Look What They've Spawned

Major Game Developers Are Incubators for Vancouver’s Growing Indie Scene

Author's Note: This was a feature I wrote in the Spring of 2016 for one of my university classes. I was unfortunately never able to get it published but wanted to post it here to share with everyone. It was written with a general (non-gaming) audience in mind. I've adjusted a few minor details to take into account the time that has passed since I originally worked on it.

It’s a sunny day in the fall of 2014. A welcome reprieve from the typical grey and rain that Vancouver, British Columbia is known for. Joe Van Zeipel, slim and with his short brown hair combed to the left, is bathing in the sunlight of the morning. In that moment he realizes, “This is happening.” It’s finally time for him to quit his job at the largest video game developer in the city, Electronic Arts Canada.

He meets for lunch with his friend and colleague Clint Jorgenson. For seven years the two have worked together on some of EA’s biggest games including Skate 2, Skate 3, and the surprise hit Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. Jorgenson is taller than Van Zeipel, with wild fiery hair spilling out from underneath his trucker hat. He isn’t surprised by Van Zeipel’s realization. It’s something they’ve been talking about and planning for four years.

With no reason to keep it a secret that they’re leaving together, the following January they walk into their manager’s office at the EA campus to give their notice. The facility houses over a thousand people, and even has its own soccer pitch, indoor basketball court, and not one, but two Starbucks coffee shops. EA is a heavy hitter in the industry, commonly referred to as a Triple-A developer. Their games sell millions of copies and have budgets that rival Hollywood movies. It’s the type of studio that most artists and programmers would kill to work at. Van Zeipel and Jorgenson however are chomping at the bit to get out. It’s time for them to turn their back on everything they’ve accomplished. And just like that, weeks after giving notice at the start of 2015, the two have joined the growing list of Vancouver developers quitting Triple-A studios to try and make it in the city’s growing indie scene. 

 EA Canada's Vancouver campus

EA Canada's Vancouver campus

Video games in Canada are big business. The Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) found that in 2013 video game development contributed $2.3 billion to the country’s GDP. In 2015, that contribution had ballooned to $3 billion. That 31% increase puts even the country’s total growth of 8% over the same period of time to shame. The game development industry continues to expand as video games have never been easier to make. Development tools are accessible to not just Triple-A studios now, but anyone with an internet connection. Software to build video games, such as the Unity engine or the Unreal engine, are now free and used by teams both big and small alike. In fact, Van Zeipel and Jorgenson are using the Unreal engine for their new game project, which is the same engine being used in Microsoft’s Gears of War 4. That game, developed by Vancouver’s The Coalition, is the latest installment in a series that has sold over 22 million copies to date, and according to Microsoft, has surpassed $1 billion in revenue for the company. Whether it’s a team of hundreds or only a team of two, the tools remain the same. But just making a game is only part of the process. Getting it out to the world is just as critical of a step. The debut of Apple’s App Store in 2008 and the Google Play Store later that same year helped democratize publishing around the world. Valve’s platform Steam is the largest digital distributer of PC games in the world and has been a home to indie games since the early 2000s.

More and more, developers and game designers are forgoing traditional forms of publishing and finding success on their own. These growing ranks of indies are being spearheaded by creators and developers that have left the Triple-A world behind. So what drives developers like Van Zeipel and Jorgenson to forsake the security of jobs at these larger, successful companies? If we look at the development scene in Vancouver as a case study, we may start to find some answers.

Almost every successful independent studio in Vancouver was started by someone who came from a larger developer. Klei Entertainment is best known for its survival adventure game, Don’t Starve, and its latest strategy hit, Invisible, Inc. Klei’s founder Jamie Cheng got his start at Relic Entertainment. Before Chris Bourassa founded Red Hook Studio and launched the gothic horror game Darkest Dungeon with his partner Tyler Sigman, he had worked at Propaganda Games and had freelanced for Microsoft, EA, Relic, and more. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak from Blackbird Interactive boasts a senior staff that is comprised almost entirely of ex-Relic and EA members. Van Zeipel and Jorgenson’s new studio, Righteous Hammer Games, adds to that growing list.

Vancouver has a long history of video game development. In 1982, Don Mattrick founded Distinctive Software before it was acquired by EA in 1991. The newly formed EA Canada has been a mainstay in the city ever since. Through the 90s and 2000s Vancouver became the centre for video game development in Canada with the establishment of studios such as Radical Entertainment, Disney’s Propaganda Games, Rockstar Vancouver, and Ubisoft Vancouver. The industry hit hard times after the global financial crisis in 2008 and suffered a number of moves and closures. Radical Entertainment went through layoffs in 2012 and is no longer making its own games. Propaganda Games was shuttered by Disney in 2011. Rockstar and Ubisoft Vancouver were both lured to Ontario with better tax incentives than on offer in BC. Since that rocky period, the industry as a whole has begun to stabilize, in part from the boom in independent and smaller developers.

Before finding success with Darkest Dungeon, Chris Bourassa had gotten used to the fruits of his labour turning to ashes in his mouth. “I was working as a concept artist at Propaganda on Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned before it was cancelled. It was hard. We were six to eight months from being done. I got laid off and my first kid was born a week later.” Bourassa would go on to work in broadcasting and freelanced as an artist and art director for a number of years before forming Red Hook Studios with his partner Tyler Sigman. “I’ve always wanted to try and do new and interesting things,” says Bourassa. “I knew what a studio job looked like at a larger studio. I knew what freelance looked like, what broadcast looked like. I wanted to test myself. See if I had the chops. I wanted to have that autonomy.” Darkest Dungeon is a new spin on the dungeon crawling genre, with fear and stress being a core mechanic, but it can still be considered somewhat niche. If Bourassa had stayed at a larger studio, this idea may have never seen the light of day. “Those ships turn slow,” he says with regard to Triple-A developers. “They have lots more to lose and are risk averse. Being minimal, you can be more agile and self-deterministic.”

 Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon was an instant success. Bourassa and Sigman turned to the crowd funding platform Kickstarter with a simple goal of $75,000. They finished that campaign with over $313,000 and 10,000 backers. To date their game has sold over 900,000 copies on Steam. Data website Steam Spy tracks and estimates sales numbers on the PC platform, and in 2015 reported that the average game sells only 32,000 units on Steam. To say that Darkest Dungeon has been a success would be a gross understatement. Red Hook Studios has become the poster child for indie success in Vancouver. That success is something a lot of developers are hoping to emulate. What was the key to Red Hook’s good fortune? “The game is a very different take on something familiar,” says Bourassa. “It’s relatable, but fresh.”

That same sentiment is something Van Zeipel and Jorgensen are hoping to capture with their first independent game, Solitairica. “Solitaire’s been relegated to … something grandmas play. That’s bullshit,” says Jorgenson. “Everybody played solitaire when they were a kid. Everybody’s messed around playing solitaire at work.” Jorgenson describes their new game as an RPG battle system with solitaire as its foundation. “We’re definitely doing something that no one has done. Our art direction and our audio direction are not following any trends. We’re kind of bringing our own style into things.” When describing their implementation of the Unreal engine to create Solitairica, Van Zeipel seems confident. “We have the tools available to make an experience that rivals some of those bigger games.” With just the two of them at Righteous Hammer Games, taking their strategy meetings in Jorgenson’s living room, Van Zeipel describes it as, “a band coming together, rather than an assembly line.” But how did they end up here, tackling their own project? 

Much like Bourassa, Jorgenson wanted to prove that he and Van Zeipel could do it. “Create an entire game. Concept. Art direction. Every inch of it in our vision and have it turn out to be something great.” Both felt their skills were beginning to stagnate. The hybrid nature of their backgrounds, technical and artistic, didn’t allow them wiggle room within a larger organization that focused on specialization. “I just didn’t have a clear shot forward in the Triple-A big studio structure,” says Van Zeipel. “I didn’t fit in one of their nice little egg cartons. I just found I was hitting a ceiling and my ways forward weren’t exciting at all.” Jorgenson adds, “Being multi-disciplinary at EA you just constantly feel bad about it or something. You’re made to feel inferior about it and then moving into the indie world it’s the total opposite. You’ve got this super power. The fact that we both can just code, do art, do a handful of things … it’s critical.” 

 Solitairica

Solitairica

Along with growing creatively and exploring new opportunities, developers usually leave Triple-A studios for the simple reason that they are burned out. The chief culprit for burnout is the game industry’s notorious “crunch,” or overtime. Often new, young developers come into game studios all guns blazing. They’re excited and thrilled to be there and don’t hesitate to put in long hours working on their projects. When Van Zeipel started at EA in 2008, “I just had a lot of energy, because this is my first game, this is my first chance. I didn’t have any attachments. I could sink 16 sometimes 18 hours of my day into just one project.” Jorgenson’s first game at EA was 2004’s Def Jam: Fight for New York. “I basically worked 80 hour weeks every week. I loved every minute of it. No one had to tell me to, I was just so passionate and so stoked to be working at a games studio.” But as developers spend more time in the industry and begin to have families, the effects of crunch start to bleed into their private lives.

“It certainly puts strain on relationships,” says Van Zeipel. “When it got pretty bad on Skate 3 I was getting home at 9 or 10 o’clock. You’re trying to decompress, but there’s drunk people yelling on the other side of the SkyTrain and you just can’t find a zone to relax. You come home and you’re this bundle of latent tension and stress energy and your partner definitely feels that.”

Sean Sherwin worked at EA Canada for 12 years on a number of the same projects as Van Zeipel and Jorgenson. Currently he’s a Senior Level Artist working on Gears of War at The Coalition. He remembers, “My hardest one was on the Skate franchise. Our first one. I think we crunched for eight months. I was building portions of the city over the Christmas holiday at my parents’ house.”

As horrific a practice as crunch sounds, most developers will admit that if it is not being utilized as an exploitive practice by the studio, it is just a part of finishing any project. “You have a hard deadline you’re committed to. And it’s not changing,” says Jorgenson.

Chris Bourassa has experienced a number of intense crunches in his time in the industry, but what about when he and Sigman were working outside that system, on Darkest Dungeon? “With your own project, company, it’s almost unavoidable. I don’t think I could have stopped myself even if I’d wanted to. There was so much at stake and so much riding on it,” admits Bourassa.

Christi Rae is the Development Director for Capcom Game Studio Vancouver. She has worked as a project manager and director for EA, Propaganda, and Relic and has been in the industry since 2004. She concedes that some overtime is unavoidable in this line of work but that more often than not, overtime “is a result of bad management.” For a senior manager like Rae, ensuring that a project is delivered on schedule and on budget are of the utmost concern. But not, she says, to the detriment of her teams. “We’ve done our death marches. I’ve seen divorces due to work. It’s important that we hold each other accountable.” 

Leaving Triple-A may have been a much needed shift in career paths for both Van Zeipel and Jorgenson. There is, however, no promise of success and the pressure is on to perform. Sean Sherwin doesn’t seem worried for the two. “Those guys are a perfect example of two people with big skillsets that can do all the stuff they need to do to make a game with just the two of them. They’re great.” Luckily for Van Zeipel and Jorgenson, it has never been easier to develop and self-publish a video game. With that in mind, Sherwin says, “I think that’s why there’s such a huge independent growth in Vancouver. People just see ‘oh I can get two guys together and we can form a company in our spare time if we want to and make a game.’ With the App Store and Google Play it’s easy to publish. You just chuck it up on the store and see what happens.” But finding not just an audience, but the success to stay afloat in a cutthroat market is another thing entirely.

“As a company, I think our strength is going somewhere … where people aren’t going,” Van Zeipel says. “That’s a philosophy that extends to our art. We’re trying to find something that’s unique and identifiable. I think the more that we try and grab on to that uniqueness, the better we’ll be able to weather the storm … and how we stand out. So we’re hoping that our uniqueness is our selling point.”

Without the backing of a major studio or publisher, Van Zeipel and Jorgenson will have to hope their dedication to their craft and their faith in their project is enough to carry them through. Whether Solitairica is a hit or not, they seem happy with the decision to strike out on their own. “Working for yourself is pretty addictive,” says Jorgenson. “Once you work for yourself, the thought of working for someone else… it just hurts to even think about it.”

“Report My Team”: Examining Systems of Interaction in Dota 2

Author's Note: This paper was written for one of my university classes. I decided to post it publicly as some people expressed an interest in reading it. This has not been peer reviewed. It's quite dense, but hopefully you enjoy it. 

Introduction

When typing into Google “Dota 2’s community is,” the autocomplete results that appear in order are: “toxic,” “trash,” “bad,” and “cancer.” These are words that are commonly heard from outside and within the community to describe the culture surrounding this immensely popular video game.

Dota 2 is an Action Real-Time Strategy game, more commonly referred to as a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA. The game owes its heritage to a mod known as Defense of the Ancients (DotA) based on Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III. The history of the Defense of the Ancients mod is critical in understanding the current landscape of video games. It is widely considered the progenitor for the entire MOBA genre and sparked a number of similar mods and games. Games such as Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends, Smite, and Heroes of the Storm hit the market in the following years, all with varying degrees of success.

How is it that this new genre dominates the video game landscape when people use such harsh descriptors as “toxic” and “cancerous” when describing it? This paper hopes to look at the systems in Dota 2 that facilitate player interaction and how those systems help shape the community surrounding it, for better or worse.

Thesis

The systems of social interaction within Dota 2 allow for excellent communication between team members while meeting the needs of a fast paced, action filled MOBA. Though it implements a number of strategies to curb unhealthy player behaviour, the game fails to provide a welcoming and safe environment for all players. Dota 2 is not doing enough, fast enough.

Literature Review

Systems

Core to player interaction in any video game is its systems and mechanics that dictate how and to what extent players can affect one another. Not only of concern is direct player communication, but how the playing of the game itself can colour these interactions. Hudson and Cairns (2016) tackle this idea by examining the effects of winning and losing in team-based games. They find that when a team loses in an online game, it negatively impacts the social presence of that team and not their perception of the opposing team. Hudson and Cairns look at 10 different multiplayer games in their studies, and though their research is thorough and there is great variety in terms of genre between the titles, it should be noted that the sample is still limited.

Multiplayer games also rely on in-game systems for reporting cheating and abuse. The measures Dota 2 implements will be discussed in further detail throughout. There is one method for combating toxic player behaviour that it has yet to adopt, and that is a public tribunal. This system developed by Riot Games for League of Legends has proved hugely successful and is the focus of Blackburn and Kwak’s (2014) research. They provide a model for predicting the decisions of these player tribunals along with measures for protecting future abuse victims in-game. Though the data the authors provide is convincing, their suggestion to implement preemptive measures to protect players is somewhat naïve. Such systems would have to be infinitely complex to monitor communication patterns between players and to make sense of what is being said without punishing the wrong players. False positives for swearing would need to be taken into account, along with the ability to comprehend sarcasm versus good natured jesting.

Community

The success of any online video game is almost entirely dependent on the community that adopts it. As mentioned, Dota 2 is somewhat unique in that its roots go back to the Warcraft III modding community. The game as it is today would not exist without the passionate worldwide community that has formed around it. The existence of online communities is a relatively new phenomenon that is examined by Steinkuehler (2005) in her journal “The New Third Place.” The author primarily focuses on how people use online games as platforms for social interaction. Virtual spaces are now utilized much in the same manner as physical ones in the past. Though Steinkuehler discuses Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), many of her findings can be applied to any genre of online game that allows players to chat with each other via text or voice. That being said, it should be noted that the persistence of virtual spaces found in MMOGs does not exist in a game like Dota 2. There is however, less gatekeeping and barrier to entry. Most MMOGs would require an upfront purchase and monthly fee for access. Dota 2 is free-to-play and only requires an internet connection and a PC that can run the software. The persistence that Dota 2 lacks is found on platforms outside of the game. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube allow for players to continue their interactions in these shared spaces after their matches have completed.

The connections that players maintain outside of MOBAs is studied by Meng, Williams, and Shen (2015). They find that players who utilize more avenues of communication will often have stronger bonds. The researchers note that friends who meet and play MMOGs maintain stronger ties as opposed to those who do so in MOBAs. As stated before, the mechanics of a game like Dota 2 can possibly play a role in this disparity. Without a persistent world, players can only interact from match to match and may never see another player after one has ended. Therefore, the likelihood that a relationship is carried to another platform is drastically reduced.

The health of these communities should be of great concern to developers as they are intrinsic to the continued success of a game. Burger-Helmchen and Cohendet (2011) discuss the use of social media and other software and how developers can best utilize these to their advantage. A game’s community can often act as brand ambassadors and provide valuable feedback for future development. This research is very business-minded and highlights how social software is best utilized for game developers and publishers. It fails to look at how these strategies are not always in the best interest of the consumer or how dealing with communities with a heavy hand could backfire on the developer. Valve often takes a hands-off approach to the community of Dota 2. They will not communicate often outside of major updates and event announcements. The company has been criticized for this in the past, but at the same time, if there’s nothing being said, it is hard for your community to critique you. As a result, we see that players go outside of the game to find systems of interaction and maintain that dialog that Valve does not provide.

Toxicity and Sexism

Any online community that grows large enough will deal with problem members that break social taboos and create a toxic environment for other members. Video games are no exception. MOBAs especially carry the stigma of having unwelcoming and toxic communities. But what accounts for this? Fragoso (2015) looks at troublesome online behaviours amongst a notable community of Brazilian gamers. The author focuses on the practice of “trolling,” essentially “provoking participants of an online forum, message board, game, etc. with the intention of inciting fights and confrontations” (Fragoso, 2015, p. 45). This type of behaviour is believed to stem from a need to either intimidate, impose oneself, scam another, or satisfy one’s own greed. The author’s writing is predominantly preoccupied with how these types of players within Brazil act out these behaviours in online spaces, and therefore we should be careful not to apply their findings too liberally to other communities. However, many of the findings are not culturally specific, but relate solely to the human condition.

Being able to predict this type of toxic behaviour would be of great interest, not just to game developers, but every organization that utilizes online platforms for communication. Kokkinakis, Lin, Pavlas, and Wade (2016) attempt to do just that by applying an algorithm to examine the user names and ages of players in League of Legends. They found that anti-social words in names and player age are both correlated to how those players interact with others in the game. If a user name contains an anti-social word or phrase and the younger the player, the more likely they are to be toxic and abusive while using in-game communications. Their research accounted for false positives and player creativity to circumvent filters, but unfortunately it only collected data from North American players. It is unknown whether this finding would be the same, greater, or even smaller in other regions and whether their algorithm could be adopted for use in different languages.

Though a player’s user name may point to how they will interact with others in a match, it will not account for every circumstance. Kwak and Blackburn (2014) performed more research, this time looking at the actual in-game chat during matches of League of Legends. By examining 590,000 cases, they compared the linguistics of toxic players versus the average user. They were able to find patterns that can indicate when a player shifts from normal communication to hostility and abuse over the course of a match. Though the authors feel that their research could be implemented to prevent a player’s transition, or perhaps warn other players beforehand, it may not be so easy to apply. Communication and behaviour are immensely subjective and wholly dependent on the circumstance in which they are used. It is promising though, and could be helpful in making online games more welcoming to new players. One key aspect in League of Legends is that it does not contain an in-game voice chat system. Dota 2 does. Though the model outlined by Kwak and Blackburn could be used for Dota 2’s in-game text chat, it could not account for verbal communication abuse.

Though toxic behaviour affects all players in a community, it is often women who bear the overwhelming brunt of the abuse. Fox and Tang (2014) conducted a study that “sought to determine what personality traits, demographic variables, and levels of game play predicted sexist attitudes towards women who play video games” (Fox & Tang, 2014, p. 314). The authors note that the anonymity provided in online games was a key factor in abuse and other exchanges. They found that an individual’s need for social dominance and conforming to perceived masculine norms would equate to greater instances of sexism online. In a closer look at the MOBA genre, Ratan, Taylor, Hogan, Kennedy, and Williams (2015) conducted a qualitative and quantitative study of female players in League of Legends. They found that although women are just as skilled as men with similar experience, women make up only a fraction of the community. More specifically that “social and psychological factors, such as pressure on females to fulfill particular in-game roles, negative interactions between players, and the perception of female players as unwelcome and/or unskilled participants in the community, significantly contribute to the dearth of female League players” (Ratan, Taylor, Hogan, Kennedy, & Williams, 2015, p. 440). As there is no similar study that examines the demographics of the Dota 2 community, we cannot make a one-to-one comparison. But as these two games are incredibly similar in terms of genre, community, and player base, the research should not be ignored.

Methods

For this paper, sources were found through Capilano University’s online library and all of their connected resources. Key search terms included “video games,” “Dota 2,” “League of Legends,” “MOBA,” “toxic,” “communication,” and “social media.” Results were limited to peer reviewed journals from the last five years, with the exception of Steinkuehler’s work on digital third spaces from 2005. Finding previous research that examined Dota 2 proved difficult for a number of reasons. First, the game and its previous iteration as a mod, Defense of the Ancients, have only been around for 13 years, and the majority of that time was spent in obscurity before its official release in 2013. Second, Dota 2 is a game with a wide international audience, so any research that was found was not always available in English. Lastly, Dota 2 is not the most popular game in the MOBA genre. That title belongs to Riot Games’ League of Legends with its colossal player base of 67 million active monthly users (Altay, 2015, para. 2). Due to the similarity between the two titles in terms of genre, mechanics, systems, and community, the research looking at League of Legends is not only relevant, but invaluable when analyzing Dota 2. As both League of Legends and Dota 2 share roots in the original Defense of the Ancients mod and occupy almost identical spaces in online gaming, these sources are of critical importance when examining Dota 2. This paper will primarily use research from the past five years with the exception of one journal from 2005.

From the literature that was found on this subject, it appears that more attention is being paid to not just the games that people are playing online, but the way systems and mechanics facilitate social interaction. Though that has been covered at length over the last decade as the medium has evolved, it appears that there is a growing concern over how to ensure positive social and gaming experiences for the player. Hand-in-hand with that, there is also the growing concern of making competitive games more accessible and tolerant towards women and other groups that deviate from the perceived standard of the straight, white, male gamer.

Dota 2 is a competitive online game that pits two teams of five players against one another. Each player controls one unit on the map, referred to as their hero. The teams face off in the game world with the objective of destroying the central building at the other’s base, called the Ancient. Dota 2 was developed by the Valve Corporation and was released for Windows on July 9th, 2013 and then for the Mac and Linux platforms by July 18th, 2013 (Dota 2, Gamepedia, n.d., para. 1). It is a free-to-play game that can only be downloaded digitally through Valve’s game distribution platform, Steam.

The original Defense of the Ancients (DotA) mod was based on Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III. That in turn was based on a StarCraft (also Blizzard Entertainment) custom map known as Aeon of Strife. The history of the Defense of the Ancients mod is critical in understanding the current landscape of video games. It is widely considered the progenitor for the entire MOBA genre and sparked a number of similar mods and games. Games such as Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends, Smite, and Heroes of the Storm hit the market in the following years, all with varying degrees of success.

The early history of the original DotA mod is somewhat murky as a number of modders worked on these projects and often used pseudonyms. A modder known as “Eul” is credited as the creator of the original Defense of the Ancients in 2003 (Defense of the Ancients, Gamepedia, n.d., para. 10). Steve Feak, also known as “Guinsoo,” would eventually take over lead development on another iteration of the formula in DotA Allstars (Defense of the Ancients, Gamepedia, n.d., para. 14). Feak went on to be a founding member of Riot Games and developed not only one of the most popular MOBA’s in the world, but one of the most successful games, League of Legends. As of 2015 it is estimated that League of Legends has approximately 67 million active monthly users (Altay, 2015, para. 2).

A new lead developer eventually surfaced under the pseudonym IceFrog. IceFrog would shepherd DotA until 2009 when he was hired by Valve to create a full-fledged successor to the popular mod (Dota 2, Gamepedia, n.d., para. 3). That project would become Dota 2. IceFrog remains the lead developer of Dota 2 to this day and his identity is still a mystery to the general public.

Dota 2 boasts 10.9 million active monthly players from around the world and its popularity has helped legitimize eSports and professional video game competitions (Altay, 2015, para. 3). The largest Dota 2 tournament is The International, held every year in Seattle, hosted by Valve. The prize pool consistently dwarfs most traditional sports competitions. The game’s popularity is helped by its ease of access. All that is required to play Dota 2 is a PC and an internet connection. There is no barrier to entry that prohibits those of different socio-economic backgrounds from accessing the game. The game’s mechanics and systems put the focus on a player’s abilities and nothing else. Not their nationality, gender, race, or sexual orientation. This may speak to the game’s popularity outside of Western markets.

This paper will be part auto-ethnography, but will mainly focus on research previously discussed and how that information can be applied to Dota 2’s social systems. For this analysis I am relying on my time spent with Dota 2 over the last year and a half, beginning in November of 2014. By comparison with the community at large, I would be considered a “casual” player, averaging 3-4 matches a week (276 total) with a cumulative 384 hours spent in-game. Learning to play Dota 2 involved playing through the tutorial section of the game, playing against computer controlled opponents (or bots) before playing with human players. I will also be drawing on knowledge acquired by reading online guides, watching tutorial videos and professional tournaments, along with frequenting community hubs such as wikis and the Dota 2 subreddit forum at reddit.com/r/DotA2. Dota 2 is a game that is infinitely complex. It is notoriously difficult to learn and almost impossible to master for the average player.

Analysis

Press ‘G’ To Talk – Systems

Teamwork and cooperation among players in Dota 2 are of utmost importance to the success of any given team. Teams that do not work together will often be outmatched by teams that do. The game allows players to communicate with their teams via text and voice chat. Opponents can only be communicated with via text. There is nothing that forces players to communicate, but the tools are provided for them within the game. Players can type messages with their keyboards or use a customizable “quick-chat” system that gives them access to over 80 commonly used phrases. This system automatically translates the messages to every player’s selected language, which is a simple solution for navigating language barriers when playing with players from all over the world.

Players with microphones hooked up to their computers can make use of the in-game voice chat system. Other third party voice chat programs such as Skype, TeamSpeak, or Discord are also very popular among groups of friends that play together frequently, but we will focus solely on the provided in-game systems. Voice communication is faster, more efficient, and more accurate than text chat and is the preferred means of communication amongst competitive players and teams, both amateur and professional alike.

The greatest downside to a communication system like this is that it can be abused. Players can be harassed and verbally attacked very easily. This is a problem that many modern multiplayer games still struggle to solve today. Dota 2 allows players to mute the text and voice chat from specific players, but that will only save a player from future abuses, and not the initial harassment. The game has also implemented a reporting system to report toxic or abusive players, but this system is somewhat opaque and not easy to navigate in-game. The report system allows users to report players for communication abuse, intentional ability abuse, or intentional feeding (purposefully dying to aid the opposing team), along with a text box that allows for more details or context. This is similar to a system implemented in League of Legends that allows players to “Honor” or “Report” other players. Unlike Dota 2, this system will also display a ribbon next to the user names of League players who consistently receive “Honor” (Kokkinakis, Lin, Pavlas, & Wade, 2016, p. 605). This highlights a shortcoming in Valve’s system. Reported players are theoretically punished, but commended players have no incentive to seek commendation aside from personal satisfaction. A total number of commendations can be displayed on a player’s profile, but that must be actively sought out by others.

One type of punishment that a reported player can receive is a communications ban, preventing them from using text or voice chat in-game for a set period of time. Valve expanded on why they implemented this system saying, “you are more likely to quit [Dota 2] if there is abusive chat going on in your games” and that the actual outcome of matches does not factor into a player’s decision to leave (Dota Team, 2013, Communication Reports). This reasoning seems sound, and would definitely provide a more pleasant experience for players that were matched against a punished user. However, like many strategies covered in this paper, it deals with the problem after it has occurred. Though it may lead to rehabilitation in the player, it does not preempt the undesired behaviour.

Dota 2 has what it calls “low priority,” essentially a penalty for reported players and those that abandon matches. In low priority, players have longer queue times to get into a match and only play against other players in low priority. This system is controversial within the community. Some see it as a just or unjust repercussion for negative player behaviour, while others see it as a place to breed even more toxicity. When problematic players are forced to play and interact only with other penalized players, it does not aid in their reformation, but only reinforces negative habits and beliefs. Again, this system does not speak to prevention, only damage control and punishment.

A system that Valve could adapt to Dota 2 is Riot Games’ “Tribunal” procedure. This system utilizes crowdsourcing of trusted League of Legends players to judge and select punishment for reported users.  Blackburn and Kwak proposed taking this system a step further and altering the existing user interface to better warn players when they are exhibiting toxic behaviour (2014, p. 11). In this way they could attempt to prevent problems before they arise. But like all systems that are put in place to police player interactions, they can possibly be tricked or manipulated as player’s adapt to counter their use (Blackburn & Kwak, 2014, p. 10).

Though all of these systems previously discussed have been put in place to address communication and reporting, the actual effects of playing a MOBA have yet to be covered. The genre is known for its competitiveness and dependence on cooperation for success. As a result, Hudson and Cairns found that this could lead to “frustration with the performance of others” (2016, p. 4). But more than that, their research shows that “being in a losing team does not substantially change the social connections players felt towards their opponents, but did substantially change the social connections players felt with their team-mates. (Hudson & Cairns, 2016, p. 7). This essentially means that players will be more likely to lash out at teammates as a result of a match loss, rather than their opponents. This feeling is magnified by the fact that MOBAs are team-based games that bring together players with “little introduction and knowledge of each other’s abilities” and force them to adapt and make “quick judgements about others based on shallow cues and pre-existing relationships” (Hudson & Cairns, 2016, p. 10). The very skeleton that Dota 2 is built on is compounding the feelings of success or failure of its players.

Valve has recently taken a positive step towards fostering a friendlier community. Now, every 25 games that a user plays, a conduct summary will appear as a pop up window while navigating through in-game menus. These summaries will display the player’s number of abandoned games, reports against them, and commends they have received for that period of time. Valve clarified why they decided to share this information with players:

“To better communicate with players how their behavior is affecting others. For most players, this means giving confirmation that they’re doing great and encouragement to keep it up … Many disruptive players don’t realize how far their behavior is out of step with the rest of the community … Many players who receive low-priority penalties due to excessive reports underestimate how many reports they are receiving and how many it takes to get a penalty” (Conduct Summary and Low Priority FAQ, 2016).

Seemingly, through anecdotal evidence on forums, social media, and conversations with players in my own circle, the tactic seems to be working. By surfacing conduct summaries, many users on the Dota 2 subreddit have posted stories similar to that of user “rei_dota”:

“Then Valve released conduct summaries and I got my first one. 2 Abandons 7 Reports and 0 Commends. Wow! I had completely tilted [become angry or despondent] and become the very toxic sludge I hated! I took a 24hr break and colected [sic] myself. I made a concious [sic] effort the next day to be more positive… And you know what? The wins started piling up. Now I'm winning over 65% of my games and my latest summary? 0 Abandons <3 Reports and 5 Commends. Thank you Valve for revealing what a toxic POS [piece of shit] I'd become. I mean that sincerely” (rei_dota, 2016).

  

“Good Luck. Have Fun.” – Community

Dota 2 boasts a huge international audience that occupies different spheres and subcultures: modders, artists, video creators, eSports fans, and more. They often utilize different online platforms and social media software to foster their community and engage in ongoing conversations related to Dota 2. Steinkuehler’s writing made the case that virtual environments in MMOGs were replacing physical third places as places for social interaction and discourse (Steinkuehler, 2005, p. 21). Though the author was referring to persistent digital worlds, the case can be made that modern online forums and social media platforms function much in the same way, if not more effectively and with less gatekeeping.

Though Dota 2 does not contain any persistent worlds for players to congregate and socialize, online social networks allow fans more freedom in the creation of their new third spaces. Whether that be through Facebook groups, conversations on Twitter, or posts on Reddit, these third spaces are helping establish a sense of community for Dota 2 that would not have been possible to the same extent twenty years ago. These new channels allow players to reinforce and strengthen their existing relationships with one another, especially if they engage with different types of media (Meng, Willimas, & Shen, 2015, p. 191).  These communities have become tremendously valuable to developers such as Valve, though interestingly enough, the corporation has little to no say in how the community evolves on these platforms (Burger-Helmchen & Cohendet, 2011, p. 338). Growth has been organic as these systems have shaped a new tribal identity for Dota 2 players.

These platforms and virtual spaces allow for individuals from all over the world to form communities that otherwise would never have occurred naturally (Burger-Helmchen & Cohendet, 2011, p. 320). The ability for players to maintain conversations outside of a game are crucial to building trust and social capital. Not only that, but Steinkuehler also notes that in these spaces “an individual’s rank and status in the workplace or society at large are of no import. Acceptance and participation is not contingent on any prerequisites, requirements, roles, duties, or proof of membership” (Steinkuehler, 2005, p. 22). But as exciting as this growth may be, it is important to ask if these platforms are allowing critical discussions on the state of the game and its community? Or is it a lot of jokes, complaining, and white noise? This opinion is entirely my own, but I feel the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Important issues may be brought up by the community from time to time, and in turn those will be addressed by the developers, but these cases are often the exception and not the rule.

  

“Uninstall Noob!” – Toxicity and Sexism

“It’s a problem that I run into constantly … I need to get on the mic. I need to communicate with my team. But I know if I do, it just opens up this bag of things that could happen… and do tend to happen” (Shelved Games Podcast, 2016, 55:24). Megan is an avid player of competitive games such as StarCraft, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike. With over 3,000 matches of Dota 2 played, Megan is one of the most talented and experienced players that I know. Yet even with her impressive stats, she hesitates to use Dota 2’s in-game voice chat if she is not grouped with an entire team of friends. She and I discussed the issue of gaming online as a woman on a podcast recorded this past March. Megan’s sentiment is one that is often echoed by women in all online gaming communities, but the problem seems far worse in the MOBA genre.

Fox and Tang found that women more often “cite the game culture rather than the nature of the game as a deterrent to participation” (2014, p. 318). Not only that, but many women will also adopt tactics to hide their gender while playing online. That can include “avoiding feminine screen names, female avatars, or voice chat functions” (Fox & Tang, 2014, p. 318). Research also found that “game-based competence does not necessarily lead to a willingness to actively communicate” while playing League of Legends, aside from short, one-word text based messages (Ratan, Taylor, Hogan, Kennedy, & Williams, 2015, p. 446). Cultural stereotypes may also play a factor in the perception of women’s own capabilities in-game, whether or not they differ from a male player’s (Ratan, Taylor, Hogan, Kennedy, & Williams, 2015, pp. 455-456).

The treatment of women within the Dota 2 community may also relate to the reasoning behind other forms of toxicity and abuse that are prevalent. Fragoso notes that abuse and harassment are often “a question of identity, a game of lies and manipulations that involves anonymity” (2015, p. 47). That anonymity is a key element that allows toxicity to breed in these online spaces where one’s comments can be disassociated with oneself (Fox & Tang, 2014, p. 314).

“Due to the anonymity, users then experience deindividuation, or a loss of a sense of self, in the social context ... As one faceless member of a group, the anonymous user is enabled to engage in anti-normative behaviors online such as flaming, trolling, and other forms of online harassment” (Fox & Tang, 2014, p. 316).

That online harassment is often gamified. It is no longer enjoyable to play the game, but the objective is to ruin it for others. By manipulating the systems and mechanics built into the video game, the toxic individual creates something new for themselves outside of the original intentions set out by the developer (Fragoso, 2015, p. 48). As mentioned previously, any hope to police or prevent toxic behaviour or abuse before it occurs is an uphill battle. Kwak and Blackburn developed algorithms to predict when a player will become toxic, but these models would not work for Dota 2’s in-game voice chat system. Those authors even readily admit that trying to combat harassment would be a difficult task in itself. “A major obstacle in understanding toxic behavior is its subjective perception. Unlike unethical behavior like cheating, toxic behavior is nebulously defined; toxic players themselves sometimes fail to recognize their behavior as toxic” (Kwak & Blackburn, 2014, p. 1). Although Dota 2 already allows players to mute the text and voice of other participants in a match, perhaps Valve could implement a profanity filter that would at least give users the option to reduce their exposure to a pre-set or custom list of words. In a very small way, that would allow users to take a pro-active approach to improving their gaming experience.

Removing toxicity, racism, and harassment from online games and communities will likely never happen, nor be absolute. But it is still a worthwhile cause that should be pursued to foster inclusive communities and promote the growth of online video games. Though Valve has traditionally been very hands off when dealing with their community, it should reassess their current state of affairs. When explaining their reporting system that was discussed earlier, Valve stated that “we’ve tried to build a system where the community gets to own the definition of abuse, and the community’s overall decision finds its way back to the people who cross over the line” (Dota Team, 2013, Communication Reports). Unfortunately, leaving these types of decisions to be decided by mob mentality has left the culture of the Dota 2 community in its current state. A state that spawns Twitter accounts such as @WomanInDota. The user’s profile describes her as “a lady who plays Dota 2. This is the sexist nonsense people say in game.” Her Twitter feed highlights personal and re-tweeted examples of the sexist and harassing comments that women receive daily while playing. Valve Corporation needs to take a more proactive approach when dealing with its community. But mostly the developer needs to focus on creating systems for their game that help foster a better and stronger Dota 2 family.

  

Conclusion

Dota 2 is an infinitely complex game that has garnered a cult following worldwide. It has been immensely profitable for its developer Valve and continues to be a dominant force in the world of eSports. Dota 2, and games like it, warrant a far closer examination of their communities and how those communities interact and socialize with one another based on in-game systems. Going forward, the biggest challenge facing Dota 2 is an environment that may be perceived as hostile to new players and toxic to those that are already a part of it.

Three years ago, Valve stated that “60% of players who receive bans go on to modify their behavior and don’t receive further bans” and that “total reports are down more than 30%” (Dota Team, 2013, Communication Reports). These stats are out of date, and though they show progress, the current user experience is still less than ideal. And with a player base in the tens of millions, it is a gargantuan task to filter out the undesirables and offer a better social and playing experience for all users. The implementation of new systems and algorithms could lead to improvement, but Valve must show a willingness to take a much more proactive stance and risk upsetting factions of their community. Cutting out the “cancer” might be their only road to recovery.

  

Works Cited

Altay, O. (2015). The Biggest eSports in Gaming. Retrieved May 20, 2016, from https://mmos.com/editorials/the-biggest-esports

Blackburn, J., & Kwak, H. (2014). STFU NOOB! Predicting Crowdsourced Decisions on Toxic Behavior in Online Games. University of South Florida & Telefonica Research.

Burger-Helmchen, T., & Cohendet, P. (2011). User Communities and Social Software in the Video Game Industry. Long Range Planning, 44 (Social Software: Strategy, Technology, and Community), 317-343.

Conduct Summary and Low Priority FAQ. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2016, from http://www.dota2.com/conductsummaryfaq

Defense of the Ancients. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2016, from http://dota2.gamepedia.com/Defense_of_the_Ancients

Dota 2. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2016, from http://dota2.gamepedia.com/Dota_2

Dota Team. (2013). Communication Reports. Retrieved June 2, 2016, from http://blog.dota2.com/2013/05/communication-reports/

Fragoso, S. (2015). "HUEHUEHUE I'm BR": Spam, Trolling and Griefing in Online Games. Revista FAMECOS - Mídia, Cultura E Tecnologia, 22(3), 37-53.

Fox, J., & Tang, W. Y. (2014). Sexism in Online Video Games: The Role of Conformity to Masculine Norms and Social Dominance Orientation. Computers in Human Behavior, 33, 314-320.

Hudson, M., & Cairns, P. (2016). The Effects of Winning and Losing on Social Presence in Team-Based Digital Games. Computers in Human Behavior, 60, 1-12.

Kokkinakis, A. V., Lin, J., Pavlas, D., & Wade, A. R. (2016). What's in a Name? Ages and Names Predict the Valence of Social Interactions in a Massive Online Game. Computers in Human Behavior, 55(Part B), 605-613.

Kwak, H., & Blackburn, J. (2014). Linguistic Analysis of Toxic Behavior in an Online Video Game. Qatar Computing Research Institute & Telefonica Research.

Meng, J., Williams, D., & Shen, C. (2015). Channels Matter: Multimodal Connectedness, Types of Co-Players and Social Capital for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena Gamers. Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 190-199.

Ratan, R. A., Taylor, N., Hogan, J., Kennedy, T., & Williams, D. (2015). Stand by Your Man. Games & Culture, 10(5), 438-462.

rei_dota. (2016, February). The Conduct Summary Effect. Dota 2 Subreddit. Retrieved June 2, 2016 from https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/447pyw/the_conduct_summary_effect/

Shelved Games Podcast. (2016). 15 – Shelved Games Podcast 03/28/2016. Retrieved June 2, 2016, from http://www.shelvedgames.com/podcast/2732016shelved-games-podcast-03282016

Steinkuehler, C. A. (2005). The New Third Place: Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming in American Youth Culture. Tidskrift Journal of Research in Teacher Education, 3(3), 17-32.

Woman In Dota. (2016). @WomanInDota. Twitter Account. Retrieved June 2, 2016, from https://twitter.com/WomanInDota

Digital Hurdles: Can Parents Keep Pace with Video Games?

Author's Note: This is another assignment that I wrote for a university course. The idea was to write a shorter front-of-book piece that might appear in a general interest magazine. The demographic we were to write to was described as "upper-middle class professionals or parents." This type of article has been written a million times, so I decided to not pursue publishing. As always, let me know what you think. 

 Tom Clancy's The Division

Tom Clancy's The Division

A gunfight erupts in Times Square amidst the abandoned police cruisers and cement barricades. The shots echo down the cavernous trenches between buildings, interrupted only by explosions and the screams of the dying. Giant, smiling models on the billboards overhead are a stark contrast to the chaos below.

This scene isn’t from a news report or even an action movie, but from one of 2016’s most hotly anticipated video games: Tom Clancy’s The Division. The action role-playing game is made up of the same fabric as other installments in the Clancy universe of movies and novels, with an emphasis on military gadgets and high stakes global conflict. Coming out this March, the game does not shy away from violence or mature themes and has garnered a Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB offers parents a way to easily discern which games are suitable for their children, much like the ratings systems in place for movies or television. In this age of digital excess, it can seem like an insurmountable task for parents to review every piece of content their children are exposed to and to prevent them from accessing media that may not be suitable for their age. Where then does the responsibility fall? Critics may point the finger at the developers and creators of these games. However, the artists, programmers, and managers working in this field are often parents themselves and can at times struggle with these same questions.

“I can see the addictiveness,” admits Clint Jorgenson, co-founder of Righteous Hammer Games and father of two. “I find myself saying, ‘No more Minecraft!’” Jorgenson has spent twelve years making video games. Even if at times he shows hesitation, he also points to the positive aspects of the medium that his eldest daughter is now exploring. “It’s a gateway to programming. She started by writing one line scripts to be able to build a plane of blocks because it was faster. If the kids are going to play anything, Minecraft seems to have more positive aspects to it: problem solving, engineering, even doing scripts.” 

 Minecraft

Minecraft

“I’m selective about her iPad games,” says Christi Rae when speaking about her 3-year-old daughter. Rae has over 12 years of experience in the games industry and is currently the Development Director for Capcom Game Studio Vancouver, known for the zombie survival franchise Dead Rising. “I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t let her play. Games taught her to read. Educational games can be very instrumental.”

Video games may not just benefit young children learning to read or code. Mounting support points to the benefits of gaming in technical related fields as well. Experiments conducted at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York show that surgeons performing laparoscopic surgery that also regularly play video games can perform anywhere from 33% to 42% better than their peers. Gaming may not just play a role in training and skill building, but in actual treatment as well. Akili Interactive Labs is developing video games to measure and treat a number of cognitive disorders including depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and even brain injuries. Their first program, Project: EVO, has already completed a number of clinical tests and is seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

 Project: Evo

Project: Evo

This young medium of entertainment and t­­echnology changes at a rapid pace. It can be a struggle for parents to discern what is and is not appropriate for their children with no one-size-fits-all solution. Shooting maniacal outlaws on the streets of New York may be harmless fun for a teenager, but it could also be nightmare inducing for a preschooler. The Entertainment Software Association of Canada advises parents to use the ESRB’s rating system when selecting games for children, and to also have open conversations about the content they are consuming. By being actively involved with what their children are playing, parents can foster discussion and critical analysis of the media that their kids are exposed to.

Video games are a part of our everyday lives whether we like it or not. By arming them with the right tools, we can trust that kids are ready for their digital adventures.

Dodging Digital Bullets - Video Game Design and Hate Speech

Author's Note: This was an analysis of a scholarly journal for a course on mass media studies. The purpose of the assignment was to breakdown and evaluate the journal, relate it to other course material, and then to present it in a roundtable discussion with the class. This piece is not perfect. If I recall correctly I believe I received an A or a B. It also only skims the surface of an infinitely complex subject. As most of my writing time is now devoted to university assignments, I wanted to give you a taste of the types of things I'm working on. Let me know what you think.     J.

In Ryan Rogers’ paper “Video Game Design and Acceptance of Hate Speech in Online Gaming”, the author argues that society must concern itself with the real-world impact that the acceptance of hate speech in online games can have. He also argues that game design is a critical component in how widely accepted these behaviours become. Rogers conducts a small experiment to test these hypotheses and concludes that hate speech is affected by the level of competitiveness in games and the fragmentation between players.

Rogers is an Assistant Professor at Marist College in New York state and earned his PhD in Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina. He has written extensively on video games and the psychology of our interaction with them (Marist College). Rogers wrote this study on hate speech in 2010. In our era of fast moving and ever changing online communities, a lot has happened in five years. Certain aspects of Rogers’ paper, such as the sources he uses or the game he conducts his experiment with, are somewhat dated, but the results of his experiment and the conclusions he draws are still quite relevant today.

Rogers begins by stating that “Bigotry and hate thrive in online gaming … and gamers say they often encounter varied forms of hate speech in games” (Rogers 44). Couple this with the anonymity that the internet offers, it is clear this issue is not easily solvable. Rogers notes how the design of modern online games does little to curb harassment and unfriendly conduct, but may in fact encourage it. Rogers states “60% of Americans play video games” (45) but even with such a high percentage of Americans represented, hate speech “is most often directed at individuals who do not fit the stereotype of the heterosexual, adolescent, white male” (45). Pointing to research that indicates that players competing rather than cooperating are more aggressive, Rogers believes that competitive gaming can foster hate speech. The author also posits that fragmentation in games is also a key factor. Fragmentation is seen as a partition of a player’s experience from others. It can create a “psychological distinction between online gaming and real world interaction” (Rogers 45). This often happens when players have a feeling of disconnect from others as a result of the distance and anonymity the internet provides. Another factor that leads to fragmentation is the frustration a player feels when faced with loss and poor performance. This frustration can be expressed in all manner of outbursts or deviations from acceptable social norms.

The experiment that Rogers conducted to test his hypotheses involved showing subjects “a 15-minute video segment of recorded game play, in which actors played Gears of War 2 and followed a script” (Rogers 46). The demographics of Rogers chosen subjects leave much to be desired. The subjects ranged from 18 to 54 years old, but by Rogers own admission were “mostly white men between 18 and 24” (46). This would dramatically swing the resulting data in line with Rogers’ assumptions on who is more likely to condone online harassment. The experiment included a total of forty-one subjects. Though the findings of the experiment are interesting, this is not a large enough pool of data to draw conclusive results from. In the experiment, “one group of participants was exposed to a high competitive game mode and a second group to a low competitive game mode. Both game modes incorporated two levels of fragmentation, and seven instances of hate speech” (46). Rogers also included what he calls “breaks in etiquette” to contrast the reaction to traditional hate speech. These included “disruptive communication, unsporting behavior, lack of skill/unfamiliarity with the game, and cheating” (46). The subjects finally filled out a survey that measured all of these same factors but were divorced from gaming so as to better assess the effects of online games.

The results of the experiment show that “acceptance of hate speech is influenced by competitive game design. Competition may increase aggression and hostility, and it may also increase acceptance of aggressive and hostile actions, such as hate speech” (Rogers 48).  Rogers also concludes that competitiveness can lead to hostility towards women and their exclusion from online gaming spaces. Rogers believes that game developers can combat this by including better representations of women in their games and by battling misogyny directly in their communities (48). From the resulting data, Rogers also concludes that fragmentation of the player’s experience will also lead to an acceptance of hate speech. A game creates distance between players by reinforcing how artificial their experience is. As a result, “hateful content is more acceptable online than offline” (48). Knowing this, designers should strive to facilitate more substantial experiences between players. In this way, players may learn to see another person on the other end of an in-game avatar.

A number of parallels between Rogers theories and existing media effects models are evident in his research. Cultivation theory states that we are affected by the media we consume and that it shapes our perceptions of reality as a result. Cultivation theory also asserts that the ideals, opinions, and beliefs of a wider audience can be homogenized through the consumption of a medium. In this way, behaviours can be normalized and defined as “acceptable” whether that is actually the case or not. If popular media like television, games, and movies reinforce the idea that games are the purview of predominantly heterosexual, white, adolescent males, then we will construct a reality for ourselves in which that is true. If this is our perceived reality, it is not surprising that any challenge to our perceptions would be met with hostility. We know that video games are in fact no longer the dominion of this traditional demographic. The Entertainment Software Association recently published its sales, demographic, and usage data which states “women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33%) than boys age 18 or younger (15%)” (Entertainment Software Association 5).

So why do these notions of video games as a strictly male hobby persist? To be short: marketing. Adriana Barbaro’s documentary film Consuming Kids examines the multi-billion dollar industry that surrounds advertising and marketing to children. In it, the film examines how marketers target their ads to both genders in a way that reinforces desired behaviours and stereotypes. They use bright pastel colours to appeal to girls and emphasize the ideals of vanity and domesticity. Conversely, “marketers have long targeted boys with what would seem to be adult messages. Messages that equate being a man with aggression and toughness and violence” (Barbaro). Nowhere in advertising to young men and boys do we see the values of empathy, compassion, or tolerance heralded as acceptable standards of masculinity.

This problem in advertising, especially video game advertising, stems all the way back to the 1980’s and 1990’s. In Tracey Lien’s article entitled No Girls Allowed for gaming website Polygon, Lien examines this history:

“The video game industry created something of a chicken-and-egg situation. When it conducted market research during the '80s and '90s, it found that more boys than girls played video games. Boys were more likely to be involved with new technology, more willing to be early adopters and more encouraged by their teachers and families to pursue science, technology, engineering and math in school. Girls have always played video games, but they weren't the majority. In wake of the video game crash, the game industry's pursuit of a safe and reliable market led to it homing in on the young male. And so the advertising campaigns began. Video games were heavily marketed as products for men, and the message was clear: No girls allowed” (Lien)

As Rogers’ research has pointed out, combating online harassment is no easy task. Not only will gamers have to become aware of this issue but the way video games are built and developed will need to change as well. Many developers are already trying to discern the best ways for players to interact with one another online. Some games remove voice chat entirely, while others only provide simple emotes for communication. The highly competitive genre of Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games (or MOBAs) are synonymous in gaming circles with their toxic and unwelcoming environments. The most popular of which, League of Legends, is actively engaged with its community to find the best means to reduce harassment and unacceptable behaviour. In an interview with gaming website Kotaku, the game’s lead designer of social systems, Jeffrey Lin, spoke about a tribunal system that was implemented to curb harassment (Skiffington). This system was meant to address anti-social behaviours that were normalized as players had never been confronted or punished for them in the past. Lin goes on to state, “For the majority of players (74%) [of those ever punished under that system], the first warning in the Tribunal was enough for them to improve their behaviors” (Skiffington).