Sarah Nader / Northwest Herald / AP

The game of trolls and how to win it

Deterring online harassment requires that developers see women as desirable customers

March 28, 2015 2:00AM ET

You may have heard about #GamerGate, the campaign of harassment directed at female game developers and critics that was the inspiration for a recent episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” Or you may have listened to the episode of the public radio show “This American Life” in which Lindy West, a writer who focuses on social justice and body image issues, confronted one of her longtime trolls on the phone. But it’s not just the so-called social justice warriors and feminist provocateurs who are on the receiving end of trolling and harassment. Women are harassed everywhere they go on the Internet, from social media to online dating sites. However, with the help of conscientious design principles, it’s possible to beat the trolls at their own game. Developing these troll deterrents relies on a simple principle: Convince software developers that attracting and retaining women as customers is worth their efforts.

In my research on masculinity in gaming culture, I describe trolling as a rhetorical meta-game that takes place in all the online venues where gamers gather. Trolls police their communities using harassment and ridicule as their weapons of choice against anyone they think does not belong. The evidence suggests that trolls generally see women as undesirable participants. According to the Pew Research Center, women ages 18 to 24 are more likely than any other group to experience the worst forms of online harassment, such as stalking and sexual harassment. The organization Working to Halt Online Abuse reports that 75 percent of the instances of harassment it documented from 2000 to 2013 were aimed at women.

Contrary to popular belief, trolls aren’t an inevitable part of life online, an annoyance everyone must stomach, and Internet users shouldn’t have to log off in order to avoid them. The mantra “Don’t feed the trolls” turns a blind eye to the Internet’s omnipresence in our lives. It’s not an easily abandoned outlet if we wish to remain productive and competitive on the job market and connected to our family and friends.  

The good news is that if trolling really is a game, it is correctable — or at least minimizable — through good game design.  

The power of design

The creators of the online dating app Tinder realized that design can help squelch trolling when it developed an interface for love seekers that feels more like a game than a matchmaking service. Tinder’s user interface is essentially a card game with simple, intuitive controls: Swipe right to express interest in someone or left to pass him or her by. The interface prompts users to think of time spent on the app as playing. Users must express mutual interest in order to enable direct communication. This protects women from a continuous cascade of rants, requests for nude pictures and sexual propositions and solves a problem that plagues online services: Women become a scarce resource because they’re turned off by the creepy onslaught. A dearth of female users makes for a lackluster straight dating service. Thus, it is in Tinder’s best economic interest to create an app that will boost the safety and comfort of female users.

Services like Tinder (including similar apps such as Antidate and Bumble, both of which require women to make the first move after a match) represent a paradigm shift in app development. These developers recognized the game that trolls play using the interfaces of traditional online dating sites. They also recognized that trolls were targeting women. The developers of these services then made the intuitive leap that, in order to successfully match up men and women for dates, they would need to provide a platform that was welcoming to both groups. They realized that providing women with safeguards against trolls would benefit the community as a whole and create a more profitable product.

We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention.

David Gaider

Lead writer, BioWare

The same lesson appears to be on the verge of transforming online gaming. A subculture that until quite recently has been considered the purview of adolescent straight white males is beginning to open up, as game producers calculate that a broad and diverse user base might be more profitable than a narrowly constructed, fiercely loyal but insular and combative crowd of self-professed gamers.

For example, Riot Games’ “League of Legends,” the world’s most played PC game with a 92 percent male player base, has extensively studied the problem of trolling, especially after the noxious community of this team-based tactical action game began garnering more attention than the game itself. The culmination of its research into user psychology resulted in a tribunal system in which players participate in punishing offenders, through restrictions of their in-game chat privileges or even outright bans. It recently instituted an instant ban system that brings even swifter justice to those who make racist or homophobic remarks or death threats against fellow players. According to Riot’s player behavior team, these changes have resulted in a decrease in reports of negative behavior and a decrease in the number of repeat offenders. 

Microsoft is implementing a community-powered reputation model for users of its Xbox One gaming console. This system will aggregate data on players gathered from their online behavior and the reactions of their peers and run them through an algorithm in order to generate a reputation score of green (“good player”), yellow (“needs improvement”) or red (“avoid me”). Microsoft reasons that making the outcomes of these algorithms visible to other players will induce trolls to work toward a positive score.

Broaden the base

Gaming content is also diversifying in pursuit of a larger and more varied demographic base. BioWare’s popular “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” franchises allow players to explore both straight and queer romance options. When an angry fan demanded that BioWare refocus on its “main demographic: the straight male gamer,” lead writer David Gaider responded:

We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content … and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant.

After protests on Twitter that users were unable to form queer romantic relationships in its game “Tomodachi Life” (think “The Sims” meets the cartoony “Animal Crossing”) and a flood of negative news coverage, Nintendo recently bowed to fans’ wishes. Nintendo apologized and promised to include the option of queer marriages in future installments of the series.

Trolling is still thought of as de rigueur in many circles. In order for women — and the other demographic groups that have long been undervalued participants of Internet culture — to be treated equally in online spaces, developers must recognize how the infrastructure of the communities they create can be exploited by trolls. We can use gaming mechanics to solve many of these problems, but only if we create a financial incentive for developers to play along with us. If we as consumers can make it profitable for them to cultivate a reputation for inclusiveness, they will make the tools we need to turn the Internet into a more welcoming space.

Megan Condis got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the fall she will be joining the faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She writes about masculinity and sexuality in gaming culture. A video game version of her dissertation is available to play for free at her website.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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