Nothing can ruin a good game for you like other people can.
Jeffrey Lin, the lead game designer of social systems for Riot Games recently spoke to a Games.on.net reporter about toxic players recently. According to Lin, players are 320 per cent more likely to quit a game - forever - if they're persistently experiencing abuse.
This was a problem for Riot's League of Legends. It was notoriously abusive - I personally was put off playing the game not because it didn't sound fun, but because I knew it would take time to get good at it, and that during that time I would be consistently put down and patronised. No matter how fun the gameplay is, I'm not willing to sit through a couple of months of toxicity to get to a happy place. I know other gamers who have avoided it for similar reasons.
But maybe I should give it a go now, because since Lin began "Teamwork OP", its programme to reform the League of Legends community, great progress has apparently been made.
What does League of Legends do differently to other games? Firstly, it uses artificial intelligence to sniff out the abusive players. Secondly, it doesn't necessarily ban them - rather, it incentivises them to play nice. Riot Games recognises that most negativity doesn't come from persistently bad players, but from good players having a bad day.
League of Legends introduced an "honor" (their spelling, not mine) stat into the game to encourage players to be more positive - and according to Lin it's making a measurable difference. High honor reaps temporary rewards.
I've long been interested in how games tackle abuse, because being a woman has meant that I've endured my fair share.
I refuse to hide my gender online. My username on most platforms is my name - which, despite being unusual, is distinctly feminine if you know where it comes from. As a result, over the years I've gotten countless messages asking for sexts (although this was before they were called sexts), telling me to get back in the kitchen because clearly I suck, or just plain raging. So I've gotten good at reporting people for being jerks - I know how to do it quickly on every platform I regularly use.
But those reporting systems are usually lacklustre at best. The onus is on the abused players to report and deal with the toxic ones, which can be more trouble than it's worth - often, the reporting function is difficult to find and requires a lot of information. Providing that information is challenging when you're typing on a controller, and takes too long if you're just trying to report someone between multiplayer matches.
So when I began playing Hearthstone in a big way, I fell in love with its emote system. Players have only a few emotes they can use - none of them especially aggressive - and you can silence an opponent's emotes at any time. For me, it makes the game much more enjoyable, and there's still a chat functionality for friends.
It seems Blizzard, the company behind Hearthstone as well as World of Warcraft, is beginning to take toxic behaviour very seriously. It comes through in Hearthstone, but the company also has big plans for its upcoming multiplayer game Heroes of the Storm.
For starters, Blizzard is turning off cross-team chat to remove one avenue of abuse. You won't be able to unleash of a torrent of expletives at someone on the opposing team for killing you. It's also going to introduce a Mute All function so you have an easy way of avoiding abusive teammates. The company also plans to follow Riot Games' lead and incentivise players to behave in addition to punishing them for bad behaviour.
But then, of course, there's World of Warcraft, which has its toxic environments too. I'd wager that if League of Legends can be cleaned up then so can WoW, but so far Blizzard haven't taken any major steps to prevent abuse there.
Still, most games companies just wield the banhammer - some wield it harder than others - and hope for the best. My personal hope is that this changes over time, without removing the possibility of having positive interactions with strangers as well.
I think most people would agree that a positive community is a better community - even the ones who get a bit frustrated and angry sometimes.