Play of the Fortnight: Fixing Toxicity in Overwatch

In the most recent Developer Update, Jeff Kaplan talked about toxicity in Overwatch. Blizzard recently added the reporting feature, which was already available on PC, to console versions of the game. With this in mind, there’s a lot of discussions going around about the reporting feature, player behavior in Overwatch, and what Blizzard needs to do to improve the game environment.

In this Play of the Fortnight, we’ll talk through some of Jeff Kaplan’s comments. We’ll also cover what could be done to fix “toxicity” in Overwatch.


Toxicity and Bad Behavior in Overwatch

We have already written about this topic in a previous Play of the Fortnight. There, we defined toxicity in a gaming sense and talked about what causes it, what Blizzard can do, and how the community can help itself.

Fixing Toxicity in Overwatch

The bad behavior present in Overwatch is quite pervasive. Jeff Kaplan himself said, “There’s a way to spread positivity that I don’t think is really prevalent right now.” Abuse, harassment, and toxic behavior all happen whether you’re playing in Quick Play, Competitive, or even Arcade matches. It can create a deep and long-lasting negative impact on a player’s experience with the game. While the situation itself might be short-lived, the feeling persists.

Blizzard’s Stance on Harassment

Blizzard is taking a refreshingly firm stance on the abuse that they know occurs within their community. A quote from the Developer Update below has Kaplan condemning the bad behavior players associate with competitive games:

“Our highest level philosophy is: if you are a bad person doing bad things in Overwatch, we don’t want you in Overwatch. We don’t want to create areas for you where just the bad people are in Overwatch. We just don’t want those people in Overwatch.”

Fixing Toxicity in Overwatch

A lot of the time players will be concerned that a developer will be lenient because they don’t want to lose valuable customers. However, Blizzard seems to be recognizing that one toxic player can negatively impact significantly more people, potentially causing others to want to stop playing (and therefore less likely to spend money on your game, if you want to be cynical.) Getting rid of one bad egg could have a great impact.

However, we are also increasingly seeing Blizzard saying that the community has a responsibility to itself. That, while they take player behavior very seriously, there is only so much they, as a company, can do if their community is unwilling to make changes.

The Community’s Responsibility in Fixing Toxicity in Overwatch

Players need to be able to see the behavior in their community and take action themselves to fix it. In fact, this would probably have a much bigger impact on the problem of toxicity in Overwatch than Blizzard making changes to game systems. However, there are a few problems with this concept.

For a start, other companies have researched player behavior extensively and come up with the thought that not all toxic players are truly bad. Jeffrey Lin, formerly Riot Games, had a deep focus on player behavior. He once said to Red Bull, “One of the key insights we found early on was people or players weren’t inherently bad. What’s happening is every single player has their bad days.” Even if you want a community to have the self-awareness to recognize its bad behavior, most players who behave badly don’t do it regularly enough to consider it a problem with them specifically.

Fixing Toxicity in Overwatch

Secondly, players who are truly toxic and create a big problem for the community generally don’t seem to have the self-awareness to recognize what they’re doing is negatively impacting those around them. Or, maybe they do but they just simply don’t care. Either way, they’re not going to fix their behavior.

What the community can do is try to influence their teammates by discouraging bad behavior and encouraging good behavior. Being positive in your team, trying to prevent them from tilting, and positive reinforcement can all go a long way. It won’t, however, fix the underlying issue.

So What Can Blizzard Do?

Apart from the work they’re already doing, Blizzard could make a few changes that would help. For example, they’re currently focusing very heavily on the negative. Various studies have shown that negative reinforcement doesn’t always work the way it’s intended. Generally speaking, negative reinforcement works initially but has diminishing returns. The negative reinforcement kickstarts a habit change. For example, a game suspension may cause players to behave better for the next few days. However, they often return to their old ways. They even begin to resent the system and lash out in other ways.

Similarly, punishments often mean that players simply continue the bad behavior when they think they’re in a situation where they can get away with it. We can see this in action with the way players seem to believe that Quick Play isn’t as important as Competitive, and that they can’t be reported for behaving badly there. It’s not true, but when players don’t realize that they allow their toxic behaviors to go loose.

That’s not to say we should get rid of punishments altogether. But it would be great to see Blizzard try some positive reinforcement techniques instead. Positive reinforcement generally seems to have longer term effects. Behavior actually changes rather than temporarily shifting. Alternatively, players don’t just behave badly when they think they can’t be reported.

Positive Reinforcement in Overwatch

So what could constitute positive reinforcement in Overwatch? It’d be great to see a commendation or honor system like in Final Fantasy XIV or League of Legends. Players could award excellent teammates with this at the end of a match. The report feature still exists, but players can’t negatively vote for a teammate they didn’t like. Either they can report the player if their behavior was bad, or they can award the player for being a positive influence on the game.

Fixing Toxicity in Overwatch

Players should want to receive this prestige. There might be a physical reward after receiving a certain number of votes. It could be a spray, a player icon, or loot boxes after a large number of votes. Maybe a checkmark or badge next to your name in a match to show you’re an exemplary player. Perhaps Blizzard could even include something completely new to reward these players. Either way, make it desirable to encourage players to behave well and be rewarded.

And, on the flipside, to encourage players to vote for one another, perhaps there’d be a reward for voting a certain number of times as well. It could be impossible to vote for people you queued up with so you can’t abuse the feature. Maybe it would be impossible to vote in custom matches.

Closing Thoughts

Kaplan said, “The community needs to take a deep look inward.” While this is true, it’s very hard to control a community of Overwatch’s size, and while you can hope they’ll improve by themselves, it’s unlikely they’ll do so without prompting. Certainly, players should be aware of their behavior and make efforts to improve their own whilst also calling out their teammates’ bad behavior. However, the real problem players aren’t going to make changes just because Blizzard said so.

Fixing Toxicity in Overwatch

Blizzard has spent a lot of time focusing on the negative, maybe now it’s time to look to the positive. Positive reinforcement has been shown to be much more effective in long-term behavioral changes. Whether through a new feature like we mentioned above, or even just a pat on the back for, “Congratulations, you haven’t been reported in X days! Keep it up!” there are a few ways Blizzard could positively encourage its community to improve.

What do you think Blizzard should do to combat toxicity in Overwatch? Let us know in the comments below!

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About Psyche

Psyche is a loud, obnoxious gamer, streamer and writer from Northern Ireland. She formerly worked in the games industry as a community manager and eventually project manager. When she's not writing about games, or playing them, she's working on her first novel. RPGs, books, a cup of tea, and talking about outer space are the ways to her heart.