IGN, one of the largest gaming sites in the world, has recently announced changes to its commenting policy explicitly aimed at tackling the culture of abuse in its threads. In a blog post announcing the change, editor-in-chief Steve Butts says:
Will that mean we won’t tolerate disagreement or fiery debates? Not at all. We’re an audience of advocates who come to IGN because we feel passionately about certain platforms, products, and philosophies. Being able to express and defend those tastes is part of why we’re here. Articulate disagreements about those tastes are a healthy and necessary part of those interactions. The comment guidelines aren’t meant to stop that.
The problem comes when a disagreement stops being about the merits of the argument and starts being about the people making it. It’s okay for us to disagree with each other, but we won’t tolerate abuse and threats disguised as disagreement. We also won’t tolerate ad hominem attacks, where you insult a person’s character or identity merely because you don’t like that they’re not the same person as you. None of us are perfect, and we all have bad days, of course, but we can’t let a difference of opinion devolve into being nasty to each other.
The context to this change, on top of years of growing hostility in the comment threads at IGN and elsewhere, is an open letter posted on Reaction last month by Samantha Allen, calling games media generally and IGN among others specifically to account over the toxic discussions they host below articles. It is worth reading in full, repeatedly; it’s a measured, articulate, passionate piece that firmly places responsibility for debates in comment threads with the sites that host those debates, and gives three clear calls to action for those in a position to change those debates. Addressing site editors by name, it says:
We have a problem and you can do something about it.
Our medium and the culture surrounding it is still in its adolescence and we’ve been experiencing a lot of growing pains lately. Those of us in the games community who are a part of marginalized groups have been going through hell lately. You can help us. You can do more than just express sympathy.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” You have a chance, right now, to shorten that arc. You are in positions of power and privilege. You have the luxury of being able to effect change at a level that we can only dream about.
Framing commenting and community policy and moderation as a moral issue is not new, but locating responsibility squarely with sites and publishers, rather than the commenters who frequent them, is a quietly revolutionary attitude. And a right one: much as people who run social spaces in the real world take on responsibility for enforcing behaviour norms within those spaces, people who open up social spaces online have to enforce the behaviour they want to see within them too. Simply opening a door then washing your hands of the damage caused is not enough.
IGN’s new policy is interesting not least because of its relative mildness. It bans personal attacks and discrimination, while encouraging debate and disagreement; it bans trolling, flaming and spam while permitting sensible pseudonymity. There’s also a section on questionable content, to act as a sort of catch-all:
Since we can’t have a rule to cover everything, this is the rule to, well, cover everything. These are public discussions, so act like you would if you were in a public place (a nice place). These issues are left to the discretion of individual moderators and staff, but may include any material that is knowingly false and/or defamatory, misleading, spammy, inaccurate, abusive, vulgar, hateful, harassing, sexist, obscene, racist, profane, sexually oriented, threatening, invasive of a person’s privacy, that otherwise violates any law, or that encourages conduct constituting a criminal offense. Asking for or offering any of the material listed above is also not permitted.
It’s a sensible policy and it’s excellent to see IGN taking responsibility for the comments on their site and committing to improving the discussion. They’re being careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, keeping what’s good about their community and reinforcing the positive behaviours they want to see – rather than turfing over the comment section, closing it or outsourcing it. I hope it comes with increased mod resource and support, and the buy-in of their writers too. It’s a strong commitment, and I hope their actions speak as loudly as their words on this – and that more sites follow their lead.