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Off TopicMay 3, 2019 6:00 pm CT

Off Topic: Can Microsoft use Xbox Live to combat gaming toxicity?

Toxicity in game communities is not a new topic. It’s one we here at Blizzard Watch have talked about quite frequently. It’s very much a known problem, and big companies like Blizzard spend a lot of time and effort trying to minimize it. They don’t do this because they’re just super nice folks. They may be, but they spend time and effort combating toxicity because it drives away new players and costs them money, to the point where it’s worth spending money looking for ways to curtail it.

Companies that have big gaming platforms like Microsoft does with its Xbox Live service are always on the lookout for new ways to get players to behave less like ravaging hordes of nightmare. I mean, unless that’s what you’re playing, but even then there’s really no reason to be a jerk about it. So now Microsoft is trying to change up their standards so that players have clear and present guidelines on what’s okay to say and what crosses the line into toxic behavior.

Can we get people to talk smack appropriately?

The standards are pretty clear — trash talking about the game is acceptable, personal attacks are not. It doesn’t feel like we should need one of the biggest corporate entities in gaming to tell us this, but here we are — the examples given are pretty straightforward and it must be noted that the kind of trash talk Microsoft is still prepared to allow isn’t exactly nice. Telling someone “You only won because you hid most of the game and sniped while everyone else actually bothered to play” or calling someone’s win cheap and telling them to come back when they can actually play the game right isn’t what my grandmother would call mannerly behavior. But what it isn’t counts — it’s not personal attacks. It’s not about their race, gender, sexuality or identity, it’s about their gameplay. That’s a pretty strong message from Microsoft, if they can find a way to make it stick and actually enforce these new rules.

Specific offenses include making references in support of drug use, animal abuse or torture, and other criminal activity, specifically promoting those activities — this means you probably can’t name your club “The 420WakeAndBakers” even if it happens to be legal where you live. I live in Canada, so it is legal up here, but Microsoft is a US company and it’s definitely not legal everywhere there, plus there are plenty of others crimes and offensive behaviors Microsoft would just as soon not deal with. They also don’t want you posting sexually explicit or ‘politically controversial’ subjects in chat or in the name of your club. Wondering what counts as ‘controversial politics’? I’m fairly certain Microsoft is keeping that one vague so they can just nuke from orbit anything they deem likely to cause frayed tempers.

Two big questions

This leaves us with two big questions. The first is, will it work? I have no idea. It will require Microsoft to really pay attention to what people are doing and saying on Xbox Live — tightened standards without heightened enforcement are meaningless noise. It’s good that Microsoft is giving us concrete examples and saying “Yes, go ahead and call that other player cheap for how they play, but absolutely don’t insult their race or gender or otherwise make them feel afraid or harassed” but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, after all.

The second question is, will other companies follow suit? That’s an equally hard question to answer. Xbox Live isn’t the only such platform for players to chat across, and companies like Sony and Valve would almost certainly have to implement something similar for this move to be even close to widespread enough to affect the way gamers talk to one another. It’s an interesting and to my mind a positive first step. Now have to wait and see what it actually does in practice, not just in theory.

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