You can learn a lot about a person by the values they express, and possibly something about an entire gaming platform by the blog posts the person running it writes. That’s why I was so eager at E3 last week to ask the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, why he recently wrote a 1200-word essay mostly about “building a safe and inclusive gaming environment for everyone.” His answer was illuminating, and hinted at ambitious plans taking shape for Xbox Live that could prove influential for online gaming as a whole.
Before getting into what Spencer said and the new initiatives he outlined, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with his May 20 post. It was titled “Video games: A unifying force for the world” and spends zero words hyping Xbox games. There’s some stuff at the top about gaming’s positive impact. He notes that gaming’s ever-increasing cultural impact “comes at a time when digital life includes a growing toxic stew of hate speech, bigotry and misogyny.” The crux of the post is about online safety.
“We will identify potentials for abuse and misuse on our platform and will fix problems quickly,” he wrote, promoting revised Xbox Community Standards and noting that “hate and harassment have no place in gaming.” He added that Xbox would be adding new content moderation features, first to community managers of official Xbox Live groups called Clubs, but eventually to all Xbox users by the end of the year.
None of this is as attention-grabbing as the announcement of a new console, but it indicates a major Xbox priority. What I learned from Spencer as we discussed the post was that it was meant to articulate the Xbox team’s values while putting potential critics and skeptics on notice as new moderation tools and standards roll out.
“I’ve been public before,” Spencer told me. “Xbox Live is not a free speech platform. It is not a place where anybody can come and say anything. And as we’re working to ensure it’s a safe and inclusive environment for everybody, I don’t want to be opaque about it. I want to be out there front and center so that you understand our motivation.”
Such words may rankle some people. But they will also surely give hope to others that maybe online gaming can still become a less toxic environment, one more regularly filled with the kind of positive interactions that make playing games online with good friends or cool strangers so rewarding.
(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Stephen Totilo, Kotaku: You published a blog post about “games as a unifying force,” and you talked about the responsibility of gaming being a safe environment. You talked about toxicity as well and efforts to battle that. Why did you write that?
Phil Spencer, Xbox: It really represents, I think, a point of view that the team has. And obviously as the head of the business and the head of the team, I think it’s important for me to be public about the things that are important to us. And I believe it at a fundamental level.
It’s funny, here at E3 there’s some guy I’ve been playing games with for almost three years online. He lives in Arkansas, I’ve never met him face to face, I play two or three nights a week with him, and we tend to play with an African-American guy who lives in New Jersey and the three of us. And I think about what social construct on our planet today brings a guy who runs a funeral home in Arkansas, a video game guy in Seattle, and a construction worker in New Jersey together in one fireteam to go run Destiny strikes together. When I feel that connective capability—I’ve been in this industry for a long time—I think about both being at Microsoft and using the platform that we have as one of the largest global companies. What does it mean for Microsoft to be in gaming? What should we stand for? And then being deliberate about that.
The only reason we published it now is, just as we’re making progress in Gaming For Everyone, as we’re going to do more things in our services, as we’re beefing up parental controls, there’s going to be a fringe segment that doesn’t like the direction we go. I’ve been public before: Xbox Live is not a free speech platform. It is not a place where anybody can come and say anything. And as we’re working to ensure it’s a safe and inclusive environment for everybody, I don’t want to be opaque about it. I want to be out there front and center so that you understand our motivation.
Totilo: You mentioned a couple of things in that post. You said: “This summer, we are empowering our official Club community managers with proactive content moderation features that will help create safe spaces for fans to discuss their favorite games. We plan to roll out new content moderation experiences to everyone on Xbox Live by the end of 2019.” What does that mean? What might I be able to do to moderate content on Xbox Live?
Spencer: Today we have parental controls, but we looked at our parental controls system and said, “Why can’t everybody use them?” Why are parental controls and this idea of, as a parent I have a child account and I can kind of mandate screen time and spending limits and what kind of content I see—why can’t anybody on their own account go and set that? We have a roadmap of us continuing to build that out, and some of this is us looking at some of the constructs we had under the child accounts. We want to blow that out a bit and really let anybody put those kinds of constructs on their account.
The intersection of [Looking For Group] and Clubs is really interesting, because now on Xbox Live I can filter my LFG through my Club affiliations, which is a nice way to be able to say, “Hey, I don’t like swearing online so I’m going to be in a no-swearing club. And I’m going to use that as my matchmaking service.” So it lets me curate the people I end up in an online session with. It only works if you’ve got a Club moderator who can moderate who is in a club and making sure people are actually adhering to the rules.
And so all of this is about taking, one, a lot of the controls that are already in place and are really focused on a child account and expanding them out, and then continuing to build on this. The blog post was kind of to not miss the “why” in why we are doing this.
Totilo: I wondered if the blog post was also you recognizing that this is a problem in gaming. We experience it in my different ways, in my profession, and in yours, there’s a distressing amount of toxicity. You talk about misogyny and hate that you hear in online speech and everything, and I didn’t know if this was signaling some ideas and developments you had. In terms of accessibility, you guys had a very bold step that you took with the Adaptive Controller last year, which was wonderful, and I wondered if this signaled some breakthroughs or some real prioritization of finding a way to make the online gaming space a less hateful, less misogynistic space, a less racist space.
Spencer: Two things I’d say there, and I’m really loving this conversation. One is: We own Minecraft. And it’s not specifically about Minecraft, but, as a team, thinking through the responsibility that we have with a game that spans such a broad age range and how many kids have their first game experience on a parent’s phone in the backseat of the car. When that goes to online, our opportunity to kind of set a—”rules” is probably too strong, but let’s just say a “common code of conduct”—and try to set some expectations.
We take that very seriously. And not just about Minecraft, but all of Xbox Live. I would say Minecraft, just at the scale it’s at, we feel that it is part of the responsibility in a big way. I think when we look forward, when we talk about toxicity online, let’s not only relate it to gaming, clearly. It’s message posts after articles online. It’s Twitter. It’s a lot of different places.
Totilo: YouTube comments. Twitch chat.
Spencer: I think the anonymity of the internet and the ability to comment to anybody is a really difficult place to unlock. One of the things we find in gaming that’s actually really helpful to us is that because your Xbox Live account has friends and identity and state, there seems to be—and it’s good—there seems to be a lot more care that a player takes in their identity and its reputation. Banning somebody on Twitter, it takes me five seconds to create another account.
So when we think about our ability in the long run to actually create a system that actually has some amount of capability to actually impact behavior, we think the fact that our account has friends and history and relationships gives us a good relationship with a customer to actually impart some real rules and responsibilities. But I think it’s just as much about gaming as it is about a community online.
Totilo: Yeah, well, I was impressed that you wrote a thing about it.
Spencer: It was five years ago when I became head of Xbox, and Satya Nadella, the CEO, he said, especially when I moved to report to him: I don’t want you to think about how gaming can help Microsoft. I want you to think about how Microsoft can help us make inroads in gaming, and I want you to use the platform of Microsoft in gaming to stand for things that you guys care about.”
That was an empowering statement from our CEO, and we leaned into it. And he’s been great in supporting the endeavors. And you know this: There’s backlash any time. I can change my Xbox logo, my Twitter account to a rainbow logo this month, and there’s backlash against that.
In the final part of my conversation with Spencer, we discuss the state of game development for Xbox and what went wrong earlier this console cycle.