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Meet with Xbox LIVE Enforcement “Unicorn Ninja”

Do you know, 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?

Jason Coon (left), Boris Erickson (front) and Andreas Holbrook stand in the room where they and
other enforcement agents handle complaints, conduct investigations, and hand out penalties to those
who violate Xbox LIVE’s code of conduct. Redmond, Wash. Aug. 2, 2011. (Extreme right),
Stephen Toulouse, director of the Xbox LIVE Policy and Enforcement team.

“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,” Microsoft stated.

“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.

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.

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.

Toulouse says:

“Enforcement was literally done by one guy with a spreadsheet who would go through the complaints once a week,” Toulouse says.

Though it took years to hit the one million user mark, it took one year to hit two million concurrent users.

“We knew Xbox LIVE was going to explode,” Toulouse says. “We knew we were on the cusp of something huge, especially when we saw how many people came into the service with the launch of Halo 3.”

The folks at Xbox LIVE, including Toulouse, wanted to stay ahead of the game. He slowly started assembling a team, and they started designing a tool to help the team effectively police the growing community of users. The result was a software program called Vulcan to help enforcers handle and escalate complaints.

“It was designed on cocktail napkins, then coded and designed to allow people who do complaint investigations to do so in an efficient and accurate way,” Erickson says.

Enforcers are now using a brand-new version of this tool, called “Vulcan 2,” which makes sorting through complaints even faster. In fact, because all enforcers are experienced gamers, they also often use an Xbox controller to navigate their work.

Say one gamer is offering to sell cheating services, or another user in a multiplayer online game is spouting racial epithets into his or her microphone, or yet another registered an offensive gamertag. Enforcement agents will find out about it either via a complaint sent by another Xbox user or by experiencing it firsthand.

“The enforcement agents also play games,” Erickson says. “Part of what we pay them for is to be out there in the community, listening for threats, looking for vulnerabilities, and reporting back to us.”

There are a handful of enforcements the team hands out ranging from a 24-hour ban to the most serious – voting an Xbox LIVE user “off the island” for good.

Apart from being gamers, agents are “steeped and stewed” in Internet culture, as well as being experts in slang, acronyms, and more. Erickson says some of them can actually write in “l33t,” (pronounced “leet”) a hacker pidgin language that incorporates abbreviations and numbers in an attempt to bypass profanity filters.

“We always appreciate having a diversity of knowledge,” Erickson says of the team. “Everybody kind of brings their own little history to the table, and can interpret content in the way the rest of us can’t.”

Toulouse says such diversity is key, though every member of the team shares a common goal.

Toulouse, offers the following tips for enjoying entertainment and games on Xbox LIVE:

  1. Don’t be a jerk. “That’s sometimes hard to define, but I think we all know that line of bad behavior when we cross it.”
  2. “Be excellent to each other.” Toulouse says he learned the ideals of sportsmanship and fair play growing up in a world of arcades and the local park. “If you insulted someone’s mother at the arcade, there could be a physical reaction,” he says. “Helping each other have fun makes a good behavior ripple through the system.”
  3. Parents, be deeply involved. “Don’t just allow them their hour of video games, be there with them. Ask questions. Engaged parents tend to have children who don’t show up in our complaint system.”
  4. If you see something, say something. “When you see bad behavior, let us know,” Toulouse says. “We are approachable. We have a complaint system for a reason.”

[Source: Microsoft Press]

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