In August 2020, Poppy, whose name has been changed to protect their identity, walked into their player housing in Final Fantasy XIV and noticed sparkles around their message book. They hurriedly navigated their character to the book, expecting a friendly message from a stranger who liked their decor. Little did Poppy know, that message would mark the beginning of a nightmare that ended with paranoia, a forced one-month break from the game, and a police report.
The message would seem innocuous to those who didn’t understand the meaning behind it, but it “scared the shit” out of Poppy. The message featured a line from a work of fiction Poppy authored using a different character name three years prior—a name no one in their social circle knew about at the time.
The harasser used the account to try to impersonate Poppy to friends, send cryptic DMs to Poppy featuring snippets of their creative writing works, and would show up at Poppy’s house, waiting for them to return. Every time Poppy attempted to blacklist them, the harasser immediately logged off. And because of the way Final Fantasy XIV’s blacklist works, Poppy could never blacklist their harasser.
Poppy suffered harassment from this person from August 2020 until it culminated in a police report in October of the same year, when the harasser followed Poppy on social media using an account under their father’s name. To this day, Poppy still has no idea how their harasser obtained this information. Because Poppy has played video games all their life, they were vigilant about not sharing personal information online. But the abuser still succeeded in tormenting and harassing them with no intervention from Square Enix.
FFXIV has built a reputation as one of the best communities in the world, having won a Golden Joystick Award for best game community. But there are still many people dealing with harassment, bullying, and disruptions in the game due to the lack of tools that curate their social experience within FFXIV. What little tools they are given fail on a multitude of interweaving levels. Anti-harassment measures like the blacklist and reporting system are ineffective and faulty, leading to a lack of trust between players and Square Enix when it comes to protection against bad actors.
FFXIV’s harassment policy is vague on purpose
The game’s user agreement vaguely defines harassment, stating only that players “may not use (or abuse) the in-game chat and message services to harass other players.” There’s an FAQ answer that gives players more clarification on what’s considered a prohibited activity in FFXIV, however.
“’Harassment’ is speech and/or behavior that inflicts deep emotional distress on another person,” the FAQ states. “It is an extremely serious violation. Where Square Enix determines that harassment has occurred, a penalty equal to or higher than a ‘Temporary Service Account Suspension’ may be imposed.”
The document offers examples of what’s considered harassment, like emote spamming, creating new characters to bypass the blacklist, and “other actions that are generally regarded as inflicting deep emotional distress on another person.”
Broken tools lead to preventable wounds
Poppy’s story is just one of many instances where players felt let down by FFXIV’s anti-harassment tools. Another player—a Mentor determined to improve the new-player experience—never expected they’d end up with so much strife for helping a Sprout. After a run through Sastasha and a few more dungeons, the new player started flooding the Mentor’s DMs and in-game mail with unsolicited personal details.
Not only was the Mentor receiving numerous unwanted messages, but this Sprout would also show up around them, following the Mentor everywhere they went and DMing them the second they came online. It all came to a head when the Mentor attempted to buy player housing and the Sprout found them in the housing district they were in—a difficult feat considering there are over 20 Wards and two different housing instances per Ward. The Sprout left a lengthy message in chat hurling abuse, which led the Mentor to report it. But Square Enix support said it couldn’t take action, even though stalking and sending unwanted messages are included in a list of prohibited activities describing what the company considers harassment.
There are two main tools players have at their disposal to protect themselves from unwanted interactions with other players. The first and most commonly used is the blacklist. The second is the reporting system where people can submit complaints about other players in hopes that a punishment is issued to stop the behavior from occurring.
The blacklist in FFXIV is at best a weak deterrent for harassers, and at worst completely ineffective. There are several ways a player can circumvent the blacklist, and the workarounds aren’t difficult.
The biggest issue is that when blacklisting a character, it only applies to that character, not all characters tied to the user’s account. In FFXIV, having several characters is common, and abusers use them to harass their victims and avoid the blacklist. Up to 40 Warriors of Light can exist in each Data Center, and violators will often make new characters to avoid the blacklist and pester their victims. Several players have told Dot Esports they wish the blacklist applied to the account tied to the character, which would eliminate the issue for many people by requiring harassers to create completely new accounts to continue the harassment.
If players try to move Worlds to avoid the disturbance, the blacklist completely wipes. In a statement to Dot Esports, the Final Fantasy XIV Development and Operations teams said the blacklist wipes when moving Data Centers and is character-based because of server stress and because World and Data Center transfers were not possible like they are today.
Square Enix told Dot Esports the team is “positively looking into the possibility” of allowing the blacklist to transfer with your character when it changes home Worlds from a per-character basis to a per-account basis, but the statement falls flat when complaints go back to the implementation of World travel in April 2019. The developer also said it “investigate[s] cases of harassment or abusive [behavior] using multiple characters or multiple accounts,” but failed to offer any remedy to the blacklist’s inability to apply to service accounts instead of a per-character basis. Square Enix’s full statement on the issue can be read below.
To add a player to a blacklist, they must either see them post in chat and select it from the player’s name in the chat menu, or they must target them and use the command “/blacklist add <t>,” the latter of which is not widely known in the game. Even then, players may still find their aggressor matched to them in a duty; blacklisted players can still be paired together when queuing for content.
Reporting issues to Game Masters
Many players experiencing harassment told Dot Esports they submitted multiple reports about the same player, but the disturbances persisted. Some have admittedly quit the game because it became so unbearable. And in extreme cases, players have even seen the behavior spill over into their personal lives.
In the past, reporting issues to Game Masters, Square Enix employees who deal with player complaints, was met with a personalized message inviting players to discuss the issue to reach a resolution. While that may have been the case before a large influx of players to FFXIV, it doesn’t seem to be so now.
Of the 37 players Dot Esports spoke to, 32 said they never received any kind of personal response from GMs. Very few players reported that a GM contacted them to learn more about the issue. Many said they got a cookie-cutter response and were never contacted again.
Some players reported positive interactions with GMs, or that they didn’t need any further contact with them because the behavior stopped after one report. While there are instances where the behavior stopped after one report, other players have been dealing with harassment for an extended period of time even after submitting multiple reports.
Because of how easy it is to create completely new accounts and characters, warnings are a weak deterrent. What makes matters worse is Square Enix never discloses if any punishment was issued, which does not provide any sense of relief to those suffering from harassment, especially when the behavior continues.
Square Enix failed to foresee the ease with which nefarious players can target their victims with the addition of easy World and Data Center travel. While the feature is great for connecting friends and players from their region, it also allows bad actors to continue tormenting people using different characters. For a company with so many resources available for these issues, it failed to prepare for a huge loophole for harassers to climb through.
Poppy and the Mentor are just two examples of the kinds of behaviors players deal with on a daily basis. By making travel between Worlds and Data Centers so easy, the use of multiple characters creates more opportunities for harassers. Though FFXIV developers have stated safety as a barrier to fixing the issue promptly, the ability to blacklist an entire account instead of one character at a time would likely snuff out a large majority of the issues players are having with harassment and bullying.
Full statement from the Final Fantasy XIV Development and Operations teams:
“We believe that firmly addressing issues such as harassment and abusive behaviour is a very important matter in creating a healthy and sound community. As such, we are working diligently to address these issues on a daily basis.
We strictly manage and enforce our prohibited activities and account penalty policies. When a report is filed, it’s assessed by one of several regional teams, each compromised of up to a hundred members of staff, and all of whom work to provide support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each case is investigated based on server logs and other information, and appropriate penalties are implemented as soon as prohibited behaviour is confirmed. In addition, we also conduct appropriate investigations looking into cases of harassment or abusive behaviour using multiple characters or multiple accounts.
With this in mind, it is true that currently information in the Blacklist is lost during Home World transfers and that the list is character-based. The former is largely due to factoring in the issue of server stress back at the point of initial design. At the beginning, there was no function to move freely between Worlds or to move across data centers as there is today, and transferring one’s Home World was a way to sever all ties with the previous Home World. Therefore, the system was designed so that Blacklist information is not carried over. However, we believe that there is room for review and adjustment, due to the fact that it is not in line with how the game is currently played and because our server processing power has been improved through optimisation.
As for expanding the functionality from a per-character basis to a per-account basis, it requires careful design from a security perspective. While we are positively looking into this possibility, it is taking some time for us to reach a conclusion in order to ensure the necessary safety. In any case, as stated at the start, we continue to carry out our operations with an extremely high level of costs/resources allocated to this area, as we have done in the past. We will ensure this doesn’t change and maintain our efforts, incorporating improvements moving forward. To better protect our players based on the situation in the community, we accept player comments and requests on our official forums. These enable us to make appropriate changes, including system-related aspects, and we’ll continue to refer to this feedback for future improvements.”