Articles - 10th May 2019

Xbox tries to tackle the old problem of trash talk

Words by Caroline Kelly

“That was some serious potato aim, get wrecked.”

That, according to Mircosoft, and more precisely Xbox, is acceptable trash talk. Ok? Good. Nothing to see here, move along.

But hold on and put your potato aim away for a minute, just what has Xbox got against trash talk all of sudden and what gamer in their right mind would say anything as remotely ridiculous as the above (all-round nice people and youth leaders are excused)?

We need to talk about the latest updates in the Xbox community guidelines and ask ourselves the deeply significant question: how far can I go before I get kicked off Xbox Live?

First, let’s take a look at what Xbox Live is responding to; the stuff that has made the gaming experience, at least for some, an unpleasant and unsafe place. In this case, repeated calls to KYS (kill yourself) and other serious threats that can include sexual violence.

The company says on its website: “Some parts of the internet don’t have rules—and the Xbox online community isn’t one of them. Yes, Xbox Live is, in a meaningful sense, your gaming network. But it belongs to millions of others, too. You deserve a place to be yourself with confidence, free from bullying, hatred, and harassment—and so does every other player. So, it’s important to treat others as they would like to be treated.”

Is this just a knee-jerk reaction to one or two anecdotal news stories or is Xbox making an important stand? More importantly, is it even necessary and how enforceable can it be in a community of millions?

One man who knows a lot about gaming, and well, everything, is Brandon Relph. At 13 he was Britain’s youngest CEO starting up a gaming company stemming from his love of Minecraft. He expanded this enterprise into 35 countries. Now at 18, he runs his new endeavour bringing youth centred services together. If that isn’t enough to make you feel like an underachiever, he was also described as “awesome” by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Brandon was keen to point out that the experiences he’s had on multi-player gaming platforms have been far and away positive ones and he’s never had cause to take any insults to heart. But he does recognise the issue Xbox is trying to address.

He said: “I think there is an aspect outside of general “trash talk” where, not me personally, I have seen some of my friends fall victim to. I have seen many people (particularly young men) that clearly have no respect for the females in the community; guilt-tripping them into talking to them, forcing them to feel trapped and constantly harassing them. This does worry me, but I am usually quite good at helping them get away from individuals like that. The online gaming community can sometimes be a place for big egos or vulnerable people which is very hard to spot and is almost impossible to police on a large scale. In the situations I have seen, most of the vulnerable people don’t even realise they are being exploited.”

If, then, it’s not trash talk that’s the problem, is it something that instead speaks to exploitation and manipulation of vulnerable players? How far will Xbox’s guidelines go to address this weighty issue? Brandon is not convinced it will be far enough: “I think Microsoft, as the platform owner, should be partaking in a role to protect its users and it should be taking a hard stance on it, but a human stance on it – if someone’s making almost ironic jokes with their friends on a platform, it is very different from someone making harassing comments that are unwanted. For them to be able to judge this, it’s important that they take a look at the wider picture of situations and have humans judge it. Also, for the avoidance of doubt, I think there is no place for racism, homophobia or any attacks on groups of people, I don’t think these rules do quite enough to make it crystal clear that should be the case.” 

The fact is that if you have to tell people that their homophobic, racist or sexist remarks aren’t acceptable then chances are they’re not the type of level-headed player who’s going to agree with you anyway. Brandon’s right, the community needs the human touch to enforce the rules. Forget trash talk, it’s out and out bullying and hatred that needs to be addressed and in fairness to Xbox that’s their desire too.

But Xbox is also keen to distance themselves from coming down too hard on users expressing their preference for a culture that protects rather than punishes. Where punishments are metered out, they generally take the form of a temporary ban or having elements of the account suspended, for example, the ability to send text or voice messages while live gaming.

If the abuse continues, warns Xbox, then the player’s account will be shut down and they lose all licenses to games.

Like so much on the internet and in life, it only takes a few people to push things too far, to write off their abhorrent views as “banter” before the authorities have to step in and ramp up their policing efforts. Nevertheless, the vulnerable player and the gamer who takes the genuine joy out of live gaming should be part of a community where, according to the company: “The spirit of Xbox lives in our values, which are key to sustaining a vibrant and welcoming community. Living these values every time we play shows the world the unifying power of gaming.”

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