Interview: Xbox Live's Stephen Toulouse

Interview: Xbox Live's Stephen Toulouse

By Stephen Johnson - Posted Mar 04, 2010

Stephen Toulouse

A YouTube video that hit the web a week or so ago essays a conflict between a user of Xbox Live and a moderator. It kicked off a minor internet controversy, because in it, moderator The Pro seems to ban a player's console for no reason.

Soon,an unedited verrsion of the video hit the web, it  tells a totally different story. It seems the banning went down after profuse and colorful profanity is hurled, and modding activity is clearly evident. Here's the totally not safe for for work, unedited video.

I spoke to Stephen Toulouse, the Director of Xbox Live Policy and Enforcement at Microsoft to get the inside word about moderation from the guy at the top of the mod heap.

G4: How does one become a moderator for Xbox Live?

Stephen Toulouse: To give you an overview of my role, it’s my job to run the team that handles policy enforcement for the entire Xbox Live service. And there’s three key pieces to that. There’s a core team that reports directly to me. And we’re responsible for writing policy, reviewing complaints and doing moderation. So for the core team, the Microsoft interview process is what determines that level of moderator.

The second piece is really a virtual team. These are full-time Microsoft Xbox employees who also help us in policing and moderating the system.  They can handle specific issues like if there’s a gamertag or a profile that’s bad, they can escalate cheating issues up to my core team. And they’re all over the world. They must be full time Microsoft Xbox employees, and they must go through about an hour and half of training from my team directly in order to help guide them on how to help us moderate the system, to try and provide safe and enjoyable experience to the customers.

Their scope of ability is much narrower than my core employees. Hence they don’t go through a formal, Microsoft employee interview process. They don’t report directly to me, but their capabilities can have an impact. For instance, if one of them was abusing that power, that’s something we would handle with their management and remove them from the moderation.

And the largest,  most important capability we have for moderation in the system is the customers, because they have the complaint ability within the Xbox to let us know when someone is behaving badly, and we can take whatever action we need to take to help correct that situation. So it’s not as simple as "how you become a moderator," as there are many many levels of moderator.

Xbox LIVE Logo

G4: How does the complaint system work?

ST: There’s lot of backend technology I’m not going to go into, but when you make a complaint, it basically uploads a set of information to the system, like who you are what game you’re playing, who you’re playing with, who you’re complaining against, and what you’re complaining against them about. That info is pulled by my team twice a day and we review everything. For instance, a bad profile. Say I’m gaming with you, and I see you have something really bad in your bio field. Something really offensive. I’m pretty sure it’s against the terms of use to have that, so I file a complaint against you. What that does is make an entry in a database, upload the relevant information about the complaint, and my team goes through all those profile and gamertag complaints by hand to determine whether the complaint is accurate.  The reason we do that is, as I’m sure you can imagine, occasionally, our audience can be a little vindictive.

G4: I’ve noticed that!

ST: So if you beat me in a match, and I’m mad, and I say, “Your gamertag, ‘Stephen,’” is offensive.” Well, no. It’s not offensive nor against our terms of use. So my team reviews those complaints for accuracy, to help make sure we’re only taking action against things that are actually in violation of the Terms of Use and Code of Conduct.

The Terms of Use and Code of Conduct are the rules we live by. Specifically, section five of the Terms of Use and the entirety of the code of conduct. So if people ask what the rules actually are, those are the rules that we work to enforce in the system.

So if someone says something is offensive, it may be offensive to them, but doesn’t necessarily violate the Terms of Use.

For instance, if I was to put some political speech in my bio that says, “Man, I really don’t like liberals. I think they’re ruining this country.” That’s not against our Terms of Use, but someone might find that offensive if they’re a liberal. So that’s another reason we work to train people and educate people about the policies and try to apply them in an objective manner.

It requires a lot of training and continual discussion. We don’t want to take actions that tip the other way and make the service too authoritarian. The whole goal of Xbox Live is to be fun. And we need to step in when individuals are ruining that safe and enjoyable experience.

G4: How many mods are actually out there playing games?

ST: There’s quite a bit of being out in the system and actively policing.  So we have a number of different gamertags that are communal, meaning a number of people could be using it, not at the same time. They rotate in and out. So we go out there and work to be the enforcement there in the game, but you don’t really know it’s an enforcement member. You could be gaming with these individuals and not know it.

We don’t seek to incite behavior or anything like that. If you watch the unedited video [of The Pro and Itzlupo]  you can see quite a bit of what was cut out. So we don’t seek to incite, but we do have quite a few people out there gaming every day across the world, looking for that kind of behavior.

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G4: Did the moderator The Pro do anything wrong?

ST: I spoke to him about his tone. I think we have to be dispassionate about issuing whatever corrective action we have to take. The individual who was using that gamertag was certainly regretful about the situation and his tone. But I want to stress: He was doing the right thing.

The punishment for the things these individuals were doing, which were modifying their consoles, opening up cheating lobbies for Prestige in Modern Warfare 2, and the really egregious vocal comments, yeah that results in permanent suspensions for their gamertags and consoles. So the actions were correct.

From a leadership standpoint, for my team, I want us to be looked at as the fair and objective moderators who are working to protect the service.

G4: Do you look for people who keep a cool head?

ST: We’re all human. While that’s a skill we look for, I think if you look at the unedited video, that’s probably going to be the behavior that’s going to provoke it.

We’re not interested in grudges or vendettas. That’s why we issue temporary suspensions far, far more than we issue permanent suspensions. We want people to realize there are rules out there, and learn from the experience and be better players. But when we have to take action, we will take action.

G4: Is there an appeals process?

ST: There is in a sense. We have a suspensions forum on Xbox.com where people can go to inquire about actions we take. We don’t see a lot of appeals because people look at that content and say, “Yeah, I shouldn't have put that in there.”

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G4: How about when it’s something said or done in-game; Is that more of a gray area?

ST: Again, it’s pretty clear from our side. It’s only gray if on the customer side. Let me give you an example: If it’s a week after the launch of a game, and you suddenly pop into a lobby with your avatar having a completely different skin color than is allowed because you hacked your profile, and your gamerscore is 600,000, which is impossible, and you have a rank in that game that’s impossible to attain without 50,000 gamer hours, and then we hit you for cheating and system tampering, you probably know what you did.

The gray areas are where we try to have a light touch. If I’m in a room and I’m gaming, and someone gets shot from across the room and he blurts out a bad word, that’s not something I’m going to jump all over.  I’m going to watch the tone of the room, see how people are behaving – are people getting upset, is this person repeatedly using that word, is it racist or homophobic speech? If none of those things are true then we’re going to continue on, and I’ll say, “Hey, I can appreciate that was frustrating, but maybe there’s kids in the room…” It would depend on the situation, and but we try to analyze the situation. We don’t say, “Oops, you just blurted a bad word. That’s it for you, Bye Bye.” We do try to keep it fun.

If someone is sitting there using abhorrent, violent, homophobic speech, I’m going to tell that person, “Hey, you need to stop that, that’s in violation of the Terms of Use. I don’t want to have to issue a suspension, but I will if I have to.”  And if they continue, then I’ll probably issue that suspension, and they’re going to know why they got the suspension. So while there are some gray areas, the vast majority of situations that some people think are gray areas just aren’t.

G4: But it still seems like a lot of Live players are pretty homophobic and racist.

ST: Xbox Live is subset of the internet. One of the great things about the internet is its ability to link people together in a common forum from all over, no matter what they think or where they are. The downside of that is, due to the law of large numbers, given the number of people on Live (over 23 million), that small subset of people who are racist or homophobic, it looks like it’s a larger number because even though it’s a tiny fraction of 23 million, it’s still a lot of people. It’s not that we’re telling them not to be racist. That’s not really our role. Our role is to protect the Terms of Service, and the Terms of Service are designed to protect the user experience,

So if someone comes in with that type of speech, we’re going to take action against them. I don’t expect from that action that they’re going to go off and suddenly become not homophobic – I would hope that they would – but in that case my job there is that they not use speech that is specifically prohibited, and that most people find very offensive.

G4: What's the ratio of mods to players?

ST: I don’t’ have exact numbers. At any given time there are dozens and dozens and dozens of people playing who are my moderators. And in addition we’re working seven days a week, 365 days a year going through the complaints from our most important moderators, the customers.

G4: How many complaints do you receive in a day?

ST: That’s tough to say. Right now, we’re at our lowest point, really, As I’m sure you could imagine, it peaks and ebbs when there’s a holiday or a big title comes out. Here’s something that has a really compelling affect on our complaint volume: When a really compelling single-player title comes out. Like, let’s say BioShock 2… even though it has a multiplayer component, most people are buying that for the single-player experience. So you’ll actually see this interesting dip because people are now going to play that single-player for a while, then they’re going to go back into the multiplayer world of Xbox Live.

At any give time it’s going to be different. It’s never, at any given time, gone over a fraction of one percent. Even on the worst days, it’s not over a fraction of one percent.

G4: Is there an inherent conflict of interest because banning a player essentially costs Microsoft money?

ST: No. The volumes just don’t work out to anything appreciable. As I’ve said, the vast majority of actions we take are temporary. Therefore, the user does come back, because it’s not a permanent suspension. if you’re asking: Is the bar set too high in the interest of revenue, the answer is no, because we don’t refund you for the account if you are suspended.

G4: But if you're perma-banned, monthy fees won’t come back.

ST: You’re correct, once they are permanently closed, but it depends on whether they want to open up another account and come back. But my team doesn’t really look at that as any deciding factor whatsoever. As far as we use the bar for permanent suspension, it’s things like fraud, it’s things like nudity on camera, those are instant permanent suspensions. Do not pass go.

And then there’s the repeat people. If we hit someone with temporary suspensions, over and over again, they do cross the line, where we have to make that a permanent suspension, but it’s not based on revenue. We don’t even see the revenue numbers from that perspective.

In the end, when I have to sit down and make the decision to do a permanent suspension, I’m making that decision for all the customers who are behaving  more than the one who isn’t.

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G4: What are the biggest misconceptions gamers have about Live moderation?

ST: I think hands down, that it’s automated. It’s absolutely not automated. There are a lot of people out there who believe that if you file enough complaints against someone, the system will automatically take action. We’ll see people sit there and file 300 complaints in an hour. What our system does is take those 300 complaints and makes it one complaint. Your gamertag vs. their gamertag for one infraction is one complaint. So my team never sees the 300. They see the one it’s collapsed to.

There’s no automated system where repeatedly complaining against one person is going to get them kicked off the system. And having your friends gang up on a person doesn’t work either, because we review the complaints for accuracy.

The other misconception: If you complain against my gamertag, I can get a free gamertag change. No. The only free gamertag change you can get is if you have violated the Terms of Use. And you can’t log into Xbox Live until you change it.

Abuse of the complaint system can also result in us having to issue a suspension. If you’re filing a bunch of false complaints, that’s a violation of our Terms of Use as well.  We have a special category for that individual and we have a special letter. We might send the letter and a one-day suspension.

Comments are Closed

  • Cryptomaster420

    To: b.pomerleau@yahoo.comXbox LIVE

    Notification of Temporary Suspension: Inappropriate content in your profile

    ---------------------------- ------------------------------ ----------------------

    [ DO NOT REPLY to this email address. It is not monitored. ]

    This email is to notify you that your Xbox LIVE account privileges have been suspended due to inappropriate content in the profile for your gamertag. The inappropriate content was discovered in the Motto, Bio, Location, Name and/or Personal Picture.

    The following content for the gamertag associated with this Windows Live ID was brought to our attention and was determined to have violated the Code of Conduct and/or Terms of Use:

    Motto U EAT 8==> PRES.BUSH

    Your profile was brought to the attention of the LIVE Enforcement Team through complaints filed by other Xbox LIVE users or in the course of our operation of the service. The LIVE Enforcement Team has reviewed the complaints and other evidence regarding this content and determined it violates the Xbox LIVE Terms of Use and/or Code of Conduct. Because this content is in violation, the LIVE Enforcement Team has deleted the content and issued a temporary suspension.

    You have been sent a message in the Xbox LIVE Dashboard notifying you when your suspension will end. During this suspension, you will not be able to log into Xbox LIVE. Your Xbox LIVE privileges will be automatically reinstated at the end of your suspension period.

    Customer Support is not able to modify or provide any further details about your suspension. Additionally, the duration of your suspension is subject to change without prior notice by the LIVE Enforcement Team if we discover additional evidence of violations.

    Microsoft expects that all customers abide by the Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct provides guidelines for appropriate behavior while using the service. Your failure to abide by the Code of Conduct in the future may result in, among other things, longer suspension periods or cancellation of your account.

    You can view the Xbox LIVE Code of Conduct from the Xbox LIVE Dashboard under Xbox LIVE Policies in Account Management, or by visiting http://www.xbox.com/live/codeo fconduct.htm.You can view the Xbox LIVE Terms of Use by visiting http://www.xbox.com/live/terms ofuse.htm.

    Note: if you are not a user of Xbox LIVE, this suspension may have been enacted due to your activity in the Zune Social. You can view the Zune Social Code of Conduct by visiting http://www.zune.net/legal/code OfConduct.htm. You can view the Zune Social Terms of Service by visiting http://www.zune.net/legal/term sofservice.htm.

    Posted: March 11, 2010 8:31 PM
  • Cryptomaster420

    im going to show u guys the email why i was suspended for and for how long i saved in case if i ever needed it for evidence ill post it after this post

    Posted: March 11, 2010 8:30 PM
  • TheLegitMoose

    Im starting to hate microsoft for their RROD they will not fix mine QQ. in other news i spotted a SPELL FAIL!

    "Here's the totally not safe FOR FOR work, unedited video."

    Posted: March 11, 2010 10:05 AM
  • TheRighteousFascist

    That little kid had quite a mouth. I don't get why everyone wants these racist, homophobic, potty-mouthed children off of Xbox LIVE. I find them quite entertaining.

    Posted: March 11, 2010 8:58 AM
  • Cryptomaster420

    ok speaking of bans i hypathetically called microsoft asking why my account was banned using my friends gtag just to see what there reaction was of course for 1 my friend was over hanging out and 2 his old account was banned for putting religious/christianity stuff on his profile it as a perm thats all he had done cause he showed me the email but when i call the xbox hotline they say they cant give me a clear reason i was banned meaning they can bann u for BS and cant give u a clear reason to why F### microsoft im sticking with my PS3 i own both thank god luckily i avoided the atomic clock glitch i had no internet or cable from feb 27- march 2 lolz but at least do what bliz does have admins keep watch on the live servers they have the money to do it and if they ban consoles for modding modders just spend a measly 100 usd to buy a new xbox and use there HDD on it ith there GTAGs they should ban by IP and mac address that would teach the 0 true skill nubs/modders a lesson

    Posted: March 11, 2010 2:44 AM
  • xterrencex

    I think that the kid definitely deserved to get banned. He kept goading the mod into banning him. And all this talk of muting people, I understand why that does work but at the same time it's just not fair. Why should I have to cut back on my ability to talk to other people by muting them just because one kid (or person) is being a vulgar prick. It really doesn't make sense. I think banning the kid is the appropriate way to handle such situations. I'm not talking about cursing either but direct offenses at a person (or racial and homophobic slurs which offend people).

    Posted: March 10, 2010 3:52 PM
  • Tman88

    Aside from the right trigger, the mute button is the button I use most when playing on Xbox Live.

    Posted: March 10, 2010 1:18 PM
  • babyteeth219

    ITS ALL ABOUT THE MONEY! the kid got kicked for dropping the f bomb? REALLY? grow up! there is a mute button for a reason. what xbox needs to do is quit crying and fix the problem by adding parental control to xbox. F.E. someone who wants to trash talk can and someone who doesnt want to can sign on without worrying about whos going to say what! how? by creating a new lobby or something!
    Xbox gets tons of money from people by selling a crappy product that breaks all the time (XBOX), banning peoples accounts so they have to purchase new ones, and making one of a kind attachments that should fit into all xbox products (my headphones dont fit into some of my controllers)!

    Posted: March 10, 2010 10:53 AM
  • EKG

    Honestly, I do not care how much this guy spins this to make it seem like the Mods are doing a great job, he is stretching the truth. I have had 2 friends banned since my time on Xbox Live, and their stories infuriated me.

    We are adults, not children. We do not go on Xbox Live and curse up a storm in the lobby of MW2, we do not file ridiculous complaints, or start fights for no reason. Yet, one day after a heated match of Halo 3, which we won, the entire other team stated they were going to get us all Banned. Why? Because we beat them, and they were angry.

    So a little time passed and I noticed my 2 friends were not on. I called them to find out that they had been temporarily banned from Xbox Live. It must have been the other jealous Halo 3 team, who probably all filed bogus complaints. So, since I knew they didn't do anything wrong I told them to call Microsoft and get it worked out.

    Here is where this Steven Toulouse above is lying. THERE IS NO PLATFORM FOR HELP!! He honestly thinks that the forums are a proper place to get help?!?!?!?!?!? Are you kidding me?!?!!? No one, not a single damn person, gets any help from the forums when they are banned. Microsoft gives us absolutely NO way to fight a ban, or question a ban, or get a ban overturned. This means that when someone innocent gets banned, he has to sit back and do nothing about it because Microsoft doesn't want to give him a way to fight it.

    Don't think that everyone who gets banned deserves it. Don't, for a second, think that the Mods are perfect people who can not make a mistake. I have heard of way too many innocent people getting banned and not being able to do a thing about it. Until Microsoft gives us a platform to dispute a Ban, and not just point at the forums and say "Go there", innocent people will continue to be hurt.

    Posted: March 10, 2010 9:21 AM
  • Billbourne

    yeah everything said in this article was pretty much what i thought was going on.

    The thing that I want to know is, Why is it that on the modern Warfare 2 Leaderboards
    when you look at the global leaders you can obviously tell that Tons of the Top people
    are blatantly and obviously cheating the system. Why are these people not being reprimanded?

    I am not saying Ban these people, or even temporary bans. Why not apply some sort of logic to this
    situation, my proposal is to simply reset there Experience to zero.

    What I have wrote above is something that makes me annoyed sure in the long run its not a big deal.
    But the reason i mention it in this comment section is because this game is the biggest money maker EVER..... I cant stress that enough. This game has made a billion Dollars in revenue(according to wiki).

    If Microsoft and the MW2 staff cant guarantee or even handle this type of problem where players that supposedly hold the highest ranks in the land who are RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF EVERYONE can get away with what amounts to douche bag behavior having stats that are obviously RIGGED.

    Fix it.

    End Rant

    Posted: March 10, 2010 5:43 AM
  • mr,R@X

    Good job Pro!!!!!

    Posted: March 9, 2010 3:40 PM
  • mr,R@X

    Xbox live

    Posted: March 9, 2010 3:40 PM
  • bigjoe99

    its bad enough you have these kids talking like they know everything then they say stupid crap like this kid did he sounds stupid not like an artist of swearing!

    Posted: March 9, 2010 8:21 AM
  • Broheimer

    I understand banning people for cheating and glitching but having offensive things in your bio just doesnt to me because you are paying for xbox live you should be able to put what you want in your bio, I mean I get it because little kids play online but still your paying for live you should have what you want.

    Posted: March 9, 2010 4:21 AM
  • ServerModerator

    Talk about it, My gamertag is "ServerModerator" I get yelled at kids so much....

    Posted: March 8, 2010 9:20 PM
  • usemeup

    Really interesting interview, It would be nice to get some follow up on some of that statistics that he didn't have.

    Posted: March 8, 2010 7:01 PM
  • yuyufan0701

    I definitely appreciate the work that the moderators do, but, I would really like it if they would contact us letting us know that they've received our complaint and that they've reviewed it, even if it's an automated message I don't care, it would just offer closure when I send in a complaint about people using aim-bots and crap like that on Halo 3.

    Posted: March 8, 2010 5:08 PM
  • mcfly707


    Posted: March 8, 2010 4:44 PM
  • ScienceOfSleep

    Ban those who mod. Mute those who swear. fairly simple.

    Posted: March 8, 2010 3:59 PM
  • C_Money77

    With great power, comes great responsibility

    Posted: March 8, 2010 2:18 PM