In late April 2021, Riot Games announced in a blog post that it would be listening to what players of its competitive online shooter Valorant were saying. But not just to players’ feedback about the game; Riot instead announced that it would be recording players’ voice chat so that it could have evidence to review in the case of reports about any given person’s toxic behavior in-game. The feature has recently rolled out and has been getting attention.
While Riot says they won’t be actively listening in real-time and players can opt out by turning off voice chat entirely, they may be onto something here. Some psychological research suggests that simply telling players that someone is watching (or listening) to them will make them more likely to behave themselves.
In one famous example, researchers from England turned their own faculty lounge and co-workers into a small experiment. The lounge had refreshments available for the staff with an honor system in place where people were expected to plop 30, 50, or 10 pence into a collection box for tea, coffee, or milk respectively. The experimenters created various signs communicating the system, alternating between simple flowers (to act as a control image) and pictures of eyes situated so that they appeared to be looking directly at the unwitting subjects.
The result? People complied with the rules much more. According to the researchers, “People paid nearly three times as much for their drinks when eyes were displayed rather than a control image.”
Admittedly, there have been critiques of this particular study and other researchers have tried to replicate its findings without success. But its findings are consistent with other research and models that hold that antisocial behavior like stealing happens more often when people are able to ignore or minimize the effect that such behavior will have on their self-image. Because damage to our self-image is part of the mental calculus that goes on when we decide whether or not to rob a liquor store, cheat on a test, or lay out some cutting words in Valorant voice chat. And if one is reminded about one’s moral standards, one is less likely to engage in such shenanigans. It’s a reminder that oh yeah, I’d rather not be that kind of person. There are various ways to make people’s moral standards more salient and easier to recall in the moment, such as reminding them that people may be watching or listening to what they do.
This is why the Valorant recordings might help curb toxic behavior. Even though Riot isn’t necessarily listening in live, the reminder that anything said could be heard by many other people and played back for grumpy players might help them remember that they don’t want to be the kind of person who says awful things meant to hurt other people. If they haven’t already, Riot should experiment with placing reminders of the voice recordings into loading screens or other parts of the UI, then comparing the voice chat of those matches with control groups where no such reminder was given. I suspect they’d find a difference.