Riot Games

Riot knows it can’t change toxic behavior in League of Legends: that’s why it’s asking you to

Riot knows it can’t change toxic behavior in League of Legends: that’s why it’s asking you to

League of Legends is infamous for its rude, crass, homophobic, sexist, racist, every other -ist community. But how much of this is perception, and how much is reality, and what is Riot doing about it? The Report sat down with Jeffrey Lin, Lead Designer of Social Systems, and Carl Kwoh, Producer at Riot Games during this year's PAX East to talk player behavior, the effectivness – or lack thereof – of bans, and how the company behind the world's most popular game is pulling away from its nasty reputation.

Down with the banhammer

Most games – and this includes League of Legends – deal with negative player behavior via bans. Yet, when Riot posts the reasons behind a player's permaban and the justifications include 'previously received 18 punishments across multiple other accounts, resulting in two additional permanent bans,' one has to wonder if these bans are actually doing anything.

“That's actually one of the problems that we've decided to shift our focus to in the new year. Banning is not a perfect way to handle things, especially in a free, online game. A lot of people do… even once they've been permabanned, will come in with a fresh account and sort of start the cycle again. Banning can help mitigate some of it, but it's not a long-term solution to any of the problems,” Kwoh said.

“We're really trying to shift more to look at systems and tools will help our community reform the negative players and move them more toward neutral and positive behavior, as well as stuff that just shields players from that negativity in the game. If a toxic event does happen – because we're never going to be able to craft the perfect system that prevents all bad things from ever happening ever – when those toxic events do happen, shielding players so they don't have that ripple effect.”

Lin agreed. “No matter what we do with bans, it just isn't the right solution to educate them and reform them back to the good side,” he said.

Banning, in other words, is reactive. Riot is searching for a solution that's proactive. When I asked what types of solutions the team had in mind that would “shield” players, Kwoh brought up the example of the cross-team chat channel. “What we did was, we took the all-chat channel and made it opt-in and defaulted everyone's settings to off. Super small experiment, but the idea there was, we had looked into all-chat and it was mostly used for negative language and behavior, so we wanted to see if making that an opt-in experience could shield some of that.”

Kwoh explained that, although most players opted back into having cross-team chat turned on, negative chat dropped by 34%, while positive chat saw roughly the same percentage increase. “What we think happened there was basically, once you take away that assuredness of audience… my analogy of it is, it's not really that much fun to yell 'fire!'' in a crowded  theater if you don't know if it's crowded or not,” Kwoh said.

“The all-chat example is a great one where, when you have a fresh account and you don't necessarily know about that option existing yet, you'll be shielded from players who are very experienced who opt in and try to be very negative in it. You won't ever see that toxicity, so hopefully, you don't learn the wrong lessons from that and start going down that path yourself.”

Self control

The idea of letting a player guide their own development instead of being guided by the faceless hand of a game developer is something Riot takes very seriously, Lin and Kwoh told me. One feature that the Social Systems team implemented that highlighted this philosophy was the reform card. If a player gets handed a punishment from the Tribunal – League's court system that operates based on community participation – they would also receive a reform card, highlighting exactly why they were being punished.

Kwoh and Lin said that banned players would take their reform card to the community and complain that they had been unfairly banned, to which the community would often point out where the offending player had done wrong. Lin said he was “inspired” by the fact that the community was open to dialogue and offering constructive feedback, letting players who exhibited poor behavior know exactly where they had crossed the line.

It's not Riot telling the player where they've done wrong, it's the community, and if the community makes it clear they don't want a particular behavior, that behavior tends to decrease. With the Tribunal system doing well, the Social Systems team is focused on positive reinforcement – instead of focusing time and money punishing what Lin and Kwoh said are a minute percentage of the League community, they want to reward the majority of players who Lin and Kwoh say are either positive or neutral influences.

“We had the Tribunal, which did a really good job of helping players understand how not to be bad, but that doesn't really give you a path to good. It sort of just puts you in a holding pattern. Maybe at neutral. Hopefully,” Kwoh said. “We recognized that we really needed the other side of the coin, which is, 'How do players show other players what they want to play with? What is an example on the good side?' We want to build that aspirational path.”

Lin said the team is currently toying with several ideas, some based on previously successful experiments. “Last year, during Snowdown Showdown, we basically surprised positive players with a cool little Summoner icon that was a Santa Baron. We gave players a second chance to earn it by being positive over the holidays,” he said. Another idea Lin said the team is currently mulling over is rewarding players who are good at identifying other positive players.

“What we want to tell players is, throughout 2013, we're just going to randomly surprise players with positive stuff. It might be a random gift, it might be like, 'Here's some stuff you can do to be positive, and we'll give you something cool for it.'”

The power of positive thinking

Lin said that when the Social Systems team was formed just over a year ago, they had plenty of nay-sayers. “A lot of other devs, academics, they came to us and said, 'Why are you guys even trying to solve this problem? This is an impossible problem.'”

Kwoh agreed. “There was definitely a sense, from the people who had really been working in the games industry awhile, that this was a problem you sort of just have to ban players move on. Like, this is the accepted problem space we live in.”

Lin and Kwoh refused to believe that, and subsequently, their approach changed from punishing bad players to rewarding good ones. It's a strategy that's paying off.