The people running the video game League of Legends knew they had a problem. They had the same problem that makes much of the internet unpleasant. Too many people were being jerks online. They're hatching a novel solution: citizen justice.
Starting some time in the next few months, the creators of League of Legends, a free online game that boasts several million players who battle each other in a swords and sorcery virtual setting, will implement a system capable of delivering crowd-sourced justice. They're calling it a Tribunal System, and their tribunal will be staffed not by professional customer service personnel, not by real judges but by gamers.
The game's elite players will become, in effect, the judges of the misbehavior of anyone allegedly causing a ruckus in the game.
Online jerks, you will be judged not by a higher authority but by the kinds of gamers you're being jerks to.
The Right Time To Strike Back At Internet Obnoxiousness
"This is innovation that was bred from necessity," Steve 'Pendragon' Mescon of Riot Games told Kotaku in a phone interview and who said his company was too small to manually deal with a level of player frustration that emerges in a community that is filing 10s of thousands of complaints a day, as League of Legends players were.
"We had to find a way to have a bigger impact and get rid of a much bigger number of these toxic players who are creating a and toxic atmosphere in a way that was more meaningful and efficient.
Should the tribunal system work, the small group of developers at Riot Games would be doing one of the hardest things there is to do on the internet: turn back the tide of negativity.
Players who become part of the game's new Tribunal system will review cases of people using offensive language, cases of people bullying other players and cases of any other sort of imaginable or unimaginable infraction that might occur during the play of a game and generate a complaint from one or more gamers. (A sample case file that a player-judge would see is included with this story.)
The list of quasi-crimes a player tribunal might judge even consists of misbehaviour that is more native to a game like League of Legends than it is a blog's rowdy comments section or the mess of a vandalised Wikipedia page. For example, a League of Legends player judge might have to rule on a player who has been AFK for too long - that is, being away from their keyboard when they were supposed to be competing in a match.
Being bad at League of Legends won't be a punishable offence, the developers noted.
Player-judges will review case file, which includes chat logs and information about what happened in a game during the alleged infraction. (When asked how the tribunal system would handle possible criminal infractions, say, violent threats by a player that another gamer might be complaining about, Riot Games' Mescon said such players should "always contact their local law enforcement.")
The tribunal members will be allowed to punish or pardon those whose deeds have been brought before them. They will receive points if they prove to be a consistently wise justice. And the player judges will have to follow a series of clever rules that ensure their justice is fair.
The presence of misbehaviour in League of Legends is not unusual. Obnoxious behaviour on online forums and in online games is as prevalent as rust on a truck. Anyone who runs anything online suffers the problem; as do members of most online communities. League of Legends isn't helped by the fact that it is a free computer game, one with such low barriers to entry than anyone can play it and have little financial reason to act respectably.
"We have millions of players and an extremely competitive game that's multiplayer and team-based," Mescon said. "You have a tendency in that kind of environment to attract people who have negative attitudes or toxic players who breed that kind of behaviour. No one likes losing. There's lot of trashtalking, unsportsmanlike conduct, etcetera, etcetera... The percentage of the player base that is creating a negative atmosphere is relatively low. But, in an environment like this, a single player can have a really big impact."
Riot Games started considering a solution to the problem after the small team at the company realised that the 10s of thousands of complaints being filed by players against other players each day was more than they could handle. Enlisting players to dole out justice solves that maths problem.
How Crowdsourced Internet Justice Will Work
Here's how the League of Legends Tribunal system is supposed to function on day one:
Any League of Legends player will be able to become a member of the tribunal as long as they reach the class of "Summoner Level 30," the highest rank possible in the player community and one attained by regular play of the game. That experience requirement keeps anyone from just hopping in and trying to judge cases.
A player who qualifies to be a judge will be able to access a randomized selection of cases, each case generated by a player or players who have complained about the behaviour of a League of Legends gamer.
The tribunal player won't be able to pick their cases. They also won't be told how many votes will be required to cause the player in question to be punished or pardoned.
Tribunal players will know the gamer names of the alleged perpetrator and those who have filed the grievance. The players won't be told the names of the other judge deciding the case and will have no way of communicating with them. Riot's team believes that will reduce the likelihood that judges could unfairly gang up on a player.
The judge player will be able to punish, pardon or skip, but they won't be allowed to issue their justice with mouse-click swiftness. Riot plans to enforce a minimum of 60 seconds for each case to be reviewed and will require the input of special typed characters when a vote is made. These systems are intended to guarantee that players can't issue a judgment without having had time to review a case and can't program a robot to do it for them.
The gamer judges will be rewarded with "influence points", one of the game's currencies with which they can buy new characters and gear in the game. But the judges will only get those points if they vote in the majority, the majority verdict being the one Riot will assume is the right verdict. Those who consistently vote in the minority will lose their tribunal privileges.
Riot is still working out what the punishments for the guilty will be. Player-judges certainly won't be able to take that part of the law into their own hands, setting sentences they see fit. Instead, the Riot people plan to use a tiered system of penalties, consigning any first-time offender to the first tier of punishment: possibly a warning of some sort. A second offence will merit a more severe punishment and so on.
A verdict that is going to subject a player to the most stringent punishments will trigger an alert to Riot's internal teams, who will review such cases to be sure the penalty is deserved. Good behaviour will cool an offenders' level of possible punishment, so someone who has been punished once, for example, could eventually find themselves with a clean status.
The people at Riot don't consider their players to be any rowdier than the average Internet community. And they don't claim that the new system of justice they are introducing to their game could solve the problems of horrible behaviour that persists across online communties.
"No system you ever create to solve any problem is going to be perfect," Mescon said. "What we want to create is a system that is better than a lot of the alternatives. The way we are doing that is by putting power in the hands of the players. This is essentially a jury system."
Riot Games doesn't intend to change the way misbehavior is policed across the Internet, to stop the gutter commentary beneath the average YouTube video or silent the chirping of racist teenagers on Xbox Live. But imagine if their system actually works.