Thursday, August 23, 2007

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Wow. I'll admit, I'm pretty stunned.

When I wrote ""Gay" Is NOT A Dirty Word!" several days ago, it was my hope that maybe it could inspire some policy changes or something along those lines, but nothing prepared me for what I discovered when I checked out the E-O forums yesterday.

What I found was a DevBlog by Kieron saying that both ISD and the Aurora events team were basically being disbanded and would be replaced with a new system for handling their duties once their policies and procedures have been reviewed by CCP. Of course, I'm nowhere near arrogant enough to believe for even a minute that my post alone brought down the ISD, especially given the fact that the events team, which I never mentioned, also got the axe. At the same time, I suppose it is possible that what I wrote here might have added to the issues CCP felt needed to be addressed with a revamp of the system and guidelines under which the forums are moderated.

In all honesty, I didn't expect this when I wrote my post. I felt strongly about the issue I addressed and my hope was (and is) that I'd be heard, agreed with, and changes would be made as a result. That, in my opinion, is both the best and the most someone like myself, someone who's both a regular player and a commentator of EvE, can hope for. As activists of any stripe know well, you can't realistically expect to be able change the entire world as an activist...the best you can really hope for and effectively work toward is changing your own little corner of it for the better, or, at least, doing what you can to help that change occur. While again I certainly can't rationalize taking any sort of credit for the changes in this case, it nonetheless does feel like a victory anyway.

There's a lot of overlap between what I do in RL and in this situation. Many, in fact probably all, of the community organizations I interact with in the course of being an activist and community commentator rely chiefly on volunteers for many, if not most, of the non-leadership positions within their organizations. As CCP has no doubt learned, there's a very big difference between what you can expect in terms of work performance between paid employees and volunteers.

Paid employees usually (if they're good) take a certain proprietary view of their jobs. When what you're doing is putting food on your table and paying your rent, it's hardly surprising you'll tend to take it more seriously than when you're doing something without pay, solely for personal fulfillment or enjoyment. It's also not unexpected that unpaid volunteers who are volunteering essentially to become more involved with something they do for enjoyment will be more likely to want to do things their own way, and try to bring their own attitudes and desires into the process more aggressively and more often, and take more liberties in their jobs than those who have the added concern of protecting a paycheck.

That isn't in any way an indictment of any ISD volunteers specifically or of volunteerism in general, it's simply a reflection of human nature. When push comes to shove, protecting one's paying job just takes a greater priority in most cases than volunteer work, especially when it comes to playing by the rules. Not every volunteer does so for altruistic reasons. For many, it can be an "insider" status that's the draw. For others, it may be the opportunity to insert one's own agenda into the mix in a more impactful way than can be done as a mere participant.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, and fewer still are really capable of actually being one, but certainly more than enough want to be that companies and organizations which rely in whole or in part on a staff of volunteers to handle certain jobs can find themselves with a situation where too many people are going "I, I, I..." instead of "we, we, we...". When that happens, the entity employing these volunteers may have to periodically take a step back, look honestly and critically at the overall situation, and ask the question "Is what we have here what best serves the interests of our organization and what we do?". If the answer is "No", then changes will likely have to be made, and I suspect that's what happened here.

Another reality of working with volunteers versus paid employees is that when you're offering some form of authority or power over others as a aspect of the job, volunteers are more likely to see that power as a perk and a status symbol than as a responsibility. Some volunteers will likely be much more enthusiastic and possibly even overbearing in finding ways to wield that power. After all, what good is being given power over others unless you use it, right?

On the other hand, paid employees are more likely to simply see authority over others as a means to an end in getting their jobs done, and will use it in that way, instead of going out of their way to use their given authority just because they have it. In addition, the larger the group of those in authority, the more likely it is that someone, or several someones, are going to choose to put their own agenda and interests before those of the entity which gave them that power in the first place.

I've had a lot of time over the last several days to think about these issues. I've been a forum moderator on several different boards and email lists, and I've dealt with these issues from the top of the authority food chain as well as from the bottom. With all the experience I've had as not only a moderator but also one who's been subject to moderation myself, I've got a pretty clear idea of the kind of changes I'd like to see here.

I don't know if CCP is looking to hire people to take on that job, but if they were to offer it to me, I'd take it in a second (I am, as a matter of fact, looking for work right now), and I think I'd be damn good at it. I've been through best of it and through the worst of it, and I think I've got an insight into this kind of public discussion forum and how they function which would allow me to recreate the moderation system for the E-O forums in a way that would be more welcoming, more inclusive, more worthwhile, more enjoyable, and more in concert with the actual game itself than what we've had until now.

Among the first things I'd do is get rid of the word filters, or more specifically, the way in which they've been being used. Personally, I think it's kind of silly to ban cursing in a game intended for teens and older, but even if CCP wanted that I'd try to avoid having to ban any words which can be used in polite conversation. Words that are exclusively used as slurs are another issue, and there's no reason not to exclude words that are only used as slurs to express hate. Curses, on the other hand, are used in common (if not polite) discussion a lot, and if they're not being used to attack others there's really no reason to ban them. In fact, banning these words and replacing them with asterisks actually makes forum readers think about them more as the mind automatically tries to fill in the sentence with correct word.

Basically, I'd try to use the game itself as the best model of what CCP wants EvE and the official media around it to be, and use that as guideline. Key to this goal would be taking an issue on the forums, examining how it's handled or dealt with in the game (if at all) and then using that as a guide to formulate policy.

For example, if I were charged with dealing with the word filter issue, I'd ban words like the N-word and other racial, ethnic, religious, etc. slurs, but only those words which have one, clearly offensive meaning. Words that have common, acceptable usages wouldn't be subject to this. I'd then deal with bigotry, bias, and other offensive posting on a case by case basis. In other words, I'd make the guidelines for moderation of the E-O forums based more on what people actually do rather than the specific words they use.

A good example of what I'm talking about is the use of the N-word. You can hear it said on hip-hop songs all the time by black performers and no one bats an eye. Yet, let it come out of the mouth of a white person in a public forum and it will often be seen as bigotry and a reason to fight. It's not as much the word itself that causes the problem as the context in which it is used and by whom it is used. The words "faggot", "queer", or even "girl" (when used by men) can elicit much the same kind of context-based responses which can vary greatly depending on how they are used and who's using them. Again, it's not so much what's actually said that's the issue as it's the meaning behind the use of the words in the first place.

Another thing I'd do if I were recreating this forum for the better is to allow more personality and localism in the topics and discussion groups. Have a bunch of people who are gay and want a gay-relevant forum for EvE players on the E-O forums? Submit an application, go through a screening process to ensure that you're not trying to create a hate group or other such negatively-based discussion group and that such a forum would have enough interest and participation to make it worthwhile, and let the players have at it.

All kinds of shared interests besides the game itself could be served and promoted like this, just as they are in-game. Not only sexuality, but nationality, ethnicity, lifestyle (i.e. popular culture interests outside of the game itself such as music style, profession, political views, etc.), and more could be valid EvE-related interest groups that could be given a place on the forums to be discussed by like-minded players.

With more freedom of expression, there would have to also have to be a certain additional amount of accountability as well. If you're allowed to create a new forum and there are problems and complaints regarding it, you're going to be asked why and what you plan to do about it. If you don't have a good answer or can show you're actively working on finding one, your forum is either going to go away or you're going to be replaced by someone who's better able to administer it.

One of the most basic overriding ideas I'd impose is that having the status of a moderator, paid or unpaid, or any other type of authority not offered to the average player is a privilege, not a right, and one that can and will be taken away if you abuse it or fail to demonstrate that you can and will use it wisely and in the best interests of both CCP and the EvE player community. Founders of these kinds of discussion groups and volunteers in general would be held to a high standard, with a hard and fast set of rules and guidelines to be followed. You break the rules, you pay for it in a significant and memorable way, just as a player posting there would. Break the rules too often or in ways that clearly indicate that you're looking to impose your own agenda and rulebook as the norm rather than CCP's, and you're gone, no matter who you are, how many friends you have, how long you've been doing the job, or how powerful or popular you are in-game.

I'd also create a zero-tolerance policy for any sort of real bigotry or other infraction that harms or negatively impacts the game or its playerbase in a serious way and makes EvE or the forums seem less friendly and welcoming. Yes, you'd be able to type the word "gay" and have it appear in print, but if you used it as a slur against another player you'd quickly find yourself whacked upside the head with the banning stick, plus probably lose the ability to apply to create or administer your own group forum, maybe even be banned from the game itself if it's serious enough. Do it repeatedly and you'll end up being banned in perpetuity or at least long enough that you're going to remember your mistake.

I'd also want to make sure that there would be a way to appeal a decision or action against a player that was both fair and effective. In-game, players with such an issue can petition to have it addressed, and if they're not happy with the result they can appeal it to a higher authority. I'd want to set up a similar system that was in concert with how CCP wants it done. If a moderator takes action against you in some way and you believe you're in the right, you'd have the right to petition and state your case, and you'd know that your petition would be carefully reviewed and investigated by those vested with the power to change the result if they feel it warranted. You'd also be informed, within the limits of what's considered appropriate for public consumption, of any decision made on your petition, what action will be taken as a result, and why that decision was made.

That may seem like a lot of rules (and this is hardly a complete list), but in reality there's a lot of space for individuality, personality, and just plain old fun in there, just as in the case of the game itself. EvE has plenty of rules, regulations, guidelines, and such things which impact the gameplay in significant ways, but the game is designed in a way that these things only come into play as necessary to keep the game balanced and fair, while still allowing the main purpose, fun and entertainment, to be the real goal, one that any player can seek and find within it, or even make it for themselves. In this way, I see no reason why the E-O forums should be any different from the game universe they focus on.

Anyone who's played a while knows it works. CCP hasn't made such things issues in-game except when they absolutely have no choice but to step in, and there's no reason why the same policies couldn't be incorporated into the forums with the same level of success. While there will always be those who create problems and require an authoritative response in the interest of the game and the players and a whole, the vast majority of EvE players participate in both the game and the forums because they want to play the game and talk about it. When the real troublemakers are dealt with quickly and effectively, the rest are them left to enjoy themselves, and most will do it in a way that doesn't mistreat or disparage others in ways that aren't acceptable within the EvE universe. When you get right down to it, the forums should be a positive and accurate reflection of what players find in-game, not the seemingly almost entirely separate entity unto itself with its own completely different set of rules of conduct it has been.

Yeah, I'd love that job, and I think I'd be good at it, in large part because I've given these issues as much thought as I have. I've been a forum warrior for a long time and I've learned a lot from it. I've also been a manager of both paid employees and volunteers that I know that experience would serve me in good stead in something like this as well. And hey, not for nothing, but when I'm motivated I can write up a storm when I set my mind to it, another skill that can be exceptionally useful in this kind of work.

Regardless of what CCP actually chooses to do here or how they decide to do it, I do hope they'll do it in a way that makes the forums and the way they're run reflect the values the designers have made a part of the game itself. To my way of thinking, it's taking one of the very best parts of EvE, the players and the in-game social interaction between us all, and making it publicly accessible outside of the game. If done correctly, the E-O forums can not only be a place where people already playing EvE can come and interact with each other outside of the game, but also where someone who's never played can go and quickly come to understand the biggest reason why EvE is so special, unique, and so very worth playing: the people, the community of New Eden...often rowdy, sometimes raunchy, rarely (if ever) afraid to voice an honestly held opinion, but most of all, just a pretty great bunch people having some fun together playing and talking about a game we all share a great love for. When you get right down to it, there's really nothing more or less to it than that.

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