivered via an in-client reform card "delivering context on the punishment and displaying the chat log that triggered the punishment." 

Blizzard's system is more obscure, but appears to rely on trusting large numbers of reports, even if those reports are for consistently playing a non-meta hero rather than any kind of abuse. Moreover, in one experiment it took 50 games' worth of toxic behavior and two days for a chat suspension to be implemented. While algorithms are imperfect and vastly inferior to human intervention, Overwatch already has an optional profanity filter and even a mandatory filter that changes "gg ez" to one of a set number of humorous lines. Yet Blizzard has made no move to expand this to banning slurs entirely and catching other forms of abuse for faster, more effective review and action.

Riot's transparency is also important. While Blizzard is far from the only company to obscure its anti-abuse tactics, citing the need to prevent workarounds, it's extremely reassuring to marginalised players when they can see a system in place. The Overwatch community broadly believes that their reports are useless, enough so that Kaplan addressed it in the Play Nice, Play Fair update. Yet he still did not make it clear exactly what reporting does do. Riot, on the other hand, tells us that a fourth offence will lead to a permanent account suspension. 

It doesn't seem that Blizzard has any intention of stopping its most toxic players from playing the game at all.

It also throws Blizzard's unwillingness to ban accounts into stark relief. The company recently implemented permanent Competitive mode bans that will lock the gametype entirely for players who have been suspended season after season. But, crucially, only Competitive mode is affected. Banned players can still access Quick Play and Arcade modes. Between this fact and the aforementioned one-week suspension for more than 2000 reports, it doesn't seem that Blizzard has any intention of stopping its most toxic players from playing the game at all, despite Kaplan's claims that "if you are a bad person doing bad things in Overwatch, we don't want you in Overwatch." Why and how Blizzard expects these players' behavior to improve is unclear, particularly since there's no reward system for good conduct (another strategy that League employs).

Blizzard is in the position to dedicate effort and resources into experimenting with ways to make truly inclusive systems. Until the company is willing to shoulder that responsibility, its promises to welcome marginalised players are empty words. Overwatch has long billed itself as an inclusive game. But one needs to play only a few rounds to discover that Blizzard has not succeeded in its intent to create "a world where everyone is welcome."