Friday, May 22, 2015

There's a difference between asking new questions and hating players

Dear new readers and commenters. This post will have a slow response rate to comments and the usual strict moderation. I will try to respond, but if it becomes repetitive or overwhelms me, I will close the comments.

tl, dr: Researchers shouldn't believe all games are designed to make people be nice to each other. 

Let us look at the sentences that people dislike so strongly in my previous post.
Perhaps it is time, after years of thinking of games as an almost universally good thing and a medium to be defended, to question that truth. Perhaps games, design and gamers aren't so special after all, and need to be studied more as hostile objects resulting from a hostile culture, than as the labour of love it has been to so many of us.
I have to admit, those were hard lines to write. I love games and I love gamers. Over the years, this love has been viewed by peers as a lack of critical distance to research. I have, however, deliberately chosen to err on the side of the positive because I have had so many good experiences with gamers since I first published on games 19 years ago. Also, when people resisted this understanding of games as a positive thing, it made me want to ask the questions that were criticized for almost 20 years: Do games give people valuable experiences? Is there something to be said in favour of MMORPGs? Are players really just lazy and nasty, as people said at the time, or can they also be funny, smart, interesting and deeply engaged with a challenging pastime? Those were controversial questions when I started, and I have been asking them in different variations since. Most of the time, the answers I have found have confirmed my original hypothesis that there has to be something good, fun and interesting about games, but I came to that conclusion only by asking the - at the time - unpopular questions.

However, the last months have emphasized a side of gamers that I didn't expect to see. There is a group of gamers where the individuals are hostile, and who like to take this hostility to a wider audience through social media. Several of these use the #Gamergate tag when they do so. I know the arguments about this being third party trolls, but it is very hard to see the difference, particularly as #Gamergate finds anonymity to be more of a virtue than excluding said trolls. On that discussion: #Gamergate has made a decision about anonymity and no leadership, which I respect. But that means I and others have to accept that all who claim to be #Gamergate are #Gamergate.

Most of the time I have claimed that the most aggressive expressions are a matter of individuals with other problems, such as the recent example of the young man who was exposed as a "serial swatter". But as the evidence of hostile acts from gamers towards other gamers and others involved in the game community mounts, I have had to ask the questions I kept resisting. Is there something about games that encourages this, or is it society that is changing? My opinion leans towards the society changing, recognized in other game-related aggression, such as for instance hooliganism, but this is still a hypothesis, and if I want to find out, I have to ask a lot of questions.

To follow up on the hooligan hypothesis. As a game researcher, I realise that I have seen the equivalent of hooligans in games before. They are the griefers, the corpse-campers, the ninja-looters, the spammers on the different channels, the pick-up groups that keeps trashing the other players until they are too intimidated to participate, the players who go outside of games to attack the game companies and individuals in them with exaggerated aggression. I have just not focused on them. My question is whether I should study this hostility. Perhaps it's time to stop being so in love with the object we research and the people involved, and look at it differently. And that is what those last sentences say. A hostile object is an object that invites aggression and hostility. There are a lot of games out there whose design favour players with a hostile play style.

A not particularly original example, but hopefully one that illustrates the meaning of games as hostile objects: Let's look at instancing in World of Warcraft. When the game changed to include a cross-realm mechanism for inviting players into instances, the aggression in instance runs rose. The trash-talk and the unfriendliness increased.Why was that? Was it because gamers were hostile people, or because something in the game encouraged this behaviour? Now if you were grinding for materials, reputations or currency, there was a set number of instances you could run each day. Several players would run these instances every day on several characters. The last thing you wanted to do was to run it with a crew that slowed you down. If you were in a quick group, you encouraged this group to stay together, if you were in a slow group, you tried to speed them up or just break them up, so you could get into a group with players more to your liking. Language is one way to do this, and so the impatient player would act as unpleasant as possible without making themselves the jerk everybody would agree to kick. My question to this would then be: Is this hostility a result of the player being a jerk, or the game being designed to reward hostility? I'd say a bit of both. There are great players who manage to make their group move quicker simply through being kind, friendly and good. But that particular mechanism invites aggression, and since groups are formed cross-realm, there are no repercussions for being unpleasant. Next time, you start all over again with strangers, and perhaps another character.

A hostile gamer is a gamer that acts aggressively towards others. I conflated that with objects because I still think people are good, and being aggressive is not a deliberate choice of "Now I am going to screw these idiots over!" When they act hostile towards others it's because the structure of the game invites hostility. Researchers study this structure as procedurality, and it is an example of how games restrict and lead gamers to certain actions. I understand if some people read that as objectifying gamers. To return to the World of Warcraft example: the game offers many ways to play, but some are more rewarding than others, and these then become the accepted or standard way of playing. The game gives the player just a few options, and the player tries to do the best within these frames, hence being to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the game, made into an object of the game mechanics.

Do I want to change games? No, I, personally, want to understand games. If a journalist, developer or modder want to use what I learn about games and play, that is up to them. My job is to keep asking questions, preferably the difficult ones that others want to silence.


Rohan said...

The question I would have is "Do mechanics actually change personality, or do different mechanics select for different audiences?"

In your WoW example, are the players in the WotLK dungeon the same as in the previous expansion? Perhaps the previous expansion did a better job of segregating players. Players who focused on speed and achievement joined guilds with other players who focused on speed and achievement, and then primarily formed guild groups. Whereas more social people joined guilds with other social people, and grouped with them.

The argument here is that the new mechanics didn't change anyone's behavior. It merely exposed two groups with different styles to each other.

Second, I'd like you to consider that you are biased. You denigrate the speed/achiever player. But a lot of the time such players are the ones "carrying" the group, making success possible. They're the ones putting out maximum DPS, or tanking.

If there is a responsibility to be kind in groups, is there not also a responsibility to be competent as well? Are you absolutely certain that kindness is the characteristic which should be promoted in a group game, rather than competence? After all, it's a lot easier to be kind when everyone in the group is pulling their full weight.

Torill said...

First off: No, I don't think game mechanics change personalities. I don't think games have that kind of influence. What I do believe is that they may cater to some personalities more than others, or favour some part of a personality more than another. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I also don't believe that a player automatically is a bad person or an aggressive, unkind person outside of the game just because she plays in the way she experiences as the most efficient or the most pleasing to her. Media research indicates this is true for other media, and I think we can safely project that on games, although I can't point to a study at this moment.

Next, in the WoW example, you have a fair point about how WoW changes with different expansions. That is one of the things I tried to communicate, and I agree with you in the further point of that paragraph. I don't agree that I denigrate the speed achiever. I do however point out that focusing on playing quickly may come at a cost, and this cost may be playing more aggressively, focusing narrowly on the player's own achievement and not whether others enjoy playing.

If you ask me - do I feel being polite to others is a quality that should be rewarded and cherished? Yes, that I do. In multi-user games it increases everybody's pleasure in the play. I am a utilitarian hedonist as a player (have even written two articles about that!), which means that I believe in the importance of increasing the general level of pleasure among players. Through my years studying games I have interviewed a lot of players about what they enjoy. Some of them really love the high level game - one player I talked to played in one of the dominating groups of vanilla WoW, and had several world firsts - but they all tend to underline the same thing: to enjoy the experience of being in the game is the most important thing. I want to point out that while playing at an extremely high level, none of these players chose to go professional. They stopped because it became too much work, because they wanted to have fun with friends, not compete.

I agree with you that being a competent player is a way to increase this level of general pleasure. Everybody are happier when playing with competent players, and, as you say, everybody cooperating well and efficiently makes it easier to be kind. But where are the incompetent to learn? Whose responsibility is it to make certain that the incompetent become competent?

By splitting up the instances in normal and heroic, WoW tries to do exactly that, keep the incompetent bumbling through at one level, while offering the others more of a challenge. I think that is a good way to create a learning experience. In the most recent expansion you also need to pass several different tests before you can enter the heroics, all attempts at teaching you to be a competent player without keeping a whole group together. It is obvious that Blizzard tries to address this problem, as the player base becomes increasingly diverse now that some have played for ten years, while some started last week. I find this really interesting, as it is an example of how they use the structure of the game to make it more welcoming, and the social experience of playing less painful for all involved.

I have to admit I haven't instanced in WoW in this expansion, so I don't know how well that has worked out. I'd love to hear from players about that.

But to not accept that games sometimes create structures and mechanics that make it easier and more efficient for the individual to be unkind than to be patient, would be to ignore an important aspect of the games. For me, who love games and gamers, this is a way to let go of bias. And perhaps one of the things we need to see and to understand is that while games may not turn us all into dangerous murderers (something I have argued against for years), still sometimes they make us behave in ways which are offputting, stressful, and makes other people (and sometimes us) feel bad. And that's just no fun.