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How Valve Tricked Players into Being Less Toxic

Cognitive dissonance combats biases and builds empathy.
One of them will make fun of your mom. Image: Valve

Multiplayer online battle arenas, or MOBAs, are one of the most popular kinds of video games in the world. They're also cesspools full of toxic gamers who scream when they lose and hurl abuse at their team. If you've ever played League of Legends or Dota 2, there's a good chance that one of your games ended with a fellow player filling the chat window with racial epithets and threats of sexual assault.


The publishers of these games battle this toxic behavior with mixed results. Valve, Dota 2 publisher owner of the digital storefront Steam, even tasked its in-house experimental psychologist Mike Ambinder to deal with Dota 2's worst players. It was a challenge, but he's had some success.

During a keynote speech at Valve's recent Steamworks Development conference, Ambinder explained how Valve once surveyed every player after a Dota 2 match. A quick prompt would ask them to rate their experience one to five stars.

Later, he added two more questions. The first asked players to "rate the cooperation your teammates displayed in the last match." Ambinder didn't care about how the players answered that question though. He was just priming the players to feel bad when they saw the next screen which asked players to rate how well they felt they had cooperated during the match.

Ambinder explained how asking the questions caused players to experience cognitive dissonance, especially if they'd been a toxic or abusive. "We have a self serving bias. We want to rate ourselves highly," he explained. "But if I was a dick in the game, I know I can't honestly do that."

His theory was that asking players to consider their team's actions before their own would put them in a critical space and make them more self aware of their own behavior. Players who wanted to rate themselves high yet had just given their team a low score in the same field wouldn't easily reconcile the two points of view.

According to Ambinder, it worked. While Valve ran the extra survey questions, it received 137,000 fewer reports of abuse every day. That's a 12.5 percent drop in reported death threats, racial slurs and hurt feelings.

People who roll Drow Ranger are still jerks though.