An Insider’s Perspective on Sexism, Racism, and Homophobia in League of Legends

Intro

For this assignment, I’ve decided to hone in on a community that I have participated in for tens of thousands of hours over many years: League of Legends by Riot Games. By hours played per month, League of Legends is the most played video game in the world, as this official infographic shows. It also has many other achievements to brag about, like packing the Staples Center in under 20 minutes for the 2016 League of Legends World Finals (that are currently underway!), but I want to focus on how it deals with racism, sexism, and homophobia.

TLDR: I think Riot, despite having made the moral mistake of hyper-sexualizing their characters and painting women as “to-be-looked at,” along with men as “doing things” (which sells, so it isn’t exactly a business mistake), does an amazing job of encouraging fair and polite behavior in-game, which excludes racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. Their systems to achieve that behavior, though, can never eliminate all of it, and there will always be some.

What Is League of Legends?

If you don’t play League, to think of what might prompt hateful behavior in-game or on the forums, you need to know some of what happens in-game. From the Wikipedia:

In League of Legends, players assume the role of an unseen “summoner” that controls a “champion” with unique abilities and battle against a team of other players or computer-controlled champions. The goal is usually to destroy the opposing team’s “nexus”, a structure which lies at the heart of a base protected by defensive structures. Each League of Legends match is discrete, with all champions starting off fairly weak but increasing in strength by accumulating items and experience over the course of the game.

This definition is a little lacking, however, since it omits details of the most popular game mode. The meta for the most popular 5v5 map is to send one player to the top and middle lanes, two to the bottom lane, and one to roam around the map, killing neutral jungle monsters.

Why do People Get Angry?

Since there is forced interaction between the players, players might get frustrated with a teammate’s poor performance when fighting as a team, or might be upset that one player individually lost to another player. A usual suspect of frustration is the jungler (the player who roams around the map) not helping a lane, or allowing the enemy jungler to take over a lane.

There are also over 100 “champions” in League, or characters to play as. Players get frustrated when someone picks a weak champion, and stereotypes have been formed about players who only play certain champions. These are what usually  lead most players to harassing a teammate (enemies, ironically, are rarely harassed). Harassment can take many forms – a player can of course type racist, sexist, or homophobic comments in the chat (along with one of the seven dirty words, which are filtered by default), but can also follow the teammate around the map and steal their minions, ruining their game. A player can also “ping” the map to create annoying sounds, suicide into the enemy team, or simply leave the game. All of these are examples of toxicity, or raging, the terms are interchangeable.

What Raging Looks Like

Sometimes, toxic players go especially overboard…

Someone had more than a bad day in the mid lane… [Source]
In their frustration, some people resort to naughty words. [Source]
attachment
Not the greatest moment of Sneggles, a Korean pro player. [Source]

Another famous player, Svenskeren, made his summoner name offensive.

 

A Riot employee named Lyte frequently responds to people on the forums asking why they got banned.

After getting reported many times, a player received an email like this:

attachment2

and so he/she posted this:

attachment3.png
Sure, you’re innocent…

and Lyte responded with this:

attachment4.png
Lyte being a hero. [Source]

Why this is NOT OK

I understand that sometimes people have bad games, or might taunt their opponent. It’s a competitive online video game, after all. However, players must uphold some moral values, and should not ever use racial, sexual, or homophobic slurs that insult entire groups. These slurs and insults pack a much greater punch, and to the right person, can dismantle them, making them feel legitimately terrible. Despite taking place in virtual space on a computer screen, chat is still human on human interaction.

Is this the Community’s fault?

Now while these examples are mostly a result of unhealthy, problematic players, some of their actions are due to the culture of the entire League community. In the “Who Plays” section of the previously mentioned infographic, it shows that 90% of players are male, and 85% are between ages 16 to 30. That means 76.5% of players are young males, which makes League a more competitive environment than at first glance. Being young, many of them don’t have long-term decisions figured out, and hence insult teammates through racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs in the team chat, as shown above. I have sometimes even seen players apologize after their games, especially if they end up achieving victory [Source].

What is your Experience, SmartWon?

In my experience, few players actively take a stand to subdue bad behavior as it happens, but thankfully there is a mute feature in-game. Anyone I mute usually gets reported, and I’d say players as a whole overwhelmingly report other players who sent more than one or two offensive messages, or any blatantly offensive messages. Thankfully, the use of the word “f*ggot” as an insult has disappeared, but many other insults, even League specific insults like “feeder” still remain. Toxic players also target certain champions based on sex, skin color, or even lore, frequently associating derogatory terms with them. Riot is at fault for some of this, since they hyper-sexualize all their humanoid characters, and have 118 male champions as compared to 78 female champions [Source]. In the champion art, lore, and voice-overs, some female gender stereotypes are perpetuated. Take for example the Nurse Akali skin versus the Surgeon Shen skin.

Doctors
Used with permission from [Source].
                Just like Mary Barbercheck mentioned in her article “Science, Sex, and Stereotypical Images in Scientific Advertising,” males are portrayed as trying to doing the jobs, and females as trying to looking pretty. Akali in this art is not seriously doing intensive nurse work, but rather she is wearing a revealing outfit while squirting out some liquid from a syringe uselessly. Also, some art has humanoid women in literally impossible back-breaking positions in order to show off their chest, face, and hips simultaneously. Thankfully, though, in-game females are not weaker than males in abilities.

Out of 32 ridiculous poses in skins, 27 are female. Additionally, all the female skins are thin, while male champions get a far larger variety of body types, even excessively fat.

gragas_0-2

Why has Riot Made These Decisions?

Most of this is due to the overwhelmingly male player base – Riot is simply giving players what they want. Male players have difficulty feeling like they can embody females, which is a side-effect shown in the art. Sadly, Riot would not have been able to successfully enter the market if they did not give players entirely what they wanted when the game was first released. Thankfully, after their success, Riot is making strides towards improving gender representation. From release, revealing female skins are down from 80% to roughly 60%. Male skins take clothes off 30% of the time now, as opposed to 20% at release [Source]. Still, though, I think most of the unbalanced in-game representation is a result of culture in the US, and I hope to see changes not only from Riot, but also the film industry and social media as a whole, especially since this game is spread all over the world.

What has Riot done about Toxicity?

Back to the in-game chat – Riot has been especially vigilant of player behavior from release, especially since they advertise themselves as a player-first company. As such, a number of disciplinary systems have come and gone over the years. There have even been a few reward systems, like the honor system. Surprisingly, despite the volume of players, historically there have been very few racist, sexist, or homophobic comments in the average League game (only 5% of games), despite the same players being willing to make offensive comments in other games [Source].

When the game was first released in 2009, Riot established their own “Summoner’s Code” which all players must read and agree to in order to play the game:

  1. Support Your Team
    1. “While we all carry a diverse set of individual ambitions and expectations into a game of League, once we hit the Field we’re a part of a team…”
  2. Drive Constructive Feedback
    1. “Player feedback is an important force in the decision making process of Riot…”
  3. Facilitate Civil Discussion
    1. “When you choose to participate in a discussion with the rest of the playerbase, always try to be receptive to another player’s point of view…”
  4. Enjoy Yourself, but not at Anyone Else’s Expense
  5. Build Relationships
  6. Show Humility in Victory, and Grace in Defeat
  7. Be Resolute, not Indignant
  8. Leave No Newbie Behind!
  9. Lead by Example

To enforce this, Riot first employed a report system where players could report anyone in the game for one of the following options:

         Harassment: Offensive Language: Including, but not limited to language that is vulgar, obscene, sexually explicit, or racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable.

         Harassment: Verbal Abuse: Including, but not limited to language that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, or otherwise objectionable.

         Griefing: Assisting Enemy Team: This includes using all-chat or summoner abilities to assist the opposing team in any way.

         Unskilled Player: If you feel that a player is not playing as well as they should be – such as having an inability to farm, not using skills properly, having a build that is counterproductive, and having poor map awareness, you can report that player for being unskilled.

         Refusing to Communicate With Team: Applies to any player that refuses to use chat or pings.

         Leaving the Game/AFK: This includes logging out or exiting the game before a match ends or stand idle for long periods of time or refuse to participate in the match at all.

         Negative Attitude: Any player that is constantly putting other players down or being generally negative about the game

         Inappropriate Name: When you see a summoner name that is falsely indicative of an association with Riot, containing personally identifying information, infringes on the proprietary rights of third party, or that is offensive, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, sexually explicit, racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable. This also applies if the name uses a misspelling or an alternate spelling to circumvent this restriction on summoner name choices.

         Spamming: Whether for personal or commercial purposes, by disrupting the flow of conversation with repeated posting of a similar nature.

If a player was reported for a certain option enough, a Riot employee would review their chat history and game statistics. If the player was found to be in violation of the Summoner’s Code, they would receive a penalty varying in severity from a chat ban to a permanent ban. Repeated infringements would also increase the severity. This system worked surprisingly well, as the community generally punished toxicity, and I saw many of my toxic friends banned, or other toxic players banned. At the start of every season, toxic professional players were banned, which set a standard in the community.

A History of the Report System, and its Success

The Tribunal System was introduced in 2011 to remedy the exponential growth of the community, where a player who is above level 20 (about 75 hours of gameplay) and not currently banned can review up to 20 randomly assigned reports and vote to “punish” or “pardon.” They would receive in-game currency comparable to playing for that amount of time. To further incentivize players, the Justice Review showed a summoner’s number of cases correctly judged, longest correct judgement streak, and a “justice rating,” which would increase the weight of their vote. Once the jury reached a certain number of punish votes (undisclosed by Riot), the accused would receive a punishment. For permanent bans, a Riot employee would personally have to review their case [Source].

According to metrics released by Riot in 2012, more than 47 million votes had been cast, with 51% resulting in a guilty verdict, and 5.7% resulting in a permanent ban. 74% of players warned never ended up there again, and 700 cases were hand-reviewed by Riot employees [Source]. I would say this means that the system is very successful, especially considering that 74% of players were fearful enough of the consequences not to repeat their behavior. An unseen motive to not repeat this behavior was the fact that accounts take a long time to level up and unlock champions (and only at the max level can participate in ranked play), a max-level account costs around $26 and only has 16 champions. As one in-game tip shows, “The community overwhelmingly votes to punish homophobic slurs in the tribunal” [Source]. Apparently, some users believe their voice matters and even report everyone who uses homophobic slurs!

At the end of 2012, Riot released an honor system, which gave players in-game emblems on their profiles and on the loading screen. They did so by including an “honor player” option in addition to the “report player” option on the end-game screen. This resulted in substantially fewer reports [Source]. Riot also started giving out reward icons to players in good standing for holidays and other special events.

In September 2015, Riot took down the tribunal system, and implemented an instant-feedback system, where players get instantly warned or banned after a game where they get reported by the majority of the players for the same reason. The report options have been slightly tweaked, and up to three can be selected. No human reviews the reports, an instant-feedback system issues disciplinary messages and actions within 15 minutes of the reports. Apparently, this has better encouraged negative players to reform, shielded players from negative experiences, and removed players who won’t reform [Source].

Riot has done an amazing job of punishing toxicity so far, and I have no complaints about that. I would like to see greater champion diversity, which would entail strong-looking females, monstrous looking females, and more feminine looking males than Ezreal.

ezreal_originalskin_old2
Ezreal. [Source]

Suggestions for Riot

I would also like to see some programs geared towards getting more women to play League. This could mean producing content geared towards getting women to play the game (like more realistic feminine characters), content to encourage women to come to events, or to do other community activities together. Riot could post and repost more pictures and stories of women playing League on their official Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts that each have millions of followers. They could also offer incentives to women through the medium of videos, which are already being produced. More female players would be a great boon to Riot and the video game industry as a whole.

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