Roblox has more than 80 million monthly players on its Lego-like virtual world platform for teens, and it only takes a few bad apples to ruin the fun. That’s why the company is moving ahead with a digital civility initiative, which is meant to improve online safety and to start reducing trolling and toxic behavior.
The company woke up to the problem last year when a child’s game character was sexually violated in the virtual world. Tami Bhaumik, vice president of marketing and digital civility for Roblox, briefed me on the San Mateo, California-based company’s progress in an interview at the recent DICE Summit in Las Vegas.
Bhaumik hired Laura Higgins, an online safety expert in the United Kingdom, as Roblox’s first director of digital civility in January. Higgins, who was the online safety operations manager at the South West Grid for Learning, has been advising Roblox for more than 18 months. The company has more than 600 human moderators to patrol the content and behavior on the Roblox, and it is dedicating more resources to the task of changing online behavior.
But it’s hard to stay ahead of the problem, Bhaumik said. Kids are smart and they come up with ingenious ways to get around the rules.
“The industry is always going to have a whack-a-mole problems,” she said. “Kids try to gamify the system. We try our best to stay ahead of things. With the combination of technology, filters, artificial intelligence, and human moderation, we try our best to stay ahead of things. We are doing a pretty good job. We have an entire product engineering team dedicated to it. We have third-party filtering software on top of our own.”
She added, “We are in good shape from a safety standpoint. It’s the proactive digital civility that we are moving forward on now. It’s about how to get kids to make smart choices online.”
Roblox was one of the first 10 companies that gathered together to form the Fair Play Alliance, which is aimed at curbing toxic behavior and harassment in games. The toxic groups and the extremely nice ones are relatively rare, but there is a huge swath in the middle that can be influenced.
“We all came around to the idea that toxicity lives in gaming,” Bhaumik said. “Trolling is allowed and even revered sometimes. How do we change the formula? And start sharing our research. We know that banning is not an effective tool. We know that the carrot is stronger. If you say something nice, recognize it through patterns, then reward that person for being awesome. Does it breed more positive behavior over time?”
The Fair Play Alliance is aimed at creating an industry-wide effort, but Bhaumik said it’s important for each company to develop its own expertise to deal with its own problems.
“Normally, tech companies are all about being protective of their technology and their features,” she said. “In this case, it’s all about collaborating. If one bad actor tries to infect one platform and they are kicked off, they’re going to go somewhere else. We can create a very effective barrier against this holistically.”
Microsoft has contributed its photo DNA technology, and Roblox has shared its code on pattern recognition with other companies to test the protections. Roblox reviews all digital assets uploaded for user-created games.
“We think in the next couple of years, we can think we can create some really effective features within our product to be able to identify problems,” she said.
Regarding the virtual sexual assault, Bhaumik said, “About the incident last summer, we’re really proud how this company reacted and attacked it and tightened up the platform. We have not had an egregious incident like that since. So we can move into a positive phase of this next adventure of ours.”
Bhaumik said that Roblox already has a code of conduct, and it has filters in place that prevent players from using inappropriate language. But the players try to gamify that and get around the filters, putting Roblox’s engineers to the test.
Higgins’ initial job is to listen to the community and learning what bothers them. As the company rolls out internationally, she will also partner with safety organizations in other countries to help understand cultural nuances. And she will help build out education on Roblox on digital civility and to revamp the guide for parents.
Parents themselves aren’t savvy enough about technology to protect their kids from online dangers. So the companies should step up to fill that void.
“We have to create materials for parents to educate them and speak their language,” Bhaumik said.
Over time, the company will identify where it needs to dedicate resources and then act. Bhaumik said she has the full support of Dave Baszucki, CEO of Roblox, on digital civility. The marketing team will lend its resources to the effort.
“The fact that Dave believed this was important enough to hire a dedicated resource is pretty exciting to me,” Bhaumik said. “Now we have to push the ball up the hill on digital civility. Ethically, morally, we’re all parents. We want to take care of this.”