The Riot Games team used a combination of number-crunching and social psychology to improve the way players communicate.
Early on in its lifecycle, League of Legends was known for its caustic environment. Because your success depended very heavily on your team, players would often berate each other, get angry and use abusive language because they perceived it was another player's fault for losing a match. Riot Games, to their credit, has instituted many different systems to reduce that reputation, such as robust honor and reporting systems. Jeffrey Lin from Riot gave a talk at GDC 2014 about the way his team used extensive data and social cues to make the way players choose their heroes and plan their game completely different. Doing so demonstrably improved how much fun players had by reducing the number of reports and negative language in League of Legends.
For those of you unfamiliar with how the team-based multiplayer gameplay of LoL works, five players are sometimes randomly placed into a lobby and have only 90 seconds to decide on a strategy and choose who is going to play what character or hero. "When I told this to a group of MIT researchers, they laughed in my face," Lin said. "It's really hard to get five people to agree about anything, let alone in just that short window of time."
What Lin found was that the lobby system may encourage some players to lash out because they didn't get the character they wanted, or they blamed the team-makeup on the other players. Players who had that kind of experience were more likely both make reports and get reported themselves for bad behavior.
So Riot changed the system. The Team Builder mode has been in live beta for a while, and it made a few tweaks to the way players communicate. First, you can designate your strategy before you even click to search for a game. That way, your team has a clear view of your intentions, and no time is wasted explaining yourself in chat. Then Riot removed the time constraint. The system won't begin looking for a match until all the players are ready. In fact, the simple addition of a ready check mechanic did wonders for player engagement.
A ready check system is a "hidden power" that allows for a binding social contract. "If you want someone to do what you say, make sure they say they are going to do it," Lin said, citing specific non-gaming research on the efficacy of verbal commitments.
What Riot found after instituting the Team Builder was telling. "The Team Builder had a huge impact in how players were talking to each other in League," he said. There were 9% fewer complaints, and Lin said that was because the players acted like a team from the start. "If something bad happened, the team began to lose, it didn't upset the players as much because they were committed to the strategy they had agreed to.
"They were acting more like a team," he said.
Riot is aware that Team Builder isn't a panacea for all things wrong with LoL. They also worked on a way to limit the communication of particular vicious players. Simply banning people who behave badly doesn't work - they will just create a new account, and then all of sudden they are spewing bile at other "new" players.
Instead of just banning, Lin instituted a system called restricted chat. Once you cross a threshold of using too much abusive language, you are limited to the number of chat messages you can use in a game. You start with three, but you can earn more as the match goes on to a cap of five.
"It's a conscious moral struggle when you are confronted with limited resources," Lin said. "Do you use your chats to say hateful things or do you use them to try to communicate and win the game?"
Restrictive chat shields others by putting a ceiling on negativity, but it also encourages self-awareness and self-improvement. "There's feedback on the system," Lin said. "You can see how many more game you have to play in order to leave the mode." Again, the data on this system was positive. An average player leaves this mode in 2-10 games and 71% of players improve their communication and get much less reports after just one period in restricted chat.
Will these systems and processes remove hate and bile from League of Legends? No. That'd be like trying to remove the emotion chip from everyone when they sit down to play. But Lin's team at Riot is doing what it can to help players have fun with their game. They are working to figure out how to use Team Builder in Ranked Mode, as well continuing to work with their pro gamers to reduce any bad examples they might set with their behavior at the very visible tournaments and events.
Now if only they could stop people from always choosing Teemo Top ...