Illustration by Anya Baker.

Illustration by Anya Baker.

How can online video games make strangers be friendlier to one another, especially if they may never interact again? Well, Riot GamesLeague of Legends game designers are focusing on that. The League of Legends game is a massive multiplayer online game (MMO) that has a history of really toxic behavior such as racists or misogynistic remarks, cursing toward other players, and harassing behavior between players. In MMOs, players usually assemble their own teams. In League of Legends, the game itself often puts players in teams at random. A mixture of strangers and friends playing together in semi-randomly curated teams can lead to contentious behavior. How can harassment be curbed in online gameplay? Researchers at Riot think this can happen through the layout of the game itself. Much like how rules are enforced at school (no running in the hallway!), designers have thought of ways to inform players of their behavior, and create a safer, more collaborative environment.

Naomi McArthur and Kristina Swanenburg, two researchers and game designers at Riot (their official titles are “behavioral scientists”), sat down with me to answer some questions about stymying harassment through design and trying to initiate friendships in online spaces where people are anonymous.

CAROLINE SINDERS: Where are you from, and what did you study?

NAOMI: I studied the intersection of neuroscience and computer science at the California Institute of Technology, and have lived in Los Angeles since. A couple of years ago, I joined Riot as a member of the Player Behavior team.

KRISTINA: I studied social psychology, specifically group behavior and reaction to deviance, at the University of Pittsburgh. Now, I work as a researcher on the Player Behavior team at Riot.

How did you get into game design, and behavior science in game design?

NAOMI: I’ve always been a gamer and loved science, so working on the intersection of the two was very natural for me. Before Riot, I used statistical and mathematical methods to analyze scientific data; at Riot, I’m able to turn similar types of analyses using player data into very concrete decisions about product and game design. Taking a data-informed approach to design has led to great results, which truly represent the interests of our players.

KRISTINA: I am passionate about video games and social psychology, so blending the two by examining how psychology impacts game design choices and can improve experiences in games offers me a chance to explore both of those passions.

What drew you to Riot Games, and in particular League of Legends?

NAOMI: I started playing League back in 2010, when friends from college convinced me to come play with them—it was originally a dorm-wide activity for us, where we’d all play hours of in-house games together. Coming from a background playing Warcraft III, I was familiar with MOBA-style games, and found League to be my favorite in the genre. As I became more invested in the League community, I learned about the fascinating research Riot was doing through GDC [GDC stands for the Game Developers Conference—a multi-day event in San Francisco that focuses on professionals working as game developers] talks and forum posts, which piqued my interest in joining. There really hadn’t been a lot public-facing research coming out of the games industry, except through Riot’s Player Behavior team. After consulting with some friends at Riot and observing the work environment, I knew a job at Riot was a unique opportunity, so I applied and never looked back.

KRISTINA: I was drawn to Riot because of the innovative research they do within the video game industry. The first study that really got me excited about Riot was the priming study where they varied loading screen tips and examined the impact on in-game behavior. [Note: A “priming study” is done to test language and how language or wording can affect player behavior. Does a certain tip come across as too passive aggressive or too menial for the player, or is it too advanced, and therefore frustrating? Was the wait time with the loading screen too long, and thus super annoying to the player? These small design decisions affect players’ behavior]. I was also drawn to Riot because they have a unique approach within the industry that supports collaboration between designers and researchers.

Does League of Legends take friendships or creating friendships with gameplay into account?

KRISTINA: Gaming is about fun gameplay, forming friendships, and connecting with people as part of the community around the game. Collaborating and strategizing with your friends to slay raid bosses or outmaneuvering an enemy team can be exhilarating. At Riot, we recognize how important these friendships and social experiences are. We are all gamers who have felt the rush in these moments of intense competition and complicated teamwork. Our research has found that a lot of League of Legends players meet new friends in the game. It is humbling and exciting to know that players are forming meaningful connections in our game. We want to encourage those bonding moments and make it easier to find and build friendships in our game. This is why one of our focuses in 2016 is rolling out new features like clubs, parties, and an upcoming mobile app.

How can friendship be created in anonymous play environment, albeit one that does have chat options?

NAOMI: I think the power of online communities, forums, social media, and chat clients has shown us that friendships can form over the internet anonymously, even if chat is the only method of communication. In League, we’re adding the power of play to the mix. Playing together can be seen as sort of an ice-breaker—establishing the foundation of a relationship through common interests, learning how each other’s play-styles compliment or synergize with each other, and building a more personal connection from there. The new features, like clubs and parties, should hopefully both lower the barriers for playing with existing friends and expose opportunities to make new friends.

Do you find players trying to play repeatedly with other players that they’ve met only in the game?

NAOMI: First, let’s recognize that players come into League with different types of social connections—some people bring their friend groups with them and have a lot of friends to play with, while others don’t have friends who play League and are looking to make new friends. One of the features we built with the latter group in mind is a recommended player system. When you want to start a game, there will be a list of players you can invite who we think you’ll have a good time playing with. Of the players that play with people we recommend, a significant fraction of these players continue to play together and build long-term friendships. So yes, while some players already have an existing social group and don’t actively look for new friends, other players definitely seek out and build friendships with their teammates.

Harassment, and then friendly experiences, are often viewed as two sides of one coin, though the issue is much deeper than that. What has Riot done in League of Legends to limit harassment?

KRISTINA: We’re focused on giving players the tools they need to define what’s right and wrong in League. Recently, we have been working on an instant feedback system, which can let players know within 15 minutes after the game has finished that they have been negative. This has greatly improved the rates of reform because the repercussions for negative behavior happen much faster, which makes the punishments more effective. We also have rolled out in-client reform cards that can show a player who was negative in chat logs, or the game in which they were disruptive. This information can help a player reform by giving them information on what the League community finds objectionable.

Then, beyond harassment, what has Riot done to generate positive interactions? What are your thoughts on ways that design can facilitate friendships or positive gameplay in a game experience?

NAOMI: In our experience examining player interaction, most players are fundamentally neutral or positive—they are playing games to have fun and want to enjoy themselves. Other factors, such as competitive pressures, aside, positive interactions emerge naturally. So much of our work to encourage positive play involves eliminating the points of friction in the current play experience. For example, currently in the game’s “draft” mode, five players are placed together and are forced to figure out their roles under time pressure; this will often lead to two players wanting the same role, then arguments occur. The new draft experience tries to reduce this friction by matching players with complementary roles together.

What’s been your favorite gameplaying experience?

NAOMI: I think my favorite gaming experiences have been when I’m with a group of friends, and we all decide to pick an utterly ridiculous strategy for a game and see if it works. Most of the time, these strategies aren’t very effective, but when they are, being able to share the hilarity with a group of friends makes the experience all the more memorable.

KRISTINA: Some of my favorite experiences are those I have shared with friends. I’ve had some really memorable matches in League where my team was able to come from behind and reign victorious. I’ve also had some thrilling experiences in World of Warcraft, working with a group for weeks to learn how to down a raid boss and finally succeeding. ♦

Caroline Sinders is a user researcher, artist and game designer from New Orleans. She is based in Brooklyn and tweets a lot.