Presented by Spectrum Labs

Online gaming has always suffered a bad rap in some circles. Some of the criticism is well deserved but not all of it. It is worth separating out the good from the bad, especially as the world hurtles towards web3 and the immersive environments in which future games will be played.

Savvy game brands are already focusing on the wellbeing and safety of their players, and it is proving to be a major differentiator for them. More gaming companies will follow suit, as this is positive for the gaming brands and their investors, as well as for gamers and society as a whole.

Since their introduction, games have had a significant influence on our culture, and they are here to stay. Many platforms direct significant resources towards reducing harmful behaviors, which, as a Trust & Safety professional, I applaud. But there is an opportunity to create a new framework in this area.

Rather than simply focusing on bad behavior, platforms would benefit from encouraging positive interactions. After all, anything that influences individual behavior and culture, and is aligned with how people build their identities, can be a significant resource for positive influence. There are already established practices for preventing harms in society, particularly with crime prevention, that are based as much on community-building behaviors and social cohesion as they are on mitigating problematic behaviors.

The constructive influence of games

It is a common belief that online gaming can be dangerous for kids, and many parents attempt to set rules as to how much time their children can play them. With the many valid concerns about gaming culture’s influence on children, it can be difficult to see the constructive qualities of gameplay.

Some health care professionals have a different perspective, however, and they incorporate gaming into their therapeutic toolkits. Gaming can teach people how to interact with others in non-confrontational ways, and it can also be used as a means of practicing healthy emotional modulation.  Gaming is used to help people who have gaps in their ability to socialize. Research also shows online games provide “accommodating places for people who are shy or socially inhibited.” 

Games can teach kids of all abilities valuable life lessons, such as how to establish a goal and craft a plan to achieve it. Gamers often learn, research, and refine skills that will help solve challenges by breaking them down into discrete steps. Gaming can be approached and leveraged in ways that support positive individual development and connection within communities.

Gaming dangers persist

Gaming dynamics and their impacts, as we know, are not always positive. Research psychologist Dr. Rachel Kowert acknowledges the beneficial aspects of games, but she has also conducted studies that demonstrate how some adolescents who spend a lot of time gaming experience social displacement.

On a societal level, we have seen how violent extremists use gaming to promote their beliefs and attract supporters. GamerGate demonstrates the extent to which gaming culture can be exploited to fuel real-world harassment and hate-based movements. Amplification of toxic or violent language can normalize it to young minds and can encourage the transition from speech to action.

Online games have a unique challenge in that a preponderance of young people are on these platforms, and they are particularly vulnerable to outside influences. Part of that influence is due to their stage of development, but it is also due to the nature of gaming culture, which can be a large part of a person’s identity.

How gaming platforms can differentiate their brands

There is no shortage of games in the world, and competition for players is fierce. One way for platforms to attract users is to authentically prioritize the health of gaming communities. Trust & Safety technology is quite advanced, and a growing community of Trust & Safety professionals have formed associations to help all platforms create safe and welcoming communities.

Gaming companies have an opportunity to align their vision and mission with the types of people they want to attract. Platforms that opt to “own” the cultural significance of their games can influence society for the better by leaning into the positive side of gaming and taking steps to actively promote cooperative and respectful behavior. Embracing the positive is also good for the bottom line, as some users quit platforms where they’ve been harassed. Those who have positive experiences are likely to stay and help develop and nurture the community.

When companies make it a strategic goal to encourage and amplify positive behavior, they will be better positioned to address some of the calls for government regulation of games.

Pragmatic steps for gaming platforms of all sizes

From every perspective, it makes good business sense for gaming companies to deploy technology, people, and structures to encourage good behavior by facilitating, rewarding, and amplifying positive interactions. This will require platforms to incorporate structural elements that govern how people engage with one another.

The first step is to be completely transparent as to the platform’s mission and values, and how those align with the community guidelines and enforcement mechanisms. These guidelines should explicitly lay out what is considered not only acceptable but also constructive behavior, and enforcement actions that will be taken if a user violates platforms rules and norms.

If a platform doesn’t have the budget for proactive detection and mitigation of bad behavior, its managers should consider limiting the quantity of user-generated content. Online risks are real for platforms and users alike.  To manage these risks and build healthy communities, it makes sense to take a realistic approach to managing user-generated content, one that aligns with a company’s capabilities.

All platforms require gatekeepers who facilitate the amplification of positive interactions as well as remove toxic content and suspend users for violations. In fact, the presence of human moderators is likely to be a requirement in the EU soon. Hiring, training, and supporting a skilled workforce for this purpose is necessary for Web3.

A proactive stance that embraces the positive contributions of online communities while curtailing their risks and harms will differentiate companies as we move forward into immersive web environments. Investors, customers, and employees are seeking evidence of how we can establish more lifelike online connections than ever before, in a manner that prioritizes freedom of speech, human rights, individual expression, choice, and safety.

Kris McGuffie is an extremism and disinformation researcher with a background in international security and nonproliferation currently applying her experience to Trust and Safety priorities in the development and application of AI detection models. At Spectrum Labs, Kris directs research on toxic behaviors and real-life harms, aligns behavioral definitions with human rights and free speech standards, and collaborates across teams to develop fresh approaches to identifying harmful dynamics on platforms.

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