Overwatch’s Play Nice, Play Fair Update Misses the Point

Recently, Blizzard released a developer update titled Play Nice, Play Fair, which attempted to address Overwatch’s fundamental problems with toxicity.

Game developer Jeff Kaplan described the issue as a “rising tide,” and promised future improvements to the reporting system (which was just added to the console versions of the game, more than a full year after launch).

Other than that, though, the update was not only lacklustre but appeared to miss the point entirely.

Slaps on the wrist

Kaplan addressed the fact that the report function is widely seen as useless, saying that this perception “couldn’t be further from the truth.” As evidence, he stated that disciplinary action had been taken against over 480,000 accounts.

480,000. Almost half a million players have been disciplined – about a thousand per day since the game’s release. Far from Kaplan’s claim, it doesn’t seem like the reporting feature is a useful deterrent.

Moreover, exactly what disciplinary action has been taken? Kaplan recently revealed in a forum post that one account had accrued 2247 reports, calling it “one of the worst offending accounts we’ve seen.” Their punishment was a week’s suspension. It hardly seems likely that this would stop this player or any other who now knows what lenient repercussions even the most toxic players face. Instead, it actually serves as a reassurance that no real action will be taken against them.

In the developer update, Kaplan states: “Our highest level philosophy is, if you’re a bad person doing bad things in Overwatch, we don’t want you in Overwatch.” But this runs contrary to all the evidence we have about how Blizzard handles bad people doing bad things in their game.

A toxic community

That the disciplinary system doesn’t work and needs more than the “tuning and adjusting” promised in the update is self evident. What is more insidious is Kaplan’s apparent attitude to toxicity in the Overwatch community and in video games more widely. Specifically, he claims “we’ve all…taken part in this behaviour.”

This is not only untrue but astonishingly tone deaf, especially considering that it comes in the same week that many gamers jumped to defend Pewdiepie’s indefensible use of the N-slur (content warning: the word is used in full at the link). Kaplan now falls into a dangerous camp; those who think that there is some sort of inevitability – and therefore acceptability – to angry outbursts of hatred.

We haven’t all taken part in this behaviour. The reason that Kaplan thinks that we have is that, as he admits twice in the video, he has done so. Indeed, Kaplan has infamously “said mean things online” – like this insult ridden tirade (that includes the R-slur) he went on as an Everquest player. Now, people change, and Kaplan may have, but that he so casually admits to having “said mean things to [his] teammates” is infuriating regardless of how much milder they are than his earlier online behaviour.

“Take a deep look inwards”

– Jeff Kaplan

Firstly, it legitimises and affirms toxic players watching. As the face of Overwatch, Kaplan leads by example, and by bringing up his own transgressions as something to be overlooked he minimises everyone’s. Those who abuse other players can now continue safe in the knowledge that the game’s lead developer thinks that it’s normal, not particularly shameful behaviour. If everyone, even Kaplan, does it, why should they stop?

More than this, that not one person involved in the production of this video saw an issue with having the face of the franchise admit that he’s insulted his teammates demonstrates the deep roots of Overwatch’s problem, ones that will affect every step of their attempts to improve.

For example, it makes perfect sense that punishments are so lenient if toxicity is viewed as a mistake that anyone might make. And how can a lower ranking developer approach Kaplan about potential solutions to insults they were subjected to in the game knowing that it might have been Kaplan himself throwing them? That he is surrounded by people who think that fact is minor enough to drop offhandedly into a developer update?

Any successful approach to combating toxicity must centre those most affected. This video not only demonstrates a failure to do that, but shows that the space is instead dominated by those who are a part of the problem. It is suddenly even less surprising that changes have been slow coming and ineffectual.


Kaplan ends by claiming that implementing anti-toxicity measures has slowed down the game’s other development. He uses the example that developers working on match replay and history systems had to be rerouted to create the console reporting system.

I understand that it’s frustrating to have to work on reducing bad behaviour in the game rather than new gameplay features, but it’s hardly a surprising necessity. In fact, Overwatch’s toxicity problem was so predictable that the fact that consoles went 15 months without a reporting system – 15 months in which 340,000 people were disciplined from PC reports – is ultimately unforgivable.

Kaplan can promise that improvements are being worked on, but it hardly engenders hope to hear that there is no dedicated team working on one of the game’s biggest issues. If it took 15 months to reassign personnel to the most basic anti-toxicity system there is on console platforms, how long can we expect any further improvements to take? Who will work on them if developers have other mechanics to implement and management comprises those who aren’t particularly invested in creating fixes?

“We’re all here to have fun, we want Overwatch to be a really great place,” says Kaplan of the community. It’s another falsehood. There are those who don’t care about causing harm or actively want to do so, and this developer update does nothing but encourage them.

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Jay Castello

Jay is a freelance games writer specialising in intersectional feminist critique, how to improve games and use them to improve the world, and cute dogs. She loves inhabiting digital spaces in all their forms, and being constantly surprised by just how weird and wonderful games can be.


One response to “Overwatch’s Play Nice, Play Fair Update Misses the Point”

  1. Development of player behaviour features to combat toxicity have slowed development time of other features in the game due to dragging another team from what they were meant to be doing? Holy crap. Is it any wonder there’s a toxicity problem in Overwatch if they don’t consider behaviour management important enough to have a dedicated pipeline for it, but instead have to pull people from other pipelines to implement anything?

    As for the idea that ‘we’ve all been mean online’ – Firstly, his example of himself ‘being mean online’ is in the form of sending an insulting e-mail, pre-meditated, entirely not in the heat of the moment, and deliberate. Not a real time form of communication, a composed form. There’s an order of magnitude difference, there, in intent. I say this not to excuse people insulting team mates or harassing via voice chat, simply to point out that he doesn’t just think it’s normal to say things you regret in the heat of the moment, he thinks it’s normal to compose insulting messages in non-instant communication media. And then hit send rather than either heavily editing or deleting.

    Secondly – What people do say in the heat of the moment is extremely illustrative of their everyday vocabulary. One does not, in the heat of the moment, use words one isn’t used to using. I cuss in the heat of the moment, both in awe at other people’s performance and frustration at my own, but never directed at anyone in particular except sometimes myself, and just curses rather than slurs (and haven’t used voice chat functionality in a game since the headset that was bundled with my 360 broke, so… I dunno, 10-12 years or so? Meaning anything I say has as much impact on others as when I say things while playing single player games.)

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