Trading Places: Legal Design in Reporting Systems of Online Multiplayer Video Games

Level 1: Introduction

Video games and law are two words that you would not expect to read in a sentence. However, in my work I love to combine seemingly unrelated fields. In this case there is more crossover than you would expect. The rise of online multiplayer games exacerbated a problem that was always ever-present in (video) games.

In online multiplayer games several individuals play a real time game. Often, this experience is enjoyable and fun, but sometimes a session can be clouded by a negative experience. An offending player hurls insults, drops out of a match or conducts any other action which crosses the rules of the game. In order to negate this problem a lot of online multiplayer games implemented a reporting system.

A reporting system allows a player, as the name already implies, to report another player if the player violates the rules of the game. The number of complaints received through the reporting system of an online multiplayer game are immense due to the massive user base of popular games. Online message boards are scattered with users who complain about the reporting system. Similar to legal systems, if a system is overburdened it may create problems and dissatisfaction among users of the system.

While I was playing some of these games, I started thinking more in depth about this topic. I have previously written about overburdened legal systems and how legal design and/or legal tech tools can strengthen and improve these systems. I was therefore fascinated by the reporting systems of online multiplayer games. I wanted to research how these reporting systems work and see whether I could cross-fertilize these fields.

Legal design could be used to improve current reporting systems in video games while at the same time mechanisms from that same reporting system can be used to strengthen the legal system. For example, the legal tech field is creating online dispute resolution services. These services aim to use the same mechanisms that are currently used in reporting systems. There is a lot that we, as legal scholars, can learn from these reporting systems and implement into our own services and systems. We do not need to reinvent the wheel every single time we want to develop a new legal tool. We can recycle elements that already exist in other products, services and systems. At the same time, reporting systems can benefit from implementing legal design to tackle some of the complaints of the users. In other words, through trading places, analyzing both systems and transplanting useful elements, both systems can be improved.

In these series of posts I set out to research the reporting systems, talk to both the users as well as game developers with the aim of conducting a comparative analysis. Through comparative analysis, elements can be detected and transplanted in order to improve both legal as well as reporting systems.

This first post will provide an overview of the different reporting systems, but in particular the reporting system in the game League of Legends. I analyzed the reporting system of games that I’m familiar with and games that I know less well, but are nevertheless intriguing due to their popularity and fan base.

Level 2: Introduction to League of Legends

League of Legends is an online multiplayer game made by game developer Riot Games. In League of Legends a game consists of two teams that battle each other to destroy the opposing team’s central structure, which is called a nexus. Each player picks a character (called ‘champions’) with unique abilities to tackle the opponent’s base. Throughout the game gamers can improve their characters through experience points and purchasing items.

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In game screenshot of League of Legends. I have blurred the usernames of the players for privacy reasons.

League of Legends is an immensely popular game; it has over 80 million monthly players. Therefore it is no surprise that a reporting system had to be established to deal with conflicts that may arise between users.

Level 3: The Rules of the Game

Similar to sports there are certain rules that, when they are crossed, are linked to penalties. Here’s a short overview of some of these rules and penalties. According to the League of Legends website the following behaviors are disciplined:

  • Insulting, harassing, or offensive language directed at other players.
  • Any kind of hate speech such as homophobia, sexism, racism, and ableism.
  • Intentionally ruining the game for other players with in game actions such as griefing, feeding, or purposely playing in a way to make it harder for the rest of the team.
  • Leaving or going AFK at any point during the match being played.
  • Unnecessarily disruptive language or behavior that derails the match for other players.
  • Inappropriate Summoner Names.

These following are behaviors are not acted upon by the disciplinary systems:

  • Playing poorly but still trying to win.
  • Strong language that does not insult or demean other people.
  • Choosing unusual champions, building unusual items, or experimenting with new ideas that don’t match the current “meta”.

Level 4: Penalties

These behaviors as described above are linked to certain penalties. Some of these penalties are:

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An overview of how some of the rules are linked to certain penalties

Chat restriction

If this penalty is applied the player will only have a limited number of chat messages he or she can send while in game. More chat messages will be unlocked as the player progresses. This penalty is received if a player uses speech that is deemed unacceptable according to the rules. Think of the use of curse words to insult another player for example. In such cases certain words or phrases can be flagged by an automated system.

An interesting aspect of flagging certain words is that words which are considered to be insulting differ from country to country. For example, ‘your momma jokes’ are perceived as funny and harmless in Western countries, while in South Korea they are deemed to be gravely insulting. Riot customizes words that are deemed insulting for each region.

Ban

Bans are, as the name suggest, a penalty to ban the player from playing the game. These bans generally have two types of duration: the two weekly ban or the permanent ban also known as permaban. These bans usually apply to a particular account, but there are cases of a more expansive ban through which all accounts that are associated with a specific user are banned.

Case example:

Apdo Dopa was a famous League of Legend player. Once upon a time he was even considered to be one of the best. The community had high expectations of what he could achieve in the competitive gaming field, until he got permabanned by the game developers for boosting.

Boosting is getting paid to play on someone else’s account so that their account will get a higher ranking. This activity is highly lucrative but according to the League of Legends rules also illegal as it disrupts the competitive element of the game.

Apdo Dopa was both active as a competitive League of Legends player as well as boosting on the side. It is said a disgruntled fangirl who paid for his boosting services brought evidence to Riot, the game developer, of his illicit behavior.

Once he was exposed Riot permabanned not only his specific account but all his associated accounts. In practice this meant that he was not allowed to play League even by creating a new account as Riot would ban him.

Apdo Dopa’s ban was lifted in 2015. He is now playing League of Legends again but not in official competitions.

Lower Priority Queues

Gamers that leave an ongoing game can be punished by a system Riot calls LeaverBuster. The penalties for this type of action, especially for repeated offenses, is placing the players in a separate queue. In this queue they have increased waiting time when they want to connect to a game.

Level 5: The Reporting System of League of Legends

It is not exactly known how the reporting system works as Riot keeps the lid tightly closed on the specific workings of the system. However, there are two elements that one can distinguish.

The automated reporting system is automatically prompted when a certain behavior is apparent in the game. For example, the penalty chat restriction can be prompted when certain words are used. These words are flagged by the system through which consequently a player is penalized by having their chat restricted. Similarly the LeaverBuster system can automatically detect and assign punishments for leaving an ongoing game.

Another part of the reporting system relies on the players. They have the ability to report users. Reporting users is only possible after the game has finished.

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This is an in game screenshot after a session has finished. The annotated pink arrow points out the report icon. I have blurred the usernames of the players for privacy reasons.
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A screenshot of how the report card looks in game. I have blurred the names of the players for privacy reasons.

The reports are sent to Riot, but it is unclear what happens to the reports. The player who submits the report is often not notified of the outcome of their submission. The player does sometimes receive a message from the instant feedback system, thanking them for their report.

If a player receives an unjust penalty there is a possibility to send a support ticket through the website. However, due to the immense amount of support tickets, it takes a long time before the ticket is reviewed. In the meantime the penalties are upheld.

Level 6: Short Overview of the Pressure Points

At first glance these rules and penalties seem straightforward. However, one quick google search shows us that the reporting system does not seem to be working well.

One of the main reasons is that the players often encounter uncertainty. They do not know how the algorithm of the reporting system works. This might be more clear when you receive a penalty for cursing, but less so when it comes to a set of actions called ‘intentional feeding’.

Intentional feeding

Intentional feeding is when a player conducts behavior in which he or she intentionally ruins a game by giving resources to the enemy player. This can be done by, for example, intentionally losing and dying by the hands of the enemy player. This practice is best compared to scoring an own goal in football (soccer for Americans).

If a player intentionally loses a game by allowing his opponent to defeat him, extra resources will be gained by his opponent. Players often intentional feed for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons being that it makes the game experience miserable for their teammates. This is a process described online as ‘trolling’.

One match in League of Legends takes up to around 40 minutes and it is only possible to leave the game under very specific circumstances. Surrendering a game in League is only possible after 15 minutes and has to be by an unanimous vote or by an agreement of ⅘ of the players after 20 minutes. The other players who are not feeding will receive harsh penalties from the reporting system if they decide to leave the game before surrendering according to the rules. In other words: league players are often held hostage for 40 minutes or more in a toxic environment by trolls who are intentionally feeding.

And this is where the problem with the reporting system sets in. It is relatively easy for an automated program to flag words in a chatroom than to detect intentional behavior. How can the automated reporting system differentiate between someone who is loses unintentionally and a player who displays bad sportsmanship by trolling the other players of the game?

Furthermore, if a player intentionally feeds and the other players are frustrated and react by cursing the system will often hand out penalties to those other players while the player who trolls the game escapes the notice of the reporting system.

Combine this with the fact that a lot of players have no idea how the reporting system actually works. They are often not notified about the outcome of the report. Players who are reported only receive a notification that they have been reported. If they are on the receiving end of a punishment, they are not notified on why they have received a punishment. In other words, and the following phrase is recognizable to legal researchers and lawyers, there is a lot of uncertainty.

Case example

A Twitter post has been circulating on League of Legends message boards where a player sends in a screenshot of another user’s string of losses. The player who sent that image to Riot, the game developer, considers these losses to be proof of intentional feeding. As can be seen in the image below, Riot is apprehensive of categorizing the behavior of this player as intentional feeding. This apprehensive approach by Riot is a cause of great frustration for many players. Moreover, this situation exemplifies how secrecy surrounding the reporting system creates uncertainty. It is not clear what behavior is considered to be a reason for a penalty.

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The image of a Twitter post that has been circulating online. Please note the response of ‘Riot Game Support’ stating that they cannot immediately consider this as intentional feeding.

The uncertainty is also exacerbated by inconsistency. The first preliminary interviews have showed that the reporting system is not consistent. Sometimes players get warnings, sometimes they do not. Certain behaviors receive penalties while similar behavior at other times does not. This inconsistency is a cause for great frustration for many players. Moreover, reports in game can only be submitted in a short time slot: after the game has ended and the match’s statistics are shown. This time is limited. If for any reason a player forgets, is too lazy or too upset to submit a report at that particular time, it becomes more of a hassle to submit a complaint.

At that point the player has to go to the League of Legends website, login and submit a support ticket. As a lot of people submit tickets it takes a long time before a support assistant replies. The reason why Riot makes players have to jump through a lot of hoops, is to limit the immense user base from overloading the support panel. Riot is one of the bigger game developers, but even they struggle with huge strain on their support system. Other game developers have even less resources to hire people to manually assess reports.

Level 7: Reporting Systems in Other Online Multiplayer Games

Each reporting system is different, although there is often some form of automated reporting going on. Here is a short overview of some of these reporting reporting systems:

Dota 2

Dota 2, a game which is christened by some gamers as a geekier version of League of Legends, circumvents a lot of difficulties described above by allowing players to leave the game within 5 minutes that the game has started. This minimizes the intentional feeding problem as described above, as players, once they notice that one of the players is intentionally playing bad and/or losing, can leave the game.

Old League of Legends Reporting System

The previous League of Legends system used the concept of tribunals where volunteer players would assess reports that were submitted. This system was overhauled by the reporting system as described above.

Heroes of the Storm

Has a similar reporting system as League of Legends with one of the main differences that it is possible to report players while the game is still ongoing. Furthermore, the games are shorter and this prevents players from being held hostage in game by trolls.

Level 8: Overlapping Problems between the Legal and the Reporting System

There are several similar problems in the legal and the reporting system.

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Similarities between the reporting and the legal system

Overburdened systems

An overburdened system is not unique to online multiplayer games. Legal systems suffer from the same fate. For example, I have previously written about the petition system in China which is overloaded with petitions of citizens. If a legal system is overloaded and not designed well to handle an influx of reports, complaints will start rising up. Similar to when a computer is overloaded, legal and reporting systems start lagging, processing takes forever and bugs will show up more and more.

Both overburdened reporting as well as legal systems display these malfunctions. Users of different systems are reporting similar problems: the process is slow, it takes too long to receive an answer, some steps of the process do not make sense, etc.

Uncertainty

Legal certainty is a fundamental principle for the rule of law. Rules should be clear and predictable to prevent arbitrary use of power. Overburdened legal systems that are not designed well lack this principle. Users do not know where they stand. The system is not clear and predictable. This is similar to the reporting system. As described above, one of the main complaints of the users of the reporting system is the lack of clarity on how the reporting system functions. Most users experience the system to be inconsistent and arbitrary. Similar to subjects of dysfunctional legal systems.

Tech experimentation in systems

Both systems are experimenting with tech to create a more efficient system. Reporting system rely on both automated tools and reports from users to function. However the tech in this system is not perfect. Complaints of users are rampant on being wrongly penalized by the system without having immediate recourse to their case being reviewed. As mentioned above, due to the massive amount of reports, mistakes made by the system take long to correct manually.

These complaints ring similar to the experimentation with tech, more specifically AI, in legal systems. Reports have been popping up about racial and gender bias of legal tech tools that employ AI. Injustice by automated tools is an aspect that both systems experience, and a topic which will become more prevalent for legal systems in the near future.

All these common problems also have the same consequence in both systems. There is a lack of faith in the functionality, efficiency and justice of dysfunctional reporting and legal systems.

Level 9: The Possible Benefits of Comparative Analysis and Legal Design

Reporting systems in online multiplayer games were established to deal swiftly and efficiently with the large amount of reports. It is not illogical that game developers rely on automated reporting systems as it is not feasible to manually process reports of a game with 80 million players. However, when the reporting system was established a crucial actor was not taken sufficiently into account: the user.

For game developers or anyone not familiar with the concept of legal design. Legal design,according to Margaret Hagan, is:

the application of human-centered design to the world of law, to make legal systems and services more human-centered, usable, and satisfying.

The user should play a central role during the creation of a product, service or system. A well designed (legal) system tackles issues such as uncertainty, inconsistency and other concepts that user research brings to light. Legal design provides tools to make products, services and systems not only efficient but also user-friendly.

It is not strange or a fault of game developers that they struggle with designing a system that deals with the problematic areas described above. Tackling uncertainty, inconsistency, bias and strengthening the rule of law are recurring themes in legal research.

Reporting systems can use research that has already been conducted in this area as a stepping stone to improve the reporting system. Comparative analysis and research can help in this regard by extracting problematic areas and transplanting possible solutions from one system to another.

The legal system could benefit through this process in a similar way. Reporting systems in online multiplayer games use automated reporting systems. Similar systems, such as online dispute resolution platforms, are now being developed for the legal field. These systems do not function perfectly and more often than not the focus is efficiency instead of the user. Reporting systems can not only contribute to creating better systems for the legal field, but can also give us more insight in how users react to such systems, which on its turn would create better designed human centered legal systems.

Level 10: The Next Level

The next part of this project, that will be chronicled on this platform, consists of user research which includes interviews with gamers as well as game developers. The following parts will elaborate on specific parts of both systems that can be extracted and transplanted with the objective to improve and create more human centered reporting and legal systems. Want to chat about this topic in the meantime? Reach out to me on Twitter or LinkedIn.