As long as competitive videogames have had chat windows, they’ve had angry players who use them chiefly to hurl slurs and invective. This should surprise no one. If election season has taught us anything, it’s that people of all stripes and political affiliations are, if not inherently mean, then at least prone to saying a lot of really mean things. But it’s on the internet that things tend to get most heated, since you don’t have to look at the face of the person you’re fustigating. And online videogames are most assuredly an appendage of the internet, hence such notorious outbursts as then-professional StarCraft II player Greg “Idra” Fields suggesting that David Kim, the game’s balance director, should be sodomized with a tire iron. I have a hard time believing that even this notoriously bad-mannered Zerg would have repeated that statement while staring into Mr. Kim’s kind, dare I say soulful eyes.
Discourse in the average competitive videogame defaults to, or at least tends towards, blind slathering hatred.
But so the point is that discourse in the average competitive videogame defaults to, or at least tends towards, “blind slathering hatred.” Most developers call this communicative filthiness “toxicity,” and attempt to moderate it in some capacity, although the lengths they’re willing to go to depend on which developer we’re talking about. Valve Software, in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, allows the community to more or less moderate itself through an automated report system that punishes the worst offenders. There’s no profanity filter, and you can always talk to (read: taunt) your opponents. Suffice it to say that Valve’s games are not known to be kid-appropriate. On the other end of the spectrum is Blizzard, which views reducing toxicity as a core design goal, and is willing to entertain drastic measures to get there.
“It’s a big concern for us,” Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan told Kotaku. “For the most part, the Overwatch community has been fantastic. But [toxicity] is not just in Competitive Play. I think as the game ages … people’s dark sides tend to come out a little bit more.”
In Hearthstone, Blizzard limits all in-match communication to a selection of anodyne emotes: “Thanks,” “Well Played,” “Wow,” etc. Of course, these emotes are deployed sarcastically 95% of the time, but they still limit the emotional damage a pissed-off player can inflict—there’s no emote that allows you to opine on the opponent’s heritage, for instance, or the sexual profligacy of their cherished family members. In Overwatch, a complex team-based first person shooter, Blizzard calculated that limiting communication too much would sabotage teamwork; an emote-only system was clearly out of the question. But that doesn’t mean the developers gave up on creating a non-toxic game. They did away with scoreboards, which allowed players to see how their teammates were doing (and flame the laggards accordingly). They largely eliminated the distinction between “kills” and “assists,” forestalling bickering over “kill-stealing.” And, most recently, they began auto-correcting popular bad-mannered proclamations like “GG EZ” to phrases like “I feel very, very small … please hold me …”
Problem solved? Well, kind of. Overwatch is definitely not a rage-free game. For one thing, Blizzard can’t really do anything about what people say in voice chat. Until they’ve been reported enough times to earn disciplinary measures, ragers with mics are always going to get at least one outburst off before you manually mute them. And despite the lack of scoreboards, I can tell you for a fact that good players of a particular mindset still have no trouble figuring out who’s the weakest link and lambasting them accordingly. (It’s much easier, psychologically speaking, to blame a loss on someone else’s incompetence than one’s own mistakes. Like, duh.) The inevitable failure of the “GG EZ” autocorrect was even more transparent—as soon as people caught on, they started putting “gg” and “ez” on different lines, or spelling out “easy,” etc. etc. etc. People, especially very angry people, are marvelously creative.
Getting human beings to be nice to one another over the internet is never as easy as it sounds.
Ultimately, whether Overwatch’s anti-toxicity measures have made a difference is hard to tell, because we don’t have an Overwatch with no anti-toxicity measures to compare it against. Personally, I haven’t found it to be any less vitriolic (or personally enraging) than Call of Duty or CS:GO. Some of my friends disagree. Either way, Blizzard’s endless struggle to subdue the dark side of its players without driving them away—which, when you put it that way, sure sounds a lot like the challenges plaguing a certain avian-logoed social media platform—is irrefutable evidence that getting human beings to be nice to one another over the internet is never as easy as it sounds.