When gaming is no longer an escape

Thanks to automated anti bot software, and a less than supportive community, one disabled gamer’s experience with a popular massively multiplayer online game turned negative

WOT-600x450_0.jpgImage credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Don't mess with a company that has tanks

As I wrote last November, for many disabled people, gaming is not just a form of entertainment, but also a way to make friends, belong to a group and generally build self esteem without being stigmatized because of their disabilities. But what happens if your disability affects your performance in a team game or the anonymity about your condition that gaming usually provides is taken away? As a lifelong disabled gamer with whom I recently came into contact found out, it can be lead to an unhappy experience. 

Adam (not his real name; he’d like to remain anonymous), is a 40-something European male with a disability who has been gaming for most his life. Starting with the Commodore 64, he’s played all types of computer games and had never had a negative experience because of his disability - until he recently began playing World of Tanks. “I did have it in other social situations, but until now never with a computer game,” he said. 

World of Tanks (WOT) is a team-based massively multiplayer online (MMO) game developed by Wargaming.net, played by more than 45 million people worldwide. In WOT, teams of 15 players battle other teams using mid-20th century tanks. The game is free to play, but players can make in-game micropayments to buy “gold” that can be used for things like camouflage, premium tanks, and speeding up experience progression.

Adam began playing WOT 6 months ago, along the way spending about €500 (about $650) for in-game gold. All was generally well until he was notified in late January that his account was permanently suspended for “using additional software in the game... without participating actively in order to accumulate experience and credits.” In other words, he was accused of “botting,” using software to cheat. The decision to ban him, he was told, was final. His only option, if he wanted to continue playing, was to have his account “wiped” meaning the game experience he had accumulated would be deleted and much of the money he had spent would be wasted.

Adam denies botting and says that his performance was adversely affected for a period in November by a change in his medication. Prior to that his level of play was normal, he said, but the medication change caused his play to be so poor that it was noticed by other players who reported him for potential botting. Wargaming’s Automated Anti Bot System then monitored his performance and determined that he must have been using software to play for him, in violation of their rules, which resulted in a permanent ban, with no chance for appeal. Indeed, his repeated attempts to explain his situation were met with the same message: our decision is final.

In an effort to resolve his situation, Adam opened a thread on the World of Tanks forum and explained his condition, sharing his disability with the community. He said the topic quickly became “hot” and that, while some people were supportive of him playing the game, roughly half of people responding were not and that he soon regretted that he had revealed his health situation.

I contacted Wargaming to ask about their policies and procedures for suspending or banning players. A spokesman declined to comment, instead pointing me to the WOT End User License Agreement (EULA) and Terms of Service (TOS), which lay out different levels of punishment for various offenses. The TOS do say that “severe acts” (which presumably includes botting) can lead an immediate account closure without warning, as happened to Adam. Nowhere in the EULA or TOS is an appeals process mentioned.

Wondering if this “no appeals” stance was normal for MMO games, I asked Amber Skinner, the community manager for The Secret World, a survival horror MMO game developed by Funcom, about their policies. She told me that they also consider botting to be a major violation, which can lead to permanent banning. Funcom, like Wargaming, uses an automated process to identify, and punish, users who are botting. But, unlike Wargaming, Funcom does allow users to appeal punishments. “A player can contact us... and appeal the suspension, “ she said. Which is good because, as Skinner told me, “There are the occasional false positives,” that happen with the automated system.

It’s easy to understand why botting would be a serious violation in such a game. It’s also easy to understand why automated systems are needed to identify rule violators in games where millions of people are playing. However, the “no appeals” stance seems unnecessarily harsh and unreasonable. Why not allow people faced with permanent banning - especially people that paid money - to at least argue their case? Some may actually have a valid case, like Adam.

Adam has since given up on World of Tanks, saying it’s left a “bitter taste” and that “this whole thing was more than an unpleasant experience.” He’s found other games to play, with more supportive communities, such as Jagged Alliance Online. As for other disabled people thinking of playing World of Tanks, he would recommend they don’t play it. “This game is highly competitive and so the tone in the gamer community is rather harsh and unfriendly,” he said.

I'll be writing more about how MMO gaming companies deal with players in the near future, so stay tuned.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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