LoL: Reform, Reward and Prisoner’s Islands

Note the lack of a banhammer

Over on the League of Legends dev blog, Jeffrey Lin and his colleagues on the player behaviour team have been digging into ideas like reform and punishment for players who misbehave. The series of posts has just concluded so I’m going to highlight some of the interesting snippets they shared over the last few months. Some of the concepts are familiar but I don’t think we’ve covered them on RPS before.


Players who play ranked games have different motivations than players who go for non-ranked. These include skill improvement, facing serious competition, being able to compare themselves to others and earning tangible rewards.

“Before ranked restrictions, we weren’t giving the hyper-competitive solo-queue player the right type of feedback at the right time,” say the team. “By locking these players out of ranked queue, we throw up a barrier between them and what they are most motivated by. To take the barrier down, they have to improve their behavior to be more in line with what the community expects, reinforcing positive behaviors and promoting reform.”

Apparently after identifying the motivation behind ranked play and designing penalties which tap into those, like ranked restrictions, the percentage of ranked games with high levels of negativity (for example, death threats, sexism, racism or homophobia) went down by 47% to 0.8% of all ranked games.

This was before I started playing League but good grief, that’s a horrifying “before” statistic. [N.B. the comment section pointed out I’d misread the stat: “Down by 47% means reduced by 47%, not that 47% of games were toxic beforehand. So it would’ve been ~1.2% beforehand” – sorry!] Moderate negativity (no definition given) also went down from an eighth of ranked games to a tenth of ranked games.


The element of surprise is vital. If players know a reward schedule they can start to game it, only behaving well when they need to in order to fulfill those criteria. When there’s uncertainty around the reward and when it will come you get players improving their behaviour across a wider range of matches.

“For positive players in the game, this won’t really affect them and they’ll just get surprises every so often for being awesome. For neutral players, this effort might convince some of them to put in that extra effort in a few more games to get the next surprise. For negatively behaved players, this effort might also encourage a few to change their ways although we expect the biggest impact to be with the neutral players.”


A lot of this segment was about how Prisoner’s Island-type solutions don’t work – shoving all the negative players into a queue together doesn’t improve their behaviour. Low-priority queueing does exist in League but Lin points out that it’s more of a last resort and is based on negative patterns of behaviour.

Ranked restrictions push players who have behaved negatively into non-ranked queues which has raised some questions which Lin tries to address:

“The key that makes ranked restriction different is that the overwhelming majority of players in normal draft are still neutral to positive. By slowly and intentionally introducing a very small minority of negatively behaved players and keeping them chat restricted during their path back to ranked play, we don’t disrupt the queue and players can compete in a more relaxed atmosphere as they work to reform.”

In short, it’s about social pressure.

Drevarius, who’s a social systems designer for the game, also talks about chat restrictions which put a hard limit on the number of messages a player can send per game.

“Limiting the number of messages a player can send turns chat into a limited resource. This messaging “ammunition” can either go toward useful comms that help coordinate a successful gank or toward flaming an underperforming teammate. Chat restrictions challenge players with a resource dilemma and a moral decision.”

The idea here is that the desire to win will make the helpful option the more desirable one.

And so…

Signing off, Lin points out that “League’s currently at an all-time low when it comes to AFKs and leavers, and the community’s taken a hard stance against racism, homophobia and sexism. Cumulatively, only 2% of games globally include excessive harassment, racist, homophobic,or sexist language.”

Thinking about that 2%, it still feels high to me. It would be interesting to know how many matches a summoner plays each week on average so I could get a better feel for the reality but if you assume 10-15 games per week from a regular player they’re still likely to run up against excessive negativity once a month and those negative experiences do stick in your mind.

To be fair, they do address that exact point at the end of the blog series (“There’s still work ahead, and knowing that you’re experiencing something rare doesn’t help when it’s still horrifying and disappointing to see in game, and we know negative experiences linger in a way positive moments don’t.”)

I do really like the work the player behaviour team are doing and read it with interest every time they share new data or findings. They’re currently working on expanding the Suggested Players idea so I’m keeping an eye out to see what they do there.

Something I’ve been pondering is perhaps a shepherd system. Dota has the option for one person to coach a team, but I was talking with someone from EVE University while at FanFest and it struck me that it would be cool to see if you could have the option to queue for matches while low level and have a coach-type spot reserved for a volunteer “teacher” player who’d be willing to answer questions or help out with basic strategising and things like ward placement. I feel like it would really help people who are trying to get into the game without the help of a pool of friends.


  1. Evilpigeon says:

    Down by 47% means reduced by 47%, not that 47% of games were toxic beforehand. So it would’ve been ~1.2% beforehand.

    • Lord Byte says:

      Indeed, came here to say that, though I believe this is the “reported” negative behaviour, a lot still goes unreported, unless they’re making a real ass of themselves! In my experience it’s more 5-10%, of which a tenth is really toxic / harassing (which is what seems to get reported).

    • Ashrand says:

      It’s high when placed into any real context.
      There would be a scandal if it was discovered one in a hundred visitors to Disneyland had to put up with 45 mins of directed abuse as a cost of entry.
      Likewise i can’t think of a time i went to a movie theater and someone began chewing out the attendees for not watching it right while throwing homophobic slurs and rape threats at them and there were far more than a hundred people in the room.
      Its disarming to look at it like that but in both instances we expect that the people in charge of the venue would do something about that if true.

      • noobule says:

        Except both of those situations involve real-life, face-to-face interaction. The fact you are mostly anonymous, won’t meet your target, don’t have to humanise your target and face greatly reduced consequences is an overwhelming factor in the source of this behaviour. Those people hurling abuse at you online go to Disneyland and are quiet and polite alongside everyone else.

        Of course Riot should do something about it but it’s not a lack of action, they’re dealing with a difficult medium and they’re having to lay the tracks in front of the train as they go.

        • Ashrand says:

          Thats very true, it’s difficult for Riot to do much of anything to overcome the negativity in the playerbase and they are doing a pretty good job of dealing with it.
          The point though is that in the examples I raised the individual would certainly be held directly to account for their actions, but that their actions would also directly reflect on the company creating and maintaining that space.
          The reason why this happens so rarely in other wholly owned public spaces is that they are made responsible for those actions even in an instance where they are unable to do anything about it, in the cinema example, we would expect someone who did that to be immediately removed from the premises whether he had a ticket or not and likely banned, possibly for life.
          If you complained about the incident, even if such a person had been pulled out of the cinema by security, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that you would be offered a refund, because the fact that the cinema did everything in their power to stop it is not a justification.
          Your ELO is never a justification for bad behavior regardless of your skill level or the skill level of your teammates and until that becomes the core principle in online behavior we will be dancing around the main problem, that because this is a genre renowned for being challenging people feel justified in insulting others.

        • pepperfez says:

          they’re dealing with a difficult medium and they’re having to lay the tracks in front of the train as they go.

          As Ashrand says, the tracks are there and trains have been running on them for ages: Abusive behavior gets you tossed, end of story. Your local bar doesn’t need to put together a case and hear appeals when they decide to shitlist you for threatening to rape the bartender. You go to a different bar and stop being an asshole if you don’t want to get thrown out of that one, too. We know this is how it works, and there’s no whinging about the free-speech rights of drunken twits to holler abuse.
          LoL is your local: If you make yourself a hateful shit, you should get booted and then try to shape up when you’re on DOTA.

          • wengart says:

            Except the bartender has shit vision and if I wear a different coat into the bar they won’t know its me.

          • pepperfez says:

            Even less reason to tolerate dickishness, then. Certainly not a reason to lower our standards of acceptable behavior.

      • P.Funk says:

        Silly comparison. Diseyland and a movie theatre are not competitive environments that involve other individuals perceiving or legitimately having a worse experience because of you being poor at the game. Thats not excusing the behavior, its identifying a radically different environment.

        Just look at under 18 hockey leagues and how you’ll pretty regularly hear about parents being abusive from the stands. Those people paid for that too. The more you ramp up the performance and competition factor the more likely people are to be abusive. The big difference with the internet is that you’re anonymous so your threshold for willingness to abuse others is lower and the abuse you’ll send is worse on average. The general motivation to be abusive is no different and is common in real life experiences.

        Have you NEVER been to a sporting event and heard the drunk guy who won’t shut up?

        • Ashrand says:

          yeah i have had that happen, shortly thereafter he was pulled from the premises by a man in a reflective jacket, despite his protestations that he paid for the ticket and the drink.
          And even then what you are talking about is a bystander, i don’t know about you but any sport i care to name, any player, casual or professional that kind of behavior is considered to be crossing a line except in e-sports where we consider it to just be a bit of good natured ribbing.

          • P.Funk says:

            I don’t think we consider it acceptable, we just consider it part of the landscape of games primarily directed at youths high on hormones suffering from endorphen rushes who’re poorly supervised. Real events as you’ve described involve human oversight, people in reflective vests who can decide if someone is being a menace. Gaming requires more mechanisms if you’re not going to have human admin there all the time (fantastic factoid about human admin – in play run game servers typically abuse is lower, play quality higher, trolls banned quickly, usually).

            So, they’ve got a way to cut down on this, great, but we know its going to happen and its not peculiar to online gaming. Games like MOBAs have an advtantage because they use a global stat system to matchmake. Games that don’t have this type of meta game have a harder time finding such a convenient solution for b-mod, hence why most of us consider it just part of the landscape of gaming that doesn’t involve donating to a server you like that has admins on all the time.

          • wengart says:

            A lot of it is a question of how to police it efficiently and effectively.

            Right now there are probably hundreds of thousands of LoL games being played, if not millions, around the world in a number of different languages. Some people are typing and some people are using VOIP.

            How do you police that? Hire a ref for each match? Let players report others?

            If players are doing it how do you make sure they aren’t lying? Where do you draw the line as to what is offensive? Can I tell my friend to “fuck off” or is that crossing the line even though my friend and I jab at each other when we play. Is something only offensive in certain regions and not others?

    • Premium User Badge

      Philippa Warr says:

      Fair point – I’d totally misread that as the percentages being on the same scale if you see what I mean. Thanks for pointing out

      • Geebs says:

        That still means that apparently extreme negative behaviour in LoL started at 1.2%, then decreased by 47% down to 2%.

  2. Neutrino says:

    These days the terms racism and sexism have been redefined to such an extent that they are little more than meaningless catch alls. Racism and sexism now mean little more than any non white person or woman being told something they don’t like or not getting their way.

    Furthermore I suspect that the concerted drive to to be offended by anything and everything rubs a lot of people up the wrong way and results in a backlash of exactly the kind of racial and sexualized offensive drivel that the political correctness brigade are attempting to eradicate.

    • RARARA says:

      Yes grandpa, what is considered racist or sexist has changed since the ’50s.

    • Justoffscreen says:

      Very well written! I’m sure your 8th grade English teacher will give you high marks for your syntax when you turn that in later this week.

    • joa says:

      Yes I think you’re right on the second part. People definitely don’t like being told what to say and how to behave, and the censorious nature of the politically-correct left doesn’t help with that. It’s a shame that this discourse now centres around incoherent postmodern concepts and political purity tests, instead of a simpler view of mutual respect and respect of differences, which is much easier to get behind.

    • Justoffscreen says:

      See, it’s funny because your terrible opinion makes you sound like a child who has no real grasp of what you are talking about.

      • Asurmen says:

        And yet you’re the one crying like a child and being a bit of an ass. How about actually trying to refute their point?

        • CramBlamkin says:

          What’s the point, here? “People are just pretending to be offended?” “We’ve solved racism?”

          If you honestly believe either of those are controversial points then there’s really no discussion here to have.

          • TheLetterM says:

            Whenever I see “politically correct” used as a perjorative, I read it as “I don’t have anything useful to add to this conversation. Carry on.”

          • Distec says:

            If only all posts came with such “disclaimers”. I mean, yours could have sorely used one.

            I guess this post could do with one as well.


        • Justoffscreen says:

          Sorry, no. It’s futile to try to change someone’s mind in the comments of a video game blog, so in the long run it’s best to just point and laugh.

          And laugh I did.

          • joa says:

            The face of righteous left-wing internet bullshitter

          • jrodman says:

            Actually it’s best to just laugh and then block. This thread is a ghost-town for me, as these are the usual suspects.

          • Asurmen says:

            So that gives you free reign to be a bit of a hypocritical here? Just because he’s wrong doesn’t mean be a dick.

    • P.Funk says:

      Nonsense. Most dickheads in games have little more time than to hurl an insult and thats the sexism, racism, homophobia. N word, C word, and a word once used to describe a bundle. Maybe they even finish a sentence.

      Maybe if the game is over and they have to sit through it to not be a leaver they can start being more creative, but seriously, what is someone gonna type in LOL or DOTA thats going to get onto the PC brigade thats not offensive to most people anyway? Show me evidence that they’re calling someone a sexist because they said “my grandma plays better than you” and maybe you’ll have a point but what modern gamer actually makes that remark?

    • Premium User Badge

      neffo says:

      It’s called empathy, you oaf.

      And if only the people who are directly mentioned in the insult (women, minorities, oafs) can call it out than how exactly can it ever get pulled up on. Most legal definitions of this kind of discrimination define it as something that a reasonable (or an average) person would consider offensive. Not, noteably, the person it is directed at.

      (Sorry about calling you an oaf.)

    • Neutrino says:

      The application of political correctness within our western societies is somewhat paradoxical. At it’s core is a positive message of respect and tolerance, yet paradoxically this tolerance is ‘one way’ only, it does not extend to anyone who is not an adherent of the message.

      Hundreds of years ago there was another, not dissimilar belief system, which at it’s core also contained a message of tolerance. It was called Christianity. In a similarly paradoxical fashion anyone who admitted not being a believer was burned to death.

      Tolerance is a funny thing. It’s only tolerance if you are willing to accept that which you do not agree with. If you are only willing to accept that which you agree with that is not tolerance at all, that is intolerance.

      The application of political correctness within our societies approaches the point where we are legislating against ‘not being a nice person’ or ‘having a sense of humour that is unacceptable’. Over the course of the last couple of hundred years our societies have grown into liberal free-thinking intellectually rich communities, intolerant application of political correctness is an insidious medieval totalitarianism that any genuine liberal would oppose.

  3. wengart says:

    So is LOL just much more of a hell hole than Dota?

    I’ve played something like 900 hours of Dota 2, about half of those being in the ranked queue (Dota 2 didn’t have ranked for quite a while). I don’t see racism, I don’t see sexism, I don’t see death threats. The worst that happens is that someone will just say stuff like “ez mid”, “report sniper for feed”, “sniper sucks”. The vast majority of negative comments are throwaway phrases about your play or inability to play, and a lot of those are being thrown out by South Americans queuing in the North American regions. They barely speak any English and their ability to communicate with the team revolves around throwaway negative comments about how you suck or typing “b” and pinging a lot. Hell there is essentially a little bit of dota culture that has been built up around Peruvians.

    Sometimes things will get more heated but in those situations it is almost always somewhat constructive. Even if it is layered with a few curses.

    My general conclusion is that people have a preconceived notion that the community is harsh and that as soon as you step into a game someone is going to call you a nigger and let you know they fucked your mother. When that actually doesn’t occur. Of course I could be wrong and the LoL community is just infinitely worse than the Dota community.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      I don’t play either Moba, but I did notice that during discussions in this comment section about the merits of the LoL community, the pro-LoL commenters always seemed a lot more toxic esp. when compared with other communities.
      Not sure if that is confirmation bias at work though.

    • TheLetterM says:

      Lol has the largest audience, and by virtue of that, probably the broadest one. I suspect that if you did an age comparison, LoL would have a much younger average playerbase compared to other MOBAs.

      I will say that when I started LoL several years ago, the community was far more toxic than it is now. I typically only get about one game per two weeks/month with something homphobic, and almost never see anything racist or sexist. Even the use of “rape” as a gamer term is down. However, I’ve veered away from Ranked play, which is where I hear the worst offenders tend to hang out, so I guess take that with a grain of salt.

  4. Abndn says:

    Here’s a pretty interesting, related video outlining the toxicity term and Lin’s lies, exaggerations and misrepresentation of Riot’s “success” at limiting negative behaviour.

    • Karrius says:

      A vague post that calls somebody a liar without giving any details, and links to an hour-long video that immediately starts with a guy saying how it’s being an “adult” to insult others.

      How about you actually say what’s wrong and not ask people to waste literally an hour of their time?

      • pepperfez says:

        If there’s one thing I’ve learned about video games, it’s that hour-long videos about how harassment is fake (and the people who post them) can always be safely discounted.

        • Abndn says:

          The message in the video is, among other things, the complete opposite of that. I guess you feel pretty stupid now, I know I would.

      • Abndn says:

        I wanted to post the video because it brings up so many different points. Some of the most important points include:

        – The listed 47% reduction has nothing to do with reform. It coincides with chat restriction punishment that simply prevents people from writing in-game. This means less negative behaviour, but only because you literally mute the player for everyone beyond a certain number of lines (which also punishes everyone else in the game because now that player can’t communicate).

        – There are no meaningful rewards for good behaviour. The honor system meant to award meaningless ribbons acknowledging your good nature doesn’t work.

        – The low percentage of games containing harassment is clearly made up nonsense, as anyone who plays the game could tell you (it’s not even remotely reasonable, you’d have to multiply it at least 10 times).

        – The Tribunal system supposed to punish negative players was down for 9 months, and doesn’t even exist in most regions, because it was a massive failure.

        – Behaviour in League of Legends matchmaking, and especially in ranked, is still some of the worst out of any popular competitive game (in my own opinion it is *the* worst by a long shot).

        • jrodman says:

          Most dissenting opinions I see about frequency of harassment fails to take into account that there are ten players per game. Did you?

          • Abndn says:

            Why do I need to, when Riot writes: “the percentage of ranked games with high levels of negativity (such as death threats, sexism, racism or homophobia) plummeted 47% to 0.8% of all ranked games”. It’s not a case of looking at the chance of a player being negative and adding them up to explain a higher frequency of ‘negative games’. He’s just telling us that there’s about one game with high levels of negativity out of a hundred.

            I’ve played over 4000 ranked games, from low silver and all the way up to Diamond I on EU West. In my experience this number is complete and utter nonsense, and indeed so far from the truth that if they aren’t outright lying here they must have gone to extreme lengths to define “high levels of negativity” in the narrowest possible fashion.

            If I were to give you a ballpark estimate, I’d say above 75% of ranked contain negativity of some description. Now, ‘high levels’ of it depends an awful lot on your definition, but I think any reasonable definition would be closer to a 15-30% estimate. Even demanding extreme abuse or highly intentional feeding, there’s no way it’s below 10%.

          • Abndn says:

            Another point to make: If they really only include “death threats, sexism, racism or homophobia”, it might be closer to the truth. However, that would be like only counting something as murder if it was committed with a knife, gun or baseball bat. Ultimately they’d be missing out on so much of what constitutes extremely negative behaviour that the statistic becomes meaningless and nothing to brag about.

          • Philomelle says:

            He doesn’t need to take that into account because the numbers are utter nonsense. They are based entirely on the number of reports provided to Riot, not on the actual amounts of harassment in the game. There are numerous reasons for why report numbers dropped, including that people feel less inclined to report now that the Tribunal has been down for nine months and often the only way to handle being punished is to visit the forums, where there are ample opportunities of being named & shamed by a Rioter (which happened on numerous occasions). Discussion on those very same forums also confirmed that the number of false positive punishments these days has grown, which means people are less inclined to report due to Riot’s rising history of misplaced punishments.

            There is also the thing where lowered numbers of punishment mean people’s perspective of what is considered harassment shifted, and often behaving like a complete bag of dicks will go unreported (something I actually tested by behaving like a complete shit in ARAM for ten games straight and not having been reported once). That doesn’t actually mean the game has lower amounts of harassment, it simply means the community accepted all forms of harassment that don’t transcend into outright bullying as normal.

            Furthermore, claiming that community takes a “strong stance against sexism” is laughable when I get reported more times in games where I admit to being female (no really), the official forums explode into waves of harassment, threats and downvotes whenever someone complains about Riot using sexist imagery in their marketing (which they defended by claiming that making women look like fleshy tentacle propellers centered around double D-cups is okay because it conveys inhumanly powerful motions), the League of Sexism blog that discusses that nonsense gets multiple threats per day, and pretty much every female streamer admits to getting waves of sexual harassment from people who only visit her stream to ogle her.

          • BooleanBob says:

            You have to admire Riot’s audacity with this. If they’d just massaged the real figure – saying, for example, 30% rather than 40% of games feature creative news ways that players have to discovered to express the desire that their mid contracts bowel cancer – they’d have invited the same dispute, derision, dissection of their methodology as seen here, but the take-away most people would have reading the article, especially non-players who this story has been put out with in mind, would be ‘toxicity happens in a significant portion of League games’, rather than ‘but it’s happening less than it was!’

            By going with a completely absurd, moon-looney figure of 2%, they leave a whole spectrum from 3-100% at which the actual rate of toxic games could lie. That’s simply too vast for anyone browsing the figures to subconsciously peg a number on so the ‘Riot are doing something’ message they want to send out is brought back to the fore.

  5. Thirdrail says:

    I don’t know. I love LoL. I play every day. I think their numbers are a little low, and very unfocused. I have my own informal study of this subject going, and there is a lot more depth to this than just a flat “2%”. Yeah, it’s fairly easy to have a run of pleasant matches if you’re doing well. The 2% probably does apply to those games. But what about when you’re doing poorly? Learning to jungle, or playing a champion you’re not that great with, or having an experimental build turn out poorly, or maybe you’re just having a bad day, or an off game, or maybe your roommate or husband or girlfriend is disrupting your concentration… the rate of toxicity for those kinds of situations is far, far higher than 2%, and we all know it. It’s also much worse at 3pm, during the daycare hours, when you’re providing free babysitting to all the neglect-based parents of the world, than it is at 3am, when you’re generally playing with a more, let’s say, chemically relaxed group of people. It’s also a much different experience depending on what gender your name suggests. When I play my alt account, where you can tell I’m a girl, I get friendly advice for most of my mistakes rather than called out as a feeder or noob, which is the typical response to me doing something dumb when they’ve assumed that I’m a guy. There is just no reality behind that 2% number, so it makes everything Riot says after it sound equally disingenuous.

    • PedroTheHutt says:

      They’re probably doing the Obi-Wan thing where what they say is true…. from a certain point of view.
      Because I doubt you gain the reputation of being one of the, if not THE most toxic player base out there and fail to shake it off even if your supposed current toxic behaviour rate is 0.8% of your games. So they must be using some selection of unspecified filters to make that number stick.

  6. MikhailG says:

    Uh, okay, do these guys play the same game as we do? I appreciate the effort they are putting into fixing their game’s community, but this sounds like a lot of PR crap. They supposedly had only about like 3 to 4% of games with toxic behavior and its 2% now?

    I actually went back and played a few games just last month, I guess nostalgia hit me after leaving the game for like two years or so, and its. the. same. I played:
    -3 non competitive summoners rift (standard match), one game had 2 afkers, the other game everyone played but blamed bot for sucking (even tho bot never died and just lost their tower) and one player decided to jungle as a mage just out of spite, and last game was just a general mess where halfway through it was lost but everyone stubbornly went ahead and forced mid team fights, dying one by one as if we were npc’s in an rpg game with no AI.
    -So I decide to play a few ARAM and one match on that circle map (crystal scar), expecting the game to be more chill. I remember from earlier that people do tend to blame people in ARAM a lot sometime but I remember most of the time they’d just blame bad luck for getting the wrong champ. Except this time EVERY ARAM game my team decided to just flame the living hell out of each other for one single death at the beginning. In a mode where you are expected to die a few times for most of your games.

    The only good game was on Crystal Scar surprisingly. Still lost it, total lack of teamwork, but at least no hate in that one. So what percentage makes that of about 10 played games? Right.

    If they define just the most extreme behavior as toxic yeah 2% sounds right, but if this includes AFK players, general griefing/not co operating because they didn’t get their lane/hero/or just don’t like you, general dissing and insults, and utter lack of teamwork, well nope that figure is wrong. Try 20%. Tho sometimes it really feels like its 90%.

    Anyway its funny to read these statements of how they improved their community while the community is still a laughing stock. I for one know its not the game for me now but its still a sad afair.