I wrote about comments on Stack Overflow and how they are sometimes discouraging to outsiders. I also wrote a meta post that suggests leaving a comment is effective at encouraging a new question from the asker no matter whether the comment is positive or negative. I've long wished people would use their downvote privilege without also adding a comment. Suffice it to say, I think we have a lot of work in front of us to fix our comment problem.

And yet, comments on Stack Exchange sites tend to be pretty civil compared to the rest of the internet. Our internal estimate is less than 8% of comments are unwelcoming (or worse). On top of that, flagged comments tend to be removed from the site pretty quickly. That's not been my experience on other sites.

I've got a hobby of writing reviews for obscure games on Steam. One of the games I reviewed (because I got a free copy) is called Wasted Pizza. It's pretty much designed for people to laugh at on Twitch or YouTube videos. My review focused on how it's impossible to play the game at the moment since it requires other players and those are in short supply.

At any rate, I wrote the review and immediately forgot about it. Last week, I got this comment:

When you write 286 words in a review of a game that is, not only below £1, but is about pizzas shooting tomatos. What would we do without your wisdom.

Do you ever have the feeling of being so thoroughly misunderstood that you wonder if maybe the other person is exactly right for exactly the wrong reasons? That's how I felt and this is how I responded:

My review is free and you wrote [some number I won't bother counting] about it, so I'm thinking I won't be bothered by your sarcasm. :steamsalty:

The icon at the end of the comment is a salt shaker. Steam has this weird thing where you can craft, buy and trade emoticons. A few of them are available to anyone, including the salt shaker. I'm not entirely sure how to use it, but it seemed to fit the way I was feeling: aggressive and just a little coarse. The comment seemed so unnecessary and the oddity of counting the words in my review (or at least offering a guess as I have not counted them myself) so incongruous, I had no idea how to respond. Unfortunately that apparently opened me up to this gem:

True, I was a few words short of 200. But like a game (and especially your review), even the free stuff is crap.
:warband::hydrogen::arkham::tyger: :abc::csgogun::cobrastan: :Y::p2blue::shieldtech: :gmod::arkham::Y:

It took me a moment to figure out what the emoticons were supposed to say and the white background of my blog makes it impossible to read the A in "Are". It seemed odd that this person would spend the time to piece together this homophobic slur just for me. But then I took a look at their Steam profile and discovered:

:abc::Y::Y: :sax::8bitheart::abc::p2blue:

Inspirational Quotes:
"If you cant remember it, did it really happen?"
-Bill Cosby

Stuff I can copy and paste because im edgy XD: :warband::hydrogen::arkham::tyger: :abc::csgogun::cobrastan: :Y::p2blue::shieldtech: :gmod::arkham::Y:

So it's your garden-variety troll. For those of you as innocent as I was a few minutes ago, the first set of emoticons spell Ayy LMAO. Please don't ask me to explain further.

Traditionally, I'd ignore this troll. But Steam allows me to report a user from their profile, which I have done. I still needed to figure out what to do with the comments on my review. There is an option to delete any comment under your review, but I didn't know that at the time since it's only visible on hover. Steam made the odd decision to order posts in reverse chronological order, so the last word also gets the top slot. In order to push the obnoxious comment down, I wrote:

Glad to have wasted your time.

I'm not normally a snarky person, am I? In any case, I got yet another response:

Oh believe me, I didnt read more than (or the entirety) of the first paragraph. You are not the fountain of knowledge or the connoisseur of games. The serveral hours you spend reviewing usually gets scrolled by. So I believe you're the one who has wasted several hours. <3

As it happens, I know more or less how long it took me to write the review since the game was running in the background as I composed it. According to Steam, I've played Wasted Pizza for 34 minutes, which means my review took less than an hour to write. And, of course, I don't actually expect many people to read my review as I wrote it for my own amusement. If anyone happened to be in the market for a cheap, pizza-themed, multiplayer shooter and happened to read my review, that's a bonus.

To summarize, I wrote a pointless review of a cheap and obscure game. Another user mocked me in the comments for writing the review. And I responded with an attitude I rarely adopt. Somehow communication isn't working here.

A good deal of the blame goes to the Steam Level 32 user who initiated the comment thread with dismissive criticism. It seems this person does not care for my style of reviewing. Indeed, the other user has two reviews of popular Valve games that show no interest in using the system the way I do:

I'm doing this for a badge. It's good I guess. Get it if you want. I don't really care.


Its a good game if you like games.

I take responsibility for responding in kind rather than just deleting the comments. And yet, I feel there's a good deal of blame that ought to land on the Steam community tools and particularly its gamification system. From what I've read, the system flows thusly:

  1. A Steam user acquires a game that includes trading cards.
  2. The game drops half of the cards needed to craft a badge.
  3. Users who want to advance in the Steam game can trade or purchase the rest of the cards.
  4. When the user crafts a badge, they also gain XP, discounts, and game-specific emoticons and background images.
  5. Crafting the badge again (which requires reacquiring trading cards) gives more of those perks and more XP.
  6. Gaining XP helps users increase their Steam level, which increases the rate of random trading card drops, adds more widgets to show off achievements on your profile and increases the number of slots on your friend list.

For people (like me) who use Steam primarily as a platform for obtaining games, the best option is to opt out of the system by selling cards in step #3. The great thing is you earn money to spend on more games during Steam sales. (This, by the way, is one of the ways I get games to review.) There are a few ways I might end up in the community sections of Steam such as game forums, comments on news items and, of course, reviews. But it's mostly invisible to me.

It's a bit annoying that having more badges means high level Steam users have more emoticons. I certainly spent several minutes figuring out what happened. Having two legitimate ways to use the system is generally fine, but it does cause problems when the systems collide. For instance, it took me several minutes to figure out how this other user was able to construct their emoticon message. A bigger problem is that XP is earned by purchasing games and trading cards rather then creating content. The crux of the conflict, however, is that gamification has encouraged some users to value games for attributes (such as availability of trading cards and emoticons) that aren't clear to other users.

I went looking for games with similar profiles to Wasted Pizza: inexpensive, multiplayer and goofy premise. (For example, Hand Simulator.) Then I looked at negative reviews that took the game seriously. When those reviews had comments, they tended to hit the same notes as the comment on my review: why bother review this game since it's cheap and clearly meant as a joke?

I suspect Valve has little reason to worry about this problem. Game reviewing is not a primary activity for people on Steam. Community aspects augment the gameplaying experience. Meanwhile, the trading card system must bring in considerable revenue for Valve, so it would be hard to be motivated to alienate high-level users. Maybe banning the worst actors suffices to achieve Valve's goals.

Unlike companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Valve, Stack Overflow values content more than engagement. Yes, we want our users to enjoy their time on our sites. And yet, the goal is to produce easily digestible answers to practical questions. Steam is full of joke reviews, but you won't find many joke answers on a Stack Exchange site. That makes it easier to delete and discourage snarky and rude comments.

Still, we face a similar disconnect between people who use the site to get immediate help with their problems and people who have a long-term goal to create canonically correct information. The genius of Stack Overflow is that these use cases work in concert more often than not. Unfortunately, we haven't done nearly enough to address the conflict when it does happen.