Player harassment in the online gaming verse’ has been a problem for both developers and players since the inception of the medium. From the days of Ultima Online to the present day MMO’s (and all other types of online games) bullies and unpleasant souls hidden by the cyber shroud of anonymity continually find new means of inflicting harm and misery on others.
It’s frustrating and hurtful for the players that are victims of it and very problematic for the developers of games too. How can and how should developers deal with harassment? What constitutes harassment?
The online environment by it’s nature, while providing ample means for harassers to be creative with their abuse, also gives developers the opportunity to take measures to counter and prevent harassment.
Of course, that is easier said then done.
The early MMO’s learned from harassment and evolved the culture of the industry to tackle the problem leading to the tools and initiatives which are stock standard in all modern day MMO’s. But harassment continues to be an ongoing problem and source of frustration for all involved.
Unfortunately, as long as there are assholes hidden by the webs of anonymity who get a thrill out of inflicting harm on others (with perceived minimal consequences) we will continue to see harassment in our games.
Star Ware The Old Republic has of course not been immune to the tide of player harassment in it’s four year history. Unfortunately, it has a reputation of inaction and inadequacy, both with it’s in-game tools and customer service response (something I’ll elaborate on later). This reputation has arguably lead to the free rain of not just griefers (defined below) but also of exploiters and gold spammers.
Either way, there is something problematic with how SWTOR handles harassment as these stories below demonstrate.
Stories of Player Harassment in SWTOR
Let’s take a look at various accounts of player harassment in SWTOR and how they were handled.
In January, a story of in-game player harassment made the rounds on Twitter (and inspired me to write this post). The source? This tweet which was sent to SWTOR asking them to take action against a player who was harassing members of their guild.
— Zakiyya (@Martazakiyya) January 3, 2016
Basically, someone decided to harass a bunch of people in a guild because they had a guild mate who committed suicide. This person even went to the trouble to make crude characters named in a way which mocked the individual who committed suicide. Naturally the harasser was reported many times to SWTOR by multiple people but nothing was done for over a month.
A member of the guild contacted me and gave me some additional details about the lengths the guild and many of their friends have gone to to report the harasser and to try and reason with the person causing the abuse. They shared with me screenshots of conversations they and others had with the harasser. A few people even emailed Tait Watson about it who informed them that they were aware of the issue but couldn’t reveal any details on how or if the harasser was punished.
This a truly heartbreaking account and one that is unfortunately not unique. I’ve heard many accounts, from a variety of people, who experienced themselves (or know of others) who experienced harassment in-game and SWTOR did nothing about it. I want to raise awareness of SWTOR’s apparent inadequacy in taking proper action against harassers. They are often slow to respond (as they were in this case and many others) and/or they just give the harasser a slap on the wrist which does nothing to dissuade them from harassing.
This story does have a somewhat happy ending. Recently both of the offensively named characters finallly got deleted by SWTOR and the person responsible sent an apology mail to on of victims of the abuse (that I know of). So it took SWTOR almost three months to deal with this case of harassment (admittedly there was the Holiday season in that time period).
While this may be quite an extreme case of harassment it certainly not the only one of its type. Other people came forward with stories of their own where customer service had done little to stop the abuse.
Note: All the following stories were told to me with full confidence and as such I won’t be divulging details such as names, servers etc. I’ve made some details vague to respect privacy of individuals telling the story and those involved. These stories are recounted/paraphrased as they were told to me.
One such story concerns a player (A) giving unsolicited advances towards another player (B). Player B player flirted with player A but player A took things too far so the guild leadership told them both to stop. Player B stopped but player A didn’t so he was kicked from the guild. The person kicked from the guild (Player A) then proceeded to stalk Player B on all of their characters. Player B did ignore player A on all of their characters to try and stop it. But that unfortunately wasn’t enough. Player A was still able to emote Player B’s characters. Player A was reported but no action was taken against them. Player B had no choice but to wait several weeks until Player A got bored and stopped harassing Player B of their own accord.
This story highlights a glaring flaw in a developer provided tool for combating harassment. Despite putting an individual on ignore (meaning you can not see anything they say in any chat channel or get randomly grouped with them in group finder PvE content), they can still ’emote’ you. This means that harassers have the capability to continue to harass other players at will; especially as you can say anything you want and have it appear as an emote using the /e chat function.
A similar story of harassment to the one above (although not as severe) involves an individual being abused by someone because of the ’emo hairstyle’ that their character happened to have. The harasser threw a Huttball match and constantly spewed vulgar homophobic slurs towards the player. The player put the harasser on ‘ignore’ and the harasser was reported by quite a few players. They did get a response from CS but nothing was done, the harasser only received a warning for their behaviour. The harasser logged onto other characters and continued to abuse the player. Luckily for this player (unlike in the case above), eventually ignoring the abuser on all of their characters stopped the abuse.
This case (and also the one above) highlights the need for a Legacy ignore system. This would allow you to ignore not just the one character a person was using to harass you but their entire Legacy so they can’t switch to another character to continue harassing you.
Another story of player harassment concerns the sharing of personal contact details in game. In this case the harasser shared personal details of a player in general chat where everyone could see them. The victim was forced to change their contact details as a result. The person responsible was reported and initially got permanently banned from the game. Unfortunately, they were somehow able to talk their way out of their ban. They then proceeded to brag about it on a Stream. The harasser in this case had also been reported for previous in-game violations and had previously been banned from the game because of them.
While SWTOR can not do anything about harassment that occurs outside of SWTOR eg. like in this case a Stream, could it not still be used as evidence against the harasser if they had also previously abused the game Terms of Service or harassed other people? The fact that the individual had been known to be banned for committing previous violations shows either inconsistency in the use of SWTOR’s ToS or minimal enforcement of their own rules. Long time players have seen this repeatedly over the years with SWTOR handling of exploiters (although they have been taking harsher measures against exploiters more recently in some cases). So if SWTOR has a known reputation for being lackluster with the enforcement of their own rules, then it should come as no surprise that people will keep breaking the rules. This unfortunately means bad things for the players (and more exploiting too).
Someone even told me of how they took matters into their own hands. Repeated attempts to get the harasser to stop harassing them via reporting them and trying to reason with them failed. So this individual told the harasser if they didn’t stop harassing them, then they’d tell their mother. The individual being abused then proceeded to message their mother’s phone number to the harasser. Needless to say, the harassment stopped.
While the lengths this individual went to get the harassment to stop is questionable (especially in how the info used to stop the abuse was obtained), it demonstrates the unfortunate lengths people have to go to, at times, stop harassment.
Damion Schubert, a former SWTOR developer, was kind enough to offer me some insight into how game developers deal with player harassment. While Damion was not involved with customer service specifically when he worked on SWTOR, he able to offer some insight into how MMO’s, from the beginning, have tackled player harassment and learnt from each other how to deal with it.
On his personal blog Zen of Design, Damion wrote a post about the industry’s early experience with harassers and griefers in the early days of the MMO genre titled: How Ultima Online changed the culture of MMO’s. In it’s early days, Ultima Online had a massive problem with harassers and trolls. But initially the Developers did nothing about it; primarily out of fear of losing money and they figured the trolls would simply be killed. In reality, they were losing money from the people leaving the game as they were sick of all the griefing and harassment and because no could kill the trolls as they were typically the better players.
A griefer is someone who, through his social actions, costs you more money than he gives you.
Luckily the Developers were convinced by Gordan Walton to change the culture of UO. He made them realise that griefers ultimately cost them more money then they give. So they developed tools allowing players to report the abuse and gave tools for customer service to verify the reports of abuse. Origin (the company behind UO) created the gaming industry’s first community relations department to interact with the community and reduce the cesspool of vileness and attempt to bring back some civility. Their efforts were successful and UO’s gaming culture and environment improved significantly.
Other MMO’s; Everquest, WoW etc. learned from and improved on UO’s success in dealing with trolls but had to continuously innovate due to the ingenuity of trolls and harassers. These days, MMO’s spend millions of dollars on tools and customer service departments to prevent and tackle abuse. They generally tend to take a more harsher approach against harassers then other gaming genres do.
Damion also offered me some insight into the basics of how Customer Service works (in the MMO industry) and how they tackle complaints of harassment from the players. CS deals with the worst of the gaming community on a constant basis. They see vile, sexist, racist, homophobic abuse daily. It’s hardly the most pleasant job out there and a very thankless job.
There are hard internal rules, for customer service representatives to follow in case of infractions. Most cases align to basic rules and are supervised by front-line (cheap) CS staff. Basically, the first thing CS does when they receive a complaint is to check the chat logs. Primarily to see if the complaint is legitimate and to see if you instigated the abuse.
An interesting fact Damion mentioned was that in a lot of cases, it is often found that the reporter of the abuse was the one who instigated the abuse.
The basic punishment for minor offenses is initially a warning or a temporary ban. Anything racist or sexist however will generally get you more then a warning. If the case is messy, then a more senior staff member will look into it. They have more leeway to step out of the boundaries to deal with a case. All CS interactions are logged in case a review is needed in an instance where there is an abuse of power (by CS).
Damion was adamant that most MMO’s these days generally accepted that a griefer is someone who costs you more money then they give you. So they want to get disruptive forces out the door pretty quickly.
The picture Damion painted of how a typical customer service department of an MMO is run and handles claims of abuse, seems to contradict how SWTOR runs their CS department (when we take into account the many stories of inaction against harassment). The stories above and many more in the community demonstrate that disruptive forces continue to wreck havoc for days and weeks at a time while CS does nothing.
SWTOR, seems to have regressed from the established culture of dealing with harassers harshly and quickly. For instance, that they don’t appear to have a zero tolerance policy for player harassment. They prefer to give out a warning in an attempt to maximise money coming in; by keeping the abuser and the abused paying and playing.
SWTOR have made some strides in improving how they handle player harassment and exploiters. But a lot more could and most certainly should be done. The stories told above seem to demonstrate a degree of incompetency in how SWTOR handles cases of harassment. There are many more stories of SWTOR’s failure to deal with player harassment leading to the game having a reputation in it’s community (to some degree) of doing nothing about player harassment (let alone exploiters).
They do however seem to take harassment seriously only when one of their own developers is the victim of it. The kind of abuse the developer experienced happens to players in-game fairly frequently (as demonstrated above) yet they don’t deal with it that fast when it’s just a player.
The apparent failure of SWTOR’s CS could be due to communication failures, different interpretations of policies and how to apply them to cases by CS staff or simply insufficient policies/measures for dealing with harassment to begin with. I am of course speculating as to why SWTOR’s CS has issues. For all we know it could be something to do with EA or simply that the CS department is understaffed; which would be unfortunate and certainly explain why tickets take so long to get a response and why they’re given inadequate attention.
The best thing for SWTOR to do going forward is to have a zero tolerance policy for in-game harassment. Make it so there are lasting consequences for not just player harassment but exploiting too. Improve communication within the CS department and ensure policies for handling player harassment are equally enforced and understood by the CS representatives.
I’m not saying that SWTOR’s CS is an evil organisation. I’m sure there’s some great people there and I’ve seen plenty of funny, RP-style responded to tickets posted on the web from SWTOR’s CS. But there is something wrong with how they deal with player harassment and there has been for a very long time. They’ve improved, a little, but need to do better.
We can’t (and probably never will) stop people from being jerks and harassing each other. But being more prompt with dealing with harassers and providing players tools to report and deal with harassment is a win win situation for the players and developers of games alike!
In any case, I hope this post generates some discussion and I’m more then happy to do a follow up post if anyone wants to offer me any additional insight.
Thank you very much to everyone who shared with me your stories and to Damion Schubert for taking the time to answer my questions! I greatly appreciate it!
Do you have any stories of player harassment and how they’ve been handled by CS in SWTOR (or any other MMO)? What has been your experience? Do you have any insight or have you ever worked in customer service for a game?