Hell Is Other Gamers (And Some Games)

(x-posted to Easily Distracted) Game developers talking about "culture" are often deeply frustrating. Either they are overly credulous about how design directly and symmetrically can create a particular set of cultural practices and outlook within a game, as my friend Thomas Malaby has observed about Second Life, or they see gamer culture as a hard-wired or predetermined result of cognitive structures and/or the wider culture of the "real world". Only rarely both in a somewhat more nuanced but contradictory way: Raph Koster, for example, has at times argued that particular design features in games (say, the implementation of dancing and music in Star Wars: Galaxies) can create or transform cultural predispositions among players but also has argued in his Theory of Fun that gameplay and "fun" are driven by fixed cognitive structures and tendencies.

Developers tend to favor one of these two viewpoints because they either make the culture of play in a particular game something that they can design towards or they make it a fixed property that they have no power over, something they can imagine either completely controlling or being completely helpless to control, and in any event, something easy to summarize in a reductive, mechanical way. They'd rather either than what the culture of play in a particular game really is, an emergent and contingent result of interactions between particular design features, the general cultural history of digital games and their genres, the particular sociological habitus of the players, and the interpretation of visual and textual elements within the game by different players (individually and in groups).

When Aris Bakhtanians said that sexual harassment was "part of the fighting-game community" he was, in a way, perfectly correct in an empirical sense. This is not to say that all or even most players of fighting games, even in competitive gaming, practice harassment of the kind Bakhtanians infamously displayed, but that sexual harassment and harassing attitudes are commonly witnessed or overheard in a great deal of online gaming, as are the harsh and infantile abusive responses flung at people who complain about such behavior or expression. The one truth sometimes spoken in such responses is that outsiders don't really understand how such things get said or what they mean. Outside critics and designers alike would often prefer for "culture" of this kind to be easily traced to the nature of the game itself, either its semantic content or the structure of play, or for the culture of the game to be nothing more than a microcosm of some larger, generalized culture or cognitive orientation, an eyedrop of sexism or racism or masculine misbehavior in an ocean of the same. If that's the case, either there's something quite simple to do (ban, suppress or avoid the offending game or game genre) or the game is only one more evidentiary exhibit in a vastly larger sociopolitical struggle and not an issue in its own right.

Understanding any given game or even a singular instance of a game as "culture" in the same sense that we understand any other bounded instance of practice and meaning-making by a particular group of people, with all the unpredictable, slippery and indeterminate questions that approach entails, means that if you care about the game as an issue, you have to spend time reading and understanding the history and action of play around a particular game. The stakes are very much not just academic (are they ever?): certainly the viability of a particular game as a product in the marketplace hangs in the balance, sometimes an entire genre of game or an entire domain of convergent culture is at financial risk. But also at stake are the real human feelings and subjectivities of the players themselves, both within the game culture and in the ways that those identities and attitudes unpack or express in everyday life as a whole. If we're going to argue that game cultures teach all sorts of interesting and useful social lessons, or lessons about systems and procedures (as we should) then we have to accept that some of the social lessons can be destructive or corrosive. Not in the simple-minded, witless way that the typical public complaint about violent or sexist media insists on arguing, sure, but we still have to ask what the consequences might be.

I sometimes identify myself as a "game culture native" who happens to express his views about games within scholarly discourse rather than a scholar drawn from outside to look at games. So in native parlance, one of the things that strikes me again and again when I play multiplayer games is that I find it extraordinarily painful to recognize that what I romantically imagine as a refuge for geeks is in fact horribly infested with the kinds of bullies that we were all trying to get away from back in the 1970s. When I first started playing computer and console games in early 1980s, they enraptured me more than stand-up arcade games in part because you could play them privately in the home or in quiet computer labs on a device that you controlled, and communicate with others in-game largely at your own discretion or preference. They also tended to be more complex and slower than coin-op games and to derive much more of their themes and narratives from existing science-fiction and fantasy. The games themselves were a refuge, and their enabling technology was a refuge. Much of the same was true, at least for me, with pen-and-paper role-playing games. They were so derided and marginalized in the mainstream culture of my peers that I never felt any particular risk that some popular kid or hulking bully was going to show up in the middle of a gaming session and take my lunch money.

By the time that game culture spread more widely in the 1990s and 2000s, neither of these feelings held particularly well, and nowhere did I feel that more acutely than in commercial virtual-world games from Ultima Online onward. Suddenly here I was, exploring a dungeon and fighting monsters with a group of strangers, at least some of whom seemed pretty much like the kids who had shoved me into fences or kicked me in elementary and junior-high school. It wasn't as personally threatening to me as a confident, secure adult but it was at the least depressing and repellant. The general Hobbsean malaise that these players brought to gameplay was seasoned by extraordinary forms of malevolent play that came to be calling "griefing" and by an accelerating willingness to give uninhibited voice to crude sexual boasting, misogyny, racial hatred and gay-bashing. Sometimes, I ended up feeling that there wasn't any real sentiment or deliberate feeling behind the braggadacio--at a certain cultural moment, calling something "gay" in gamer parlance really did feel to me as if it was a non-referential way to simply say something was dumb or annoying--but a lot of the time there was in fact real force and venom behind the words.

Over time, many of us learned to ignore much of this behavior as background noise or to use the increasingly responsive tools provided by developers to control exposure to obnoxious or harassing individuals. We played only with friends or trusted networks of people, we used /ignore tags in general chat to make it impossible to 'hear' offensive players, we didn't play in games known to have particularly ugly or unpleasant internal cultures. We realized that some of the most offensive behavior and attitudes are basically adolescent transgressions against mainstream consensus. A griefer or troll doesn't care what the semantic content of their griefing is, only that it bothers or angers someone, so the easiest way to deflate them is to ignore them. We learned that sometimes being offensive is also a competitive tactic, as it is in many sports or other games: being deliberately obnoxious can unbalance or obsess a competitor.

But it still gets to me sometimes personally. It's just that doing anything about this cultural history is no easier than it is do something about anything else "cultural".

To give an example of the complexity, let me turn to World of Warcraft. I hadn't played World of Warcraft in months: I'm bored by the game itself and I feel as if I've learned everything in a scholarly or intellectual sense that I can from its player culture. In the last week, I played a bit at my daughter's urging. It was interesting up to the point that I went off to do some "daily quests" in an area called Tol Barad where players fight each other every two hours or so. The quests are standard WoW design: boring, repetitive, Zynga-like exercises whose completion gives the player a bit of money and a small gain in reputation with an in-game faction. At a certain point, the player will have enough reputation with that faction to purchase improved gear that will make the character more powerful. The repetition is somewhat soothing, a kind of gentle mindlessness, but to really progress through doing the quests, players have to do them every day for a substantial period of time. In this particular area, the daily quests are leavened by a battle between the players themselves. If your side wins, it gains access to another set of daily quests within the zone and to several areas of content for larger groups to complete together. If your side loses, you have no access to these quests until the next battle several hours later.

The battles are at least potentially fun and interesting, and a relief from collecting crocodile hides. So I hung around Tol Barad until the battle. World of Warcraft has over the years refined its formula for these kinds of battles. It now caps the total participants (to keep one side from being ridiculously dominant in numerical terms), it forces everyone to join a single large "raid group" (to make it easier for everyone to communicate and monitor their own side), and it offers mechanics that try to balance strategic choices, short-term tactical coordination and a reasonably even chance for both sides to win. My side in this case lost, partly because it was less coordinated. Ok, fine, it was still sort of fun.

But as the loss became imminent, a torrent of abuse began to spill out through the raid group. A small number of players started shrieking about how bad everyone else was, what failures we all were, how we should be embarrassed to play the game, how we were a bunch of useless faggots and so on. Over a basically trivial part of the game that will be repeated again and again all day long. That's pretty typical in WoW: the more you play and the more that your play associates you with strangers, the more you will see both extraordinarily poor behavior by individuals (that is often condemned by the consensus of a group) and generically poor behavior that is ignored or accepted as inevitable even though most people do not themselves participate in that behavior.

This surely limits both the numbers of people who might play WoW or any game like it and the comfort level of players within the game to participate in all the activities it offers. But consider how complicated both the genesis and consequences of this aspect of the game's culture really is.

First, consider the evolution of "chat" as an expressive practice within virtual-world games. A game like WoW is shaped by a very long design history that goes back to non-commercial MUDs and MUSHs in which chat channels were the major way in which the game supported a sense of community or sociality within the game, and thus the expectation that such a game should be social. The sociality of WoW and other games like it is still a defining attribute, and is notoriously credited with keeping players as participants long after they've grown bored with the content. So you have to have chat. Whenever the designers of WoW have attempted to curtail "global" or large-scale chat that tends to expose the totality of the game's culture to the worst expressive practices of its ugliest margins, players have typically managed to subvert their intentions and recreated a global or large-scale chat channel. Early commercial virtual-worlds spent much more time and money trying to police the semantic content of player expression, or tried to use filters to prevent offensive expression. Both efforts were easy to defeat, the first simply through volume and persistence, the second through linguistic and typographic invention. Attempts by players themselves to discourage or sanction offensive expression only have had force inside small social groups. A competitive guild can often impose restrictions on what its members do, booting a griefer or harasser. But such a player is simply expelled into the "general population", and there's always another guild around the corner that needs a member, or in WoW's later evolution, a random pick-up group that will endure such a player for the short time that it must bear his or her company.

It's not just the mechanics by which you say things, but what you're doing that matters. Almost all of WoW's gameplay involves the incremental accumulation of resources that will help players in the incremental accumulation of better resources. This is competitive in two ways: first, that a resource you gain is often a resource denied to someone else. Second, that your total accumulation of resources is read off into the game's public culture as a status effect, sorting players into hazy hierarchies. These hierarchies are temporally unstable: no matter how powerful you are, each expansion of the game will render your previous power over the environment and your previous superiority to other players null and void. They are structurally unstable: Blizzard frequently tinkers with the game mechanics and may at some point put a given type of character at a substantial in-built disadvantage or advantage to others, regardless of how much they have accumulated or how skilled the player is in controlling a character's actions. These hierarchies do not have an even symbolic meaning across the whole of the game's culture. Some players never engage in competitive accumulation: a dedicated "casual" who plays with a small group of friends and a serious "hardcore" who plays with a large group of equally dedicated and intense players rarely intersect, rivalrously or otherwise. But the large "middle class" of the game are often competitive with both poles: needing casuals in order to carry out competitive acquisition, wanting parity with the hardcores. When a game is built around the rivalrous but incremental accumulation of resources, its very structure encourages certain forms of aggression, status-laden disdain, and attempts to suppress rivalrous action by any means necessary.

If you want a contrast, look at something like the sharing of creature designs in Spore. Spore wasn't a terribly successful game, but it did create a fantastically successful player ecosystem in terms of people being highly motivated to create interesting designs and share them with as many people as possible. The fundamental structure of a game's design influences the kind of sociality that appears within its culture, and it invites or fosters imagined alignments between a game culture and the wider culture. Incremental accumulation, social hierarchy and the strong desire of people at the "top" to have permanent structural separations between themselves and the plebeians who have to collect boar livers or file TPS reports? That's a bridge for a lot of ugly sentiment and frustration to cross regularly between WoW and the world.

But then consider also the history of gamer sociology, or the movement between games, neither which Blizzard is particularly responsible for or able to control. Even within virtual worlds, there are really bad neighborhoods and relatively anodyne ones. Sometimes by design. I actually accept and admire the ugliness of the internal culture of EVE Online: it has the same authorial intentionality (by both designers and players) that any other work of art set in an ugly or unpleasant aesthetic might. Toontown is light-hearted because of content, because of mechanics, and because it disables the sociality of players on purpose. Sometimes as an emergent, accidental evolution. I don't think there's any simple reason exactly why multiplayer game culture on X-Box Live should be as baroquely unpleasant and misanthropist as it is, but I simply won't do anything multiplayer on that platform unless I absolutely have to for research. The worst I've experienced on WoW is nothing like what you'd hear in a really ugly session of a bunch of random strangers in a multiplayer shooter on XBLA. Gamer culture is and has been for a very long time leavened by young men who at their worst spew a lethal cocktail of nerdrage, bullying and slacker entitlement into conversational spaces, forcing other players to retreat, ignore or leave.

There is no simple instrumental pathway into that kind of "culture": any attempt to change it by command is going to be useless at best, actively backfire at worst. Here game designers sometimes have good ideas: giving players tools to shape their socialities helps a lot. If being an "anonymous fuckwad" leads to increasing exclusion or marginality within a game culture, enforced by mechanics that players themselves control, then it takes much more deliberate agency to be a fuckwad. But if developers are going to consider giving players more agency over their own social practices and institutions, they also have to think about where their designs have become the equivalent of chutes herding cattle towards slaughter. The kind of operant conditioning that Blizzard has made the defining feature of MMO design, and which has been Zynga's stock in trade, doesn't encourage the growth of rich social worlds that can evolve and complicate. If you're a farmer growing a monoculture, you don't expect a forest--and you're far more vulnerable to parasites and disease wiping out your crops.

Comments on Hell Is Other Gamers (And Some Games):

Raph says:

Great essay.

I don't think that it is necessarily contradictory to believe that culture arises in part (and in response to) the game structures, and that at the same time there are fixed cognitive structures and tendencies to be found in games. One of the central tenets of Theory of Fun is that "since everyone has a different chunk library, fun is different for everyone."

I personally suspect that the fact that the vast majority of XBL games are about defeating someone, and they are mostly played by males hanging around other males, leads to a dominance game on every front, including the sort of language used.

Recently I read a couple of articles that resonated for me as regards the issue of sociability in online games. One was a postmortem of South Korea's efforts in eliminating Internet anonymity. What they found was that the net reduction in bad behavior is negligible: http://techcrunch.com/2012/07/29/surprisingly-good-evidence-that-real-name-policies-fail-to-improve-comments/

The second was an article on gun control, which argued fairly effectively that it was the excess of individualism, rather than the excess of actual guns, that in the end leads to shooting incidents -- essentially, the issue is a lack of empathy.

We know that persistent pseudonymity and real names work pretty well in small groups. But in large groups, you end up having no real emotional connection to people on the other end anyway. A real name still ends up being anonymous, a face in the crowd. Worse, acting out can be the best way to make yourself "into somebody."

If we buy the design scaffolding idea, that we design communities through action or inaction when we create virtual spaces (cf http://www.raphkoster.com/2011/02/01/designing-for-community/), then perhaps the design goal needs to be one of driving towards empathy for others -- at the very least a sense of interdependence. The interdependence aspect (expressed through economics) was a major design goal in the case of SWG, the empathy not so much.

Posted Aug 2, 2012 5:06:42 PM | link

Raph says:

Oh, forgot the link to the gun control article. I am no doubt doing it violence by summarizing it so briefly, as it covers a much wider range of ideas than I just credited it with.


Posted Aug 2, 2012 5:08:20 PM | link

Ren says:

Here's a scary idea that's both impractical and possibly un-ethical, but I wonder if anyone has tried it:

How about the publisher creating player groups as the start of the game, particularly in Beta that exhibit exemplary behaviour ?

Prof Bartle has noted in one of his talks about the emergence of MMO culture that Beta is a critical time and an issue is that an overlapping group of players moves from one to another transferring elements of culture from the last MMO.

Paid-to-play-nice players might help break that cycle?

Posted Aug 3, 2012 5:16:05 AM | link

Rits says:

So the question is: Is there anything game developers can do to secure a healthy and warm virtual community.

I guess the first thing is whether they want to do so, because some games do feed on ugliness. It is part of the marketing plan to start with.

But if that's not the case, that means, if a developer targets the healthy sociality market, some devs out there are already trying something experimental, and showing some results. If you have a chance, take a look at Guild Wars 2's in game world chat.

In WoW, there are PvP elitist dissing PvE pros because "PvE is merely a mechanical process of defeating a computer" or something like that. Then we got the PvE pros rejecting casual or even mediocre players for not able to prove their capability, something like "show me that title and that title or else go home". Then those getting rejected would go on the forum and whine about it like "how am I suppose to get those titles and gears to move on if everyone capable of doing the raid not letting me join, QQQQQ." The cycle goes on and on, and that is the ugly part of the virtual world today.

As this guy puts it, we can break the components down into 3 groups of skill - PvP Skill, PvE skill, and social skill. It is true that PvE also have skills that the best PvP players cannot achieve easily with their PvP skills. It is also true that socializing with the rest of the server requires skill that needs to be developed over time. In many mmos of today, majority of "pros" and "elitists" lack of that skill. Is it really that unbearable to spend 10~15 to explain the fight to a first-timer, perhaps getting wiped once or twice, to a point that you rather sit around for 3 hours waiting for one that is promising capable in one go? Is it hard to believe that "giving" to the bigger community would reward yourself some day in another way?

Maybe it is, looking at how most pros get to the top ignoring the majority of the server. But what if the game convinces pros and elitists that caring for the server actually is good for you, and you rather spend some time contributing than not bothered at all?

Take Guild Wars 2 as example, the open world pvp doesn't happen within the server at all - there is no faction war / realm VS realm. Instead, it takes place in the 247-available cross server PvP map, where the system is referred as "World VS World"; 3 servers fighting in one shared map, and no other way to reach another server's "homeland" to gank or invade, but can visit as a "guest" through the friend system, to do quests and other cooperative activities.

In the World VS World battleground, those who cannot fight as good due to gear or general skills can fill the role of riding siege weapons or other side objectives that are essential to the whole battle (much more than other RvR MMOs have done, e.g Warhammer online, Aion, Rift). You are also bumped to Level cap (80) so that you have the stats to withstand the gunfire a bit, just that you'd still be under-geared and lacking trait points / skill points.

The reward from the server doing well in World VS World is solely crafting bonus.

Further, the open world gathering nodes are individual-existence on each player's game, meaning that you and I would see the same node on the same location, but after I have gathered it, it would disappear on my screen yet still available on your screen. There is no reason to fight over it.

Also, there is no kill-steal. If I fight a mob down to 10% HP and you passing by land a hit on it, we both get to loot without splitting share, quest objective fulfilled, and experience point. There is no reason you shouldn't help a stranger to fight a mob.

The game also took away healing and tanking roles, so that you wouldn't need to wait all day to pull a group just because you're missing a healer or a tank. With the right spec, anyone can switch between a support or a main fighter role no matter what class you are. You just have to know your own class enough, and the rest is about team work.

Arena Net makes the GW2 into a game which players would hardly find a reason to compete or abuse others within the server. Of course you still have the rights to remain a social-outcast up to level 80, but what else is left to do if not bonding with the rest of the server? Scenario PvP and its tournament perhaps? But if that's what you're after, you wouldn't need to level up your character from the start, because in scenario PvP you get 80 Lvs right away, and have the same gears as every one else, with the optional upgrades all available to you. These people wouldn't even show up in town from the star, and would not be forced to interact with the rest of the community at all.

I'm not hard selling GW2 because I'm fan-boy... okay I am a fan-boy, but, as a response to the article above, I really enjoyed the reading yet I think it is still too soon to lose hope. I still believe that game developers can do something to gather up the right group of gamers by configuring the system into one that demands and protects social skills... not in a forceful way, of course.

Posted Aug 3, 2012 7:38:39 AM | link

Raph says:

Ren, engaging in conscious culture-building is one of my main tricks to get a solid starting user base. This is why I always push for opening a forum community early, and participating so heavily. The SWG and Metaplace userbases were both very consciously "gardened" to give a good starter culture.

Posted Aug 3, 2012 1:48:29 PM | link

Ren says:

Ahhh ha.

Posted Aug 3, 2012 3:44:38 PM | link

greglas says:

Really interesting essay, Tim. I agree with what you're saying, though I'm also beginning to wonder -- as a child of the 70's -- whether my sensitivity to the coarseness of gamer culture is shared by people who are 20-30 years younger than me. I admit that I didn't get Barrens Chat back when I watched it scroll by, but I don't get "The Jersey Shore" either, whereas some of my students clearly do. All that said, I agree that Spore *is* (it still exists!) a better social ecosystem -- and some of that is probably about letting the community say something positive about those who can produce what the community values.

Posted Aug 3, 2012 11:59:28 PM | link

cube3 says:

funny,. id say sense of "singularity" vs "individuality" when speaking about the lack of empathy shown in the modern meme of gamerz culturez.

language is a medium.

Posted Aug 5, 2012 6:31:17 PM | link

spinks says:

I think there will be no answer to this until designers twig that the gamers who respond most strongly to gamification are not motivated by social cues in the same way that more actively social gamers are. ie. the social people you want to attract will not be minmaxers who obsess about completing 100% achievements. So trying to induce pro social behaviour with that sort of gamification will only result in the hardcore players finding ways to game it.

I would be looking at ways to encourage players to build and nurture their own in-game communities, but to do this group content needs to not be heavily skill based. If your group content consists of 'hard' raids, then communities can only form up around 'people who can do hard raids' -- membership has to be based on skill/ commitment rather than social behaviours. Having been in many casual guilds, the hit that the leadership takes every time a new member leaves because they want to join a more progressed/hardcore group(ie. people end up feeling used because they taught the game to someone who left as soon as they had everything they wanted), makes them less and less likely to be welcoming to other new members.

Teaching and mentoring needs to be rewarded, but not in a gamified way. Designers need to think about how 'encouraging people to make new friends' could be part of the game world. Or at least not to automatically hate and fear new players. The huge issue with hostile populations is that they make it a nightmare to learn new group content in random groups IMO.

Posted Aug 7, 2012 2:18:02 AM | link

247playgames.com - Free and Online games! says:

@rits ... there is nothing such as a marketing plan. I do work with online games all day long and surprisingly... the freakier the better, the more gamers will play it.. Surprised?

Posted Aug 21, 2012 12:08:06 PM | link

Rits says:

@247playgames.com - Free and Online games!

which sector of the industry you're working with? and what's your business's future vision?

Posted Aug 22, 2012 8:16:10 PM | link

247playgames.com - Free Online Games says:

@Rits - We can discuss that in private if you like. This is nothing for a public discussion as Marketing Plans can not be revealed so obviously. You are free to mail me on info [at] 247Playgames [dot] com and we can discuss further.

Posted Aug 25, 2012 4:41:46 AM | link