How can you design out hostility?

When we think about multiplayer games and how that interaction affects players we often look at the negative effects. In many competitive online multiplayer games we talk about “toxicity” and how toxic, or bad behaviours affect the experiences of game players. As a result we normally assume that many social interactions online look akin to the one below.

In reality game designers strive very hard to avoid these sorts of interactions, not least of which because it will stop their player base from interacting with their product. Games for wellness need to strive even harder to ensure that sensitive topics don’t provide fuel for people who wish to cause harm to others online.

Interestingly many people note anonymity as one of the main reasons for toxic behaviour online but is this truly the case? Academic research shows that relationships formed online, while containing an element on anonymity often “…contribute to the formation of long-lasting, highly intimate friendship bonds with sustainable levels of self-disclosure and intimacy not traditionally found in other mediated spaces.”1 We can also look at the Online Disinhibition Effect2 to see how removing the fear of social repercussions can lead to a trusting and open relationship between two people.

Why does everyone get so mad at each other if academic research suggests we should get along (for the most part). In some instances players simply want different things from their experience and this clashing of goals can lead to frustration. Take a competitive game like Overwatch from Blizzard, in Quick Play, an open format where players engage in the game for fun, we can often have differing goals. To someone who plays competitively their Quick Play session may be a warm up where they try hard before going into ranked play. Perhaps someone is learning a new hero and the others are just there to pick a hero they love playing despite it not the best fit for the situation at hand. Or of course, we always have the Dunning-Kruger effect3 to contend with.

Why then, has Overwatch been successful at lowering incidences of aggressive behaviour? Mostly it comes down to their design and carefully curating player experience. Let’s compare the following screenshots, the first from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the second from Overwatch.

Lets take a quick look at how subtle design changes removed many of the sources of tension between players. In our top screenshot we can see that Counter-Strike players know how many kills, deaths and assists each player on their (and the opposing) team has. This allows players to criticise poor performance of others and give them a scapegoat for a loss rather than evaluating their own performance.

Overwatch is unique in that players only ever see their own statistics. Not only this but players are ranked by medals (gold, silver and bronze respectively). If I am playing a hero that should not be doing damage but has a gold medal for damage done I know that there is some deficiency in the team but not from who or why. This makes casting blame much harder. However, the user interface achieves more than this as players often have the ability to feel empowered playing heroes that would typically not get praise in other games of the genre. As a healer you can see your progress on the statistics screen. Do you have gold in heals, do you have lots of healing done? The game surfaces statistics that empower the player and make them feel positive about their experience despite having a game where a loss may occur.

Ensure that when you want to design digital spaces for your clients that you think about how they interact, where points of tension could be and how to mitigate those through clever design and abstraction.

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