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The Toxic Psychology of Riot Lyte

Chris Sutphen 2021-12-11 11:39:19
  One of the most infamous and influential people in Riot Games’ history, Jeffrey Lin, otherwise known to the gaming world as Riot Lyte, had a major impact within the gaming industry. Whether people wish it were true or not, he cannot be ignored in gaming history. Riot Lyte was Riot’s Lead Designer of Social Systems for the popular Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) League of Legends, leading the charge to combat the idea of gaming toxicity which then spread throughout the entire gaming industry. This led to dubious psychological experiments on unknowing gamers and subtly changed the perception of how we perceive online gaming and online interactions. It wasn’t just enough that he wanted to combat online toxic behavior, but that he wanted to change the behavior of the individual on a personal level, oftentimes unbeknownst to that individual. Lets first get into the backstory of Riot Lyte. When he started his professional career he attended the University of Washington achieving his masters degree in cognitive psychology and later a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, with a focus on visual perception and behavior. He would go on to co-author scientific papers such as Capture of attention to threatening stimuli without perceptual awareness which was published in the National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI). He is also known for publishing a paper entitled: Enhanced Memory for Scenes Presented at Behaviorally Relevant Points in Time, in the Public Library of Sciences (PLOS). These works have a shared nature, which would foreshadow one of Lyte’s primary tenants: better humans make better players. This is a common trend that can be seen throughout Lyte’s work; he was looking to change a player’s mindset, and therefore manage their behavior. His obsession with control–using tools of both positive reinforcement and punishment–can be seen throughout his tenure at Riot. The first way he was able to accomplish this goal was to place a name on what he determined as bad behavior, in other words, toxic behavior. To break down the word “toxicity” in the modern day is difficult, because it is ever evolving, and ever encapsulating. The initial colloquial definition of toxicity would be behavior which is ostensibly “bad”, and in the context of gaming, behavior that would affect other players and their behavior towards future players. The association in dealing with the initial toxic player in a particular round of a game would thus spill out into the wider populace creating a ripple effect of toxicity. As such with the apt name, the standard definition of the word toxic is associated with illness but also has grown to include contagion. At a talk during the Games Developer Conference (GDC) 2013 held by Riot Lyte, he would speak to the game developer community to spread the problematic issue of toxicity in gaming, and from there, influence the entire gaming industry. Tracking Google Trends, there is a massive spike in the search for the word “toxicity” in October 2012 under the Games category on Youtube, and a continued trend upward, which strongly alludes towards Lyte’s work in bringing the term to the forefront as he joined Riot Games in 2012. The word “toxic” begrudgingly made its way into our common discourse, even evolving into such modern phrases as “toxic masculinity” or “toxic relationship”, and these are largely here to stay thanks to Riot Lyte’s campaign, and subsequently Riot’s campaign against toxicity. Lyte would use his ideology of justice against toxicity to create his brainchild, The Tribunal. The Tribunal was initially launched in early 2011, which was actually before Riot Lyte joined Riot Games in early 2012. The system was based around community voting, where players could join The Tribunal and vote on cases of other players displaying perceived toxic behavior. The punishments ranged from chat restrictions to temporary day or week bans. Even pro players were not impervious to The Tribunal, as current popular streamer, but previous professional player, Christian "IWillDominate" Rivera received a ban from The Tribunal, subjecting him to also be banned from pro play for one year. The Tribunal was technically never able to permanently ban players outright, as it was simply used as a pre-flagging system to then allow Riot employees to check accounts that had several Tribunal cases, which would then prompt Riot to implement a permanent ban. This was essentially a crowd-sourced court system, and they even had a reward for completing cases, in the way of Influence Points (a form of in-game currency which is now called Blue Essence). To ensure players wouldn’t simply click through cases with arbitrary punishments or pardons, the system would lock out a users vote for 60 seconds, ensuring players would take the time to read the case, and only players who successfully punished a case would receive the IP rewards. This artificially ensured that players made the correct choice. The incentives for punishment created a system filled rife with those trying to game the system rather than simply completing their civic duty. The Tribunal had the large flaw of rewarding people for having successfully punished someone. This reinforced behavior to be more harsh against players, something of a quasi Stanford Prison Experiment. The Tribunal was eventually disabled in 2014, with Riot reflecting back on the system, saying that it was “sometimes wildly inaccurate”, especially having a “super innate bias” due to the IP reward system on a successful penalty. This eventually prompted Riot to use AI technology to handle player toxicity and punishment, as it was much faster than The Tribunal at handing out punishments. This could lead one to believe The Tribunal was just an initial (or became the initial) way for Riot to gather player data and unacceptable behavioral patterns to build the current automated system based on previous punishment cases deemed toxic by the community. The Tribunal would get even more tarnished, as Riot Lyte would use this system to publicly shame players in game forums and the popular social media site Reddit.com. There he would post chat logs of players who at first thought themselves innocent and wrongfully punished by Riot’s Tribunal system. Lyte would go onto Reddit and publicly share chat logs to prove that the player had participated in some wrongdoing. These were later dubbed “Lyte Smites”, referencing his gamer tag along with one of the game’s abilities, known as the summoner spell Smite, which would deal damage to a creature in a godlike fashion from the heavens, often killing the creature in one blow; there’s even a subreddit dedicated to these posts. These smites were initially viewed with approval from the public, and that Riot Lyte was delivering justice and putting a foolish stop to wrongful public outcry, but this emphasizes a strong pervasiveness of control in Lyte’s world. And with every praised action, this propelled him to further depths of overstepping his game development jurisdiction. Riot Lyte would go on to introduce more social experiments to further try to improve Riot’s social systems through in-game surveys and psychological studies. Priming is a classic psychological trick to produce the desired behavior from a subject. There have been several famous studies on the topic, such as the behavioral priming study done by Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L, in which subjects were given a scramble of words and were tasked to create sentences with the words. Several of the words were things like “elderly”, “retired”, “forgetful”. The subjects were then told to exit a door down the hallway. Subjects who had seen and participated in the scrambling of stereotypical words associated with old age were more likely to walk slowly through the hallway than the control group. Riot and Lyte have done similar experiments on the League of Legends player base. Riot Lyte did an experiment dubbed the Optimus Prime Experiment whereby they changed colors of particular in-game messages, and determined what in-game “tip” messages were producing positive social results. The color red has largely been associated with aggression and negativity (also caution). Riot produced 5 different tip categories: entitled, fun facts, positive behavior stats (such as “players perform better if you give them constructive feedback after a mistake"), negative behavior stats (ie: “players that verbally abuse their teammates lose 16% more games”), self reflection, and a control category, which are game play tips. All of these tips had different color combinations which either increased or decreased negativity. This is a classic case of priming, which is used by companies all around the world, but introduced to Riot Games by Lyte. As such, Lyte’s work was featured in the science renowned magazine Nature. (Image from Breitbart) In an article written by two-time Esports Journalist of the Year recipient Richard Lewis, it details that Riot conducted several surveys in late 2015 which tried to decipher the psychological states of players. Statements that were prompted for selection were as follows: “I don’t mind following orders'' versus, “I like having authority over people.” Or, “I like to be the center of attention” versus, “I prefer to blend in with the crowd”. Another questionnaire was a scale rating survey where players would rate how many times a certain occurrence happened within the last 7 days of their life, such as, “I threatened to hurt or hit someone”, or “I teased someone to make them angry”. Not only had Riot tried to understand their user base on a psychological level, but they even had access to socioeconomic status of their players education levels, sex, and age. The reach of Riot’s psychological experiments and surveys may point towards a disturbing level of invasiveness, especially considering the game is rated for teens and research conducted by the University of York in collaboration with Riot Games showed that there were estimated player ages as low as age 11. The ethical dubiousness of the situation should give anyone pause. With the ethical barriers already beginning to blur, we come to Lyte’s private life. Although this would normally be left out of most recaps of a particular individual’s influence on any number of industries, it is pertinent to further explain the story of Riot Lyte, as far as we know with the available public information. The troubles began in 2017 after Riot Lyte was accused of cheating on his fiance Jackie with multiple women, which he would then sue his former fiance for refusal to return alleged rightful property–the proposal ring–back to Lyte. In 2020, the popular streamer Kara Corvus posted on social media that her previous romantic relationship with Riot Lyte was filled with abuse and that he had done psychological damage. As the story is explained, Riot Lyte convinced Kara to move from Seattle to Los Angeles. She gained several prospects while hunting in the job market, after which Lyte convinced her to turn down a $40K yearly salary in lieu of a part time job making $17/hr; this would create a codependency, a classic psychological trick. Kara would only realize that after several months, her relationship with Riot Lyte was incredibly unhealthy. She had spoken in her video, saying that he convinced her that members of her family were toxic and they didn’t understand their relationship. He would say things such as, “I don’t like when couples complain to their family about each other, because they don’t understand what they have in a relationship”. This is another psychological tactic to create further codependency and remove an individual from their social safety network. Among other things not detailed in this article, the psychological damage had already been done to Kara, as the influence of Riot Lyte continued to affect her after their relationship, citing that, “I would habitually hide my phone and my messages and calls from everybody because no matter what text or call I would get, I would be chastised by him thinking it was a man or thinking I was cheating on him”. She would reveal in a Twitlonger post that, “he would not let me interact or hang out with male friends. I had to delete all male friends from all social media, and I eventually disguised the phone numbers of my male friends to female names to keep him happy”. Riot Lyte, the person with overwhelming influence within the Riot Games company, even having an NPC named after him, has since exited from Riot Games in 2016 and is now currently employed at Meta (formerly known as Facebook) as the Game and Product Design Director. Riot Lyte’s influence unto the wider gaming industry has been nothing short of influential. Currently, over 200 gaming companies–including Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, Facebook Gaming, Epic Games and Twitch–have created a coalition called the Fair Play Alliance, whereby one of their directives is to combat online toxicity. The organization shares research information, behavioral trends and best practices to handle toxicity .Going further, Riot has even allowed scientific communities to request anonymized data from them to use as research. In 2013, Riot had initiated a function to send a notification to a player if the player they reported was successfully punished. This is standard practice among gaming companies now, with even Activision Blizzard’s game Overwatch implementing this function in 2018. Activision Blizzard is also the same company that was attempting to fine Overwatch pro player Ted “Silkthread” Wang for posting a Pepe The Frog meme on his own Twitter account. The picture is often thought by traditional media as a hate symbol, even though its origins date long ago to an artist who created it in 2005, and later made into a popular comedic meme by 4chan.org, a website largely dedicated to memes and trolling. In 2016, Riot Lyte conducted an experiment in collaboration with Reddit, in which they shadow banned content creators on the Reddit platform to reform them, citing, “79% of content creators reform after just one shadow ban”. Riot would later release their First-Person Shooter game VALORANT, and upon release it was revealed that Riot pre-registered the subreddit VALORANT and gave moderation control to then current League of Legends subreddit moderators, with the promise that those same moderators would eventually give control to prominent community figures of VALORANT. The extent of Riot and Lyte’s influence has snowballed into being able to control behavior both inside and outside of their own game. The Wings of Justice came into esports and completely changed the perception of gaming etiquette and toxic conduct in general. With an extensive background in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, Riot Lyte’s heavy-handed judgments were likely a direct result of this. The Tribunal, donning the League of Legends character Kayle as its mascot, is a fitting representation of Riot Lyte. In the game's lore, Kayle’s nature is quite ironic, because although she is supposed to instill order in the realm, she is often heavy-handed and unforgiving, to the point of being heartless and overly vindictive with an abundance of wrath. Just like his in-game representation Kayle, Riot Lyte would embody systems which exacerbate retribution and harsher outlooks onto others. He has left a legacy of harsh punishments, social experiments, and a sense of virtue signaling in his wake, with millions of influenced minds, evermore encompassing broader ideas of what it is to be considered toxic. Riot Lyte had participated in what could be considered ethically dubious psychological experiments on unknowing participants, and applied his methodology under the false pretense of justice. Riot Lyte’s work at Riot Games has left an irreversible imprint not only on League of Legends, not only on the gaming industry, but on the wider world.
Featured illustration done by Philippe Previl Izento has been a writer for the LoL scene since Season 7, and has been playing the game since Season 1. Follow him on Twitter at @ggIzento for more League content. For more LoL content, check out our LoL section
 

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