This is a guest post written by Katie Salen Tekinbaş.
When experts from around the country came together at the World Economic Forum last February for Raising Good Gamers, a workshop focused on exploring the myriad forces shaping the culture and climate of online game communities for youth, no one could have predicted how relevant the work would become in the months that followed. As teens and tweens turned to online games in record numbers in order to connect with friends, play, and explore interests while sequestered at home with their families, many of them also experienced systemic bias, hate, harassment, and disruptive player behavior. The release of a new report, “Raising Good Gamers: Envisioning an Agenda for Diversity, Inclusion, and Fair Play,” explores why this might be the case and just what might be done about it.
The report synthesizes outputs, learnings, and recommendations from the workshop that brought together roughly 40 participants from commercial, research, advocacy, policy, education, and philanthropic sectors. It argues that online games, their technologies, and communities of gamers are important and potentially powerful tools for achieving broader goals of social justice. One unifying goal of RGG is to make sure that all youth—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or experience level—can be a gamer if they want to be. This is not a reality for many youth today. Gaming culture can be exclusionary and discriminatory, reproducing and encoding systems of bias and inequity that pervade society as a whole.
Playing Well, Playing Together
Taking the year 2030 as a target, the report opens with a set of visions for the future of online play, crafted by workshop participants “What kinds of experiences,” we asked, “are young gamers (8-13 years old) having in video games and online communities in the year 2030?” Examples include:
Young gamers are having fun, learning from each other, and learning to be good citizens of gaming and online communities. They are able to transfer some of their skills and citizenship sensibility to other aspects of their lives.
They are connecting and mentoring each other in online gaming spaces that are safe, mixed age, and centered on creation, exploration, inquiry, and friendly competition.
Youth and their parents have a deeper understanding of digital citizenship, supported and taught in a robust way by their schools. They are finding reduced anonymity across all online spaces which brings new challenges and opportunities for how they navigate and craft their digital personas.
The collective visions, while varied, had much in common.
- Prosocial game behavior would be celebrated and incentivized, participation diversified, and minoritized voices elevated.
- Youth would not only be supported by schools, parents, and peers to develop necessary skills to survive and thrive online, but would also take on active roles as mentors, moderators, and role models.
- Online communities would be inclusive and provide a diversity of ways to belong and participate.
- Experiences would be tailored to be age/developmentally appropriate, intentionally moderated to build positive communities, and scaffolded to teach social and emotional learning in the process.
- Any approach would necessarily need to engage youth as key agents of change in defining, shaping, and sustaining the culture and climate of more safe, inclusive, and supportive online game communities.
Online aggression, hate, harassment, prejudice, and disruptive player behavior—what the report refers to as online toxicity—has its root causes not in individual players or games, but in a system of interconnections, interactions, policies, patterns, and power dynamics. This system involves many stakeholders with different values and priorities who influence the system in various, interrelated ways. The report highlights potential relationships between stakeholders and other dynamics contributing to a complex culture of toxicity in online gaming, including the following:
Streamers behave badly as a way to increase their views and likes, which in turn maximizes their profits and those of their company sponsors.
Game companies cannot fully control who plays their games, despite Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings.
Younger players play mature games and learn through their interactions with older and often toxic audiences.
Cultural stigmatization of gaming leads to a lack of educator involvement in supporting prosocial and educational gaming spaces in schools.
Lack of public access to data from game companies on the nature of harm on any game platform limits research and policy that could improve safety and trust.
Online human moderation at scale is expensive and it is difficult to get buy-in from leadership to invest in it.
Systemic bias in the design of technologies and representations work against diversity,reinforce player stereotypes, and ultimately limit the definition of who is a gamer.
The report represents a first step in RGG’s efforts to help identify areas of opportunity to be taken up by developers, researchers, practitioners, young people and others to bring about the desired change in the culture and climate of online play for young players. In addition to identifying six areas of opportunity, the report also puts forth an initial research agenda that can inform and guide the initiative. My RGG co-organizers—Susanna Pollack, Diana J. Moreau, and Arana Shapiro—have assembled a star-powered advisory board that includes 30-plus members from organizations like Roblox, Mojang, Fair Play Alliance, AnyKey, PBS Kids, Nickelodeon, Ubisoft, Dreamyard, Facebook Gaming, Riot, Google Stadia, Anti-Defamation League, AbleGamers, ISTE, TED-Ed, Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Maven Youth, Supercell, Entertainment Software Association, and others. The advisory board includes teen ambassadors whose voices will be at the center of the initiative. We are excited by the breadth and depth of expertise represented and are eager to identify additional supporters to help turn the agenda outlined in the report into a reality.
Learn more about the Raising Good Gamers initiative.