For what feels like eons now, the E3 Pangea has threatened to break apart and scatter gaming landmasses to all corners of the Earth. Now that’s finally happening, with this year’s E3 functioning as a loose umbrella for a plethora of publisher-specific shows. This has given companies a massive stage on which to show the world that they have no idea what to do with Twitch chat.
Despite ample resources and longstanding conventional wisdom surrounding large Twitch chats’ tendency to turn toxic if they’re not properly moderated, publishers, Twitch, and E3 have all managed to mishandle Twitch chat. Things got off to a particularly egregious start on Saturday with Ubisoft’s conference, which opened with a lengthy preshow. During this preshow, there was a segment about gamers with disabilities. Chat was not kind.
“To make things worse though, people were being ableist and racist,” Dominick Evans, a streamer who consults for Hollywood on disability and LGBTQ issues, said on Twitter. “A friend who is Black and Deaf was signing about Ubisoft’s commitment to accessibility, and people were saying things like is he Deaf because of a gang fight? They also said sign language was gang signs.”
Perhaps as a result of this, or possibly as part of a premeditated plan, Ubisoft ended up basically disabling chat during its actual show. On Twitch, it activated subscriber-only mode so that anybody who hadn’t paid money to subscribe couldn’t chime in. On YouTube, it removed chat functionality altogether.
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Other publishers, like Square Enix, also found themselves confronted with chaos and spam, ultimately deciding to take away chat’s ability to use words by activating emote-only mode midway through the stream. Over the weekend, Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards channel, which has been co-streaming events as part of the Summer Game Fest event, attempted to rein in its own unruly chat in a similar way, only to fail. It activated subscriber-only mode, but whoever was running the channel neglected to turn off a feature called channel points, which allows viewers to briefly bypass the sub-only wall by spending points they accrue simply by watching a stream. As a result, even with restrictions in place, chat remained a cesspit of spam, with walls of the word “SEXO” obliterating nearly all discussion.
Continuing a long-running theme, Twitch has also done a poor job of managing its own Twitch chat, with a small moderation staff failing to quickly delete, for example, inappropriate comments about female presenters’ weight and other remarks at their expense. The PC Gaming show, meanwhile, theoretically had moderators, but they applied an exceedingly light touch, allowing racist emote spam and comments like “blacks” to slip through when presenter Mica Burton was on screen. Later, they also failed to prevent a giant, largely unrelated yell-off between viewers who were opposed to police and the “back the blue” crowd. “BLM and antifa are terrorists” is just one of many comments that got through without being moderated until damage was already done.
The worst offender, though, is probably the official E3 channel, which clears the incredibly low bar of having an active moderation staff instead of panicking and trying to disable chat entirely, but has dropped the ball in basically every other area. There are also no listed chat rules. Despite near-constant audience sizes of 100,000+ concurrent viewers, the main E3 channel has not even restricted chat to follower-only mode, which—while nowhere near as severe as sub-only—would at least cut down on chaos a little.
To corral such a gargantuan audience, the organization has been using just north or just south of ten moderators at any given moment. This means that objectionable content and spam regularly fly by. Even when moderators step in, they’re usually too slow on the draw to zap it before most viewers have seen it. As a result, any time, for example, female panelists are on screen during segments between presentations, some viewers start saying things like “women talking ew,” “women should not drive,” and “booba.”
Chat reacts similarly when anybody of a marginalized background appears. At one point yesterday, a streamer of Asian descent was on screen, leading to comments like “China = Rona.” There have also been unprompted drive by arguments about China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, which has led to racist remarks against Chinese people and more generalized statements like “I hate minorities.”
Many in the chat are aware of how bad it is.
“Chat mad annoying,” said one viewer in chat yesterday.
“I’m disappointed in all of you in chat,” said another.
During today’s Take Two diversity panel, E3 channel chat immediately erupted into awful comments about trans people, and the E3 moderators mercifully set chat to emote-only mode. Chat spent the rest of the panel spamming emotes meant to signal boredom, disagreement, and cringe.
Certainly, large Twitch chats can be a daunting prospect to face down, but keeping them from exploding into mushroom clouds of toxicity is not impossible. Case in point: When Democratic representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar streamed on Twitch for the first time last year, they ended up pulling an audience of nearly 450,000 concurrent viewers, eclipsing what E3 is currently dealing with. Despite this, they still managed to maintain relatively mature chats while discussing significantly more charged topics than next year’s hottest video games.
The reason? Even though AOC and Omar’s teams pulled the whole event together in just 24 hours, they made sure to consult with streamers and moderation experts beforehand. This allowed them to assemble a crew of experienced moderators who laid out a comprehensive set of rules for chat and applied them consistently. The end result was not perfect—pro-Trump viewers managed to cause a few dust-ups in part because, as a result of AOC and Omar’s status as government reps, they couldn’t just wantonly block everyone—but it was largely bearable. It never got out of control.
Contrast this with E3 and related channels, which fail to establish community norms out the gate and instead let viewers dictate the pace. When you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of people, that reactive approach is a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t need to be this way. Companies and organizations just have to make an effort to cultivate their communities—something that’s long overdue after years of major industry events heading in a digital direction. The question is whether or not anybody involved will actually prioritize community upkeep on platforms like Twitch. So far, it looks like the answer is no.