IGN’s commitment to changing its comment culture

Some of the comments on the IGN announcement of their new moderation policy. As they say, there's a long way to go and a lot of work to be done before the change takes hold.
Some of the comments on the IGN announcement of their new moderation policy. As they say, there’s a long way to go before the change takes hold.

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.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

7 thoughts on “IGN’s commitment to changing its comment culture”

  1. I don’t know…we’re putting a lot of trust in the moderators to determine what is classified as discrimination, or trolling, or flaming, all of which are subjective and relative to the individual. IMO I still think the best way to counter this issue is to encourage community action, to engage with the users and keep harping on about the community’s capacity to hold individuals accountable for what they say. When you have a set of guidelines in place so vague as to attempt to apply an overall determination of what is classified as unacceptable behaviour, you’re bordering the line of censorship. Unfortuantely, the compromise in maintaining a free, unhinged commenting system is that it’s going to attract trolls. However, I am seeing a dangerous trend in which offensive commenting is being determined as being representative of a whole community, which is as grossly a dysfunctional generalisation as what is being applied by some idiots in the comments. It’s a nasty cycle. I still believe the best way to tackle this issue is to spend the effort educating and empowering the community to kick in the butt those that step out of line. I mean, who is an IGN editor, and why exactly am I allowing them to determine whether something is wrong or not? We’re instilling a LOT of moral obligation onto the shoulders of a set few of individuals, an issue currently plaguing game classification in Australia.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chico. I think the time for community action passed a very long time ago on IGN, where the community made it clear they were perfectly happy to tolerate all manner of abuse, and those who wouldn’t tolerate it were driven elsewhere. I am absolutely 100% for moderated comments, and it’s absolutely the decision of the site where those comments occur as to what lines they draw and what content they moderate out. I trust IGN’s comment moderators to do that in much the same way as I trust their site editors to commission content: I sincerely hope that they’ll do the best job possible to create the climate they want to see on site and that they’ll make the right decisions the majority of the time. And if people who get their comments removed don’t like that, then I sincerely hope they’ll go elsewhere to express whatever they wanted to express, so long as it’s not discriminatory, abusive or pure trolling.

      This is not censorship. Nobody is owed space on anyone else’s platform; to suggest otherwise is terribly entitled. There is a lot of moral obligation on the shoulders of a few individuals already. I’m glad to see them stepping up and taking some responsibility for it.

  2. I find it… interesting?… how many of the commenters on that IGN post seem to have interpreted the change in policy as being about platform wars rather than social justice. I am not a regular IGN reader, so i don’t know if they have particularly nasty platform wars, but at least in the context you presented the policy shift here (and the context i would have read it in if i came across it on my own), i would not have assumed that was the main focus. That some IGN users are assuming that seems particularly… well, i think you have to be in a very privileged position, to be at the point where the biggest strife in your online life comes from people calling you names for preferring Playstation to XBox and so you fail to even consider that your problems might not be the trigger for such a policy change.

  3. Mary, only it is censorship:

    “Censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body.”

  4. Chico, I have no idea where that definition comes from – presumably Wikipedia? – but it is a remarkably broad one, and the application of it to comments on all platforms makes absolute nonsense of the concept. Am I censoring on this blog by removing spam?

    To suggest that refusing to publish any comments amounts to harmful censorship would mean that, for instance, the New York Times would be forced to publish absolutely anything submitted to it for publication, for fear of being labelled a censor. Choosing not to publish certain content is generally called editing, and widely regarded as a sensible idea. And, as I said, no one owes you a platform, especially not for trolling and abuse.

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