Toxic behaviour has become the industry’s catch-all term for undesirable interactions online, covering a huge range of offensive behaviour from simple cheating, to aggressive and abusive behaviour, to sexual harassment and racism. And it’s fallen to games platforms and publishers to fight what is often portrayed as a huge and ever-growing tide of abuses.
EA recently launched a comprehensive ‘Positive Play Charter’ in order to make clear what it expects from its community when they play its games or use other communication channels. And MCV/DEVELOP spoke to Chris Bruzzo, EA’s chief marketing officer, about what it hopes to achieve with the charter.
PLAY BY THE RULES
“At EA, we believe in the positive power of play. With 2.6 billion gamers across the globe, we know that gaming transcends race, gender and culture – and we’ve seen it bring people together in incredible ways,” he begins.
“But we’ve also seen toxicity and harmful behavior become more prevalent in online environments, including the gaming community. And it’s our responsibility to take action to protect our players and promote positive behaviors that make our community a safe, fun and fair place to play.
More specifically that means: “EA will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, harassment or any form of abuse. If we see someone being offensive or abusive, we’re going to hold them responsible for their actions.”
Of course games are not alone in this fight. Every social network is attempting to tackle similar issues. But given that gaming platforms don’t need to provide space for free speech and political discourse things should be more manageable.
And the new charter is to be celebrated for both its clarity and the effort EA has put into its promotion. The rules are now clearly available for everyone to see, and if players don’t like them, they know where the door is.
“Racism, sexism, homophobia and abuse have no place in our community, and will not be tolerated.”
The new charter is based around four core pillars, which are listed below.
Most of these are easy to agree with, though the last point brings up some intriguing questions. As while we may not agree, there’s a wide variety in acceptable behaviours and local laws around the globe. As an extreme example, talking positively about homosexuality is still illegal in some countries, but we doubt EA would want to prevent such gamers from being loud and proud on its platform.
For today, though Bruzzo is more keen to talk about stopping abusive behaviour.
“Racism, sexism, homophobia and abuse have no place in our community, and will not be tolerated,” he clearly states. “Toxicity ruins play for everyone and we believe in the power of positive play. It’s our responsibility to create safe, fun and inclusive environments for our players that are free of threats and harassment.”
“The Positive Play Charter provides players with a clear set of guidelines and consequences for those who engage in abusive behavior in our games and channels. This was about ‘real talk’ and laying this out in a way that players can relate to.”
And returning to that question regarding varied outlooks from all around the world, Bruzzo says: “I think we are always on solid ground when we put players at the center and leverage data. We know that players the world over are experiencing disruptive and toxic communities in our games. We also know that this is one of the top reasons for people to discontinue playing. So, we start with the players and a universal truth about play: we are here to have fun together, and toxic behavior is not welcomed here because it reduces the quality of fun
“Bottom line, if we see someone being offensive or abusive, we’re going to hold them responsible for their actions. We should maintain the same standards in our digital world as we do in real life. The science shows that the brain registers ‘pain’ the same way if someone says it to your face or through a headset. We believe every step towards a healthier community is a positive one for our players.”
But should allowances need to be made for the competitive side of the pastime. After all, the language often used on say football fields and basketball courts is often more combative than that you’d expect on the street or in a coffee bar.
“We appreciate friendly competition among friends, but we want to make sure that we’re cultivating safe environments and positive experiences for all players – across our games and channels.”
THE FUN POLICE?
Having rules is one thing, enforcing them is something else entirely. With millions of gamers playing millions of hours online, not only is it an immense task, it’s also a psychologically difficult one.
“To enforce our charter, we are applying additional resources to our moderation and abuse reporting programs – and rolling out a disciplinary matrix to ensure that these guidelines are applied consistently across all our games and services.”
And infractions can be met with censures from temporary bans right up to full account deletion.
“The last few weeks have been a stark reminder of the work that still needs to be done.”
So is EA worried that players will start to see the organisation as a police force rather than as a publisher? “Our guidelines and reporting programs are not designed to punish players, but to ensure that our communities remain a fun, fair and safe place for all,” Bruzzo replies.
Returning to the question of resources, Bruzzo backs up the charter’s words with some real-world heft: “We are applying additional resources and tools to our moderation and abuse reporting programs. We have a disciplinary policy in place, that is being applied consistently across all our games and services. In recent weeks, we’ve also removed more than 3,500 player-generated assets from our games and taken action with players that have posted inappropriate or harmful content.”
And the team undertaking such an unpleasant task looks to be properly supported. “Our community team is at the front lines of this and supporting them is a critical part of this work. Over the past year we’ve created new training programs as well as providing resources to our front line employees during high impact situations to ensure they have resources on call. Our community managers go through conversation training camp and resiliency training annually as well as training and information on mental health resources that employees are able to utilize.”
And given the gargantuan nature of the task, we wonder if EA will be looking to utilise AI in order to better manage its communities. “Tools and technology are a key part of our plans but they take time and there is always going to be a human judgement element to this work. We’re evaluating tools that incorporate machine learning and continue to see where the technology can add value.”
And technology will likely be needed as the number of hours of connected play continues to soar ever upwards. Even then applying such rules is tough, as Activision has discovered recently in the free-to-play battle royale title Call of Duty: Warzone, where it chose to introduce two-step verification to help prevent banned PC players from simply signing up for new accounts – by requiring a new mobile phone number for every new account.
The charter’s big launch is certainly timely, with first racism, and now sexual harassment, being high on the game industry’s agenda of late.
“Now more than ever we have to take a stand against toxic behavior,” agrees Bruzzo. “The last few weeks have been a stark reminder of the work that still needs to be done, and our responsibility to stay vigilant in our efforts. EA can build better healthier communities inside – and outside – our games, and that’s what we are here to do.”
It’s no knee-jerk reaction though, as the process of building the charter kicked off at last year’s EA Play. “We hosted a Building Healthy Communities Summit, which gathered 200 players from over 20 countries to discuss how we can work together to build healthy communities in our games. At that Summit we made a commitment to promote positive behavior in our games, and to take clear action against toxicity in our community.
“We’re contributing $1 million to organizations dedicated to the fight for racial justice in the U.S. and against discrimination around the world.”
“Since then, we’ve taken several actions to support our players – including new ways for players to report abuse, improved escalation policies to deal with harmful behavior,” Bruzzo notes, adding: “We know there’s much more we need
to do for our players.
“Last week, we introduced anti-racism messaging in many of our games, reaching millions of players. We also announced we’re contributing $1 million to organizations dedicated to the fight for racial justice in the U.S. and against discrimination around the world as well as launching a new program to give everyone in the company an additional paid day each year to apply to volunteering in your community. With all of our employees around the world, that will represent more than 75,000 hours applied to the change we can make.”
And Bruzzo is even clearer on both the topicality but also the long-term commitment that the charter represents.
“Black Lives Matter. Racial justice matters. Equality, inclusion and diversity have been at the center of our beliefs at Electronic Arts since our founding. We want our games and our marketing to reflect our community. We know we can and must do better. We must also go beyond listening and talking and commit ourselves to education and driving meaningful change through actions. We need to do more, and must do more. This is a long-term commitment.”
While many companies have such efforts, it’s great to see a top-tier publisher making such a clear effort to make a difference. The real question remains though, that even with all its resources, can EA actually turn things around, and how will it prove that it has done so?
We’d like to see the big publishers and platforms work together on these issues. Agree upon umbrella standards
and research methodology to prove that things are heading the right way. Gaming doesn’t create intolerance, it only reflects what is already out there, but it can be a tool to defeat intolerance by bringing people together.