It’s 2004, and I’ve been playing Halo 2 with OmegaDragon for over seven hours. OmegaDragon was some kid living in Germany, and I was from Mexico City; we were thousands of miles apart, but we became connected by playing together. These and other moments made me realise how effectively games can foster relationships and positive interactions.
The online gaming landscape has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. While online toxic behaviour isn’t exclusive to games, games have a unique way of influencing human behaviour. As designers, we need to remember that every decision we make can affect the way players interact with each other.
Isolating the problem
Disruptive behaviour in online games, often known as toxicity, ultimately refers to any behaviour that leaves another player feeling threatened or devalued. This behaviour can manifest in the form of gameplay, verbal abuse, or text-based chat. The recent rise of online toxicity comes from factors like:
Anonymity. Behind the screen, players can adopt any persona they like, making it harder to hold players accountable for negative behaviour.
Community size and background diversity. Gaming communities were once groups of like-minded individuals with shared interests. Nowadays, they’re composed of a broader audience with different backgrounds, play styles, personalities, and motivations. These differences might result in conflict and confrontation.
Mismatched intentions. Increased focus on competition leads to frustration when players aren’t in agreement. Are you playing for fun, or for the win? This question has become harder to answer in competitive environments, like esports.
Illusory correlation. Without knowing why a match ended the way it did, a player is more likely to blame a negative outcome on the wrong reason, such as technical issues or other players.
Emotional investment. As with physical sports, video games can trigger a torrent of emotions that come with a loss or a win. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s important to mention that toxic behaviour is a grey area: what might be toxic to one person could be fine for another.
Many of today’s solutions are implemented on a platform level and are focused on the communication layer. Muting players or reporting systems are often an after-the-fact Band-Aid to address the symptoms rather than the disease. We should think about how to solve the problem before it happens in subtle yet effective ways.
Building friendlier games
Online toxicity is a complex problem, and this isn’t a catch-all for every multiplayer experience. Consider these points as a call to action as you design your game.
Reduce punishment for negative outcomes.
Failing should be fun. A negative outcome, like a stolen kill, can lead to frustration, so informing players of what caused the negative result is important – don’t let them decide for themselves. Reward effort and outcome accordingly with things like your scoring system, or using the right language to make players feel less punished.
Example: Recent Call of Duty titles handle kill assists by awarding more points to the assisting player as well as using the term ‘defeated’ instead of ‘assist’, giving a sense of accomplishment.
Consider what gameplay data players see.
In team-based games, it’s useful to know the current state of other players. External performance data is great for strategy, but could be weaponised for conflict. Obfuscation of certain data or positive performance emphasis leads to a more welcoming environment, and encourages better behaviour among players.
Example: SpyParty handles public-facing ranking using ‘Spy Wins’ and ‘Sniper Wins.’ Losses aren’t displayed, even if they’re directly proportional to the Wins.
Choose the right segmentation.
Matchmaking algorithms, ranked and casual playlists, and player filters all help to situate the player in the right bucket based on personal intentions and skill. Ensuring fair matches helps to reduce the likelihood of putting blame on teammates, which is often a friction point in many online game matches.
Use positive reinforcement.
Create a culture where sportsmanship is respected and rewarded. Incentivise good behaviour by providing in-game rewards and create opportunities for players to show camaraderie between teammates and rivals.
Example: Gwent allows players to reward each other by saying “good game” at the end of the game.
Minimise the effect of competitive mechanics.
Complex game mechanics add depth, but can also affect the progression of a player’s learning curve and increase the skill gap between players. Your game can be as complex to master as you want, but creating a safe environment with tutorials or introductory hoppers can help new players avoid friction when playing online.
Example: Forza 7 has a ‘Welcome to Multiplayer’ hopper where players can learn the ropes.
Satisfy players through a harmless outlet.
Provide a safe way for players to express emotion. Things like emotes and taunts can help guide how players interact with each other. It’s worth noting that players can still abuse this system and be toxic in non-verbal ways, so be cautious here.
Facilitate effective teams.
Role-based multiplayer games have an extra layer of strategy that requires better communication between players. Since success isn’t achieved through individual performance, role assignment and correct execution can be a source of conflict as well.
Overwatch, for example, tries to ease this process by informing players of the composition of the team and suggesting roles that might be needed to succeed. This can also be approached from a matchmaking perspective, where players can choose their desired role to play and only match with other players that require filling that role.
Adjust match length based on desired emotional response.
Time can affect the way a player perceives results. Since games have a high emotional investment, there are elevated feelings when one wins, but also equally devastating feelings when one loses. Be sure to reward players for their time – early termination options like surrender systems mean players won’t have to fight an unwinnable match.
Games can help us foster relationships, develop skills, and show us new worlds, and online gaming should always provide a safe space where people can have fun. Let’s use them to build a healthier, more welcoming community.