While the safety of children in online video games remains a top priority in the industry, the massively popular game “Roblox” is also investing it what it believes is another key issue for gaming online: digital civility.
“Roblox,” which just surpassed one billion hours of engagement a month by players, recently hired Laura Higgins, a renowned expert on internet child safety and cyberbullying, to build out a new civility program.
“As we’ve exploded over the course of the last three years, I feel like we have an opportunity and we feel a responsibility to really help improve the experience,” Tami Bhaumik, vice president of marketing and community safety, told Variety in a recent interview. “Our goal is to bring the world together through play. That’s what our society is lacking right now, honestly: Kid’s ability to play and be free and explore their imaginations.
“We want to make sure that our platform is number one safe and safe to be able to explore. We believe that if you don’t have a fun time in ‘Roblox’ because of a negative situation you’re going to leave.”
Because “Roblox” has such a young demographic, with players ranging in age from six to early 20s, the company is perhaps a bit more cognizant of issues of in-game bullying and bad behavior, but Bhaumik said digital civility reaches far beyond the one game.
“This is the whole industry,” she said. “We as an industry have to take a stand and make sure that we’re doing everything.”
For “Roblox” the first step after creating safety settings for their game is educating parent and players about how to use them and the second step is about working with the industry to figure out new technology, features and in-game behaviors that need to be addressed to teach civility.
That’s because, she said, the new generation of kids growing up in today’s always-online games don’t see a line between how they act and what they say online and offline in the real world.
“They move seamlessly between the online world and the offline,” Bhaumik said. “So we really made a dedicated investment last year to focus in on this area of digital civility and community safety.”
The first tangible impact from that investment was hiring Higgins in January as a full-time employee who will help the company build out the entire program.
Moving forward, the company plans to create a new parents guide website that will better navigate parents and new players through the game’s tools. It also will, Bhaumik said, help empower players to use those tools, something young players don’t always feel comfortable doing.
“I had a conversation with a girl who was 9 and she said, ‘Sometimes, if I have a bad situation with somebody I don’t want to block them because my mom told me to always be friendly,’” Bhaumik said. “That was a revelation to me.
“We need to be able to give our kids that guidance, that in the online digital world it’s OK to not accept friend requests from people that you don’t know and to teach them that at a really young age.”
“Roblox” also wants to work on expanding technological fixes for some of the issues game companies face with their online creations both through development and by sharing tech with other companies to deal with systemic problems. For instance, the issue of tracking trolls or people who notoriously attack players across different games.
“If a bad actor comes on to our platform and we ban them, they’re going to another platform,” she said. “But if we share resources and we share technologies to be able to flag them, to get them out right away and if we form a barrier we all win.”
Some specific examples of how some of that technology is already being shared include working with Microsoft on a variety of new features such as autonomous photo scanning that can automatically recognize inappropriate pictures.
Higgins will also serve as a sort of researcher, attending conferences and meeting with other companies to help find those sort of solutions that can be applied to “Roblox.”
Much of “Roblox” interest in the area of digital civility can be traced back to the Fair Play Alliance, a video game industry group created to fight toxicity in video games, and a strong belief that such negativity harms video games and the game industry as a whole.
But creative solutions for the problem need to be found, Bhaumik said, noting that research shows that simply banning trolls isn’t very effective.
“The carrot is much more effective,” she said. “I envision a world where the incentives for being kind are in place throughout all of our platforms and all of our company and these kids, these players start learning that what’s cool is to be kind and helpful.”