Online players are real people

Square-Enix recently published a lengthy FAQ outlining in great detail, with collapsible segments and example conversations, the sort of behaviour they deem to be unacceptable in their hugely successful MMO, Final Fantasy XIV.

This is in many ways extraordinary in itself, going far beyond the broad and safely acceptable (and largely ignorable and/or under-moderated) rules of “Don’t spam general chat” “Don’t be racist” “Don’t tell people they should delete their accounts” and into the realms of general polite conduct and etiquette.

Now of course there is some cause for concern here, even beyond false concerns about retaining personal “freedom of speech” (a freedom that in its broadest chest-beating sense can never reasonably be expected of a commercial product running on privately owned servers that requires you to agree to all their terms and conditions before granting access to the game): There’s a worry report-happy individuals will run off to the GMs every time someone says something slightly mean to them, determined to take every comment out of context and twist it like a pretzel into something “offensive”. It may feel as though offering anything less than happy-smiley-cutesy talk all the time has now become a bannable offense. Whether you’re nice or nasty, nobody wants to end up in a situation where they’re having to explain the weird conversation a bunny warrior and a cat boy had over a fancy earring dropped by a dragon to a third party capable of shutting down their entire account.

From the examples they’ve given Square Enix’s request is something to be taken simply at face value. “Don’t be an arsehole, and make sure you apologise if you accidentally are an arsehole” say Final Fantasy XIV’s development team (in essence, anyway). That’s it.

What reasonable person worries about not being able to do any of the following?

  • Ambushing someone at their destination, or their housing estate, despite being asked to stop the behavior.
  • Persistently sending a friend or party request despite being asked to stop the behavior.

Attacking someone for doing something different from what you or others may feel is the norm. For example, when running Alliance Raids, or playing PvP content, it is prohibited to make statements such as “why aren’t you doing [specific thing]? Everyone knows that’s how you do this!” If a report has been filed and the prohibited activity is confirmed, a penalty will be issued.

Who wants to stalk other players? Who is that mad they can no longer tear someone apart because the person in question didn’t read the recommended boss guide (and view the accompanying video in full) “everyone” always reads before continuing the story?

And some of the examples given in the document are just good advice for life in general:

Additionally, something that may be intended as a “joke” between friends could in fact make the other person feel uncomfortable but they may not say so to be considerate. This rings true even for longtime friends where respect may be more important in the relationship.

The FAQ takes great pains to point out that these rules are not about “being nice no matter what” or “always getting along” but being a decent human being who engages in acceptable behaviour with the other human beings – that’s all the tiny paladins, lion-like healers, and dragon-tailed dragoons running around Eorzea are, after all – occupying the same virtual space. And to hear a team in a position of power and importance say so feels like… it almost feels like someone hit the reset button for online communication: Why was it ever “just a laugh” to /Dance on someone’s corpse if they happened to get caught out by an attack they would have avoided on a better day? Why did we ever think nobody would bother to do anything to that random guy who roasted a newbie right off the server just because they weren’t wearing the “right” hat for some low-level dungeon? Why did we ever believe we were the problem when that one person kept following us around even when we didn’t want them to, and that nothing could be done about it anyway in an environment wholly owned, run, and monitored by a single entity? By laying out rules that don’t just pay lip service to the worn-out and conveniently woolly phrase “Acceptable behaviour” but talk in detail about the difference between constructive and requested advice and That Person – you know the one – who needs every dungeon to play out exactly the way they want them to all the time or else they’ll unleash a tirade of unrepeatable abuse that’s sure to see them release a teary-eyed apology video for a week later (as an aside: If you’re really that good at clearing content then surely you’ll be able to use your vast reserves of skill and knowledge to easily adapt to most situations, no?), we can finally start to move on. We can finally say something as simple as “No, I don’t want to be in dry-humped while looking through the Auction House and I don’t need to give a reason why” and be heard. This is all really basic grown-up behaviour, so why have we spent so long pretending it isn’t?

Final Fantasy XIV has publicly stated it cares about context and consent, and to see it being understood from the very top that positive (even just tolerable) communication is about far more than perpetually dancing at the very furthest edge of a specific set of rules, to know that players won’t need to explain to a moderator why “IT’S LITERALLY COSTING ME MONEY TO WASTE MY TIME WITH YOU JUST QUIT THE PARTY ALREADY” isn’t something anyone should consider rule-abiding chat even if the abuse-spouter didn’t swear or type out a slur because it’s already understood that dishing out such vitriol over a game stuffed with fluffy magic fairy Moogles will not be tolerated is, sadly, a revelation. It takes a lot of guts to say out loud these long-worn patterns of online behaviour aren’t acceptable, to listen to people say “Well I’ll go somewhere else then!” and wave them off instead of rushing to appease a vocal and outraged segment of the existing fanbase. But it’s so so important they do. Because it’s not just about making a more pleasant community for those playing right now, it’s also for the benefit of the countless swathes of people who reflexively swear off online games they’ve never even tried on principle, regardless of the quality or quantity of the content on offer, because they’d rather not bother than potentially deal with someone skilfully slagging them off in a way both the irate sender and the unwilling receiver know technically isn’t reportable just because someone didn’t know how to do something the game’s never asked them to do before, watching every insult land in their chat box – in their home – and know the moderation team won’t take meaningful action for anything less than a string of explicit death threats.

This move is significant not only for Final Fantasy XIV but the hobby as a whole in all its forms: Someone has finally said no, it’s not OK to treat other people like something you’d scrape off your shoe. Someone has finally gone beyond “We’ll take action if you’re really bad and another player can prove it.” and said “We expect you to behave well, and the only reason is because expecting basic civility from another human being is really not a big ask.“. It’s a chance for us all to look again at the current baseline level of permissible online behaviour – our online behaviour – and realise that “Grow a thicker skin, that’s just how the internet is” is a lie.

A lie.