It is not an easy task to moderate a large community on the internet. Anyone trying to enforce ground rules of courtesy and respect in an open internet community of any decent size is fighting a never-ending battle against John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which turns normally normal people into complete, well, you know.
Those problems are only exacerbated on a service like Xbox Live. Anyone who has participated in a public competition in a first-person shooter on the Xbox 360 knows that the platform is infamous as a haven for antisocial, hostile, hate-spitting preteen boys who are pumped with adrenaline by shooting virtual people in the virtual face.
But Stephen Toulouse, who served as Xbox Live’s head of enforcement for five years before leaving earlier this year, said controlling Xbox Live’s wave of misconduct was just a matter of consistent penalties for those who break the rules.
“The reason bad behavior occurs on the Internet is because of a lack of consequences,” he told Ars Technica in an interview about his tenure at Microsoft. “I grew up in the world of arcades and sports in a local park where if I spat on a child at its mother there could be immediate and physical retaliation. There were consequences [for] that behavior.”
The beaten cop
Toulouse’s job at Microsoft was to impact the virtual world, using a team of hundreds of “enforcers” around the world to ensure that Xbox Live’s tens of millions of users adhered to the Xbox Live Code of Conduct. . That meant stopping groundbreaking issues such as unauthorized cheating and console tweaks, as well as addressing interpersonal issues such as harassment, abuse, threats, obscenity, slander, spam, and “racial, ethnic, or religious defamation.”
While many users are under the impression that the entire enforcement process is automated, Toulouse said any complaint made by an Xbox Live user is actually reviewed by a human, usually in much less than the target 24-hour period. Toulouse said he couldn’t talk about the forensic “secret sauce” his team used to confirm those complaints were genuine, but assured me that the enforcement tools lead to an error rate that was “ridiculously low”.
They also allowed Toulouse and his team to confront people with the evidence of their wrongdoing before abolishing penalties such as temporary suspensions or permanent system bans. “It’s really one of those scenarios where, if you have to answer questions, it was like, ‘Yeah, we really got you,'” he said. “They just want to know they’ve been caught.”
However, enforcement was not just a matter of responding to complaints. At times, Toulouse enforcers acted as “beaters” on the Xbox Live scene, jumping in to run spot checks in games that featured the most problem players. More than catching rule-breakers in the act, Toulouse said this kind of active internet policing provided players with a valuable visible reminder to continue to behave at their best.
“I can’t tell you how many times I joined games and people went silent or left. Those are the people who misbehaved… I’ve never had a problem with the whole game shutting down, but I was in a game and then heard one of the players say, “Oh, shut up” to the other player.”
But dealing with problem players was nothing compared to dealing with certain parents, who “may have a certain set of expectations and perceptions and may not match reality,” Toulouse said. Even parents who were very conscientious about restricting a child’s access to the Internet on the family computer often failed to realize that today’s game consoles are comparable general-purpose devices. “So they put a game console in their kid’s room, without really realizing that if they don’t somehow lock the router or shut down the internet connection at night, I guarantee you the kid is doing something at 2 a.m. that the parent would do horrified by,” said Toulouse.
“One of the biggest problems I ran into is what we called the ‘Christmas morning problem,'” he continued. “We had these great parental controls on the Xbox, and other consoles have them too, but the parent hands the box to the kid and says, ‘OK, fire it up,’ and the kid creates an adult account. Six months later that boy does something terrible and he is punished. The parent comes to us and says, ‘What has my child done?’ and they are shocked and horrified We tell them about the parental controls and they are very excited but they never knew… I think the industry has a long way to go in educating parents about what a device is for has become common use and how much it interacts with the internet.”
When Toulouse started in 2007, there was a rule that completely banned all discussions of sexual orientation, gay or straight. The rule’s main purpose was to provide some protection against the extremely common, extremely pejorative use of terms like “gay” as a slur against an opponent in an Xbox Live match, Toulouse said, based in part on the theory that such terms “just don’t” belong in a gaming context.”
However, this kind of automatic punishment started to become untenable when players started complaining about being punished for referring to their own sexual orientation as a matter of pride in gamertags like “theGAYERgamer” and in other parts of the service. So Toulouse and his team teamed up with GLAAD in early 2010 to change policies to allow certain forms of sexual orientation while limiting harassment.
While the general rule against sexual orientation might have made sense when Xbox Live was primarily an online gaming service, Toulouse said, things weren’t so clear when the service started to include more common social networking features like Twitter and Facebook. “Suddenly it got a little archaic and silly to… [punish people who would] just say ‘I love my friend’, and [have] that person must be a man,” he said. “The vast majority of [the use of gay terms] was still pejorative, but it was one of those things where you step back and say, ‘You know, the population has changed, the function of the service has changed somewhat, so we have to go ahead and make the effort to be divine or something is pejorative or not.’”
And as Xbox Live’s player base grew with more casual players over the years, Toulouse found his team had to scale its capabilities faster than usual to handle a wider range of complaints. “[The hardcore players] maybe don’t complain, and it leads you into a false sense of where people have safe experiences,” he said. “You find that in the hardcore world, people are more tolerant of misbehavior,” he said. against the rules per se even though it is.But you start throwing in the casual gamer who plays every now and then Modern Warfare 3 match, and that population expects there to be repercussions for breaking the rules.”
As the public face of Xbox Live enforcement, Toulouse said he occasionally encountered disgruntled players begging for their accounts to be deleted. But for the most part, he said the feedback he and his team received at public events has been overwhelmingly positive, despite the cost it imposed on them.
“If you think about it, it’s kind of a tax,” he said of the enforcement role. “Resources that have been put into my team are resources that are not meant to do new things in the avatar market, for example… People ultimately want to have a safe and enjoyable experience, and I don’t understand how you can improve those players’ experience increase without any form of enforcement or violation.”