Do not ask for whom the Douchebag trolls, he trolls for thee.

One of my favorite webisodic* shows is Extra Credits.  Despite their Twitter handle (@extracreditz) sounding like it couldn’t afford to buy an “s” and had to rent to own a “z”, it serves up four minute video slices of interesting geek related epiphanies or as a friend of mine described it, “epipheo’s.”

I don’t know what that word means.  I think it means they couldn’t afford the letters for both Video and Epiphanies to do “Video Epiphanies” then, once they could afford the letters for a shortened version, put the wrong part first.  I would have gone with, if I had to, “Vidphanies".

Wait, I’ve just been informed their Twitter handle had nothing to do with affording the “s” and everything to do with @extracredits the Twitter handle being squatted by someone with the unlikely name of “Lindsay Lohan.”  pfft.  Like anyone would be named something so silly.

Still, that doesn’t explain why someone would call something “epipheo’s.”

I’ve now written epiphany or a variation of it enough times in this blog post to have that thing happen where it no longer sounds like a word.  But I digress.

Extra Creditz [sic] this week had an episode** where they covered online harassment. Specifically Xbox LIVE was called out, and viewers were encouraged to provide feedback to Microsoft to provide the tools to “stop harassment.”

Before we discuss, please to be viewing the videpiphaneo. (I’d embed it, but PATV doesn’t seem to allow that)

Ok now that you’re back, although my setup has been jokey snarky, the topic and the video are very real and very serious. I’m really glad that they made this video. There are several messages in the video that I feel need to be called out:

Gamers as a group are the people who tend to accept the people most commonly ostracized.

Anonymity breeds douchebags.

Douchebags who misbehave online just want attention and don’t represent gamers as a group.

The tools people have to deal with harassment are woefully inadequate (on Xbox LIVE, but one must assume other places as well)

This, as they say in the slang development bureau at Oxford, is right in my wheelhouse.

The problem isn’t solely Xbox LIVE.  Yes, I know, the problem is most commonly associated with Xbox LIVE.  And yes, I agree that objectively evaluated, the Xbox LIVE complaint system and tools for the customer have not been altered at all since 2005 despite the changes in functionality in the service. Note that in that statement I’m setting aside parental controls, because the problem of harassment online at it’s core isn’t the problem of child accounts or parent restrictions. It’s the fact any 10 year old or miscreant can quickly and easily create an adult Xbox LIVE Gold account in seconds, and a normal adult account can’t really prevent interaction with that account.

And with that, the problem of online harassment is actually the problem of adult customers, especially those who love the platform and the games and play online a lot. 

Believe it or not it’s a problem of the Internet, not just Xbox LIVE.  Certainly (again objectively speaking) it’s clear Xbox LIVE lags way behind in helping people self select their matchmaking pool, truly and fully block bad users, and orienting matchmaking on a reputation based system to increase positive experiences like some systems do.

But the root problem is one of anonymity and the allowance of anonymity on the system to wreak havoc. This is a problem on Xbox LIVE specifically by the lack of any form of delineation from a completely anonymous Gold account made with completely fake information, and an account where all of the information might be completely accurate. Again however it’s not unique to that system, merely that it’s commonly used to tarnish the reputation of the platform.

The video makes a lot of suggestions.  Most of the automated ones that are suggested are problematic although they sound like simple to implement common sense. 

Without violating my confidentiality agreement, let’s just say when you decide to say “User n muted x number of times results in action z” then very quickly online hacker forums will spring up whereby someone says “hey everyone add user n as a friend then mute them because they kicked my ass in Halo”.  Don’t believe me?  To this day the rumor exists that if you complain enough times against a non-offensive gamertag that it’s offensive you get a free gamertag change.  Or if you complain enough against the motto for a permabanned account on Xbox LIVE, the system will override the permaban with a temp ban and eventually unban the account.

Neither has ever been the case when I was in charge of enforcement.  Ever. 

But get just one person saying it works and BAM, even against actions that don’t even work my old team had to deal with the volume of false complaints by people who will do anything low friction in order to mess with the system.

We even presented all of the above facts at PAX and other places and the problems continued. There’s tons of forums where people say “Complain against n because they beat me” or “Do x so that z happens” even if it’s not true ever, people will try it. At any given time a significant labor amount on enforcement is spent making sure automated processes aren’t being misused.

So, pretty much every automated suggestion the video makes has been examined, and proven to be problematic.  The douchebags don’t just talk their game, they game the game, from Xbox LIVE to Steam.

It’s true the system could be developed to take that into account.  That’s a great point of feedback that should be passed on to various online systems, not just Xbox LIVE.  It’s important to communicate to those systems that you don’t want new avatar hats, you want these safety features.  This is important when features are being cut during the inevitable cut time during the process of shipping software.

I have certainly in my time in online systems provided my opinion on these matters.  But it seems to me the best results are probably driven by abandoning participation in them from a financial standpoint if you want to truly drive change.  In the end, the community that cannot encourage participation because the members of that community do not feel safe is the community that cannot help continue a financial reason for being. You truly have to vote with your dollars.  Your community will never become safer if you spend all your money there despite the abuse.  Resources will always be diverted to getting you to spend more money over anything else unless there is a real risk you will simply leave.  It’s the nature of business.

Beyond that fact, let’s move onto the tools people can use to help limit their exposure to the bad guys.  There’s always going to be the John Gabriel Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.  How can online communities stop this?

One way is simple, provide a striation between anonymous users and those willing to trade a small amount of identity for greater security. (Note to the libertarians ready with their founding father quotes: not liberty, identity.)

By this I mean those that provide Google voice phone numbers and fake credit cards are relegated to only being matched with others of like unverifiable fake info.  You want to be unknown?  No problem.  You are cast with the other unknowns.

Those people who can prove their identity at least at some level would then only be matched with others of a same level of verification.  Somewhat like “verified” PayPal users.  Or go the route of saying: if so many individuals who are “identified” in the system have a verified opinion of those who are jerks (verified meaning investigated by an enforcement team) then they are only match made or can interact with individuals at their level of reputation or below. In essence, those who are judged by those verified customers to be jerks will only be matched or allowed to interact with those otherwise verified to be jerks.

Gaming the system is prevented by setting the bar to be “verified”. Why bother “verifying” people if there isn’t a method to make a concrete punishment for faking things.  If my verified account ties to my actual bank or driver’s license number, there is a concrete reason for me not to participate in automated circumvention schemes. Herein the user has the choice: total anonymity at reduced level of privilege, or more accountability and a higher level of privilege in the system.

To me, this is the minimum an online interaction system should provide at this point.  The days of “just provide a 5×5 code and we let you fake name, address and everything else while still allowing you the same privilege as someone paying with verifiable information via PCI” are long gone.

Yet for many online systems, they are still here today. That’s stupid.

Lastly:  provide verified users who have that level of accountability in the online system the ability to truly (from an interaction perspective) block players, block players friends, and report all of the above with evidence to a team that reviews it. Sorry, if you are unverified, you cannot reach the top of the Call of Duty leaderboards. If you are unverified, your opinion of online interaction weighs less. This isn’t “pay to be ranked” it’s “verify” to be trusted to be ranked.

So. Why isn’t the feature set laid out above present today?

It’s a fair question not just for Xbox LIVE customers but also for any online service. Sure, the response might be the wonderful progression in child safety settings on any given platform, but that’s not the issue. Everyone’s made progress on child safety issues. But the adult account gamer today on Xbox LIVE and other services has only the same limited options the adult gamer of 2005 had. 

Surely the online environment, as evidenced by or the Extra Credits video, helps prove there’s an ongoing systemic problem that, while not unique to the Xbox LIVE platform, is at least exacerbated by whatever the platform interaction is implemented on?

The Extra Credits video links to an online form asking Xbox LIVE support for help. I sincerely hope that method has more impact than I did in my previous position.

I still feel strongly there is a simple solution to at least the problems facing most online interactions:

Provide easy to use, concrete tools for users to avoid or limit negative experiences.

Provide punishments to encourage users to obey Wheaton’s law.

Provide incentives for people to engage with each other in a positive manner and “be excellent to each other”

Ah but hey, I’m just a writer now.  What do I know.  Open-mouthed smile

To the crew at Extra Credits, thanks for prompting the discussion.




*The phrase “Webisode” makes my heart hurt.  Because it’s not a word right now but in five years if it’s not a part of your elevator pitch (“it’s a series of webisodes about how if Deckard from Blade Runner was *not* a replicant”) than you won’t get off the ground.

** See above except “episode” becomes like “mimeograph.”  look it up kids.


  1. Papa_Neslo says:

    I’m the guy who tells folks on my friends list who get mad while gaming and make statements like “How jewish” or “what faggot” to stop, and I’ll stop a conversation dead in it’s tracks to explain why it’s so offensive. Sure that makes me “that guy” everyone has to stop being racist around while I’m in the room, but is that really a bad thing? I don’t think so.  

    Usually it’s the younger kids in the group, and for that I blame their parents. But they learned it from fellow gamers who have no moral compass too. Now I’m not saying I’m a saint when I get mad online, but over the years, my way of handling frustration is to find the best aspect of the game and congratulate the other person. You would be surprised: A) How much better inside as a human being you feel by simply saying “good game, you really got me pretty good in that game” feels inside than saying “Your so lucky about lag, you jewish cunt faggot.” I’m guessing that is why at the end of a baseball game, you stand up in a line… winner or loser… and congratulate the other players. B) How many people you play go “whoa, that is not what I was expecting from a gamer that I just beat.” 
    I really find that people who go racist, homophobic, and misogynistic are doing it because they sometimes don’t know they aren’t even doing it. But they should, and those in the community SHOULD call them out when it happens.

    The gaming community has been polluted so badly that when you are a decent human being to people you don’t know, they quickly add you to their friends list. Being good at video games helps, sure. But not being a douche bag online tends to be money in the bank.

  2. Edward Webb says:

    Stepto, I passed this Extra Credits episode to the Xbox MVP’s mere seconds after it was uploaded. My opinion was that Xbox LIVE was mentioned, not because it’s the most obvious offender, but because EC felt if anyone could find a solution, it would be Xbox because Xbox gives a shit. You do/did, and e does and everyone else involved. While the problem is not unique to Xbox LIVE, Xbox LIVE is the most likely source of a workable solution.

    I must post a disclaimer: James Portnow from EC is speaking at my university in seven days. I admire him as I admire you, and the idea of the two of you sitting down to talk, in my mind, could only result in great things.

    I should also say that I’ve found a solution on a small scale, and I found it by working with students. Gamers who know each other outside the virtual world, don’t treat each other like this. The anonymity is gone. When you start building friendships offline, it changes how you treat people online. I’ve tried to teach them that even when they’re playing against someone, they’re playing WITH them, so treat them accordingly.

  3. Stepto says:

    James and I are having a beer Monday night.  :>  I should circle back with the local Digipen and UW folk around the area, would love to talk to students about this type of stuff.

  4. Edward Webb says:

    Just get on a plane w/ James and come down to Bakersfield on Friday. :) I’m sure you’d have something to add to the education conversation. Personally, I’m convinced my son could read at 4 yrs. old because of Chrono Trigger.

  5. Zack Stein says:

    I’m starting to get a feeling, based on very slight hints in your tweets and your blog, that something pushed you out of Microsoft – whether it be an actual event, or a slow build over time. But let it be known that the layperson out here in the world is taking notice. I don’t expect a response, but I suspect you will read this. I’m very sad at seeing the decline of the Xbox and Xbox Live product. A golden age is setting slowly, and as well all know too well, “Nothing gold can stay…”

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