For the civil, Xbox Live can be a wondrous place. Chatting with friends, gaming with loved ones over vast distances, the crossing of cultural and national borders, it's just great. Indeed, it's probably the strongest weapon in Microsoft's console wars arsenal. Thing is, a lot of people on Xbox Live aren't civil. They're Asshats. And I'll have you note that's with a capital "A". Bigotry, unfair play and general, well, asshattery amongst a lot of users mean that for every pleasant experience on Xbox Live you may well end up having one that's thoroughly unpleasant. Maybe even offensive.
Which is where Stephen "Stepto" Toulouse (pictured, above) and his Xbox Live Police step in. Employed to fight injustice wherever it is found, serve the law and protect the (gold subscription customers') public trust, Toulouse and his team are responsible for policing Xbox Live and enforcing its code of conduct policies across the globe. In other words, when you complain about someone over Xbox Live, the complaint goes to them. And if you get banned from Xbox Live, they're the ones who banned you.
Working mostly out of Microsoft's Redmond HQ (though some members are spread across the globe), the Xbox Live Policy Team and Toulouse, the team's Lead Program Manager are the guys responsible for - as their name suggests - overseeing the policing of Xbox Live so that, as Toulouse puts it, "members have a positive experience while using the service". They work "365 days a year", and even "process complaints even on holidays". Which they must. Because crime never sleeps.
Stepto's quick to stress that the majority of players have nothing but great experiences on Xbox Live. But Microsoft will also be the first to admit that, as their company stance on offensive XBL users states, when it comes to communication over the internet "unfortunately some of it can be negative". Those engaging in negative communications are the ones that come to the attention of the Policy Team, who have a variety of methods for both catching and dealing with anyone violating the service's guidelines.
COMPLAINTS: The first, and most obvious means of discovering and punishing offensive gamers are via public complaints. With millions of XBL users, this might seem like a huge undertaking, but Toulouse says that, thankfully, the vast majority of them are bogus, submitted either due to mistake or a player having a whine when they lose a game fair and square. Oh, and to those who feel like they're achieving something by hammering away 50 complaints against the same user in a night, you're not: the Policy Team's system screens for duplicate complaints and automatically bins them.
Any complaint that's not a duplicate, however, gets looked at. Every single one. In many cases, the violation is clear, and they can move on to any possible punitive steps. But for others, things can get messy. Where does good-natured shit-talking end and genuine offensive behaviour begin? Just because someone finds something offensive, does that mean it is offensive?
"Context can be a challenge", Toulouse says. "There's no context to tell someone your motto is a joke. What might not get a single complaint in one type of game suddenly might get a bunch of complaints in a more family friendly game. Even words you might hear in prime time television can be in violation of our Code of Conduct".
In these cases, the team has what Toulouse calls "online resources" to fall back on and consult with. Dictionaries, encyclopaedias, things like that. "But those resources are just simple guidelines", he says, "not the final authority. In the end, my team uses our best judgement in many instances on what violates the Code of Conduct". "Best Judgement" means they often will talk the more difficult cases over as a team, exploring whether the source of a complaint is in the intent of the accused, or simply the perception of those issuing the complaint.
Interestingly, Toulouse says that the volume of complaints is always consistent, and that he and his team are able to work through every complaint during a day's work, so as not to create a backlog. If the numbers are consistent, and don't spike on weekends or holidays, it says a lot about the kind of people that are gaming enough on Xbox Live to be issuing or causing complaints: they don't leave the house very often.
They don't just sit around playing Halo 3 all day, either: they play all kinds of games at all times of the day in order to best cover the entire spectrum of Xbox Live matches. So the next time you're at home, lose a PGR4 race and are about to let fly with a torrent of naughty words, remember: they could be watching you. Listening to you. At that very moment. And they're not just in the US, either, Microsoft have these guys spread out all over the world.
But it's not just cussing that can bring the hammer down. There are all kinds of things you can do that will cause other gamers to issue a complaint against you, and all kinds of things will give the Policy Team grounds to limit or even ban your account.
Boobs, for example. If it pops up in your Gamertag, or your bio, that's not cool. And no, you can't hide it. The Policy Team spend a lot of time labouring over alternative and slang spellings for naughty words (even going so far as to research global variations on offensive terms), so b00bs, 800bs and Bo0b5 are all just as bad. As are the Spanish, Korean and Latvian alternatives. If you're caught with a word like that in your Gamertag, you won't be able to sign into XBL again until you change it. If you're caught with it in something like your bio, it'll be automatically deleted.
Those kind of issues are the minor ones. The more troubling, and more offensive stuff (like racism, religious intolerance, sexism, homophobia, etc), comes from the 360's ability to use voice and - in some cases - video chat. While big-time games like Halo 3 and Gears of War are naturally rife with douche bags, Toulouse also says you'd be surprised where else complaints can turn up. Uno, for example. Which uses the 360's camera. Let's just say the Policy Team are not big fans of genital footage.
Some of the more base-level stuff can result in temporary voice-bans. Repeat offences or really serious stuff, however? Your punishment will severe, Stepto saying that if you're guilty of this you can be "suspended from accessing the service either temporarily or, in very rare cases, for good". Which they're perfectly entitled to do, by the way, as when you pay your Gold subscription, you're also signing onto Microsoft's guidelines for XBL, which state that if you break the rules, they can break your account.
Though that happens, Stepto assures me, very, very rarely.