There are those who think that perhaps Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian are lying about the campaigns of terror, hacking, and bullying that they are currently encountering (and thanks to Tadhg Kelly for inventing the term Gamergate Truthers to describe them – it’s easier to say in polite company than fuckwads). I daresay that anybody who has ever set foot in the Customer Service department of a major MMO for more than five minutes has pretty much no doubts whatsoever. Because those guys see it all. Every day.
It used to be worse. Much worse. My first MUD, CarnageMUD, had to ban several players for attempting to hack, bully or keylog other players. Meridian 59 was worse, but it wasn’t until Ultima Online that we really saw how dark things could be.
Early days UO was chaotic for a lot of reasons. The game was much more successful than they anticipated, and they had to scale up very quickly. It was also very, very buggy, which created all manners of headaches for players and developers, and some incredibly novel ways to exploit and abuse your fellow players. It also was, bluntly, a social cesspool.
MMOs always vary wildly in tone from game to game and server to server, but early UO was a place where it seemed that everywhere I went, you’d encounter the most awful crude sexist, racist, homophobic, juvenile crap that you can imagine, both on the boards and in the game. And early UO was birthed on what was somewhat of a libertarian vibe — Origin let way too much of that crap slide, with the idea that you could always just kill the jerks. The problem was that no one was as good at PVP as the jerks were, and even more problematic, the jerks didn’t really feel all that traumatized when they died. It was the cost of doing business, where business was being a jerk.
At the time, there was serious concerns in the budding MMO industry. UO was not a very nice place. There were not a lot of women players – hell, there were not a lot of players who had thin skin. But our visions in those days wasn’t just for a couple hundred thousand players – we wanted the genre to see millions, or even tens of millions of players. But you were never going to get there if you were being called a ‘faggot’ every ten seconds. I remember in those days actually feeling despondent. Maybe the vision of an MMO just couldn’t scale above a certain size. Maybe the dream was dead.
You should not need thick skin to play a video game.
With all due respect to Raph, in my mind there is no person who has been more important to the development of MMOs as a viable consumer product, historically, than Gordon Walton. He came to Origin from Kesmai, one of the few companies that dabbled with large-scale multiplayer gaming before Ultima Online and Meridian 59. And he had the scars to prove it. His contribution was simple: he was able to convince every level of the organization that change was necessary – and possible. He did so with the single most succinct definition of a griefer I’ve ever heard: A griefer is someone who, through his social actions, costs you more money than he gives you.
Well, when you say it like that, we all felt pretty stupid for letting these jackasses hang around for so long.
Ultimately, his message was that the culture of the game had to change. Community services were beefed up. The team developed tools that allowed players to report abusive behavior and allowed CS to review the chat logs of trouble incidents (fun fact: in a not-insignificant number of cases, CS would ban the person who filed the complaint, as it was clear the player was attempting to goad his target). Origin also built what may have been the industry’s first community relations department, in order to rescue the tone on the boards. And the team did the Felucca/Trammel split, creating a safer adventuring space in order to attract a less cutthroat brand of audience. And then they began working on a Zero Tolerance policy for general assholish behavior.
Which was tough, because in those early days, the CS tools were still roughly akin to rocks and twigs.
But it worked. UO was, most assuredly, saved by changing its culture more than any other change it ever made.
EverQuest managed to learn from UO’s mistakes and corrections, and had a zero tolerance policy from the start. They had some rough patches — early MMO developers were continually astounded at the ingenuity of griefers determined to ruin each other’s good times. By the time WoW came around, the formula was pretty pat. Sure some MMOs have struggled with fuckwads, but these struggles have tended to be brief, because now MMO developers know that it’s just not worth keeping their $10 bucks a month.
The modern MMO has a full-time staff, usually of dozens of people, hopefully working 24 hours in order to identify problem behavior — including not just harassment like this, but also issues like gold spamming, botting, cheating, etc — and escort those people out the door as quickly as humanly possible. It’s kind of like being a bouncer at a strip club. You may get your hands on a dancer’s ass, but you’ll likely be out in the parking lot within 2 minutes.
We spend MILLIONS of dollars doing this. Millions that as a designer, I’d sure like to spend on more game content or features. But it is the cost of doing business. And its working – there is probably no online, synchronous, co-ed gaming place that feels as protected and as safe for women and other minorities. Everquest 2 reportedly has a 60%/40% gender split. Same for WoW. Compare that to the 85/15 split playing GTA IV. Or the 90/10% split playing League of Legends. Or the 92%/8% that call themselves Call of Duty fans on Facebook.
The walled garden MMO is a uniquely safe place for female gamers to play with male gamers. Which is something to be concerned about, given publishers seem to be losing appetites for making MMOs in the wake of no one being able to replicate World of Warcraft’s lightning in a bottle.
Make no mistake – MMOs have strong advantages in controlling their cultures. We house the servers and pay for the bandwidth. We frequently have subscription plans to help pay the costs of a CS crew. Most communications in these games between strangers is done in text chat, which is cheap to store and easy to search. And the generally long lifespans of the character arc in these games means that getting kicked out of the game will lose a ton of character progress and rare items – sure, that level grind sucks, but perversely, it also creates an investment of time in that character that most people are loathe to lose. MMOs changed the culture from the top down. And that was easier. Doing this for the larger gaming culture will be inestimably harder.
But the most important step was realizing that the culture had to change.