Thursday, July 21, 2016

My Thoughts On The Silence Penalty for WoW

About a week ago, along with numerous other announcements to hype up the Legion pre-patch, Blizzard announced the addition of a Silence Penalty similar to the one in Heroes of the Storm to combat abusive behavior in addition to the spam that's already subject to automated muting with enough reports. The reaction to this announcement was mixed, resulting in discussion that boiled down to a clash of ideals regarding the regulation of online interactions.

As someone who's had a history of wanting Blizzard to do something like this due to my strong criticism of handling negative player behavior as well as updating the reporting system to be more thorough and transparent, I find this change to be a step in the right direction and approve of it in general. However, I can understand the outrage and I think the idea, even on paper, is far from perfect. That is why in this article I will go over what I personally think is good and bad about the Silence Penalty followed by a review of other criticism of it.

The Pros

In this section I will go over a brief list of the beneficial aspects of this system, explaining my reasoning for each:
This change should deter players from verbally abusing each other, which could make the playerbase healthier.
I think verbal abuse, especially of new players who are unlikely to meet the expectation of relatively scrupulous veterans, is a pretty major issue in the game since a negative social interaction can dampen the gaming experience. In an online game like WoW that strongly pushes multiplayer content, such negative interactions can lead to players quitting the game or becoming non-participants in such content. Both of these aren't good results for those who remain since the size of the playerbase is important for creating a pool of eligible players to do the multiplayer content and otherwise interact with. In addition, the reputation of the playerbase as a whole can be ruined by negative interactions since the WoW playerbase could be perceived as toxic.

Thus, in the interest of keeping the playerbase and its image healthy, the looming possibility of being held accountable for such actions may help to slow, stop or even reverse the damage.
The Silence Penalty allows abusive actions to be better held accountable, which is typical in other online communities and in real life.
Aside from the fact numerous communities have rules against negative behavior such as verbal abuse (seriously, it's a staple on most forums and subreddits), saying some of the stuff online in a real life scenario would likely end in some consequence for the abuser, whether it's assault or some other punishment. While I think that the Internet has some fundamental differences to real life, relaxing accountability for one's actions by an excessive amount need not necessarily be one of those differences, especially since they can still have real life consequences (for the victim in particular).

Ultimately, I think it's fair to say Blizzard's trying to keep up with the curve of what seems to be a beneficial social contract.
This change improves the public image of Blizzard.
A major part of my criticism of the report system and the handling of negative behavior comes from a perception that Blizzard does little about it. Considering a lack of announcements related to WoW prior to this one, including the release of possible statistics of punishing such behavior in contrast to announcements on botting banwaves, it was unclear whether Blizzard cared or not. This was especially apparent in the more distant past when features like the Dungeon Finder were in their infancy, yet negative behavior permeated pugs and Battlegrounds. Harassment has also been an ongoing issue that Blizzard seems to inconsistently deal with.

The announcement of the Silence Penalty and various other announcements for other Blizzard games leading up to it make Blizzard's stance on negative behavior a lot clearer, putting an end to the perception that Blizzard is laissez faire on such issues.
The punishment dispensed to players for the report categories in question is effective and reasonable.
While some may disagree, I think a stacking penalty that restricts a player's ability to communicate with the public makes a lot of sense. In terms of effectiveness, it can stop ongoing abuse for a time, which may help players cool off while they continue to play the game and participate in group content. This is also quite a ways from a relatively unreasonable ban or harsher punishments that could achieve similar results but are better utilized for enforcing other rules (like cheating or maybe griefing).

Overall, I appreciate the relatively conservative approach in this case.

The Cons

While there's not a lot that I think needs to be criticized, the issues I have with the system are significant enough that I hope they are addressed. They are as follows with explanations:
The doubling effect of the silence appears to be permanent.
When taken literally, the announcement seems to indicate that there's no chance of diminishing the doubling effect of the silence, meaning that if one were to act uncivilly enough to get silenced a few times, they might get silenced for a really long time years later. This is not conducive to the idea of reform since if a player goes for a lengthy amount of time without needing to be subject to the Silence Penalty, chances are they're trying to do something different. To hit such an individual with a harsher punishment later makes the player think that their attempt to change is meaningless.

I feel like the aforementioned line of reasoning is common sense though and hope Blizzard will address it if they already haven't accounted for it.
Blocking "Send Mail" entirely is unnecessary.
This appears to be an artifact of the old system where mail and chat were automatically blocked upon receiving enough reports in a short period of time. While I'll be criticizing this older system more in-depth in the next section, since Blizzard seems intent on continuing the block the sending of mail under the Silence Penalty, there is something that needs to be addressed. Sent mail does not always consist of messages that could be abusive, but also items and other goods that may even be sent between a player's characters. In addition, it doesn't make much sense to restrict the sending of items through the mail system since unlike messages where a player has free reign to write all the abusive text they want, there's little room in general to do so with items.

With that said, there's a few ways to fix this issue. First would be to allow the sending of most items, with obvious exceptions such as Plain Letters being blacklisted. It would also help to blacklist the selling of such items on the Auction House for those under the Silence Penalty. Alternatively, allow the mailing between characters on the same account if that's possible to implement.
There's a lack of guidelines or rules covered in the announcement that could've had more detail to it.
While technically the Terms of Use describes the rules in question within its Code of Conduct section, the announcement in itself is rather vague in terms of what sort of behavior is enforced. There are also some posts pointing out that the aforementioned Code of Conduct is what's being enforced. But since these posts came after the announcement itself, it would help if such clarifications were made more public so people don't have to dig through posts.

The concept of Abusive Chat could also be questioned and indeed needed to be clarified. However, even that definition is subject to personal interpretation. Maybe Blizzard wants to let everyone report based on their own personal beliefs, expecting any extreme opinions to balance out. Unfortunately, this could lead to other sorts of abuses, as I'll explain in the next section.

Reviewing Other Criticism

In this section, I will go over other criticism I've seen of the system. They seem to range from strongly valid to outright illogical and in the case of each, I'll explain why:

"People will abuse the system"

Since it's already apparent that the system is being abused, the cause for concern here has been validated to a degree. However, there's some points to consider:
  • People will be stress testing the system since it's "new" and has garnered so much traction and thus controversy that a lot of players know about it. It's very possible that there's been a high volume of reports as a result that the GMs have difficulty handling.
  • The current state of the system appears to be a mix of proposed new and old. 
    • The new aspect of the system is that investigations definitely seem to be happening and such reviews are swift. The silence punishment also seem to be out in full force. 
    • However, it seems there's parts of the old system in place since a generic message used under the old system is still in use. There's also automated muting, which contradicts the announcement of issuing punishments after investigation, as opposed to before and after. This could mean that Blizzard hasn't quite phased out the older system yet and thus players are being punished using said system.
  • To add to this confusion, the announcement specified Abusive Chat in such a way that it appears to be a report category, yet no such report category exists as of yet as of this writing. This further throws into question whether the system is fully implemented yet.
Based on these points, I think some of the outrage is the result of ignorance regarding the older system which, while abusable, seemed to be so rarely abused that it's not well-known (and I happen to recall an instance of such abuse back in Wrath under what could've possibly been an older system). While it's not necessarily justifiable, mass reporting, especially for spam, within a short window of time led to an automatic mute because there may have been a need for immediate intervention. This point is reflected here and it's also worth considering that customer service in the past could take many days to respond to any issue.

With that said, I think Blizzard's in a better position to handle reported issues than ever especially since other frequently reported issues, such as item restoration, have been automated. This may be why the announcement stated that there would be human intervention prior to punishment, meaning if the statement's taken literally there's no room for automated muting since that would be a preemptive punishment and make the system more abusable. To be fair, I could potentially justify automatic muting for spamming somewhat based on points in the previous paragraphs. However, I can't justify it as much for Abusive Chat since between reports automatically ignoring the player and Abusive Chat often happening in a series of relatively brief episodes, all that's really needed is for the GM to dispense justice shortly after reviewing if needed. This is assuming the automatic muting is intended to begin with.

Ultimately, it's clear that Blizzard definitely seems to have screwed up in some sort of way and I suspect there will be official statements made soon. As part of the statements, I expect Blizzard to adhere to their announcement and make the appropriate fixes or better clarify their usage of automatic muting under the new system if it's intended to be used at all (based on posts on the official forums, it appears there's been some clarification). As someone who doesn't like using the guilty until innocent approach in general, I would prefer the former, even if I can understand the practicality of the latter in extreme cases.

To put some perspective on this argument though, rolling back from the new system wouldn't do anything and the only practical way is forward (whatever that "forward" might be). Abuse of the reporting system can and will still happen because the older version relies strongly on automatic muting. The fact there's any intervention at all for automatic mutes is actually an improvement. It is also worth mentioning that abusing reports is a punishable offense (it specifically violates section B-II in the Code of Conduct), meaning players who have partaken in such action, including people who actively ask others to report them to test the system (however noble as those intentions may be), are likely to be held accountable. Blizzard should've mentioned this in their announcement of the Silence Penalty though.

Update: The outrage has long since died down and apparently the Silence Penalty is more meant to be another layer onto the existing squelch system. I'm still wondering where that "Abusive Chat" report option is.

This argument makes sense for personal preservation, in which I'd recommend using the ignore feature, but the problem of Abusive Chat or Spam goes far beyond one person being affected, which makes me question the empathy of people who make this argument. For example, consider this process for a case of Abusive Chat since the scenario for Spam is more straightforward and generally not the topic of discussion in this argument:
  • Person A verbally abuses Person B.
  • Person B ignores Person A.
  • Person A goes on to verbally abuse Person C, D, E, F, etc.
    • Person A may have already been doing this while verbally abusing Person B.
The point of this scenario is that the person is still being abusive and it's impractical to expect everyone to use the ignore feature, at least within a reasonable amount of time. Ignoring someone doesn't really address the person's abusive behavior itself, it only prevents someone from seeing it on a personal level. In addition, ignores can be bypassed in numerous ways if a person is determined enough to continue their behavior. Thus, using the ignore feature is not a practical solution to stop abusive behavior itself, and it makes more sense to hold people who practice them accountable.

Furthermore, it's impractical to expect players to preemptively ignore an abusive player since not everyone is a mystic capable of seeing the future. Some measures can be taken such as leaving Trade Chat and otherwise potentially missing out on social interactions, but that in itself poses an issue. After all, is it okay to create a climate where players have to avoid social interactions to an unreasonable degree in a multiplayer game that strongly relies on it to enrich the gaming experience? If it was some special case where an individual is strongly affected by even the most harmless human interaction that is impractical to subject to moderation (like saying "hi" for example), chances are it would've posed a problem long before they played WoW. Abusive Chat and similar behavior is far from this extreme though and is known to have negative effects.

To conclude, using the ignore feature might stop the abuse coming at you from a specific individual at that given time, but the abuse that already happened may have an effect. In addition, abusive behavior, if left unchecked, may have an effect on others in the community as well.

"This is censorship."

This point is probably one of the most common I've seen when criticizing the Silence Penalty system and while it's true if the general definition is used, I think the censorship that people are upset about is a lot more specific. Typical instances of censorship that ignite the ire of the public tend to redact opposing opinions such as criticism or otherwise act to silence dissent. Censorship also tends to involve punishments that can be as harsh as a permaban, not to mention there's other actions that indicate there's an attempt to facilitate a strongly authoritative closed system. To put this another way, the most deplorable censorship is often associated with extreme authoritarian values.

In the case of Blizzard, who effectively serves as the ultimate authority on the matter since players are unlikely to be able to censor each other using the system effectively as I've explained above, the situation is different despite the clear benefits they gain from the Silence Penalty. For instance, there's evidence much like the article on verbal abuse I linked in the previous section that indicates this initiative goes beyond ulterior motives. There's also evidence that Blizzard doesn't seem to resort to other actions that make them seem tyrannical. For example, they are criticized very frequently, including by myself, and yet despite these strong opinions, only the most uncivil discussions are closed, so Blizzard appears to be fine with dissenting opinion itself, even if official responses can be considered patronizing. In addition, Blizzard is very open with usage of their intellectual property, as reflected in their video policy and the fact a sizeable number of videos criticizing some aspect of their games are left untouched by Blizzard.

On top of all this, numerous moderating systems with rules that community members have to follow are already in place online, including on WoW and in other Blizzard games, yet outrages of censorship happen relatively rarely and often due to radical behavior from the extreme end of the spectrum of moderation. This clearly indicates there's plenty of middle ground that doesn't resort widespread censorship like in North Korea, but allows for some level of moderation to prevent sociopathic behavior of varying degrees from running unchecked.

To put all this another way, if Blizzard was interested in practicing deplorable levels of censorship, they'd go far beyond implementing a Silence Penalty to better enforce rules that already exist and were, to a (lesser) degree, enforced in the past.

"The Silence Penalty is too harsh (in some way)."

To respond to this point, the Silence Penalty itself needs to be analyzed. Since I've only analyzed a little bit of it so far, here's my thoughts on each restriction the Silence Penalty imposes:
  • Talk in Instance Chat (Raid, Party, and Battlegrounds)
    • Considering that these chats are public and often the source of the Abusive Chat in question, it makes sense to restrict a player from using these chats under the Silence Penalty.
  • Talk in global channels that are auto joined (such as General or Trade)
    • Much like with Instance Chat, these channels are public and can be the source of Abusive Chat. These channels are also notable for being subject to Spam.
    • Note that this doesn't apply to private chat channels, as listed in the section of what Silenced Players are able to do.
  • Create Calendar Invites/Events
    • This one may not seem intuitive but anyone can make Events on the Calendar and spam players with invites. This makes it a prime feature for gold sellers or players who want to broadcast other messages to other players.
  • Send in-game mail
    • As I've mentioned above, it's possible for a player to send messages through the mailing system to others. However, I think this is the extent that the restriction should be set to if possible, since mailing items generally isn't hurtful in the context of what the Silence Penalty is intended to punish.
  • Send Party Invitations
    • Since Silenced players can use Party Chat, being able to start a party opens an opportunity to bypass the penalty at will. In addition, spamming party invitations to other players is obnoxious.
  • Send War Game Invitations
    • Much like with party invitations, one could probably spam this invitation too.
  • Send Invitations to Duel
    • Compared to spamming invitations, spamming duel requests is probably the most obnoxious and spammy of them all since a player can macro a set of commands to duel and cancel the offer at the same time, meaning they can constantly spam it without waiting for the other player to cancel the offer.
  • Create a New List for a Premade Group/Update a Premade Group Listing
    • The Premade Group Finder could be used to bypass the Silence Penalty since players can set a custom title and message (including advertisements for boosting sites). Thus, it's sensible to restrict it for Silenced players.
Excluding the mail penalty that I already criticized, what my review of the Silence Penalty's restrictions boils down to is that players aren't able initiate chatting with other players or otherwise use loopholes to do so. In addition, there's other loopholes that are covered for non-chatting behavior that could be considered disruptive and otherwise abusable in terms of violating game rules. To conclude, the punishment for being silenced seems relatively fair to me.

Final Statements

In an ideal world, players would be able to hold themselves responsible for their actions that have clear consequences, but the reality of the situation is that this is unlikely to happen without some moderation. Besides, the report system with its abusable features and enforcement of the rules exists to some extent in the game already, though it's not apparent how much enforcement took place in the past, which leads to the idea that there's little to none at all. The Silence Penalty, assuming it's out in full force, helps to hold players responsible for their actions as determined by rules that are used to moderate many communities, including in real life. The announcement also provided insight into a seemingly esoteric system.

However, it's clear that there's going to need to be some reiteration, because even the announced version of the Silence Penalty system has issues with it. I'm not sure if the people who seem to align with ideals strongly against moderation, who ironically seem to share common behavioral traits with hardline supporters of stringent moderation and justice, will give the system a chance to reach what could be a very positive outcome. As I said above, the general idea that's been presented meets a lot of what I think WoW needs because a healthy community driven by reason and civility is one that I think can help with the longevity of the game.

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