Phil Spencer and the rest of the team at Xbox recognize that gaming has a problem. In a new blog post titled “Video games: A unifying force for the world”, Spencer minces no words. As he outlined, “We will identify potentials for abuse and misuse on our platform and will fix problems quickly,” hyping up a new set of community moderation tools that will likely be deployed by the end of 2019.
Spencer further wasted no time in making their intentions clear, with the following statement that’s sure to draw some ire from gamers.
“Xbox Live is not a free speech platform. It is not a place where anybody can come and say anything. And as we’re working to ensure it’s a safe and inclusive environment for everybody, I don’t want to be opaque about it. I want to be out there front and center so that you understand our motivation”
There are some gamers who will see the mention of free speech as a slight. Mostly because the conditioned ideals of that term are often used as a scapegoat for being openly offensive or bigoted. Calls for free speech on privately-owned platforms are a huge political rallying cry as well, from all parts of the political spectrum. And as it relates to games, many want their gaming communities to be places of open discussion and exchange.
It’s important to remember that this grandstanding over the importance of free speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Plenty of other political rhetoric gets thrown around in an attempt to justify or defend the same toxic behavior Spencer and his team are trying to end. “Keep politics out of games” is one incredibly common cry. This one is somewhat idiotic though as it ignores that one can consider bigotry and offensive behavior as simply a position within the grander political spectrum. Every statement we make and action we take has an impact on someone, and using highly charged language is absolutely a political statement in essence. So the “keep politics out of games” cry can be seen as a justification for strict moderation that removes the most toxic elements. Because it’s these toxic elements that prompt the most contentious and destructive conversations and actions that can ruin a person’s gaming.
And strict moderation is exactly what Spencer wants. He went over the “content moderation features” mentioned in his blog post and said that upcoming features will allow for just that.
Trouble is, a platform being too open and lenient is very much open to abuse by bigots, political extremists and other Ne’er-do-wells. By being incredibly transparent, but also heavy-handed, with their enforcement, Microsoft has a chance to set a standard for how to accurately and fairly deal with bigotry and harassment in online games.
It’s no secret that the majority of toxicity within video games comes from the people who play them. Social interaction combined with anonymity grants a ton of potential for people to say some very awful things without consequence. And these same people may have grown accustomed to defending their statements with cries of “free speech”. That anonymity is something that is a little unique in online games, as players will often feel more protective of their gamertag than say, a Twitter handle. As Phil Spencer puts it:
“One of the things we find in gaming that’s actually really helpful to us is that because your Xbox Live account has friends and identity and state, there seems to be—and it’s good—there seems to be a lot more care that a player takes in their identity and its reputation. Banning somebody on Twitter, it takes me five seconds to create another account.”
So while the whole concept makes sense on the surface, there are some criticism which should absolutely be heard. For one thing, how much power realistically should a private enterprise hold? The ability to completely remove paying customers from a service will always be contentious, even when it’s necessary. Though as long as Microsoft is kept in check in terms of what behavior is banned, the issue shouldn’t be too problematic.
The solutions themselves also seem kind of lackluster at face value. Adding blocking or filtering style features to Clubs allows some control, but the wider gaming space isn’t subject to the same ease of moderation that say a Corporation in EVE Online is. It’s easy to remove problem actors because you can control who gets entry in the first place. Generic online matches on consoles don’t have that extra layer. You have to experience the harassment and toxicity before you can mute or report the problem.
It sounds a lot like Xbox is about to implement Twitter-esque blocking and muting controls. And as someone who maintains a rather robust Twitter blocklist in the tens-of-thousands for dealing with trolls and openly bigoted fools, this is a terrible idea to translate to online gaming. It’s really cumbersome to have to manage a huge number of blocks and mutes on Twitter, impossible even, without the advent of third-party tools. I have some real suspicions that the system will be even more annoying to operate on Xbox One.