At Microsoft, a small, tight-knit team works long hours – often sorting through downright offensive content – to help ensure that the company’s booming Xbox LIVE service is safe, non-offensive and fun for all.
In an otherwise typical Microsoft hallway, a black curtain stretches across the doorway to a large room. The whiteboard next to it offers this ambiguous, if not curiosity-inducing, explanation: “Please do not disturb. Sensitive material behind curtain.”
Behind the black curtain is a unique team of Microsoft employees. Their existence is not widely known, and probably for good reason – if you have a close encounter with a member of Xbox LIVE’s Policy and Enforcement team, chances are you’re on the wrong end of right.
Hackers, cheaters, phishers, account thieves, game code modifiers, communication abuser – they help police it all, including actual crimes in some rare instances. The team is there to help make sure Xbox LIVE is safe, non-offensive and fun for all users.
“If you’re playing a game on Xbox LIVE, and somebody snipes you from across the map and you drop the F-bomb, we’re not going to ban you – not for the occasional slip. We focus on the really bad stuff,” says Boris Erickson, Xbox LIVE Enforcement Unicorn Ninja. Yes, that is his actual job title.
Adds Erickson: “We are not here to be the arbiters of all speech. But there are certainly some kinds of communication on Xbox LIVE that crosses a line – racism, homophobia, sexism, offensive comments about nationalities, and more.”
Day in and day out, the inboxes of Erickson and his fellow enforcers are piled high with stacks of complaints about offensive behavior, speech, and materials. They dutifully sort through it all and decide what’s next. That could be requiring a user to remove an offensive word or phrase from their profile to – in the more egregious cases – outright banning users.
“Or, as we like to say, inviting them to not be our customer,” Erickson says. “These are paid subscriptions we’re taking away, so we want to make sure we’re doing exactly the right thing.”
All Xbox LIVE users agree to a code of conduct when subscribing to the entertainment service. But, as Xbox LIVE tops 35 million users – and, as it incorporates an ever-widening range of entertainment, gaming, and communication features – it’s a given that there will be opportunists and rule-breakers, Erickson says.
But the team’s director, Stephen Toulouse (known widely by his Microsoft e-mail alias, Stepto), says despite Xbox LIVE’s explosive growth over the last several years, the number of complaints his team handles has remained tiny in proportion to the growing number of people who use the service.
“Looking at the stats, the cross-section of bad apples we deal with every day is small – typically less than one percent of the overall population,” Toulouse says. “The user complaint volume has tended to stay relatively flat compared to the line of new users. What that says to me is that our efforts are having an impact, and also that we’re broadening our audience. We’re bringing in different people that want to experience different things on Xbox LIVE, not just gaming, and at the end of the day that’s going to improve everything.”