Changing the gaming culture #2: Habbo; and could gamification clean up virtual worlds?

I guess you could see this post as thematically related to yesterday’s, where I was talking about sexism in gaming. Last night Channel 4 News (which is a reasonably well respected outlet here) aired a piece about sexual harassment in Habbo Hotel. If you haven’t heard of Habbo it’s probably because you aren’t a teenager or don’t have a child that age.

It’s a huge F2P virtual world aimed at teens that claims 10 million unique visitors monthly, according to the devs.

I missed the report but essentially one of their reporters posed as an 11 year old girl while playing Habbo for a couple of months  and was inundated with cyber sex, porny chat, and cartoon boys following her to her room and emoting that they were having sex with her. I suspect strongly that this mostly involves teens harassing each other. It reminded me a bit of a report I read recently about teen sexting in schools, where they focussed on how teen girls in particular are subjected to a barrage of requests over social media to send pictures of themselves naked, perform sex acts, etc etc.

So this is likely more of a wider cultural issue than gaming culture per se.  Still, a game aimed at minors which sells itself on being a safe environment has to go a bit further than saying “Hey, it’s what they do at school too.”

Habbo actually have some fairly solid guides available, as well as assuring parents:

Providing a safe social environment for all players is a top priority in Habbo Hotel which is why all Habbo Hotels are staffed by trained, adult moderators who take action against wrongdoers and assist users with any questions they may have.

They also suggest parents keep an eye on what their children are doing online and make sure they keep lines of communication open so that their kids feel comfortable telling them if anything that made them feel bad happened. Which is all great advice.

I’ve also no reason to doubt that they have a process in place where players can complain of  harassment and have a moderator step in to help them either. (We don’t know if the reporter tried reporting anyone.) None of this will save them when their main investor pulls out due to bad publicity and the main retailers decide to stop stocking Habbo Hotel gift cards. Although they do also operate in a ton of other countries so there is that.

What’s more worrying for MMO operators in the teen/child space is that this starts a rush panic. Parents or investors who may have assumed that virtual worlds were more policed THAN IS FEASIBLY EVER POSSIBLE might just pull the plug.

For example, the C4 report had them playing with “a leading expert on child safety” (pro tip: any competent parent could probably also double as a leading expert on child safety) who felt that a moderator should somehow be jumping in as soon as the player received their first dodgy private message.

Asking to have every single message moderated isn’t practical. It’s barely viable to ask for every channel to be moderated.  And they do claim to do this:

"Habbo’s moderation and safeguarding procedures includes employing more than 225 moderators, tracking some 70m lines of conversation globally every day on a 24/7 basis. These moderators cover all time-zones and the multiple languages in which Habbo users converse."

That’s vastly more moderated than WoW, for example. And yet, you can log into Warcraft and the only unwanted texts you might get would be about gold selling. I think there is room to wonder about their moderation, if there really are chat rooms called ‘sexy stripclub’.

I don’t really have an answer for this one other than either watch your kids like hawks online, get them to stick to games which don’t allow free text chat, find a game that allows private servers where they can play with people they know or parents/ schools have vetted, or have them play games which aren’t dominated by teens.

It is definitely going to be worrying for Habbo though that parental expectations might be for totally impossible levels of safety.

So why are AAA MMOs not as bad as virtual worlds with respect to sex chat

The only game I can think of that was as  sex dominated as this sounds was Second Life, and even there it sounded relatively easy to get away from the cybering. So maybe there’s something about ungamified virtual worlds that just descends to the lowest common denominator.

Sad but true. I think any future ventures along these lines will have to require real names or allow private servers where the groups running the game can impose their own gatekeeping.

Or maybe there is something about gamers and gaming MMOs that focusses interactions in other directions. Maybe gamers are generally more interested in progression than what’s in your pants iRL. I also suspect that having a mix of ages in a gaming demographic tends to make a space safer rather than riskier – while there is the possibility of paedophiles, there is also the (larger)  possibility of adults who will keep an eye out for more vulnerable members of the community, plus parents who will tend to play with their kids in the game (which I think would require more fortitude than I possess for Habbo).

This won’t be the last we hear of this story, I suspect. It’s been bubbling under for a long time, and this may be the start of a very different turn for MMOs.

Are Real Names the magic bullet for cleaning up gaming?

In the wake of last week, this is the one question that sticks in my mind.

Blizzard felt that requiring all forum posters to use their real names would improve forum behaviour. It was based, presumably, on psychology/ sociology studies which showed that people were more polite online when identified with their legal names. I’ve also heard several people comment that using a real name makes a poster more accountable. But more accountable to who exactly, and in what way?

I’m going to quote from some comments I wrote on a Buzz thread yesterday, about real names and accountability.:

Accountable doesn’t actually mean that you go round to their house or harass them in real life because they said something you don’t like on an internet forum in this case. But it also means something other than ‘your account could be banned’ — which actually is the only accountability which will effectively stop someone repeating the behaviour.

It’s psychological magical thinking (I include this with placebos as things that have been shown to sometimes work but with no deep understanding as to why) that says people FEEL more accountable when they post under their legal RL name. It’s the reputation that’s accountable and the fact that people who know you iRL and can connect you with the forum poster will recognise it.

Now the way I see it, on an established online community, people will have built up those sorts of social ties and recognitions on a virtual name. Or else they’ll be trying to build respect for a virtual name, which will keep them trying to impress the rest of the board. (sort of, in theory). In fact, joining a new community (eg. starting a blog) and building up a reputation is one of the harmless and fun parts of community type games anyway, I think. For example, a lot of well known WoW bloggers and writers built up their reputations on the official boards. (People like Ming, Ciderhelm, etc.) This why people talk about pseudonymity rather than anonymity.

I actually suspect on a gaming board, a high proportion of the community would be impressed by really good flames. (This is the same portion of the community that spout sexist, racist, flamey comments on facebook where their real name is available, but they know that their mates find it amusing.) But at the same time, a lot of good posters will be dissuaded because they simply don’t want their RL friends/ employer/etc to know that they’re involved with gaming. And this is quite aside from actual real life risks to people from being stalked or enlisted to fulfill the RL wishes of needy or manipulative posters. And I haven’t even started talking about people with young kids they’d like to protect.

So it’s not so much the legal name itself, it’s the notion of being accountable to the community of people who know you outside that bboard. And – yes — using that to skip the tedious process of having to actually win respect via what you say and do on the forums. And as I say, I don’t think just using real names would fix the broken parts of gaming culture, whereas it definitely would make a lot of non-troll people more reluctant to comment and put some of them at genuine risk.

The problem of a toxic gaming culture

Gaming culture can be horrible. Really nasty. You don’t have to go far in a game like WoW to find racist, sexist, stupid, nasty, abusive, personal comments. I would never use xbox live, for example. I can handle nasty comments in text far better that people being arsey via voicechat. So I am sympathetic to anyone who shuns MMOs because of that concern.

And that’s a big problem for online gaming. In fact, it may be the biggest problem of all. It puts a shedload of people off, and with good reason. The Blizzard forums are honestly the tip of the iceberg, and also contain a lot of redeeming sides and genuinely helpful guides and posters.

We need to tackle this. Devs need to tackle this. But as players, we clearly haven’t been able to do it. And I don’t believe that Real Names are the magic bullet; they may help, some people who act like arses online may genuinely not want to do so when their real name is attached to it. But many others have legitimate reasons not to want to expose their real names to the selfsame trolls that they’re trying to fight. And for some, building a reputation of a virtual name is a big part of the fun, at least as much as earning xp on the same character in game. (If I was a game designer, this would be the angle I would be looking at.)

The problem of forum manners is soluble. Blizzard is going to try some new ideas such as letting people moderate forum posts up and down (shown to work by sites like slashdot). I personally think they could also look harder at rewarding posters who have earned the respect of the forum (maybe by posting popular guides, or helping to organise the forums or just giving good advice). And at more active moderating.

But the problem of people spouting shit in real time on in-game channels (ie. text or chat) is more difficult. Not totally impossible – we could allow people to ‘moderate’ other players in game. We could even look at designing in-game channels to be far more twitter-like (ie. much more control over who you follow) than basic IRC-alikes.

What do you think? Is using real names the magic bullet?