Harassment experts: The latest ‘Overwatch’ developer update was an uninformed, incoherent mess

Overwatch, Blizzard’s wildly popular competitive first-person shooter, has a major in-game harassment problem.

In February, a Reddit thread went viral when hundreds of players shared horrifying stories about sexual harassment they had encountered. Another player claimed it took over 50 games of constant reporting from other players before he was punished. Until August, Overwatch players on consoles didn’t even have a way to report this kind of behavior beyond posting their experiences on YouTube and trying to get someone at Blizzard to notice.

On Wednesday, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan finally released a video in his regular “developer update” series in which he laid out the team’s ongoing efforts to curb these toxicity issues — but according to two experts in the field of online harassment, his video didn’t inspire much confidence.

“Blizzard is playing catch-up with things the rest of us already know”

“I was face-palming the entire time I was listening to it,” Randi Lee Harper, the founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, told Mic in a phone interview. “It was so bad.”

Harper’s main issue with Kaplan’s video is that he seemed to frame harassment in really outdated terms — as a feud between a few bad apples mixed in with the good, “normal” people.

“Our highest-level philosophy is if you’re a bad person doing bad things in Overwatch, we don’t want you in Overwatch,” Kaplan said in his video. “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.”

Harper said categorizing users as “bad people” or “good people” is really reductive in general. “Most people aren’t bad people and they definitely don’t see themselves as bad people,” she said. “Instead, outlining bad behavior is a much better goal.”

“That’s a lesson a lot of us learned three or four years ago when we started working on this stuff,” Harper continued. “It kind of feels like Blizzard is playing catch-up with a lot of things the rest of us already know.” (Mic reached out to Blizzard for comment and will update this post with any response.)

Kaplan appears to blame players for asking Blizzard to make safety a priority

Another issue with Kaplan’s video is the way he framed Overwatch’s reporting tools. Specifically, he characterized the harassment report function on consoles — which just came out in late August — as though it were some kind of extra, unexpected feature that needed to be added in response to unbelievably toxic players. (Reporting tools were part of the PC version since launch.)

“We want to make new maps, we want to make new heroes, we want to make more animated shorts,” Kaplan said. “That’s where our passion is. But we’ve been put into this weird position where we’re spending a tremendous amount of time and resources punishing people and trying to make people behave better. I wish we could take the time that we put into having reporting on console and have put that toward a match history system or a replay system instead.”

According to Kat Lo — a Ph.D. student and researcher in online communities and harassment at University of California, Irvine, who often consults with tech companies — framing anti-harassment tools in the way Kaplan did is harmful and outdated.

“Harassment tools are often thought of as this after-the-fact or add-on thing that you have to do,” Lo said in a phone interview with Mic. “And I’m hoping that people are starting to understand that anti-harassment and community tools are part of the core app experience. They’re not an add-on.”

It’s not as though toxicity in gaming is some sort of surprise. In nearly every online game, from Call of Duty and Dota to League of Legends and Blizzard’s own World of Warcraft, toxic players are an unfortunate reality in the gaming landscape — and for Lo, it’s strange Overwatch launched with such an anemic system in place.

“It should have been obvious to Blizzard that they should have put way more resources towards this,” Lo said. “I think it sets a really bad tone for their community that this is happening after the fact and that it wasn’t a core value as they started. I can appreciate that companies have limited resources and that they’re going to focus on the things that they know improve the gameplay experience, mechanics-wise, but I think that’s an outdated way of viewing games.”

Harper made a similar point, but said she thinks it’s more complicated, at least in terms of the yearlong delay for the reporting function on consoles.

“It’s really hard to include reporting on consoles because it has to go through Microsoft or it has to go through Sony,” Harper said. “I know they’d been working on trying to get reporting systems out a long time ago, but they were having trouble. They obviously didn’t want to shift blame to Sony and Microsoft, but I do think that’s where some of the blame for that delay lies. Blizzard definitely could have done more, but I think there’s more at work than what they discussed in that video.

“I can see what he was trying to do,” she continued. “He was trying to be like, ‘Guys, you need to be nice so we can work on more cool stuff,’ and that’s a good idea in theory, but that isn’t going to be motivation for people.”

Anonymity is not the problem

Unfortunately, that’s not where the problems with Kaplan’s video end. His description of why toxicity is so prevalent in the first place was also pretty outdated, according to Lo, specifically how he blamed it on the anonymity an online game grants.

“That’s my pet peeve, when people blame toxicity on anonymity,” Lo said. “It’s well-documented in research that anonymity is not what makes people toxic. It’s things like lack of consequences or community norms and how those norms are reinforced by their local [communities] and their peers. Because if there are actual consequences, people do actually act more respectfully.

“On Facebook,” Lo pointed out, “people are not anonymous and they do a lot of awful things to each other.”

So, was it just a bad video?

Perhaps the strangest thing about Kaplan’s video is that despite its problems, the Overwatch team seemingly has a lot of interesting anti-harassment improvements in the works. Kaplan just didn’t talk about them.

“We are re-evaluating every punishment and are in the process of converting silences over to suspensions,” Kaplan wrote in a forum post on Aug. 29. “We’re also increasing the length of suspensions. Pretty soon, we hope for silences to go away all together and only have suspensions and bans for punishments.”

The Overwatch team seemingly has a lot of interesting anti-harassment improvements in the works. Kaplan just didn’t talk about them.

“Kaplan included a lot of good information in that forum post about stuff that is happening, stuff that isn’t in the video and I have no idea why it isn’t in this video,” Harper said. “It should have been. It would have made the video way more valuable.”

Perhaps it was just a weird scheduling problem. Maybe Kaplan filmed the developer update before he wrote the forum post and then learned specifics of the team’s anti-harassment initiatives later. Maybe he’s just not in touch with the day-to-day operations of the people in charge of community management and, as a result, came off in a way that’s not in line with what the team is actually doing. We probably won’t ever know for sure, but it’s undeniably strange.

“The video feels like it’s from a different company than the Blizzard I know,” Harper said. “Because I remember when I was at BlizzCon a few years ago, [Blizzard CEO] Mike Morhaime, during his opening talk, was talking about harassment and the Gamergate stuff immediately. I was there in the audience and it was amazing to me that he was doing that, because they were one of the first triple-A gaming studios to talk about harassment like that. And this feels out of touch with the tone that was there three years ago.”