Creating Communities: Microsoft

In every sense Microsoft is the most advanced of the three in its attempts to foster an online community. As mentioned in the entry relating to Sony, their inclusion of a headset with every Xbox 360 has made Microsoft’s console the most communicative online experience. However, the next step for them will be far more challenging, and where they choose to take it is an interesting dilemma. With its slick online service established, there is one main concern with how the Xbox community develops from here. With many having suffered from negative online experiences, Microsoft now has to decide to what extent it wishes to police this service.

Until this point the 360 has been given the image of a console aimed primarily at a young adult male demographic. This of course doesn’t encapsulate the entire consumer base, but considering the games which are the most important exclusives on the platform and the targeted manner in which those games are advertised, it isn’t an unreasonable conclusion to make. Microsoft has made attempts to break away from this demographic to encompass a younger audience with games like Viva Piñata and with the introduction of Avatars, but these pushes lacked enough weight and consistency to fundamentally change that image. The Kinect though is clearly a very major attempt by Microsoft to expand its audience into the area currently occupied by the Wii. To coincidence with this Microsoft is rebranding its image as a more family friendly console. This fundamental shift in marketing strategy is aimed at creating an entirely new type of consumer base, whose values probably differ from current consumers, within an established brand. Its not the easiest thing to do. Though many of the Kinect audience won’t be playing online with strangers some will, at which point there could be fresh concern about abuse in online games, at least from the perspective of public relations. In Xbox Live abuse has been tolerated, but things may have to change.

So in order to accommodate the audience it wants to attract into the Xbox community Microsoft is going to have to rethink how they can control online interactions. Some heavy-handed decisions in the past relating to names of Xbox Live accounts and information about sexuality will no doubt make them wary about censorship. The complaints system relating to online abuse doesn’t seem sturdy enough and when it comes down to one persons word against another it is undoubtedly a tricky area to navigate. Despite this Microsoft has shown that they are by not averse to using the ban hammer, but that is mostly in relation to piracy which is something easier to track.

One solution would be to have servers tagged with an adult rating in which anything would be acceptable, and others would be rated for everyone. By using the XBL profile Microsoft could even screen which servers are available to age groups. This would unfortunately be a rather complex solution and probably slow down the process of actually getting a game; something which no one wants. Going further (as in I don’t know if this is something the 360’s structure could handle at the moment) there could be a way for any player to record audio during a game which could be presented to moderators so that they could act on actual evidence when issuing warnings. If this all sounds a little Orwellian then I agree, these aren’t ideal solutions. As always there is the concern of who polices the police. The important thing from Microsoft’s perspective isn’t so much to cut out swearing, which would be ridiculous, but rather to appear to provide a solution. Take videos on gaming websites or podcasts as an example. Although they are accessible by anyone, those with profanity or adult content either require you to enter your date of birth or usually have an explicit mark next to them. There is no way to prevent minors from accessing them but at least it absolves the provider from responsibility.

In a wider perspective of course there should be a better way to deal with issues in online interaction and it falls to the responsibility of Microsoft simply because they are the leaders in this field. With Nintendo still treating online as a contagious disease and most of Sony’s gamers mute, Microsoft has to assume leadership and try to deal with the situation. When you are paying 50 dollars, soon to be 60, for a service you should not be open to racism, homophobia and sexism. Well, you shouldn’t be in any situation, but especially if you are paying for the service. There is of course the option to mute and kick people from games and beyond making that process quicker and simpler it is difficult to ascertain what should be done. When you are in a group of friends you should be allowed to drop as many f-bombs as humanly possible whenever you feel the need. It isn’t swearing that is the problem so much as threatening behavior. If it would be unacceptable for someone to say it to your face then it shouldn’t be acceptable to do it over a headset. The issue to be explored now is how to make Xbox Live less intimidating and oppressive as it has been for some.

It is an uncomfortable fact that Microsoft’s attempt to establish a strong community relies on it being able to police its current service, as what it already has is impressive. Their sense of community is born out of the, by and large, excellent structure of the Xbox Live service. Again you could argue that as it is a service which you pay for, it should be significantly superior to its competitors but that is an argument for another article. Competitiveness is one important aspect of the Live experience which is reflected by Achievement Points, High Score tables in most Live games, and by the Director of Programming for Xbox Live, Major Nelson. His podcast, unlikely to be listened to by many reading this, includes interviews with community members and prize giveaways and in doing so creates the personality and sense of community that is more likely to be found on video game websites than from a hardware manufacturer. Through its past and present eccentric figureheads, such as J Allard, Peter Moore and Peter Molyneux, Microsoft has presented recognizable and interesting figures for the community to respond to. In a corporation which has often been condemned as faceless it is an significant step in creating a community around the brand.

But the Xbox community extends far beyond these personalities and the spirit of competition. It may not be something that you pay attention to, but you should really check out the Xbox Live Calendar of Events. The amount of organization from Microsoft and from the community itself is staggering. Whether it is Community Playdates, Married Gamers Night, Family Game Night, or Ladies Night to name a few, there is a real effort to be as inclusive as possible. And with plenty of clubs catering to different crowds there seems to be something for everyone. I personally don’t participate in these but whether you are interested in them or not is besides the point; the fact that they are there is a symptom of a thriving, vibrant and diverse community. Most of these nights don’t involve any ranking structure but are just ways of giving direction and a sense of unity to the community. Participants are encouraged to send in their stories and experiences of the game nights, but it is up to the player how much they wish to contribute. The positive Live community experience is there if you want to find it.

With the most expansive of the online services available on the consoles Microsoft has already created a community for which many 360 owners can call home. Despite this, or as a result of this, they have to deal with the major problem that has plagued not only online gaming but the internet itself. Bullying, trolling, antisocial behavior or just being a d***head, call it what you will, it seems like an unsolvable problem. But it isn’t. We think of the internet as anonymous, but as communities grow and we know more about each other through the way we interact (such as on this very website) that is no longer the case. In the case of online games we all have our online identification which can be traced to our consoles. We need to be aware of this and take responsibility for our actions as a result. Unfortunately just how and to what extent to which Microsoft, or any other service provider, intervenes raises problems about freedom of speech and right to privacy on the internet. Big Brother could be watching you very closely… but is that something you want?

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Written by Stevie L.

Stevie Lim is a man in Japan.

4 comments

  1. XBL Ambassador (XA) /

    Im an Xbox LIVE Ambassador and i do agree with certain part of this article (price increase – quality of service)

    If you wish to report an Xbox LIVE player and you feel like File Complaint does not work, then you can sign into http://xbox.com and private message an XBLPET member, they are located in the Account Suspension & Console Bans forum (http://forums.xbox.com/1386/ShowForum.aspx)

    XBLPET = XBox Live Policy Enforcement Team

    They may or may not take action on the player but they’ll look into it.

    I have my fair share of abusive while on Xbox LIVE (swearing, racist..etc) and i agree Xbox LIVE needs to up their game for banning/ suspending players.

    • Nice one XBL Ambassador, I don’t believe the File Complaint does anything, it’s not like you get any feedback when you do leave one. It’s nice to know there’s a more formal way of making a complaint.

  2. I realize this is an older post, but worthy of commenting on still.

    As the founder of NCH Gaming, an XboxLIVE gaming community founded in the interest of fun, anti-cheating, and a passion: “We pride ourselves in winning, by playing the game the way the game was intended to be played, without hacks mods or cheats”.

    Almost every one of our members will not hesitate to file a complaint when encountering a “modder”, cheater or hacker. We frequently get invites to “lobbies” where users with modified content CHARGE a fee (sent through the xbox service in most cases), to “infect” the joining parties content, thus unlocking various, otherwise HARD EARNED, achievements, bonuses, gamerscore, weapons, levels,… etc. Essentially these players are cheating, and PAYING to do it. To the best of our knowledge (actually just guessing , but we’ve “tracked” a few “cheaters” and found that over time), with enough complaints, either the “offenses” vanish, or the gamer vanishes. We believe it works.

    As part of our commitment against such behavior, we make it a general practice to file a complaint EVERY TIME we run into someone who is behaving in a manner that is degrading to the xbox community, and hampering OUR enjoyment of the games and equipment we worked hard to buy.

    We’ve participated in the Xbox Community Playdate events, and hope to see many more to come. There’s really a strong and true passion amongst many players who want to all be on a “level playing field”. It’s not only more challenging, but it’s also a MUCH more rewarding experience when you win as a TEAM, by communicating and working together, rather than having some sort of cheat that nulls the need for skill.

    The XboxLIVE Community as a whole, brings together people from all over the world, with a variety interests, and the opportunity for it’s members to challenge the “Human Factor” in gaming, while entertaining the social side as well. And we’re hoping to become a large and publicly recognized portion of that community.

    Take a stand against cheating – NoCheatersHere!

    • Neil /

      It is comments like this that can make a man’s day.

      Hope to stumble across your posse in Brink sometime real soon!

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