According to a recent article by Kotaku, Riot Games and Blizzard/Activision have joined a massive team of game developers who are concerned with the problem of toxicity in esports. The Fair Play Alliance, containing Riot Games and Blizzard, as well as smaller developers such as Epic Games (the developers of Fortnite: Battle Royale) and Supercell (Clash of Clans and Clash Royale), is focused on creating a gaming environment “where games are free of harassment, discrimination, and abuse, and where players can express themselves through play” (from the Fair Play Alliance website). This started on March 21, when these developers held the first Fair Play Alliance Summit, a meeting between these concerned parties where representatives shared their experiences with toxicity in each of their games. Their end goal is a noble one, but perhaps too idealistic. Creating a world where anger and toxicity are a non-factor is hardly a walk in the park; traditional sports have existed for hundreds of years and you can still see fights and unsportsmanlike conduct at every level – shout out to Baker Mayfield. And there are other problems to consider with a project of this scale.
The Fair Play Alliance consists of over 30 members from all directions of the industry. Blizzard/Activision Games itself is involved in three major esports titles. And it’s not just game developers. The FPA also has members on the consumer side of the industry; Discord Inc., Intel, and Twitch are major players in this group. So what is the common definition of “getting rid of toxicity”? Riot’s stance on the issue is pretty clear from their Summoner’s Code. Their fourth point drives it home: “Enjoy yourself, but not at anyone else’s expense”. Their mentality is very much based on the identities of the players. They don’t mind a little bit of casual banter or ribbing, as long as all parties involved are consenting. But this mentality isn’t exactly shared across the other developers. As recently as last week, Blizzard began cracking down on the use of the Pepe the Frog meme, both at their Overwatch League stadium and on their Twitch stream. Pepe the Frog, accused during the 2016 presidential election of being a mascot of alt-right hate groups, has been a meme icon for video gamers for years beforehand, and his ban from Blizzard esports is not being taken lightly. It seems like Blizzard has a much lower tolerance in their definition of toxicity, even instructing Overwatch League player Sinatraa to delete a birthday tweet containing a festive Pepe the Frog. Meanwhile, Riot freed Tyler1 earlier this year after a grueling 613-day ban, showing their tolerance of formerly toxic individuals. Tyler1 previously had fifteen accounts permanently banned for a mix of intentionally throwing games and flaming his teammates, but after a long behavioral checking process, Riot rescinded Tyler1’s ban. He has since appeared to be genuinely reformed, showing the upsides of giving your players a sixteenth chance. This is just one example of the different views that these concerned members of the Fair Play Alliance will likely hold toward their fight against “toxicity”, whatever that means.
The other great challenge is the path that the FPA is trying to take to combat toxicity is its implementation of a consistent set of standards and rules across all their combined titles. That simply doesn’t work when you look at the breadth of games that this is trying to cover. At a glance, the FPA has members from genres like first-person shooters, MOBAs, real-time strategy games, sandbox games like Roblox, and even mobile games like Clash Royale. These games are so diverse that a single set of rules and limits for “toxic behavior” can’t possibly cover a healthy spectrum. Consider League of Legends and Fortnite. Fortnite is fast-paced. Games rarely take more than 15 minutes, and you can leave as soon as you’re eliminated. For less-skilled players like myself, the average game is about four minutes long. This doesn’t give much time to get angry, much less flame. And there’s no text chat. WIthout a microphone and the self-confidence to let your team hear your voice, you’re dead in the water. Consequently, the threshold for toxic behavior is probably much lower in Fortnite than in something like League of Legends, where half-hour games with nothing but text chat can lead to friendly advice coming off as passive-aggressive and petty. But with a standard, objective set of rules and standards, something “too aggressive” for Fortnite might just be a normal day in the life of a League player. So why is this really a problem? Less toxicity is better than more toxicity, right?
Wrong. Before we start holding up every member of the Fair Play Alliance as this amazing moral paragon that is this sort of champion crusader fighting cyberbullying, you have to remember that these companies are, first and foremost, companies. Anything that hurts their profit margins is a bad idea. Letting players run rampant against each other without any sort of moderation obviously hurts profit margins. Driving players away through over sanitation of the game and turning into this sort of “kiddie pool” is another way to kill a game. There’s only one online game I can think of without any sort of toxicity or flame, and it’s Webkinz. Last time I checked, Overwatch’s median player age isn’t eight years old. And each of these companies, although they serve different demographics and genres, is still in competition with each other. Epic Games isn’t going to suspend players for spamming emotes on dead players if it means that they’ll lose 10% of their player base to PUBG. These companies will work to eliminate toxicity as long as it is profitable for all of them. And since this point it going to be different for every single one of these companies, what starts off looking like a good idea can quickly go south when members drop like flies because the rules are getting too strict. And this is where the League of Nations parallel comes in.
The League of Nations was the predecessor to the UN, formed as part of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points that built the backbone of the WWI-ending Treaty of Versailles. It was groundbreaking in that a coalition of national governments had never met to become a world regulator. It was stupid in that its only power was peer pressure. The League of Nations didn’t have any influence on anyone outside the League except for the ability to vote on things and then imply that the offending countries were uncivilized. And, surprise surprise, when Japan invaded Manchuria and the League of Nations voted that they were in the wrong, instructing Japan to cease and desist, Japan left the League of Nations. A similar thing happened with the Soviet Union when they invaded Finland. Look how well both of those situations turned out. Whenever it suits these companies, they can leave the FPA and institute their own rules. They can invade whatever Manchurias and Finlands they want and if the other members don’t like it, then they can leave. This hurts the credibility as well as the actual impact of the FPA.
The Fair Play Alliance is an amazing idea in a vacuum. A group of concerned video game magnates who want to make the internet a safer and healthier place for their players is almost objectively a good thing. The problem comes when you inject the concerns of companies and the problems of standardization across an entire industry. This revival of the League of Nations may take a note from the annals of history and do what they can to mitigate the mistakes of their predecessors, but I’m not keeping my hopes up.