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Ng players. So the company has hired a team of researchers to study the social — and antisocial — interactions between its users. With so many players, the scientists have been able to gather vast amounts of behavioural data and to conduct experiments on a scale that is rarely achieved in academic settings. Whereas other game companies have similar research teams, Riot’s has been remarkably open about its work — with players, with other companies and with a growing collection of academic collaborators who see multiplayer games as a Petri dish for studying human behaviour.

“What’s most interesting with Riot is not that they’re doing it but that they’re publicizing it and have an established way of sharing it with academics,” says Nick Yee, a social scientist and co-founder of Quantic Foundry, a video-game-industry consulting firm in Sunnyvale, California. Riot’s findings have helped to reveal where the toxic behaviour comes from and how to steer players to be kinder to each other. And some say that the work may translate to digital venues outside the game. “The work they do is extensible to thinking about big questions,” says Justin Reich, an education researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, “not just how do we make online games more civil places, but how do we make the Internet a more civil place?”Jeffrey Lin, the lead designer of social systems at Riot, is the public face of its research programme.

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He has been playing video games online since he was about 11 years old and had long wondered why so many of his fellow gamers put up with toxic behaviour. “Everybody you talk to thinks of the Internet as this hate-filled place,” he says. “Why do we think that’s a normal part of gaming experiences?

”In 2012, Lin was finishing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Washington in Seattle and was working for the game company Valve in nearby Bellevue when a friend and fellow gamer introduced him to the co-founders of Riot, Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck. They had recognized that toxic behaviour was a major drag on players’ experience, and they wanted to solve the problem with science. So they hired Lin as a game designer, essentially giving him the keys to a juggernaut in the online gaming world. League of Legends, Riot’s only game, was released in 2009 and currently attracts 27 million players each day. It is by far the most popular of a growing segment of games referred to as eSports, a world in which elite players form professional teams, win university scholarships and take part in million-dollar tournaments in sporting arenas.

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The final of League of Legends’s 2015 world championship in Berlin drew 36 million viewers online and on television, rivalling the audience of the finals of some traditional sports. The game can be intimidating to newcomers.

Players control one of more than 120 characters called champions, each of which has specific abilities, weaknesses and roles. Teams are usually made up of five players, who must cooperate to kill monsters and opponents, collect gold to purchase magical items, capture territory and eventually destroy the other team’s base. Matches last about half an hour on average, so having a poorly performing player on a team can be aggravating. And the game requires coordination between players, for which it provides an in-game chat function.

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If someone makes a mistake, he or she will generally hear about it fast. Players can report their teammates for being toxic, and this can result in a temporary or permanent ban from the game. But working out how to distinguish a few frustrated grumbles or good-natured trash talk from the kind of vitriol that is worthy of punishment is a difficult task. To tackle it, Lin needed to make sure that he had a good picture of where such toxicity was coming from. So he got a team to review chat logs from thousands of games each day and to code statements from players as positive, neutral or negative. The resulting map of toxic behaviour was surprising.

Common wisdom holds that the bulk of the cruelty on the Internet comes from a sliver of its inhabitants — the trolls. Indeed, Lin’s team found that only about 1% of players were consistently toxic. But it turned out that these trolls produced only about 5% of the toxicity in League of Legends.

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“The vast majority was from the average person just having a bad day,” says Lin. They behaved well for the most part, but lashed out on rare occasions. That meant that even if Riot banned all the most toxic players, it might not have a big impact.

To reduce the bad behaviour that most players experienced, the company would have to change how players act. Lin borrowed a concept from classic psychology. In late 2012, he initiated a massive test of priming, the idea that imagery or messages presented just before an activity can nudge behaviours in one direction or another.

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The Riot team devised 24 in-game messages or tips, including some that encourage good behaviour — such as “Players perform better if you give them constructive feedback after a mistake” — and some that discourage bad behaviour: “Teammates perform worse if you harass them after a mistake”. They presented the tips in three colours and at different times during the game. All told, there were 216 conditions to test against a control, in which no tips were given. That is a ridiculous number of permutations to test on people in a laboratory, but trivial for a company with the power to perform millions of experiments each day. Some of the tips had a clear impact (see ‘Civil engineering’).

The warning about harassment leading to poor performance reduced negative attitudes by 8.3%, verbal abuse by 6.2% and offensive language by 11% compared with controls. But the tip had a strong influence only when presented in red, a colour commonly associated with error avoidance in Western cultures.

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A positive message about players’ cooperation reduced offensive language by 6.2%, and had smaller benefits in other categories. Riot has released just a few of these analyses, so it is hard to make broad generalizations.

From a scientific standpoint, says Lin, the results from the priming experiments were “epic”, and they opened the doors to many more research questions, such as how various tips and colours might influence players from different cultures. But the behavioural improvements were too modest and too fleeting to change the culture of the game. Lin reasoned that if he wanted to make the community more civil, then players would have to have a say in devising the norms. So Riot introduced the Tribunal, which gives players a chance to serve as judge and jury to their peers. In it, volunteers review chat logs from a player who has been reported for bad behaviour, and then vote on whether the offender deserves punishment.

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The Tribunal, which started in 2011, gave players a greater sense of control over establishing community norms, says Lin. And it revealed some of the things that triggered the most rebukes: homophobic and racial slurs. But players who were banned from the game were often unsure why they had been punished, and continued to act negatively when the bans were lifted. So Lin’s team developed ‘reform cards’ to give feedback to banned players, and the company then monitored their play. When players were informed only of what kind of behaviour had landed them in trouble, 50% did not misbehave in a way that would warrant another punishment over the next three months.

When they were sent reform cards that included the judgements from the Tribunal and that detailed the chats and actions that had resulted in the ban, the reform rate went up to 70%.But the process was slow; reform cards might not show up until two weeks to a month after an offence. “If you look at any classic literature on reinforcement learning, the timing of feedback is super critical,” says Lin. So he and his team used the copious data they were collecting to train a computer to do the work much more quickly.

“We let loose machine learning,” Lin says. The automated system could provide nearly instantaneous feedback; and when abuse reports arrived within 5–10 minutes of an offence, the reform rate climbed to 92%. Since that system was switched on, Lin says, verbal toxicity among so-called ranked games, which are the most competitive — and most vitriolic — dropped by 40%. Globally, he says, the occurrence of hate speech, sexism, racism, death threats and other types of extreme abuse is down to 2% of all games.“If the numbers they put out there are correct and true, it seems to be working well,” says Jamie Madigan, an author in St Louis, Missouri, who writes about the psychology of gamers. And that’s because the reprimands are specific, timely and easy to understand and act upon, he says. “That’s classic psychology 101.”Riot’s research team is constantly experimenting with other ways to improve interactions in the game. Sportsmanlike behaviour can earn players honour points and other rewards.

Tinkering with chat features helped, too. And the team is planning to use the Tribunal to train the game’s algorithms to detect sarcastic and passive-aggressive language in chats — a major challenge for machine learning. From the start, Riot has also made much of its data available for others to investigate.

Jeremy Blackburn, an avid gamer and computer scientist who works at Telefonica Research and Development in Barcelona, Spain, mined data on 1.46 million Tribunal cases to develo

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