How can Blizzard stop harassment in 'Overwatch'? The answer is complicated

How can Blizzard stop harassment in 'Overwatch'? The answer is complicated

You should be able to hop into a game of Overwatch and have a good time without getting harassed by someone over voice chat, right? Unfortunately, that's just not the case right now — but it doesn't have to be that way forever.

When neutrondamage, an Overwatch player, started a conversation on Reddit about the kinds of sexual harassment she'd endured — comments like "You're a small-tittied bitch" and "Can I get some nudes?" — many other players chimed in saying that they had experienced similar situations. The thread now has over 2,800 comments, filled with equally horrifying stories.

In the face of this kind of harassment, many people opt out of the community altogether, and instead choose to group up with likeminded players in private communities using the chat service Discord — but that's far from a perfect, long-term solution. Ideally, you shouldn't have to do anything to avoid harassment. It just shouldn't be happening.

So, what can Blizzard do to curb its toxicity problem? Is it a matter of implementing better reporting tools, or is a society-wide culture of toxic masculinity to blame? 

As you might imagine, the issue is complicated. We spoke with Kat Lo — A Ph.D. student and researcher in online communities and harassment at University of California, Irvine — via Skype to help us understand exactly why online harassment is such a tough thing to snuff out. Lo has consulted gaming and tech companies about mitigating harassment and has spent eight years moderating online communities, so she knows firsthand how complicated the situation is.

Here's what she had to say about ending the problem for good in Overwatch.

Muting your teammates might negatively affect the game overall

One tool a player has when they're the target of verbal harassment is to mute their harasser — to simply block their audio feed. But if one player is muted for being a total jerk, that initial incidence of harassment can have a ripple effect. Namely, that team can no longer coordinate as effectively over voice chat.

"You wanna talk about women being competitive in games?" Lo, the creator of /r/GirlGamers on Reddit, said. "If, in order to be competitive in games, they have to deal with being harassed, it's completely absurd to expect they simultaneously have to overcome and go through everything a competitive player does in addition to experiencing an extraordinary amount of harassment and to not even have the capability of coping with it or blocking it."

Ideally, Lo said, Blizzard would have designed Overwatch in such a way that players wouldn't need to use voice chat to coordinate effectively, but it seems unlikely that it could ever implement any kind of communication system that'd be more effective than old-fashioned talking.

OK, so muting works, but only to a point. What else is there?

Can Blizzard copy Riot's strategy of rewarding positive behavior in League of Legends?

One strategy that's been used to curb toxicity in other games is to focus on rewarding good behavior rather than stomping on the bad stuff. For example, Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends, occasionally gives out rewards to players who haven't been reported for bad behavior over a certain period of time. 

"It's kind of a weird carrot to dangle in front of people, right? Like, 'Oh, you didn't harass people, good job! You have basic human decency.'" 

Would something like that work in Overwatch? It might be a way for Blizzard to model the kind of behavior it expects from its community, but it's not likely to be the silver bullet.

"I think it could have a measurable improvement, but it still feels Band-Aid-esque," Lo said. "It's kind of a weird carrot to dangle in front of people, right? Like, 'Oh, you didn't harass people, good job! You have basic human decency.'" 

Additionally, when someone is enraged and likely to harass someone, they're probably not thinking rationally about whether it'll erase their chances of earning a special spray.

"When a lot of people experience rage, it's not a rational response," Lo continued. "Like, when people say prison will disincentivize people from committing crimes — simply having the threat of the ban or the promise of a gift doesn't cause someone who might be predisposed to harassing people in a fit of rage to get them to stop."

Lo emphasized the importance of approaching toxicity as a multifaceted issue that requires attention from every angle.

"If you think of it as one preventative measure among many, I think that's great, and perhaps a way to approach it is a way to have a bunch of these smaller measures to make the culture more and more positive, but I think there's a larger cultural problem."

Anti-harassment tools can be abused for personal gain

Whatever solutions Blizzard tries to implement, a major pitfall it needs to avoid is the issue of players abusing anti-harassment tools for their own benefit. Blizzard learned that the hard way with its "avoid this player" option that it removed soon after Overwatch came out.

"That tool was super easily abused, because people actually used that feature to avoid extraordinarily good players, so they used it for their own gain in a way that broke their matchmaking system," Lo said.

So, instead of simply proposing tools that could be abused by particularly determined harassers, Lo thinks a better long-term solution — albeit, a much more amorphous, difficult one — requires a larger shift in the Overwatch culture more generally.

Modeling player behavior might be more effective in the long term

According to Lo, one of the best solutions is for Blizzard to model the kind of behavior it expects from its audience. This is a difficult challenge, but it comes down to making players feel like Blizzard and its entire player base — from casual bronze-ranked players to professionals — unequivocally disapprove of all kinds of toxic behavior.

"If a person is gonna harass someone, if they have it in their heads that someone they admire would turn around and say, 'Don't do that, that's fucked up,' then there's gonna be a moment where they think, 'Wait, hold on, should I be doing this?'" Lo said. 

Basically, it's important that pressure to change behavior comes from within Blizzard itself and from the high-level players that the community respects, rather than from someone perceived to be a finger-wagging outsider.

"If they have women and minorities telling them to be decent, they're gonna say 'Fuck you, no, get out of gaming!'" Lo continued. "But if they see their peers having these values and see these norms in their community, [it's likely to be more effective.]"

Of course, it's easy to say that Blizzard needs to change this culture, but actually doing so is much more difficult. One solution is for Blizzard to focus on hiring people who have actually experienced harassment firsthand, so they know how a potential solution might be abused.

"Otherwise it's just going to be people who have never had to think about this stuff before," Lo said.

If you're looking for an all-encompassing solution, that means you'll find nothing

It might sound like we've just debunked every potential solution to eliminating Overwatch's toxicity problems, but really, it's just a matter of realizing that toxicity isn't just one issue that can be tackled with one feature. The answer is always going to be multidimensional, and it's going to require Blizzard to put serious resources behind it to make any sort of progress. That's just the way it is.

"If you're looking for an all-encompassing solution, that means you'll find nothing."

"If you're looking for an all-encompassing solution, that means you'll find nothing, because there's nothing you'll find that will address or capture the multitudes and pluralities of problems that we lump into what we call 'toxicity' or 'harassment,'" Lo said. "We have so many names for it, but it ends up being so many different pieces of so many different things ... it's this entanglement of culture and tools and the design of the game and the ability to protect yourself." 

You could even argue it's just an issue of sexism in general. After all, a lot of gamers don't even think harassment is even a problem. The argument goes that it's "just the way gaming culture is," but to say that is to ignore the realities of existing in the real world, according to Lo.

"If you don't have to worry about being targeted or harassed in real life, then being harassed in a game is not so loaded, right?" she said. "You don't identify being harassed as being a real threat. That's a thing a lot of people can't really empathize with if they haven't had those experiences. So, even if women aren't harassed more than men online, women statistically face violence where they have less power in their regular lives and that has implications for how they perceive harassment in online spaces as well."

So, yeah. Online harassment — especially towards marginalized groups — is a big deal. But unless Blizzard gets serious about tackling the problem, it's likely to continue as it has since Overwatch launched.

More Overwatch news and updates

For more on Overwatch, check out the rest of what Mic has to offer. Here is the latest on the rumored new Overwatch hero, a list of our predictions for what seasonal events might appear in 2017, an interview with the creator of an awesome new Overwatch zine, our definitive ranking of every Overwatch hero and a roundup of awesome gender-bent Overwatch cosplay.