The benefits and shortcomings of online interaction

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I’m an avid gamer.  I love playing video games in my spare time.  I own an Xbox One and a small collection of well-known games, and I like to spend my evenings playing online with a group of strangers while we shoot our laser blasters at the Rebel Alliance soldiers from the Star Wars universe.

Some argue that video games are for children and that my passion for gaming is immature.  Others argue that aside from the fact that a lot of games are rated “Mature” by the ESRB for depicting scenes of violence, they are great ways of improving reaction times, hand-eye coordination and provide a relatively new genre of social interaction.  Whichever side of the fence you sit on, I really do enjoy playing video games and I’m not ashamed of admitting that.

Like all Technology, gaming has come a long way in the last decade and transformed from a curious hobby in the 1970s to an enormous industry with revenues upwards of $25 billion in recent years.  It some ways, it’s even become a “sport” of sorts.  Competitions are held annually all over the world where players compete in tournaments for prize money that can sometimes total $1 million.  In these online gaming communities, a sense of camaraderie can be felt when a team of strangers compete in epic battles against another team of strangers – working together in harmony to achieve an objective.  Teamwork is the key to success, and rarely does one get to witness a large group of strangers coming together to help each other for a common goal.

There are many interesting stories of friendships and even romance blossoming through people meeting in online games.  However, while online interaction with anonymous strangers has its upsides; (Making new friends worldwide who share the same passion as you do), one cannot ignore the downsides – in particular the anonymity that comes with such platforms.

There have been a few rare occasions in recent weeks where one or two individuals have expressed anger at me through the voice chat channel on Xbox in the most colorful way possible.  Being as I’m a grown adult, these verbally abusive episodes bounce off me and are quickly resolved by creative use of the “Block” feature on the Xbox network.

To give you an example, last weekend I played a racing simulation game.  Without trying to get too self-praising, I’m not bad at it either.  I have a number of wins under my belt and really enjoy the challenge of racing my fully customized Ferrari around famous racing circuits against 24 other human players.  However, in one race during the weekend, as all 25 cars of different makes, models and colors approached the first turn, somebody at the back of the grid decided to ram the pack of cars at full speed before sitting back to admire the carnage he or she had caused afterwards.

It’s frustrating, to say the least, particularly when you’ve spent the first ten seconds of the race carefully avoiding other players while simultaneously trying to ease your car between the cars in front, in the hopes of getting the racing line into the first corner.  In the ensuing mayhem, my car was hit from behind and flew forwards, taking out three other cars in the process.  Amid all the smoke and debris, each player tried to point their car back in the right direction and get back onto the track.

Wrestling for track position online

Wrestling for track position online

However, one of the cars I had accidentally taken out after getting hit decided he would blame me for his track position and dedicated the remainder of the race to crashing into me at every chance he could.  When the race ended and all players were back in the lobby area, he proceeded to verbally abuse me using his headset and tell me that I had no idea how to drive a car and I shouldn’t be playing online (that is a summary of what he said, since his comments cannot exactly be published here).  This is where anonymity becomes a problem.

On many platforms, each user chooses a username to use.  As long as the username isn’t profanity or racist, anything is possible.  Pretentious names such as “I am the greatest” and “I will own you” are mixed in with somewhat funny names such as “Ragamuffin”, “Ze White Rabbit” and “Sorry, I suck”.  The big problem with having such usernames to hide behind is that you are basically free to say anything to anyone – vent anger or frustration, or even make racist or homophobic comments at people without any repercussions.  Nobody knows your real name, where you live or anything else about you, leaving you completely free from repercussions when you simply act like a bad human being.

On some social media sites such as Facebook, this is not possible.  Facebook employs a “real name” policy and if it suspects that the name on your profile isn’t real, they will suspend your account until you can prove otherwise.  Facebook’s reason for this is to curb online bullying, racism and other problems – since your name is on every post you make and you are 100% accountable for your online actions.  Of course, some people will always be mean people, whether they have the shield of an Avatar or not.  But in the majority of cases, most people refrain from using abuse or intimidation because they don’t want to tarnish their own, real name.

I don’t consider myself a mean person and I have ever engaged in abusive behavior towards people – online or offline.  That said, I won’t take abuse towards me lying down.  I especially won’t accept abuse towards other people, especially online.  The question is, “What steps can we take to avoid cyber bullying and online abuse?”

In recent years there have been some media reports of young people who have suffered cyber bullying for years on end.  They were effectively tortured by people for one reason or another.  In almost all of the reported cases, the result of this torture was extreme.  Some victims took the law into their own hands and exacted revenge on the bullies with tragic results, while others looked for another type of escape with equally tragic results.

Here are the steps I take when I’m faced with online harassment:

1 – Mute them.

If I’m in a game that has a communal area between matches where the players can chat with each other, then it’s very easy to mute one specific person.  You can simply select their name and then select “Mute”.  This works on almost 90% of all online games and therefore, you simply can’t hear that person any more.  They will probably continue to say things unaware that you cannot hear them.

2 – Block them.

If you want to go further, you can find that person’s profile and select “Block”.  That way they cannot have any kind of interaction with you.  That means no messages, no invites and no chatting.  Every social network carries this feature and will completely eliminate that person from your profile and online sessions.

3 – Report them.

One of the most overlooked parts of Microsoft’s online community with Xbox is the ability to report people to Microsoft.  The system will ask you to select a reason for your reporting, ranging from “Unsportsmanlike conduct” to “Racism” or “Bullying”.  The more times a person is reported, the more restrictions will be put on that person’s account, limiting their ability to play their favorite games.  You can even write a comment to go with your report.  This directly ties in with the Microsoft reputation system which uses algorithms and community reporting to provide a reputation for each player based on the traffic light system:

“The more hours you play fairly online without being reported as abusive by other players, the better your reputation will be. The algorithm looks to identify players that are repeatedly disruptive across the community on Xbox Live. The vast majority of players do not regularly receive feedback from other players and, thus, will stay at the “Good Player” reputation level.”  – Michael Dunn, program manager for Xbox Live.

Xbox Live Reputation Levels

Xbox Live Reputation Levels

4 – Disconnect from Chat

If you want to take things a step further, you can disconnect from the chat while online.  Either by removing your headset, or even selecting to “turn off” chat.  You can do this on Facebook as well as other media platforms.

5 – Stay away

In the most extreme case, if you’re suffering from online harassment and find that none of the above worked, then simply stay offline.  Nobody is forcing you to connect to Facebook, Google, the PlayStation network or Xbox live.  If things have gotten so bad that it’s really affecting you, just avoid it altogether.

Finally, as I mentioned before, I won’t take cyber bullying or abuse lying down.  Whether it’s against me or someone else.  So when confronted by angry “You hit me first” guy at the weekend, I listened to his rants for a few minutes, stayed calm and even offered an apology.  Of course it all fell on deaf ears, so I took another approach, I spoke up to the listening (though silent) crowd.  The following is an almost word for word quote of my little speech.

“Just for anyone who is listening, I want you all to know that NOBODY has to put up with this kind of abuse.  As a group of players on a server, we have so many options to get rid of this abusive guy.  We can all vote to kick him off the server.  We can all open his profile and report him for being abusive, and if enough of us do it, his Microsoft account will be suspended.  So [abusive player], we as a group can give you, the individual two options:  One, shut up, play nice and we can all enjoy this game as intended.  Or two, go away, get off the server before we all start swamping the MS server with complaints against you.  If that happens, you’ll never be able to play this game online again.”

After a brief silence, there were many other players laughing with a few phrases of “Heck yeah!’ and such.  Eventually, our abusive friend quit the server, hopefully learning a valuable lesson in the process.  I still blocked him and reported him to Microsoft under the section “Abusive behavior”, meaning I’ll never meet him in an online match-up again.  Since the weekend I’ve looked at his profile and can see that he has a warning badge on it which says “Avoid Me!”  So it looks like some people listened to my message.

My verbal abuser will now be stuck with restricted services, online match-making will pair him with other disruptive and abusive players and if he doesn’t change his ways, full account suspension could be just around the corner.

If only real life were this simple.

My Xbox Reputation Level

My Xbox Reputation Level

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