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More carrot, less stick: Jeffrey Lin on tweaking  League of Legends  player behavior

More carrot, less stick: Jeffrey Lin on tweaking League of Legends player behavior

March 20, 2015 | By Christian Nutt

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League of Legends can't seem to shake its reputation for toxicity -- but it can make substantial changes to player behavior, as part of a ongoing campaign for change in the community. That's the message from Jeffrey Lin, the PhD psychologist who works at Riot Games as the company's lead designer of social systems.

This year at GDC he gave a talk on the game's player base and what the studio is doing to nudge it toward positive behavior, by-and-large. This interview, conducted during the show, drills down into the thinking behind its initiatives, and reveals a lot about what portion of the players are actually negative, how best to combat negativity, and concrete ideas about messaging and initiatives that can make a difference.

You've said that the toxic player-base is smaller than you might think. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Jeffrey Lin: Yeah. So in our analysis of the whole player demographic, only 1 percent of players are the ones who are consistently homophobic, sexist, or racist. What's interesting, though, is that they're not responsible for a lot of the toxicity in the system.

So when you break down the ecosystem -- how much toxicity is sourced from that 1 percent -- it's only about 5 percent. Actually, the majority of toxicity is the neutral or positive players.

And the thing is that every once in a while, they'll have a bad day -- a bad day at work, bad day at school. They'll carry that into their game. 90 percent of the toxicity is those players. So you look at a 100-game history, and they may be only negative in three games. And the question for us is, "How do you solve that problem?"

But part two of that is what we learned this year: Even though a small minority is truly negative, they can control your community's perception by themselves. It just takes -- and this is really interesting -- 11 percent of negative posters on a forum discussion to just change the direction of the forum discussion.

You mean to derail it into negativity?

JL: Yep. Or what we saw, for example, was that the very first few upvotes or downvotes, that will actually change the eventual perception of the entire discussion -- just the first few.

How much of this is carrot-stick stuff? You want to change behavior. The Tribunal is "stick," I guess. How do you handle this?

JL: It's interesting you mention Tribunal, actually. In the past, a lot of people did use the stick first. Then the industry evolved a bit and we focused on, "Hey, maybe using the carrot is better." Frankly, the answer is we need both. A lot of people would say just use one or the other. There is no silver bullet to this kind of stuff.

So actually, looking backwards, it's about, "Who are the players who are affected by one or the other?" So the truly negative players, the 1 percent, they respond only to punishment -- the stick. The neutral players, they're the ones who respond to positive reinforcement. They're the ones you can sway a little bit more towards the right, a little more positive.

Looking back at Tribunal, which you mentioned, one of the new features we're doing is positive review. So it's not just about looking and reviewing negative behaviors, it's about positive behaviors, and what "good" looks like for players. So in the future, if you review someone who is positive, you get a small prize and they get a small prize as well. So we really want to do the full spectrum in League of Legends.

You said you want people to behave better. How do you influence them -- is it simply through things like rewards and positive reinforcement, or is there persuasion to people's higher reasoning?

JL: One of our guiding principles, and the focus of today's [GDC] talk, is we don't want to be the drivers. We don't want to be the arbitrators. We want the community itself to drive their own community. That's why we have something like Tribunal, where they're voting what's good or not good. Or what's okay or not okay. And actually, that's the key.

So when a player is in the game, and they have some negative behavior, they get a message saying that, "Hey, your peers don't think this is okay online. Your peers don't think this is cool." That's actually why we see the change.

And what we also see is that when you actually have the community drive everything, they get invested in it. And they feel like, "Hey, nobody is here telling us what is okay or not okay. We're defining it for ourselves, and we're making the right decisions." And they can see their own community drive over time. And that's always been the guiding principle since the very beginning.

When you ban someone high profile from the game for a period of time because of toxic behavior, do you have an understanding of what effect that has on the player-base, and what they think of that action, and how they perceive it?

JL: That was a really interesting case -- IWillDominate, right? A couple years ago, we made it a strict policy that we're not going to treat players differently because of status, or being a paying player. None of that matters to us. Every player is upheld to the same standards. In fact, in these days, we expect our pro players to have higher standards they need to adhere to.

What was interesting was that when we worked with IWillDominate, we needed to reset cultural norms. The problem was that players were logging into games, doing these kinds of things, and then thinking, "This is normal. It's okay here."

We needed to reset that. We needed to change it so that it was more like real life. Players were telling us things like, "Well, in real life, I'd never do something like that, but online it's different." We needed to fix that problem. And working with people like IWillDominate, like Ocelote -- Carlos.

Those players needed to be our prime examples of, "Hey, it's no longer cool to do this kind of stuff. It's no longer okay to be that way." That's how we actually started that approach to resetting cultural norms.

It's not just in League of Legends that you see this. There are other prominent examples in recent memory of people saying, "Online isn't real life, and this isn't how I behave in real life, and this isn't reality." But obviously it is.

JL: That's right.

So how do you recalibrate people's perception that online is reality?

JL: I totally agree with you. Both are the same. We're spending more and more of our time online. Our kids are growing up, and more and more of their time is spent online. Our expectations of both should be the same.

So what we did is, when we give players feedback on their behaviors -- and we have messages like, "Hey, your peers think this is not cool" -- they can actually share that back to the community.

So let's say you go on the forums and you complain: "Hey, I was banned by Riot. I don't agree. I don't deserve this." So now, other players are saying: "Hey, show us your evidence. Show us what they sent you." They'll post it, and all the other players will be like, "Hey, that's not cool. You should have known that." And that's how we're slowly changing that perception.

I was reading comments on one of the posts on your site, and someone said something like, "a certain amount of shit-talking should be expected in a competitive environment." I just want to know your take on that.

JL: I think that sentiment is okay. As a studio, we're not out to get rid of offensive language. We're not out to get rid of competitive banter. An interesting story there is, look at when the Tribunal first launched. When people were posting in the Tribunal and they saw offensive language, they'd post it all over social media.

They were like, "Riot, should we punish offensive language? What should we do here?" And we were like, "No, no, no. We want you guys to figure that out. Tell us what you think you guys should do." Over about six months, what you actually saw, the first couple of cases, it was about fifty-fifty. Half of the people were voting "punish" for offensive language, and half were not.

After six months, it settled. The community had agreed on something, and it was "as soon as you say offensive language and it's directed at somebody, that's verbal abuse, and that's not okay. That's never okay." But if it's just offensive language, like, "Oh, fuck. I missed that skill shot," nobody cares. So it's really cool to see that evolution over time in the community.

Something that pro sports has is standards for sportsmanlike conduct. I'm sure you've done research into it, and you well know this stuff.

JL: Yup.

Do you model any of your regulations on that? Because obviously, you're both pro, you're both sports, but there's also the huge cultural difference between the two.

JL: That's right.

So can you tell me about that?

JL: On the eSports side, another best person to talk about how they came up with their code of conduct is Dustin [Beck] or Whalen [Rozelle] would be better for that. But on the player side, we are actually trying something very new this year. In the old days, we had a Summoner's Code. It was kind of our code of conduct, so on and so forth.

But because we've learned so much about player feedback and how they can drive their own community, we're looking forward to trying something where the players can drive and vote on their own Summoner's Code, and we want that player code to replace our own Summoner's Code, and we're really looking forward to that this year.

How are they voting on it -- is it going to be that people suggest rules?

JL: We're not sure about the exact design just yet. But it is something like that. "Hey, what do you guys think are the worst behaviors that we as a community are against? What do you think are the upstanding behaviors that we represent," right? And we'll have people give us their suggestions, do their voting, and we'll see how it shakes up.

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