Blizzard Entertainment has added a feature to their co-op shooter, Overwatch (rated 13+ years), which promotes kindness in their player base. The system took effect in update 1.25 of the game. The idea is that after someone completes a team match, each player has the chance to award up to three “endorsements” to other players, in one of three categories: Shot Caller  (leader/strategist); Good Teammate (effective communicator); and Sportsmanship (someone who behaved in a positive and respectful way). Specific players can be rewarded by a particular person only once per round, and only once every twelve hours.

Screencap of the new endorsements system in Blizzard’s Overwatch v1.25.

iThrive Games has created game design resources around concepts like Empathy and Kindness, which are available on our website. In my recent conference talks at GDC, the East Coast Games Conference, the Gotland Games Conference, and a Lunch and Learn event held in Montreal last week, I explained the mental processes that humans go through in order to get from apathy to empathy, and that empathy facilitates kindness. Empathy can exist without kindness (I understand how you feel but I’m not going to actually help you), but it’s harder for true kindness to happen without empathy. To be kind requires that a person 1) recognizes that someone else has a need (awareness), 2) understands how that need makes the other person feel (a key part of empathy), 3) has the ability to help in some way (capacity), 4) feels that helping is the right thing to do (morality), and 5) gives something of oneself without expecting anything in return (sacrifice).

Slide from Heidi McDonald’s conference talks at ECGC, Gotland Games Conference, and Montreal Lunch and Learn, on the components of kindness.

In our studies of how kindness and empathy manifest in games, we’ve noticed that, with rare exception, narrative-based and RPG games tend to have baked-in features that promote kindness and empathy, whereas with co-op shooters like Overwatch, PUBG, Fortnite, or League of Legends, the kindness and empathy can be found (or, not found, in cases of toxic behavior) outside the game, in the interactions among the players. (It may be interesting in the future to examine cases where these qualities might exist both inside and outside the game, and the E3 trailer for BioWare’s Anthem suggests that this might be such a case. We’ll be paying attention!)

iThrive applauds the new Overwatch endorsement system because it encourages kindness. The system asks a player to think more about the experience that they’ve just had, in the context of their teammates’ behavior. For example: Kid32 could have run ahead with everyone else, but she stayed behind to heal and cover me, when she could have gotten wiped out herself. It asks players to momentarily consider how their teammates acted in the interests of others and of the team as a unit, and then to reward others for their helpful play. Not every player will reflect deeply on the match before choosing which teammate to endorse, but those who take this (optional) step will nonetheless be spending some additional time recognizing others, a task for which they receive nothing other than someone else’s appreciation and the warm feeling of doing something kind. Endorsements may encourage more positive behavior as well as help players to identify and cooperate with other kind players, increasing the odds that they’ll avoid a toxic encounter.

What happens, though, when someone gets reported for bad behavior? Will that affect the person’s endorsement score? Couldn’t this system mean that jerks just endorse other jerks and then you can’t tell jerks from the respectful players? Blizzard thought of that, because of course they did: Those who consistently maintain a high endorsement level will receive periodic rewards, while those who display negative behavior or accrue suspensions will lose their endorsements.”

This new mechanic has been criticized for “forcing players to be ‘fake nice,’” and IGN reports that the player community appears to be divided in its opinions. Perhaps those folks complaining about an optional opportunity to be kind to other players are the folks who don’t like being kind in the first place. And, honestly, even if players only pretend to be nice, they’re practicing a kind behavior, and they’re doing that instead of being jerks to each other, and that counts as an improvement in my book.

Mike Sellers, Professor of Practice at Indiana University, authored a paper about a hypothetical player behavior system and cautioned designers against using a reputation system with a single good/bad behavior axis. “Yes, this is a great step,” says Sellers of the new Overwatch feature. “But there‘s a good way to make negative behavior self-defeating, without ever having to decide centrally what negative behavior is. You can be loved by the Capulets and hated by the Montagues, as we all know.”

Despite any imperfections in the system, our organization considers it to be a good step toward encouraging positive player behavior, and applauds our friends at Blizzard for approaching this thoughtfully. When successful AAA studios recognize a need for games that encourage more positive behaviors like empathy and kindness, iThrive stands ready to support their efforts with our subject matter expertise, developer education, and design resources because the end result is that those who are playing the games — particularly teens — will reap the emotional benefits as they play video games. It’s why we’re here.