For years now, gaming companies such as Riot, Blizzard and Twitch have been fighting online abuse and harassment in their own ways, to mixed results. Now they're trying something different: Working together.
Image: League of Legends
The Fair Play Alliance is a coalition made up of over 30 different companies, including Riot, Blizzard, Twitch, CCP and Epic, that aims to share research and lessons learned around gaming communities in the hopes of cutting down on "disruptive behaviour". The goal, Riot senior technical designer Kimberly Voll told Kotaku, is to create a consistent set of behaviour standards between companies and a common understanding of the underlying issues that cause poor behaviour in online communities. The hope is that developers won't have to start from square one any more when creating online games.
"A lot of these challenges today are super intimidating," Voll told Kotaku at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week. "These are big cultural shifts. As an industry and as a society online, we're trying to find our way. Having to be a company that steps out and says 'We're gonna be the ones to do this' is kinda scary. This is an opportunity for all of us to say 'What if we walked together as an industry?'"
Voll acknowledged that Riot has a long and storied history of mistakes in this arena, but that's kind of the point: Games such as League of Legends exemplify how difficult it is to bring communities back from the brink. Ideally, the Fair Play Alliance will allow other companies to directly learn from each other's mistakes without stumbling into the same pitfalls.
"There's a lot to share," said Voll. "And we've done a lot of dumb things. We've learned a lot." She added that Riot's player behaviour team, once among the more prominent voices in this discussion, stepped back from the public eye a couple of years ago because they realised that their own efforts weren't quite hitting the mark.
"Players were increasingly telling us they were unhappy," she said. "That was us going sleeves-up and trying to figure out what was happening." The team emerged with a new focus not just on disruptive players, but on the ways competitive games can make arseholes of us all. Now they want to share what they have learned with the rest of the class.
Image: Overwatch (by developer Blizzard, another member of the Fair Play Alliance).
The first step in that process is a day-long summit at GDC hosted by the Fair Play Alliance, which begins on Wednesday morning local time with a keynote by Voll. Developers and creators from companies including Activision, Epic and Supercell will openly discuss research, issues they have faced, mistakes they have made, and what they have learned in the process. (One of the many speakers, full disclosure, is my good friend Katherine Lo.)
It's a solid first step, but it seems like The Fair Play Alliance is still working to secure a foothold beyond that. I asked Voll what lies ahead, and she joked that while the Fair Play Alliance has a website, there are not many other tangible elements to discuss just yet. It's still working to solidify things such as shared resources, and a system that will allow developers to reach out to knowledgeable individuals when they're struggling to solve abuse- or harassment-related issues.
In other words, the Fair Play Alliance is only just getting off the ground. The organisation's loftiest goals, such as creating a consistent set of standards and rules across multiple multinational companies, will also require a lot of differently-shaped puzzle pieces to click together.
"There are a lot of challenges when you're trying to determine what good behaviour looks like - or at least what bad looks like - on a global scale," Voll said. Basic respect between individuals, she added, seems like an agreeable goal to aim for, but then you've got to consider what mutual respect even looks like in different cultures and groups. Close friends, for example, might hurl gobs of vile trash talk at each other, but they don't mean it. The same verbal interaction between complete strangers would probably constitute a worst-case scenario. Or maybe not. Context is hard.
But there are also benefits to forming a collective that includes companies with so many different origins and priorities. They can cover each other's blind spots and, hopefully, hold each other accountable. I mentioned notorious League of Legends streamer Tyler1 to Voll as an example of Riot and Twitch's punitive systems failing in ways neither company saw coming - ultimately turning a problem child into a star instead of teaching him a lasting lesson - and Voll said she thinks communication via the Fair Play Alliance will stop something like that from happening again.
"I think this is a really good example of a spot where we can learn from one another and understand the repercussions," she said. "On one hand, we're very conscious of the slippery slope that is to step outside the game and try to impose values more broadly. On the other hand, every frickin' thing's online. There's no IRL and online any more. This is just all reality now. So streamers are ambassadors of culture bigger than just League of Legends or whichever game. They're ambassadors of online life."
And if companies such as Riot and Twitch don't see eye-to-eye on players like Tyler1? Voll thinks that might end up being useful, as well.
"I think it's also good checks and balances," she said. "I think it's great if Twitch is like 'Hey, that seemed like a bit too much. Let's talk about that.' None of us are gonna get it perfect."