Raising Good Gamers: Katie Salen-Tekinbaş Tackles Online Toxicity with New Initiative

April 16, 2020

How might we develop and support gaming communities that cultivate empathetic, compassionate and civically engaged kids? This is the question Informatics Professor Katie Salen Tekinbaş aims to address through a new Connected Learning Lab (CLL) initiative she is working on called Raising Good Gamers.

“There’s a lot of concern around toxicity online [but] few people are thinking about the preparation of youth as a lever for change,” she says. “The current focus in policy circles and from platform developers is very reactionary.”

To develop a more proactive solution, the CLL teamed up with Games for Change in February to host a workshop at the World Economic Forum in New York. The two-day event, “Raising Good Gamers: Envisioning an Agenda for Diversity, Inclusion and Fair Play,” brought together a diverse group of stakeholders. Researchers, educators, game developers, policymakers, activists, parents and youth experts discussed how best to make the experiences of young people in online play communities more youth-friendly and inclusive.

“We tried to bring together people who are already thinking about these issues,” says Salen Tekinbaş, “but from a range of perspectives.”

Funded through an internal research grant from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), with matching funds from the Samueli Foundation and from Endless, the workshop was a first step in piecing together a far-reaching initiative to tackle online toxicity.

Katie Salen Tekinbaş speaks at the Raising Good Gamers workshop, where participants worked to identify challenges in tackling online toxicity in online game communities. (Photos: Anna Watts)

Online Game Play in 2030
“The idea of the meeting was to develop a vision,” says Salen Tekinbaş. “In 2030, what is our vision for what online game play should look like for young people, and how is it supported?” Working back from there, the roughly 50 participants, including Informatics Professor Mimi Ito and Associate Professor of Education Stephanie Reich of the CLL, discussed what was needed to realize that vision.

Specifically, the workshop set out to identify challenges and possible solutions, outline an agenda for developing positive gaming communities and measuring the impact, and lay the foundation for pulling together a coalition of committed stakeholders.

Building a Coalition
Workshop participants included lead designers and corporate responsibility representatives from companies such as EA, Google Stadia, Roblox and Ubisoft. “There’s a typical disconnect between research and practice,” explains Salen Tekinbaş. “There’s little space in the game development process for robust conversations with external researchers, so we wanted to see if connecting researchers and developers around a shared topic could help change this dynamic.”

Another significant element of the workshop was bringing youth experts into the conversation. Local youth from the Bronx attended the event, thanks to a partnership with the DreamYard project, as well as students from an all-girls school in Ohio. “We wanted to signal in a really powerful way that youth voice is central to the effort.”

The workshop included a youth panel, with students involved with the DreamYard project adding their perspective to the conversation. (Photos: Anna Watts)

Salen Tekinbaş is especially concerned about youth moving into multiplayer online spaces for the first time. “When younger kids start out playing games, they’re often in very structured environments — they can’t even text chat with other kids,” she explains. “A few years later, they start playing games like Fortnite and Minecraft, where players can freely communicate through both voice and text chat.” Players enter this environment without much experience interacting with others online, so there’s a need for them to learn healthy ways of engaging with others. “Right now, there’s no systemic thinking about how various sectors could participate in providing support for young people.”

Consequently, the workshop also included representatives from education and advocacy groups such as TED-Ed, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the parent-facing resource Common Sense Media. “We currently lack a shared public agenda around how to keep youth safe online while also providing them with robust opportunities to participate and grow,” says Salen Tekinbaş. “Partnering with policy and advocacy groups is incredibly important in achieving that agenda.”

Moving Forward
Salen Tekinbaş will be working with her collaborators in the CLL to prepare a report on the workshop, to be shared at the Games for Change Festival in July. Fundraising is currently underway to support a youth-led layer of the initiative, as well as communications to support and brand the initiative. The G4C Festival will likely be held virtually owing to the global coronavirus pandemic, further highlighting the growing need for initiatives such as Raising Good Gamers. Since the pandemic started, online gaming has increased by 75% during peak hours in North America, and the emergence of Zoom bombing incidents indicates that online harassment is alive and well.

“It’s not an easy problem,” admits Salen Tekinbaş, “but now that we’ve mapped the system, we can begin to look at what are the levers for change.”

Shani Murray

* Update September 24, 2020: The Raising Good Gamers report is now available online.