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What did Phil Spencer mean by ‘Xbox is not a free speech platform’?

Xbox boss says a free-for-all akin to Facebook or Twitter would be ‘a death strategy’ for Xbox Live

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The Game Awards 2018 - Arrivals
Xbox boss Phil Spencer (center), with then-counterparts Shawn Layden of PlayStation (left) and Reggie Fils-Aime (right) at The Game Awards 2018.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

In a New York Times podcast interview on Monday, Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox for Microsoft, posited another cross-platform cooperative effort in which getting banned on Xbox Live would lead to similar sanctions on PlayStation Network or other online gaming services.

“This is a hard one as an industry,” Spencer allowed, “[but] when somebody gets banned in one of our networks, is there a way for us to ban them across other networks? Or at least as a player, for me to be able to bring my banned user list, because I can always block people from my play.”

Spencer’s hypothetical was among a number of intriguing remarks given to The New York Times’ Kara Swisher, and it underlines his view of Xbox Live as not a social network — or at least, one not similar to Facebook and Twitter. Spencer reiterated that Microsoft sees Xbox Live as “not a free speech platform” but one built on interactive entertainment, where controversy and confrontation-driven user engagement would be “a death strategy” for their business.

“We’re not there to allow any conversation to happen on our platform,” Spencer said. “It’s very difficult to come to Xbox Live and say, ‘OK, I want to go create a political party on the platform.’ … It’s really set up for community around interactive entertainment and the games that run on our platform.”

Microsoft in 2019 published a set of community standards, separate from Xbox’s Code of Conduct, which used concrete examples to set its expectations of players’ behavior and guide them to have fun and speak candidly, but reasonably. Lighthearted banter, or even stern but on-point criticism of someone else’s playing, is acceptable. But using racial slurs, communicating physical threats, insulting someone’s gender, sexuality, or national origin are all grounds for sanctions, with repeat offenders getting the lengthiest bans.

The same guidance follows other forms of communication on Xbox Live, such as through players’ Gamertags, guild or clan names, or avatar images. In any event, the company has communicated that it will moderate according to the spirit of its policies, and not just the letter of their law. Spencer echoed that in his discussion with Swisher, while acknowledging that “there’s work for us to continue to do in this space.”

Spencer noted that Microsoft recently bought a company that built an automated moderation toolkit Xbox Live uses. For now, a lot of enforcement comes after players report another’s behavior through tools that are close at hand in the Xbox Live interface.

Elsewhere, Swisher pressed Spencer for specifics on what he meant on Nov. 19 when he said Xbox was “evaluating all aspects of our relationship with Activision Blizzard.” Spencer was responding to another report about the Call of Duty/World of Warcraft publisher, which since the summer has faced allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, and other workplace abuses. “I don’t think my job is out there to punish other companies,” Spencer said.

Swisher asked why Xbox couldn’t send Activision a message such as “we don’t want to do business with you unless you [clean] up.” Spencer hedged, saying the company should base its decisions on partner engagement at a company level, as opposed to endorsing or objecting to specific officers within another company. “It’s obviously not our position to judge who the CEOs are,” Spencer said.

The remainder of the interview also discusses Spencer’s views on parental involvement in a child’s Xbox Live presence and time spent gaming. Swisher tried to pin down Spencer on his opinion of the Chinese government’s new restrictions on minor children playing online games, but the furthest he would go is to say that he didn’t think it would be an effective strategy.

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