It's an experience that's happened to every player at some point when they go online; you join up for some multi-player, looking to have some fun after coming home from work. All you want is a good, clean fight with some fast action and decent kills, when the inevitable happens. Despite the fact that you're playing a game with an M Rating, a child's voice pops up, swearing like a sailor. Or some sexist, or homophobic, or racist or religiously prejudiced jerk verbally assaults everyone playing, and it's obvious that this is some highschool student, probably drunk, more concerned with being a killjoy than actually playing the game.
With the new ease of use and migration of online multi-player from the PC to the likes of Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, the formerly niche activity of playing a game with similarly hardcore enthusiasts has expanded so that anyone with a console and an internet connection can join in on the fun. The result, which should be surprising to no one, is that the quotient of jerks has ramped up to new levels. Some would even say intolerable levels.
Right now, the only solution to the problem is to either put up with it, actively using the mute or report functions in games, or just not play at all. This is particularly difficult for women (the second they speak in a game, harassment abounds) and openly gay players (again, any admission brings on a round of hate) so often, if they want to play these games, there's a certain understanding that they should keep their mouth shut in order to avoid having their experience ruined. The democratizing effect of the new age of multi-player we live in, combined with the anonymity of the internet, has created a generation of people that find it easy to hate online and we have no choice but to live with it.
But what if there was another solution?
We already see this to an informal degree on the internet. Mature gamers – a class of players typically perceived as established in their career, over 30, usually with families – have formed loose alliances on websites, sharing online IDs in order to stick together and create a less hostile, juvenile, or hateful gaming environment. Even the American military has a loose group of gamers that try to stick together both for the familiarity of playing alongside people that understand their life, as well as enjoying a certain amount of stability that keeps “griefing” to a minimum. People want to be able to just have fun together, but the stupidity and hate that proliferates in online gaming means that a lot of effort is required.
I think one way that might significantly lighten the load would be to offer an additional, optional, premium online gaming service targeted at older gamers, or simply gamers that are willing to pay more for a less hostile environment with dedicated monitoring to crack down hard on people that attempt to disrupt it. Most people that play online do so because it is free—as with PC and PS3 gaming—or pay the bare minimum subscription rate required for the privilege on Xbox Live. The majority of people that want nothing more than to disrupt the gaming experience are not going to pay even more for the opportunity. Similarly, careless parents that buy any game for their kids, regardless of whether its appropriate for their age, are not likely to be swayed by a child's pleas to pay for not just online access, but “adult” online access on top of that.
It may sound like the digital equivalent of a senior citizen's gated community, but in practice, few of those communities are actually harassed or exposed to the same degree of public abuse as the typical suburb or metropolitan core. The majority of people that take pleasure in griefing others will rarely pay out significant amounts of money to do so. A service that charges additional fees on top of strict age requirements would go a long way towards simply being too expensive to be worth it for the “average jerk,” and that would act as a natural barrier. Of course, not everyone will be turned away, and some people are still have enough disposable income that they might find it worth their wallet's contents to be a jerk to a “premium” audience. However if that premium audience is also paying for much stricter monitoring with a fast response and harsh reprisal, what then? Even if someone does think it's worth an additional $50 on top of the $50 they already pay for Xbox Live, that $100 total will do them little good if they make a sexist comment and are perma-banned within 30 minutes of making trouble.
It's not a perfect solution, but it's one that I feel would address the needs of a certain segment of the gaming demographic that is growing larger and larger with each year. People just want to have fun, and they want to do it without harassment, hate, or grief. I believe the majority of people that want this would be willing to pay more to get it, and I similarly believe that those that are just in it for griefing would be too cheap to pay up.
I don't know if this is something that Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo would ever consider in the future, but if it ever happened, I'd be there with my credit card, ready to sign up in a heartbeat.