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Opinion: Why Guild Wars 2's 'execution'-style ban was a bad idea

ArenaNet recently banned an infamous hacker from its MMO Guild Wars 2 -- by way of virtual execution. But public humiliation is not really the way to go about it, argues Katherine Cross.

It’s always fascinating to see what bits of gaming news filter through to the mainstream press. Nearly two weeks ago, ArenaNet’s game security lead Chris Cleary made quite a splash when he caught up with DarkSide, an infamous hacker and exploiter in Guild Wars 2.

What separated this from countless other disciplinary actions in online games is that Cleary did not only ban DarkSide, but filmed a kind of public humiliation and punishment and put it on YouTube.

According to the BBC, “the character...was stripped then forced to leap to their death from a high bridge.”

The Beeb’s headline said it all: “Hacker Given In-game Death Sentence.” No wonder everyone was so interested.

***

It sounds like an exaggeration, and in some important ways it most definitely is. No one was physically hurt in any way--perhaps not even emotionally. DarkSide may well be enjoying his digitally-posthumous infamy and seeing his screenname up in lights.

But there’s a kernel of truth to the BBC’s headline that’s worth investigating, and it has to do with teabagging.

If crouching or sitting is possible in a multiplayer game, then there will be teabagging, much to the lament of anyone over the age of 10. The simulation of dipping one’s scrotum into the lifeless mouth of your defeated opponent is understood to be crass because of both the intentions behind it and the effort at reproducing it virtually in a way that telegraphs what is happening to even the lay viewer. The visual language instantly communicates a vulgar, sexual act of dominance.

"Firing up the playerbase to get them braying for more digital blood is neither conducive to good moderation nor good security."

Something similar is going on with taking control of a hated player’s avatar (Cleary took over the account), undressing them, and forcing them to take a long walk off a short bridge.

The virtual pantomime imitates a physical action whose symbolism is well understood and immediately intelligible; that’s what gives it punch, and why it’s done in the first place.

Through simulating a public humiliation and execution you are performing through its symbolism: demonstrating your power, possibly inspiring fear, or at least catering to the baser instincts of more vengeful players. It is an act of communication.

Seen this way, what was communicated was unprofessional and troubling.

***

Strict security is vital to the operation of any MMO. Hackers and other cheaters must be banned, as well as those who disrupt good gameplay in more prosaic ways, say through harassment and so on. But banning DarkSide and making a public spectacle of the matter are two completely different things. Doing what was right--punishing DarkSide for his clear violation of the rules, and rewarding the players whose dedicated sleuthing and video evidence brought DarkSide’s crimes to light--did not require a simulated “public execution.” That merely came off as worryingly wanton and indulgent.

The GW2 forum thread where Cleary posted his video makes for interesting reading and suggests some of the problems with his approach.

These posts are typical of the overwhelming support Cleary received in the thread:

“Finally a dev who gets what needs to be done about hackers! <3

Also, I have a suggestion… make this weekly, I will anticipate your videos with a lot of joy.”

“I applaud the banning of these hackers, but that video is nothing like the bans of gw1. Do something more extravagant, like maybe having a dragon bite his head off or poop on him or something like that. Otherwise, thanks for ridding us of a menace. *claps hands*”

“No mercy/sympathy for those who have been ruining/deliberately breaking official rules for so long. 6 months or more of absolute hell and a seconds few video or minute is worth it and acceptable. This is the Stone Age we live in and that’s how things are done.”

Meanwhile, a lone critical voice wrote:

“Making a public spectacle of this isn’t doing anything conductive towards an image of being able to professionally and rationally deal with people who have broken the rules, nor does it inspire confidence for a game that is known to produce false positives in regards to things like botting. How are people supposed to know that they will be dealt with fairly and rationally when the games security lead is partaking in incredibly unprofessional witch-hunt style public shaming of people? Shame on you.”

"If community moderation is meant to help mold the behavior of the playerbase, then punishment must always be leavened by a rational and personalized explanation."

That’s really it in a nutshell. Firing up the playerbase to get them braying for more digital blood is neither conducive to good moderation nor security. It makes people more interested in the spectacle of vengeance than building a community. Secondly, the point raised by the critical GW2 player is a good one: the risk of being punished by mistake is omnipresent, and the damage much harder to correct if the punishment was conducted through public humiliation.

***

In the days following this event, it was suggested that this was no different from another event where GW2 moderators brought their punishments out into the public: a spate of bans around launch that saw many players complain they were unfairly banned for comparatively minor infractions. GW2 moderation staff set the record straight on the matter in public, pointing out to many of the complaining players that they had actually been banned for harassment and hate speech. To quote Gamasutra’s own article on the matter from nearly three years ago:

“As part of the full post, the team responded to angry players who believed they had been banned for no good reason. 'I would love to know what I was banned for,' says one Redditor, after which the ArenaNet representative pastes the exact crude chat which led to the ban, complete with vulgar, racist and sexist terms.”

So what, you might ask, is different here? Player consent and engagement, for one, and two, modelling a good moderation practice. The banned players were literally asking for, or sometimes demanding, clarification and explanation for why they were banned, and they did so in a public forum, whereupon they received professional public answers commensurate with that which made the extent of their infractions clear. There was no spiking of the football (“So there! Eat poop you homophobe!”) merely a transparent explanation that made clear there was more to the story than was being told by many of these irate players.

"People with positions of authority in video games have power over a community and must be aware of how they are seen to be using that power."

Which brings us to the good practice embodied here: transparency to the banned player. If community moderation is meant to help mold the behavior of the playerbase, then punishment must always be leavened by a rational and personalized explanation. What hope do we have of encouraging good behavior if we do not clarify how transgressors have erred? Riot Games built a policy around this notion: if a player is banned, they will be told why, comprehensively, in an email. ArenaNet merely gave a public demonstration of this good practice, encouraged by the players themselves.

There was also no spectacle made of it; no videos emerged of players banned for sexist remarks being shown to leap to their deaths, for instance. Just a professional explanation. Far from being childish, it sets a standard that players can rise to.

***

I have no doubt that Chris Cleary had good intentions--we all love video games, and most of us have had less than positive experiences with cheaters; this seemed like a fun and harmless way to bring the story of one especially annoying individual’s GW2 experience to a close. But people with positions of authority in video games have power over a community and must be aware of how they are seen to be using that power.

This past week, John Smedley the president of Daybreak Games, makers of H1Z1, took a novel approach to dealing with hackers. He offered redemption to banned H1Z1 players in the form of another kind of public humiliation: they had to admit to and apologize for their actions via a YouTube video--one that stays online; Smedley had re-banned someone who took their video down upon being reinstated.

Smedley's approach is dangerously close to merely putting antisocial players in the stocks again, but he has taken some sensible precautions, including telling all the players to scrub any personally identifying info from their videos; "[I'm] not trying to do anything other than highlight a serious issue," he said. But social problems are rarely addressed through shaming individuals, unfortunately, and while Smedley has taken a step in the right direction I worry that he may simply be opening these players up to cyberbullying or harassment. He's made this harder by anonymizing them, to his credit, but the public videos and images nevertheless show the players' faces, leaving them vulnerable to being turned into memes, mocked on social media, et cetera. Again, this satisfies a vengeful instinct on the part of other players but may, unfortunately, do little besides.

How power is used can construct the playerbase itself; do we want players braying for more, more, more public humiliations of other players or do we want to see more of the kind of player-staff collaboration that led to DarkSide’s banning? Do we want MMO players to be like the crowd at the stocks, or for them to be forgiving and unsuspicious of one another? A mob or a community? Right now we have a bit of both, but the actions of devs and staff can tip the balance one way or the other.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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