Online chatrooms are not known for their courteous behavior, but reduce the barriers to entry to almost zero, with no sense of repercussions for one’s actions, and a popular text chat can soon turn into a hotbed for vile language and racial epithets. This so much is not news to anyone who has ever glanced at an open chat window in a Twitch stream — but a recent, particularly high-profile incident has compelled one of the biggest publishers in videogames to mount a response.
A rewind: two weeks ago, professional Hearthstone player Terrence “TerrenceM” Miller placed second in a premier tournament in Austin, Texas. A relative unknown up to that point, Miller’s success in the competition was quickly overshadowed by the tone of Twitch’s online livestream, in which a contingent of viewers began bombarding the chat with racist slurs and memes. Miller — who is black — even remarked in an interview with Polygon that he was afraid his parents would see it: “I was getting texts from my parents saying, ‘Oh, we saw you on your interview, really good job.’ And I was just hoping they saw it in full screen and didn’t see the chat.”
“Don’t read the comments” is a piece of advice easily dispensed but hardly productive, especially as more and more people turn to the internet as a primary source of income — or in the case of competitive players, to cultivate fan followings that will hopefully translate into tips, sponsorships, and professional opportunities. That a man like Terrence Miller can remark upon Twitch’s chat feature as though it’s a defect — one you want to shield your loved ones from — when Hearthstone is one of the four most-watched (read: most profitable) games streamed on its service, speaks volumes to how misaligned Twitch’s priorities are from those of its content producers. In short: if the people who make Twitch worth visiting are having a miserable time on Twitch, why isn’t the site doing more to fix them?
Hearthstone publisher Blizzard would appear to be of a similar mindset, releasing a statement today which acknowledged the abusive behavior and pledged a renewed effort to combat the problem. The statement is signed by Mike Morhaime himself, Blizzard’s CEO, and reads in full (via PCGamer):
We’re extremely disappointed by the hateful, offensive language used by some of the online viewers during the DreamHack Austin event the weekend before last. One of our company values is ‘Play Nice; Play Fair’; we feel there’s no place for racism, sexism, harassment, or other discriminatory behavior, in or outside of the gaming community. This is obviously a larger, societal problem that affects us on many levels. We can only hope that when instances like this come to light it encourages people to be more thoughtful and positive, and to fully reject mean-spirited commentary, whether within themselves or from their fellow gamers.
To help combat this type of behavior during live events, we’ve reached out to players, streamers, and moderators, along with partners like Twitch, DreamHack, and others, to get consensus and collaborate on what to do differently moving forward. To that end, we’re investigating a pilot program that Twitch has in the works to streamline moderation and combat ban evasion. We’re also updating our esports tournament partner policies with a stronger system of checks, balances, and repercussions to provide a better chat experience around our content.
We believe these are important steps to take to help address the related issues, but we acknowledge that they only address part of the problem. This is ultimately an industry-wide issue, and it will take all of us to make a real impact.
What I find notable about this statement is that Blizzard recognizes its own role in addressing the issue, but also makes clear that changing its own internal policies isn’t enough: community-sourced moderators and Twitch itself need to step up to the plate as well.
There are no real details at this time what Twitch’s “pilot program” looks like, and Twitch has not yet released its own statement regarding the incident. Speaking as someone who worked as a game moderator for many years, “streamlining” the moderation system and squashing repeat offenders are great goals to have, but tough as hell to achieve — so it’ll be interesting to see what these companies come up with, not to mention find out just how serious they really are about battling online toxicity.