LOOT BOXES, toxic online culture and gaming addiction are all making headlines at the moment as governments and games companies struggle to understand and control the growing world online.
There are also as new laws on spending in games being considered, as well as a Parliamentary probe into addictive games
The Sun recently sat down with Dave McCarthy, head of Xbox operations at Microsoft, to find out what the company is doing for gamers and parents, and how all these issues are shaping what they have planned.
It’s been almost forty years since the first politician stood up in Parliament here demanding action on video game addiction, and how Space Invaders was leading “crazed” children with glazed eyes to resort to “theft, blackmail and vice”.
Do you think it’s an indictment of the video game industry that we’re still having the same debate, or do you think it’s a sign that it’s something we’re never going to escape from?
You know, I think debate on this is healthy, right?
I mean it may sound strange but regulators and government getting involved in the conversation I actually think is a positive thing in terms of their ability to help with education and awareness on some of these fronts.
Part of my push and the reasons I’m talking to folks like you is I want to get more parents and kids aware of the tools that are there and I think it’s good that that gets out in the social sphere and the more and more people use these because when they’re in place and the only take a few minutes to set up, they make World a different, right?
So, in that way, I think the attention is good.
We need to recognise that it is our responsibility in the industry to provide people with the tools that help them cope
I think it’s good for us to talk about holding everybody up to a base level of expectations and think that makes a lot of sense.
We’d be pushing regardless. We feel a great responsibility to go innovate and do the right things for our gamers.
And if that complements legislation great. If it helps inspire some, or inspire our partners or even competitors to go new things in this space I think that’s good too.
I mean let’s recognize that it’s tough to be a parent today. Right?
My parents had it easy compared to me, and I’m sure it’s going to be harder for my kids when they’re parents.
There are a lot of things competing for their time and there are a lot of awesome entertainment experiences and other things they can go do, and I think we need to recognise that it is our responsibility in the industry to provide people with the tools that help them cope with some of the challenges that they face.
The WHO decision on ‘gaming disorder’ has been widely criticised, but the games industry’s reaction to it has also been accused of making the matter worse. Do you think a change of approach is needed?
Far be it for me to maybe suggest for the entire industry should do but here’s how I look at it, and particularly from an Xbox perspective.
I do think it’s valid to point out, and we’ve said this from an industry perspective, that things like more research are actually pretty important.
There’s a lot of issues at play here, and I do think we’re incomplete in our understanding.
We’ll lean in and participate in that as much as we possibly can but I don’t think the need for more research precludes us from our responsibility to lead and innovate in this area, and I think maybe that’s what’s been missing from the conversation a little bit. That’s why I’m trying to be more vocal about it and why we’re trying to share the news here more at Xbox.
I do think recognizing that there are challenges there for people, and that we have some tools that they can leverage even today and that more are coming.
I think that would make for a healthier conversation.
We do collaborate with some partners, but it’s more behind the scenes.
This is on doing shared research, sharing best practices or in some cases sharing technology, with Photo DNA [an AI tool developed by Microsoft but now widely used to automatically detect and block obscene or extremist imagery] being one example.
That’s where I would like to see the energy go not just for Xbox, but for the industry in general because I think it will move the dialogue in the right direction and quite frankly ultimately do the right thing for gamers.
‘The right thing for gamers’ is an interesting idea, in context. What gamers want and what people in general want is often radically different from what’s good for them, and what the responsible thing to do is. How do you, as company that needs to give its customers what they want, balance that?
I think you start with this notion of choice, you know?
When we only give one path for people to do things it never turns out well for us!
Phil [Spencer, head of Xbox] has been really good on this philosophy.
What Xbox in general is about is putting the gamer at the center, and realising that choice is one of the primary things that they value most.
We make a statement really early on that hate has no place here – I think you have to be that clear
So whether it’s being able to regulate screen time through family settings, or what we do with our communication settings, or the way, we’re thinking about proactive moderation and filtering put as much choice around that is possible.
That doesn’t have to compromise certain values.
That’s why it’s been really important for us to go out and publish things like the community standards because we have to be clear that there is some stuff we won’t stand for.
We make a statement really early on that hate has no place here.
I think you have to be that clear as well.
To say we are going to offer you a world of possibilities, but we’re also going to be clear that if we want to touch the 2.5 billion gamers worldwide or whatever number you believe it has to be a place where these values are respected and held.
I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. I think you can say this is the world that we aspire to. Quite frankly when we talk to our gamers this is the world that they want.
Your take on that can differ slightly but ultimately people want to be in place that is awesome to play in, where there are fun games and great stuff is going on. I don’t think that’s mutually exclusive from giving a choice in these areas and saying this is the general lay of things overall.
In the UK at the moment, we’re in the middle of an ‘immersive and addictive technologies’ inquiry into gaming. One of the things that that is looking at is how compelling games are now, how hard they can be put down, and the challenges that that can present to parents. Do you think that it is possible for a game to be too compelling, and do you think that how compelling and how hard to put down a game is should be something that is factored into the age rating?
You’re touching on something interesting.
Engagement is a little different than overuse – in fact I think it’s a lot different.
Let’s take it outside of games for a second. For centuries different forms of entertainment or art have that notion of ‘what brings me back to it again and again and again’, whether it’s an album or a book or a TV show or a movie.
Games are in that way or no different and I think the best games are ones that are really engaging and are immersing, and you do want to go back to again.
That’s different than overuse. I think it’s important for us to say we believe in the value of having a balanced lifestyle. It’s why we created the tools that we have and it’s why we’re pushing so hard to have awareness grow around them.
It’s because we understand it is challenging. It was challenging for my parents when none of these things existed.
I was just telling everybody this morning that I remember being down in the basement trying to get through Super Mario Brothers levels that were both inspiring to me, but also, you know
frustrated me, and were keeping me going, right? That’s what I loved about games.
I think the best games are ones that are really engaging and are immersing, and you do want to go back to again
What I like about what we’ve got today is now we have some tools that can help enhance it you know in some ways having those screen time controls in place.
To be honest, when I first put them in place in my house, I wasn’t number one popular parent for that day, but I will say that once they became the norm it actually wasn’t a thing.
Because we’d set expectations together. We had a opportunity to have a dialogue around things. It was flexible enough for us to change as circumstances changed, and I think that’s kind of the key.
It’s how do you how do you find that middle ground where you you empower parents to do what they want to do with their families when every family’s different?
That’s our approach to it. And I think if overuse is a concern it is a valid one, so use the tools, have the conversations the right stuff to go do and the games will still be engaging over time. They’ll still be there for you.
The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act is the latest in a long line of proposed bills in the US to target games, but seems to take a very different tack to previous attempts such as the the Truth in Video Game Rating Act, the Family Entertainment Protection Act and Video Game Decency Act by focusing on mechanics [such as loot boxes and microtransactions] and not ratings. Do you think this new approach is a better way for legislators to protect children?
This is where having a set of world-class first-party Studios is actually a real benefit to Xbox because we can have these conversations internally.
We’ve got such a wide range – think about Minecraft, Halo, Gears and Forza.
With all these pieces right and a lot of different constituents, we’ve had good discussions around what the principles by which we want to design our games and offer mechanics.
I think to date we’ve landed on the idea that you know, those sort of mechanics specifically should be optional and they should enhance the experience but they’re not required for the core experience.
The way our studios are talking about it I think we’ll see more principles around this.
So then we translate that approach to our third party developers, and try to provide creative freedom in that space, but also say “hey, there are platform rules on these things, and requirements if you want to publish on our systems.”
Those sort of mechanics specifically should be optional and they should enhance the experience
The other side of that coin is that it reinforces the need for things like the spending controls and purchase notifications on there.
If this is something you as an individual have a specific problem with for whatever reason, and I’m not going to judge what the reason is, then put the spending things on there and and you decide what what feels right for you and your family.
It kind of comes back to that notion of giving people choices around it.
But we can still be principle-based, and that’s the conversation we have with our studios around it.
Would Microsoft then lobby to defend gamers and the community against a potential ban because you think there are better solutions out there?
I don’t know that we would ever sort of pit one group against another.
Like I said earlier, I do think there’s a role for government and regulation to play in some of these spaces.
Would we put our concerns of our Gamers at the center of everything we do primarily?Absolutely we would.
We’ve done that with all of our choices to date.
I don’t think that necessarily needs to be a us-versus-them conversation.
I think it’s our responsibility to do a great job representing what their concerns and feedback are and saying “hey, here’s the tools we provide users.”
To be honest what I find in a lot of these conversations with regulators is there’s not actually a ton of ill intent there.
They’re just doing a million things like all of us, and they don’t know the specifics of what’s going on in some of these areas. So there’s a lot of education to do on that side.
Honestly, again, the responsibility is at least partially on us to meet them in the middle and share the concerns of gamers, and share awareness of the tools that are in place because I think we can get to a good spot on all of these issues over time.
Microsoft is clearly trying to be more proactive and less reactive when it comes to responsibility. How and when do you consider the unintended consequences of new technologies, and how do you ensure the product you’re putting a new product out that it’s going to be ‘responsible’?
This has been one of the best, if not the best, learnings of the whole “Gaming for Everyone” movement.
You’re touching on the idea of inclusive design. And how you be really intentional upfront about adressing some of these issues so that the downstream later you don’t have to unwind things.
So we have a process at Xbox that we’ve had in place for a few years now called “design tenets” that we use. What we do is we set a number of design tenets across the whole gaming group at Microsoft.
We have some more mechanical ones that might sound a little boring, around things like reliability, supportability and those sort of things. But we also have design tenets around accessibility, safety, privacy and security.
What happens is as we do design reviews around all of our products those considerations are taken into account up front.
There’s a series of questions in each area, depending on the area.
The team goes through and they say “are we addressing those adequately?”
You’ll see it impact the design of hardware and accessories, you’ll see it as we introduce more and more new features on Xbox Live. They go through a safety design tenet early and they go “Okay. Well given the controls that we have in place now, and given the moderation capabilities that we have from a human and AI perspective, and given what our community is actually talking about that they value, can we make this work from a safety perspective?”
And then we have a great conversation that usually involves us adjusting the feature design a little, but it’s ingrained in the team now to these design tenets up front and then your Downstream implementation is a lot easier.
Screen time management – how to do it
To set screen time limits for your child on Xbox One and Windows 10 devices, use the online tool.
Go to account.microsoft.com/family and sign in with
your Microsoft account. Then:
- Find your child’s name and select Screen time.
- If you want to use the same schedule for all devices, switch Use one screen time schedule from Off to On. If you’d rather have separate schedules, scroll down and switch on screen time for PC and Xbox One individually.
- Set how much time your child is allowed to spend with their devices each day, and when they can use them. If you want to give them the full amount of time you’ve scheduled, select Max scheduled. (Example: If you’ve allowed screen time from 8 am to 8 pm, they could use their devices that entire time.)
You can read about all of the Xbox Parental Controls and how to apply them here.
We talked about sort of the best practices which you have for your games which are developed by first party Studios, as well as the minimum standards that you expect from third parties. Sony recently confirmed that they have a specific policy to not allow games on its platforms which could “inhibit the sound growth and development of young people”. Is there anything similar at Microsoft?
We have content principles.
In really simple terms we decided not to have adult content on the box, right?
So it’s not unprecedented for us to say that certain content types are are not fine in our ecosystem.
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I would say outside of the value statements we’ve already made we lean more towards being clear on our intent and our value system and then saying are all the tools there for customers, are all the options there for our gamers to experience it the way that they want to experience it.
That’s not to say that we wouldn’t make decisions on other categories of games moving forward.
But that’s that’s the filter we go through first, rather than looking at all these categories of games and say if they’re in or out.