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Toxicity in Overwatch: Beyond assigning blame

Many were unhappy with Jeff Kaplan's recent video discussing Overwatch's toxicity. In this post I examine the video and feedback through the lenses of psychology and human relationships.

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person”

-  Walt Whitman

Jeff Kaplan, the director of Overwatch, dedicates the new developer update video to gamer toxicity. In it he acknowledges that the studio must address the toxicity issue, but points a finger at the community, claiming that the "community needs to take a deep look inwards" and consider how they may better self-regulate. Kaplan appears frustrated as he explains that they are not releasing as many exciting new features as they would like, since they use much of their time to figure out how to regulate the toxicity. While many reported on Kaplan's video, some were more negative than others (e.g. this one, this one, this one, and also this one), claiming he was overly naive, and is now blaming the fanbase for something he should have seen coming.

In this post, I offer neither criticism nor judgement. Rather than focusing on who is right or wrong, I concentrate on promoting an allocentric viewpoint—the other person's experience. My mother frequently told me growing up that if I do not have anything nice to say, I should not say anything at all. I think she was wrong; nice is overrated. The emphasis should be on having something empathetic to say. This does not mean you agree with the person you are conversing with. However, it should mean that you have first felt their pain before offering your opinion. It should also mean that unless your criticism is constructive, it is probably better left unsaid.

While Both Kaplan and his critics seemingly assume their views are objective, neither acknowledges the other side’s pain, or offers tangible constructive advice. They indicate that much of Overwatch’s toxicity could have been prevented if others were as logical as they are. Kaplan’s words indicate he believes that players hold the same views as he does regarding what should be acceptable and what should not—and that the reason they are misbehaving is that they are not acting rationally. Similarly, the critics claim rampant toxicity was inevitable—and clearly so—to the extent that Kaplan’s inability to predict the current situation demonstrates he is illogical.

Kaplan is, of course, illogical, just as all humans are. Decades of empirical findings demonstrate that it is easy to miss what you do not expect, and that we each have different expectations. At the end of the day, humans are biased organisms; no one is truly rational.

Research on cognitive biases demonstrates that humans do not perceive the world objectively. For example, research on inattentional blindness demonstrates that even when something is right under our noses, it does not always catch our attention, and we are sometimes blind to it. Participants instructed to simultaneously count the number of basketball passes two different teams made in a video, often did not notice a gorilla walking by. Additionally, human perceptual abilities are limited. People are limited in what and how much they can perceive; the duration for which they can store and access those perceptions; as well as how they interpret what they come across—which also affects how they remember it later.

This is somewhat analogous to a digital camera. If the camera is on, and you look at the screen, the sensor continuously registers and loses all the information it "sees" so long as you don't take a picture. However, even when you take a picture, you are not capturing the scene objectively. As the photographer, you make choices about what to leave in and out of the frame, depth of field, motion blur, white balance, etc. Like your pictures, your memory and judgements are a product of your personal biases, abilities and experiences—and this is true for all of us. Unfortunately, as research on naive realism demonstrates, we do not objectively perceive the world, though we tend to believe we do. Furthermore, we frequently succumb to the false consensus effect—believing that the majority of other people hold the same views that we do. Thus, we assume that those who disagree with us must be wrong.

However, not only is the absolute truth ambiguous, the way we present our unpopular opinions impacts the likelihood that they will be accepted by those who matter most. Sometimes this is our significant other, others it is our child, the director of our favorite video game, or our fanbase. Frequently, assuming someone is wrong leads to accusations, causing the accused to feel defensive. Defensiveness is normal, but it promotes egocentrism.

Human relationships are complicated. I know this both as someone who studies them at different levels, and as someone who has occasionally taken a wrong turn, and ventured into one. Even in loving relationships, people tend to point fingers and emphasize ways in which the other person has erred. The key, according to John Gottman, is to dole out small, highly specific requests for ways to rectify the situation.

if you are frustrated with your favorite game’s director for not having (what you believe is) the common sense to implement (what you believe is) a critical feature—or with your fanbase for (what you believe is) a lack of common sense to engage in (what you believe is) moral introspection—you might want to offer pragmatic advice as to how the deficit can be overcome. As a sporadic significant other, manuscript reviewer, and mentor, I know first hand that this is easier said than done.

While both video games and significant others may be replaceable (and offer ways to keep you occupied late into the night), once you become emotionally attached to one (and good at having fun with it) you may want to stick it out for a bit. Thus, it might pay to work towards improving it, even if it means sharing only actionable, constructive insights—despite your belief that you are right.

It might help if you focus on instances in which the subject of your critique demonstrated their worth, as it is natural for the most recent occurrence to bias our way of thinking. This is called the recency effect, and it predicts that more recent information is better remembered than earlier information. Thus, if you are pissed that your significant other ate all your pocky, try and remember the times she brought you breakfast in bed.

Similarly, let’s try and focus on how Overwatch has listened to its fans (e.g. introducing Zarya), and has been refreshingly forthcoming with information about the game. Considering Blizzard’s commitment to employee diversity, and women in the industry—not to mention Kaplan’s evident distress in the video—it is hard to imagine that the toxicity isn’t greatly bothering him. Kaplan clearly states that they “don’t want to create areas for… just the bad people… we just don’t want those people in Overwatch.”

It is easy and natural for biases to impact us. Noticing faulty thought patterns is effortful and hard. However, respect and—very importantly—practical advice are the best ways to promote discourse and effect change. Part of it is alerting Kaplan’s team to the toxicity pervasiveness—especially if they are surprised by it. However, it is equally important to remember that the development team is comprised of humans who often pour their heart and soul into their game, and to treat them accordingly. Overwatch is a fairly new game, and Kaplan clearly cares. Let’s give him a chance to fine-tune enforcement mechanisms, even if we think he should have seen it coming.

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