As a competitive game, League of Legends inevitably gives rise to what developer Riot Games calls "toxic behavior." The term not only encompasses the specific forms of negativity — obscene language, racism, sexism, throwing a game because you're frustrated or angry — but also their tendency to spread and "infect" other players in a game.
It's one of the biggest problems that Riot faces, but instead of dismissing it as intractable or matching the players' outbursts with negativity of its own, the studio chooses to take the high road: believing that League of Legends players aren't jerks at heart.
Riot discussed the issue during a panel held yesterday at PAX East 2013. Four representatives from the studio went through their approaches to tackling and ameliorating the situation.
"Toxic behavior's been a big focus of the player behavior team," said game engineer George Skleres. He brought up the famous "Green Blackboards" Penny Arcade strip, but pointed out that anonymity isn't what turns people into jerks — it's a lack of consequences. And once someone starts behaving badly in a game, others are likely to pile on; by the end of the match, everyone's either angry or sad. However, Riot doesn't assume the worst of its user base.
"We firmly believe that League of Legends players in general are very sportsmanlike"
"We firmly believe that League of Legends players in general are very sportsmanlike," said Skleres. And that belief is supported by data, according to senior user researcher Davin Pavlas, who said, "We don't actually have any evidence that the community is overwhelmingly full of jerks."
The evidence shows that most instances of toxic behavior are uncommon outbursts rather than a recurring situation — maybe someone had a bad day at work, for example, and they're taking it out in the game. And Riot believes the problem is preventable, even if it's impossible to completely eradicate it.
Carl Kwoh, a producer on League of Legends, explained the five pillars of Riot's approach to combating toxic behavior. First, the studio wants to shield players from it as much as possible, which prevents the "ripple effect." The next step is to reform or remove toxic players; Kwoh pointed out that the order of those words matters, since removing players is Riot's last resort.
The studio also wants to create a culture of sportsmanship, even if Kwoh realizes that "our small dev team is not going to be able to change the culture of the internet overnight." It's also important to reinforce positive behavior, and finally, to create better match chemistry — in essence, Riot wants to "find ways that every match can feel like [a match with friends]."
"we're not going to be able to change the culture of the internet overnight"
Riot's current strategy for dealing with toxic behavior is the Tribunal system. It highlights users who have been repeatedly reported by other players for being jerks, and allows community members to review the cases and decide to pardon or punish the offending users. All players are treated equally — paying or non-paying, amateur or pro. The free-to-play nature of League of Legends also makes it more challenging to implement severe punishments, the panelists pointed out: What does a lifetime ban mean when a player can simply create another account and start being a jerk again?
"We're looking into other options for dealing with people who we think cannot reform," said Lin.
An audience member suggested taking all the toxic players out of the regular rotation and putting them in a cordoned-off area — Pavlas referred to it as the "prisoners' island approach." But according to lead designer Jeff Lin, the truly toxic, unreformable players make up approximately 1 percent of the League of Legends user base; Riot believes it can work with everyone else. Lin gave an example of a young player who used the n-word and was disciplined for it; the user, a 10-year-old player, had no idea the term was so offensive.
Riot closed the panel by telling the audience that it wants to help make all games better — it doesn't want to hoard the knowledge it has accumulated in trying to regulate the League of Legends community. So Riot will be holding another panel during the Game Developers Conference this week in which it will be sharing its findings with the gaming industry.