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The Problem of Toxicity in Esports (and Two Solutions)

Toxicity in esports is a legacy problem, but a trio of researchers are aiming to change that.

Esports’ struggle with inclusion is a longstanding problem, but recent efforts in combating sexism and racism in the gaming space have had a noticeable impact on a pair of university campuses. For Phil Alexander, an assistant professor of Game Studies at the University of Miami, Ohio, those efforts take the form of the school’s varsity esports program.

“Unfortunately, there’s a long legacy what it means to be a ‘gamer,’” he said during the Diversity and Inclusion in Esports panel at GDC. “What we’ve been trying to do is give people a sense of the people who are actually playing games.”

Alexander’s goal, he said, is to do away with the stereotype of the typical “gamer”–”teenaged boys in their parents’ basement”–by fostering a welcoming environment for the esports programs at his university, and conducting research about the experiences women have while playing.

According to Alexander, part of the reason women are historically alienated in the gaming community is conflicting reports and statistics among games industry research groups. For example, a 2018 report from the Entertainment Software Association claims that 45 percent of gamers in the US are women, while a similar report from Quantic Foundry says that number is closer to 18 percent. This lack of consistent data makes it hard for researchers like Alexander to provide believable data.

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What Alexander can provide, though, are personal anecdotes from students in the esports program at the University of Miami. He shared a handful of stories from women on campus that had experienced toxicity while playing competitive online games. His findings illuminated a frightening level of toxic behavior towards women gamers.

One of the stories Alexander recounted involves an “Overwatch” player in the university’s varsity esports program. She was told repeatedly to switch characters, despite the team lacking a support character. What’s more is that she was not addressed directly, but instead through a different male player. “Tell your girlfriend to switch from Mercy,” they said. Another story told of a woman who was kicked out of her “World of Warcraft” guild for attempting to address sexual advances from the guildmaster.

While the industry continues to struggle in combating sexism, Alexander said that there has been some progress. Noting that most of the previous examples involved in-game voice chat, he pointed out some methods developers are using to make communication less toxic. Specifically, he cited “Hearthstone’s” emote system and “Apex Legends’” ping system. These systems allow communication without having to use your voice, which, Alexander said, can help foster a safe and welcoming environment.

“This is one of the things to think through as you’re thinking about ways to make things more inclusive,” Alexander said. “Enabling people ways to play that don’t force them into situations that they don’t want to be in.”

For Matthew Knutson and Amanda Cullen of UC Irvine, preventing toxicity in games begins with being prepared. The pair represented UCI’s esports program at GDC, and their half of the Diversity and Inclusion in Esports panel outlined their efforts to cultivate a welcoming environment.

“We’ve been studying esports for a few years now on campus,” Knutson said, “and been involved with community play, and studying fan participation…UCI is the first university to have an officially-recognized esports program.”

Underlying the program is an official code of conduct, which was drafted by a panel of specialists, including Knutson and Cullen. This code outlines acceptable behavior and was created with inclusion and safety as its foundation.

Cullen recognized a need for an official code of conduct after a male gamer exhibited toxic behavior in the university’s esports arena, a building where gamers can rent computer time and play games. The student in question vocally yelled profanity and other undesirable language. While the issue was eventually worked out, the staff member in charge of the arena at the time wasn’t sure how to address the situation. Thus, a code of conduct for anyone involved in the esports scene at UCI.

Drafting the code was a very collaborative effort, according to Cullen; for the most part, there were six people all working on a single document in Google Docs, including Cullen and Knutson. The result is a sweeping document that aims to protect historically maligned groups. Moving forward, goals with the code of conduct include communicating it to members of the campus esports community and using it to arbitrate tough cases.

Other efforts Knutson and Cullen have made including hosting a “Women in Gaming” panel at the university and organizing a “gamers camp” during the summer.

Knutson and Cullen hope that they are leading by example, and if there are other groups looking to reduce toxicity in esports they offered up a template for adapting their strategy to other communities. Steps include ensuring a diverse group of people are involved in drafting a code of conduct, properly training staff to intervene in potentially disruptive situations, having a plan for arbitration, and establishing and enforcing consequences for violations of the code.

As the panel drew to a close, Knutson and Cullen noted that there is no catch-all solution to toxicity in esports. It’s a slow process, but their example lays a strong foundation for making games accessible to everyone.

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