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Harsh Words: Xbox LIVE and Online Harassment

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Here's a deceptively difficult question to answer: What should the Xbox LIVE rules look like in the year 2022? For that matter, how has Microsoft answered that question?

The Classic Era of Video Game Chat

When Xbox LIVE launched back in November 2002, people thought of online communication very differently. They'd continue to do so for years after. Microsoft's online multiplayer service became as synonymous with verbal harassment as it was with talking over video games in general. To be fair, LIVE also did a lot of good. For many players, the network, complete with its voice and text transmission, was how they first experienced gaming as a social activity. It delivered millions the means to engage in tactical play and was a social club in which they bonded with friends. But that doesn't mean the verbal abuse on those platforms wasn't or isn't real. And it's worth mentioning that the victims of that abuse were often targeted on the basis of gender, race, or sexuality. They still are.

For the longest time, trying to get the gaming community to take this harassment seriously was like drawing blood from a stone. At worst, victims of that treatment were told that they were the ones in the wrong for being upset or for arguing that they shouldn't be subject to public humiliation. Apologists for toxic behaviour told the most embattled users of online services that they just needed a thicker skin, that they were overreacting, or that "it was just the internet". No one ever clarified why we should ignore abuse on the internet any more than abuse off of it; it was just one of those thought-terminating cliches. Victims were also prescribed the solution of not communicating or identifying themselves. Plenty of gamers had no trouble advocating for the silencing and erasure of marginalised people in the hobby.

Right through the late 00s, the endless reserves of teens screaming slurs down headsets was seen as a comedic novelty. If you do end up in the crosshairs of one of these assholes, laughing it off can be a healthy coping mechanism. Still, there's a world of difference between being on the receiving end of awful behaviour and using jokes to deal with it, and sitting on the stands while laughing at attacks on strangers. That goes double if you're a member of a privileged group and those strangers are women or minorities.

Then there were players who wouldn't directly go after victims but would find a justification to shut down anyone complaining all the same. They'd usually do this by saying that users laying into each other was inevitable or that there were no constructive actions to take in response to it. But how people conduct themselves in a social environment tends to be a product of what's normalised there already. These fatalists weren't so much bystanders harmlessly commenting on the nastiest internet discourse as they were active participants in maintaining it. You had a group of people who were saying that there was no moderating the harassment, all the while pushing back against the objectors who were trying to do just that.

I often got the impression that the individuals who said that we couldn't weed out the harassers really meant that we shouldn't. There were and are a lot of people uncomfortable hearing about any social or political turbulence, especially demographic discrimination, and they just want not to think about it. These people usually don't perceive themselves as bigoted or facilitating abuse. Still, they always have an argument for why efforts to reduce peoples' shoddy treatment or empower vulnerable individuals can't go ahead.

Abusers sent their targets the message that they didn't matter, but the wider gaming culture always had the option to contradict those abusers and support the targeted. Instead, what often happened was that the harassment was reinforced by other community members who revicitimised the bullied, dismissed their experiences, or otherwise made it clear that it wasn't worth making changes to the culture to protect them. As usually happens, you had the people who were least affected by some societal dysfunctionality telling the ones most affected by it that it was no big deal.

The abuse and the defence of the abuse worked hand in hand to gatekeep online gaming, or at least the communication channels in and around the games. If you were not the kind of person who could tolerate hate, you were filtered out of the community. As much of that hate was directed at the marginalised, marginalised people were disproportionately repelled from gaming spaces. And for reactionary gamers, that was the point.

Sometimes abuse happens stochastically, with the attacks made for a direct emotional reward. However, various people also wield abuse as a tool to try and censor vulnerable groups when those groups find some voice and empowerment in a community. As an attempt to silence a rising feminist movement, Gamergate's hate campaign was a classic example. You can see the same application of harassment in the Twitch hate raids against black and LGBTQ+ streamers. People using abuse to make a space intolerable for women and minorities often labelled themselves as having no particular agenda and just being out to amuse themselves, confusing the matter. Plenty of furious bigots also lack the self-awareness required to realise why they act the way they do.

Traditionally, the holders of the platforms on which this harassment occurred haven't shed many tears about it. Almost never did you see companies acknowledging the spate of toxicity dominating their services. After all, what profit was there in telling people that they might be buried in insults from strangers when using your product? The awkward silence around such mistreatment only contributed to its normalisation. Microsoft certainly saw the problem coming; when they booted Xbox LIVE, they made a point of highlighting its mute button and voice mask features. The service has also had facilities for reporting troublemakers. But thwarting harassers requires more than implementing mute and flag buttons and calling it a day, as Xbox LIVE became proof of.

The Rise of Inclusivity

In the short time since 2002, the internet has become a very different place. Not that abuse isn't still a widespread problem; the ADL found that 74% who people who gamed online had experienced harassment. You can also still find forums full of people excusing that harassment with the arguments I mentioned above. However, the structure of the web as a communication medium has altered significantly, and in some tributaries, attitudes on toxicity have changed. It's an extension of the slow but real proliferation of progressive attitudes throughout the world as a whole.

Plenty of mainstream gaming publications have reporters keeping audiences informed on minority issues, up to a point, and there's a slightly louder voice for marginalised groups in the media fandom, with more individuals from privileged demographics expressing solidarity with them. Almost every big company also wants to be seen as supporting progressive politics: they email out press releases trumpeting that they are a force for good in the world, change their social media avatars during Pride Month, talk about their commitment to marginalised employees in materials, etc. Although, rarely do their actions match up to their flattering self-assessments.

Meanwhile, gaming discussion is now dispersed between many more venues, with a wider range of atmospheres and social values than ever. There's still a casual acceptance of, or at least, ambivalence towards harassment and hate speech in a lot of the most popular public squares. There is also a disturbingly dedicated fringe who will spend day and night trying to ruin peoples' lives over the internet. But vulnerable people have worked hard to carve out the kind of discussion spaces they'd want to inhabit. The increasingly partitioned web of Discords, subreddits, and comments sections means that if you want to find a partial refuge from the typical online hostility, it's there for you. And these safe houses are the proof that people denying a better web was possible were wrong.

Yet, being able to slot yourself into one of these social pigeonholes doesn't guarantee you'll avoid trolling and toxicity. It's not always immediately apparent what the conduct of a community is like when you join it, and it can take a while to find a circle you want to be a part of. Although, those are both issues that you can overcome in time. More pernicious is the pattern of toxic figures spilling over from one online stomping ground into the next, as we saw in the hate raids.

Users don't even have to be malicious to cause friction in spaces they're entering. The good-natured humour of one community can be the offensive mockery of another, and sometimes you see people who make the jump from A to B, unaware of how their speech is going to be received where they land. While some harassers have no shame in playing dumb when questioned on their behaviour, I've also seen people on the internet who genuinely didn't seem to be able to tell when they were overstepping a line. It's not usually an excuse, but it is a reality.

On the hyper-convenient modern web, many communities are only a click or two away from others. Services will encourage users to expand their bubble, advertising new discussion spaces in sidebars, behind usernames, or elsewhere because more social investment from the user generally means more profit for the platform holder. Yet, that accessibility of social circles is a double-edged sword. It's relatively easy for people starving for a supportive community to find one, but the doors are also open to people looking to cause harm.

We can't think of the web as completely compartmentalised. The creation of small safe havens and the liberalisation of larger ones has required the overall dial of the gaming community turning towards social consciousness. And you can't have a bunch of high-profile hateful communities simmering away without their aggression eventually boiling over into adjacent spaces. Plus, we can sometimes end up begrudgingly shoved into crowds we'd rather not be in because they're organised around something we like or need. This is a particular issue in the media space: there are games we want to play or channels we want to watch, and we can't guarantee that the community for those games or channels is going to be agreeable.

I loved Titanfall 2's freeing movement and tense competition; I did not love constantly running into people spewing hate speech into the chatbox. Over time, I've heard from a lot of people who have given up on certain games, or even multiplayer as a whole, because they didn't want to spend their leisure time being pelted with slurs. The speed with which players of DotA 2 resorted to insults put me off that game.

Xbox LIVE Today

So, now we have an idea of the heterogeneous expectations for Xbox LIVE's behavioural standards. On the one hand, we're staring headlong at the historic home of gaming trash talk. Some combination of Microsoft and their community have set the expectation that this is a platform you can use for boisterous, maybe even offensive speech. Yet, since they established that baseline, the expectation for companies to perform inclusivity has also arisen. Microsoft cares about implementing favourable policy as a PR exercise, both pressing customers to associate the company with anti-discrimination and not connect it to being bombarded with offensive messages. Arguably, it's also a strategy to ensure that governments don't step in with regulatory measures to prevent abuse of consumers.

As a service, Xbox LIVE is about as big tent as it gets, serving 100 million monthly users. Some of those users want to strap on a headset and yell racist memes down it, some of them want comforting and relaxing social engagement, and many want an experience somewhere in between. These duelling sensibilities might be why Microsoft's Community Standards appear to contradict themselves. For example, they prescribe "Win or lose, be a good sport", but they also use this as an example of acceptable speech: "Get destroyed. Can't believe you thought you were on my level". They say, "it's not cool to post something that keeps others from having positive experiences", but sentences before say you can send the message "That was some serious potato aim. Get wrecked". Often, the problem with abuse on these services has to do with volume as much as severity. Receiving those kinds of comments once might be mildly annoying or even funny; these examples are objectively hilarious. However, encountering them many times in a row can be trying, and targeted harassment often entails burying an individual in insults.

Even if Microsoft more definitely drew the bounds of acceptable behaviour, asking players to flood your service with smack talk would seem to chain a lot of users to treatment they didn't agree to. I'm not opposed to the idea of online assembly points where the discussion gets a little spicy. Unchecked hate speech has destructive consequences, but outside of that, if everyone is knowing and consenting, get rowdy all you like. But it strikes me that most people signing up to Xbox LIVE aren't actively expressing that they want to be humiliated on the internet; they're primarily asking for a network on which to play Xbox games. So, we arrive back at this headache of anyone looking for a social gaming experience having to shoulder the baggage of offensive speech.

I'm also unsure that leaving your service rife with trash talk isn't likely to invite worse behaviour. Maybe it's solely the user's responsibility to know the difference between ribbing their opponents and outright bullying them. You could argue that if you lay down the line for appropriate conduct and the player oversteps it, that's on them. But there might be an alternative way to think about it. We could return to our point about how the behaviour and attitudes normalised in a community affect how its members act going ahead. If Microsoft says disrespecting your opponents and antagonistically taunting them is part of the culture of Xbox LIVE, you could argue they're cultivating the same mindset that leads users to spew hateful garbage at others. I'm not sure what the right answer is.

What I can say is that using Xbox LIVE comes with a lot less flak than it did back in the day. In part, because far fewer people are speaking across its channels full stop. The Xbox headset is no longer as ubiquitous a piece of kit, and if you're serious about communicating with your squad, Discord is more convenient and feature-packed. But people still do interact with others over LIVE, and that interaction isn't always pleasant. I can't tell you exactly how Microsoft should moderate that space. However, it's gotten hard to believe most of the big tech companies are that resolute about stamping out hate speech, and Microsoft specifically has a paradoxical social policy. Thanks for reading.