News & Events

PAX Panel Pushes Back at Online Harassment

Just about anyone who uses an online gaming service will testify to it: The chatter can get downright ugly at times.

Pax panel pushes back against online harassmentWhether it’s due to the competitive nature of multiplayer games, the anonymity of online interactions, or some other reason altogether, you’ll often encounter players who feel compelled to denigrate and bully others in ways that would never be acceptable in the so-called “real world.” Although many on the receiving end of this abuse report the bad behavior through the appropriate channels, others simply ignore it or give up on social gaming altogether.

Identifying a problem is one thing. Fixing it can be quite another. So what do we actually do about bulling in online gaming?

This was the big question a panel of experts at the Penny Arcade Expo tackled during a talk titled “Harassment and Bullying in Online Games: Technical Solutions v1.0.” Among the panelists was James Portnow, a lecturer in the Game Software Design and Production department at DigiPen who also writes the popular Extra Credits web series. The panel was intended to pick up where a recent Extra Credits episode on harassment had left off. In discussing potential solutions, Portnow encouraged viewers to contact game companies directly and demand action on combating harassment.

"When you take a step back and you see this as a behavior . . . it is truly shocking."

The episode caused such a buzz that Microsoft executives convened a special meeting, inviting Portnow and others to come and discuss how to reduce harassment in the company’s Xbox Live gaming service, home to millions of players worldwide. Portnow was later quoted in a front-page New York Times article on the same subject. That mainstream exposure, he said, put tremendous pressure on big-name game companies.

“In some ways we’ve been living with it too long,” Portnow said during the panel. “We know there’s harassment in gaming. But when you take a step back and you see this as a behavior — and it’s not something you’re used to — it is truly shocking.”

Other PAX panel members included Grace (who prefers to go by her first name only), co-founder of the “Fat, Ugly or Slutty” humor blog, which documents actual instances of harassment aimed primarily at women gamers; Elisa Meléndez, gaming enthusiast and doctorate student in sociology; and Jason Coon, Program Manager for Xbox Live Policy and Enforcement.

Among other ideas, panel members discussed the pros and cons of auto-muting online players who have a history of being silenced by annoyed or offended players, as well as algorithms used to match game players of similar skill and temperament.

"We didn't talk about harassment in gaming two years ago, and now it's front-page news."

Grace pointed out the recent efforts of certain game companies, including Riot Games, makers of the free-to-play League of Legends. Data from their community-managed tribunal system showed more than 50 percent of all punished players did not reoffend, evidence suggesting that the enforcement of consequences for negative online behavior could reduce such instances. Grace also praised Bellevue-based developer ArenaNet for taking a preemptive stance on penalizing offensive and hateful chatter in their recently launched Guild Wars 2.

“They’re actually setting the precedent from day one [by saying], ‘This is what we will accept in our community,'” Grace said. “It should be very interesting to watch.”

Portnow pointed out one criticism specific to Xbox Live, saying it takes a user seven clicks to report a player for verbal harassment or abuse, one click requiring the user to enter a tab labeled “friends” in order to select the person who may have just sexually harassed them.

“And so we really need to think through not just systems that need to be in place but the human experience of those systems,” Portnow said. “How are people who need these systems going to access them?”

Similar to information security, Grace described the battle against online harassment as a long-term process.

“You don’t stop with just encrypted passwords. Security is an ongoing problem that you have to dedicate time and resources to continuously,” Grace said. “We’re at the beginning stages of realizing we can sort of take an iterative approach in terms of harassment. But you can’t just necessarily stop at reporting.”

Portnow called for ending the use of the term “gamer” as describing a separate group of people. The problem of harassment, he said, is a matter of discussion that needs to involve as many people as possible.

“This is a societal issue. This is an internet issue. This is an everywhere issue,” Portnow said. “We didn’t talk about harassment in gaming two years ago, and now it’s front-page news.”