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Why live service video games have a duty of care

Businesses across all sectors need to do what they can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their customers. In the entertainment industry, where people have the potential to spend many hours every day engaging with a huge variety of content, this is even more important.

Videogames, which lead the creative industries in many fields including engagement, have come under huge scrutiny when it comes to the welfare of players, and many companies have been reviewing and improving the processes and mechanisms that help protect their diverse communities.

Living games – which are online, community-centric, deep and ever-evolving games that connect and engage players – have an even bigger responsibility when it comes to player support and creating a safe, enjoyable and happy place for all players enjoying fictional online worlds. At Jagex, a company which has run RuneScape for almost 20 years, being player-obsessed is a core value that means delivering the best experiences and making sure that online behaviour is monitored closely, and sensibly.

We understand that, while the vast majority of online activity is benign, fun, engaging and informative, less desirable parts of everyday society unfortunately also emerge. As with any online forum, games encounter this from time to time – ranging from internet trolls and harassment to account hijacking, child exploitation and self-harm. As living games are a microcosm of society, there is a responsibility for companies which develop those games to act responsibly, proactively seeking out these problems in order to tackle them effectively.

Making Expertise & Experience Count

As a business, one of our key areas of expertise is in how we monitor billions of lines of live chat every year – all day, all night, every day – to detect unwanted activity. To help this process, we have built our own heuristic computer-based tools, alongside a large and dedicated internal team. We are proud to continue to work closely with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the National Crime Agency (NCA) and its Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) command, local police, as well as other organisations and the video games trade bodies such as UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) to lean on their expertise. We form part of a network that helps identify trends and shape self-regulatory responses and official action. It’s an ecosystem to which we welcome even more living games makers to join.

Proactivity takes many forms and one of those is supporting initiatives that are designed to look at industry standards and practices. Last year the DCMS published the Online Harms white paper and the Select Committee inquiry into Immersive & Addictive Technologies researched and shared their findings. As a business that holds itself accountable for a strong duty of care, we looked upon the chance to work closely with our peers and politicians on shaping attitudes and understanding of what we do as not only a huge opportunity to educate but also as the right thing to do. Conversations about gaming addiction need far more evidence, as opposed to unsubstantiated reactions, and there continues to be a healthy debate among experts as to whether conclusions can be drawn either way. In lieu of that data and research, we participated fully (and continues to do so) in the debate around ‘lootboxes’ and chance mechanics in games, including how best to safeguard vulnerable elements of society.

What is clear is that games companies have a huge responsibility to their players, and a duty of care that must be upheld. And this extends beyond game worlds. It’s important to note that the DCMS has recognised our safeguarding best-practice, and our award-winning work that raises mental health awareness within our communities via our charity partners, though we know there is more we can do, and more that we are doing.

The current British government has made it clear that it aims to tackle, through regulation, areas of online protection for the vulnerable and that this will remain a focus for the coming years. It’s important for us – and all companies that operate in and profit from the online world – to not just wait for regulation but to be a part of the conversation and be proactive in every area. Crucially, we also believe in going beyond regulation, and not simply doing the bare minimum. As an organisation with a strong legacy in gaming, we have the experience and the responsibility to spot any potential vulnerability in our safeguarding, in what is an ever-changing world, and we must therefore evolve and adapt accordingly.

The Jagex Duty of Care

In the last year, we have developed a studio-wide, self-imposed duty of care, focusing in on three areas:

1. Freedom of Choice: With a diverse player base, we have recognised that it’s essential we provide players with controls and options that enable them to shape a play experience that’s appropriate for all. This is about providing players, parents and guardians increasing control to manage how long they – or those they are responsible for – play and how much they spend across games, both now and in the future.

We have increased the frequency of proactive in-game prompts to remind players to take a break from their screen, and in RuneScape’s reimagined Double XP Live event, we have enabled players to gain a pre-determined quota of double experience (48 hours) over a 10-day period, instead of unlimited double experience over a three-day period – this initiative seeks to alleviate binge playing, and allows greater player choice of when that double experience is used in-game.

In recent months, we have also introduced trials of multiple intervention messages directed toward players exhibiting unusual or excessive spending habits – this initiative is still in its early stages at present, but we hope to broaden this out further in the future.

2. A Safe Environment: We in the games industry are curators of an online world where safety and enjoyment are inextricably linked, so we continuing to evolve our approach to community safety, increasing the pace of initiatives to tackle ways the in-game economy can be exploited as well as those measures designed to enhance our chat moderation, safety and welfare information and provide age assurance is crucial.

3. Satisfying Engagement for All: Providing a great games experience is key, which includes how companies handle monetised elements. Our main priority is delivering the best experience to players, however as businesses we also need to remain profitable and to secure a long-term future for players, employees and games. There are many strategies that could be deployed to deliver against this – from our perspective, we ensure that all content is available to everyone, that we are open and transparent in how in-game items are bought and earned, and that there is an ongoing commitment to promote healthy play.

We are open-handed with our monetisation systems, with a core focus on rewarding players. We have increased transparency on items and prizes that are both paid for or earned in-game and published all probabilities for paid chance-style mechanics within our games. We have recently restricted blind-chance rewards so players are given more choice of paid-for content from our games.

Fostering Safe & Diverse Communities

As always-connected living games experiences become the norm, and games-as-a-service models gain strength in our industry, companies and developers need to demonstrate responsibility for players. Gaming communities must be a safe place for the vast numbers of diverse people they attract.

Making these changes is not an attempt to mollycoddle players, as the overwhelming majority engage on a very healthy basis and neither need nor want unnecessary intervention. Having said that, continuing to adopt a more open approach to game design, lessening the pressure to log on and play and taking the right intervention steps are responsible decisions that we are happy to continue to make, and we welcome an industry contributing £3billion to the UK economy doing the same.

The initiatives listed above have had a tangibly positive impact, but we are aware there is more that we can – and will – be doing to better protect and support our players in the coming months and years.

Online communities are incredible, vibrant and engaging areas where players can learn life skills, meet friends, feel a sense of belonging and escape from the pressures of daily life. We look forward to working together as an industry to continue to address these issues, to building on our achievements of the last 20 years, and to sharing learning, experience and thoughts with peers, politicians and, most importantly, players.