Monday, October 6, 2008

Self-Policing Gamer Culture

As we mentioned in our EXP Introduction, the gaming "community" is increasingly becoming an appropriate term to refer to our ilk. Predictably, like all communities, we too have our share of miscreants. They go by many names. Some call them griefers, team-killers, ****wads, or a number of other expletives (I have my personal favorite). They are known for their treachery, bigotry, harassment, and generally aggravating behavior, and they can be found wherever Internet gaming is played.

Unfortunately, we've grown accustomed to this aggravating element. The common response for those who complain: "QQ more" or "stop playing [any FPS title]". I can't imagine this is the best we as a community can come up with. Surely, if we are as self-aware as we profess to be, and if we want outsiders to take the medium seriously, we should be more cautious about how we are perceived. Even if we do not consider ourselves burdened by a need to present a welcoming face to a growing casual audience, it would do us good to constructively address those who can turn so many of us away from online gaming. I don't believe this behavior is an inherent part of gamer culture. Rather, we need to improve how self-police our player communities.

It is dangerous to peer into the abyss of complete Internet stupidity. It may consume you, leaving an inane husk of your former self. Yet some brave souls have observed our gamer scoundrels and tried to locate their dark origins. Michael Walbridge of Game,Set,Watch wrote an interesting column on games effecting players. He suggested that "the mechanics of a game have the potential to be as strong as any other context in culture as far as influencing the perceptions, beliefs, and behavior of a person." Perhaps our immature ruffians are not solely to blame, that perhaps game mechanics can "provide an environment that makes it easier to treat people horribly."

If this were the case, we should expect certain games to suffer from this problem more than others, and that is exactly what we see. Even within the FPS genre, Halo 3 is known for having a relatively large amount of griefers. Team Fortress 2 on the other hand, though not perfect, has been praised for an artistic style and cooperative encouragements that foster a much friendlier atmosphere. The importance of group composition and medic classes are ingenious team-building strategies that can be ported to other titles.

I highly encourage creating games that foster cooperative behavior, but surely hugging-it-out can't be our only solution. Call of Duty: World at Peace just doesn't have that special something to get people excited. I don't think we have to quarantine hardcore competitive games to keep the virtuous safe. In addition to game mechanics that may foment hostilities, anonymity may to be to blame for immature behavior.

A recent Gamasutra column discussed a panel held at the AGDC that brought together MMO community managers and psychologists to speak on the subject of anonymity and the problems it creates. According to one Dr. Pennebaker, "Just from the psychology side, this whole issue of anonymity is central. The more anonymous people can be, the worse they'll act." In an anonymous environment, it is easier to distance yourself from your fellow gamers. They are not real after all, and any hostile behavior will go unpunished. Those looking for an outlet for aggression revel in the relative freedom of faceless four minute matches. How are we to self-police crude behavior when we have short interactions with anonymous individuals?

Potential Solutions?
Traditionally small communities monitor and police behavior with the help of cultural leaders by vocally denouncing and ostracizing those who misbehave. A village elder for example, may publicly shame a criminal, making them a social outcast. Though not punished physically or materially, these punitive measures can be very effective. Griefers derive their pleasure from what is inherently a social interaction. They are enfeebled if they become pariahs. But first, though it may feel uncomfortable, we need to shed some of our anonymity.

We don't need to know that Tbagr420 is a middle-schooler from Tucson or that AlphaQ2 is a Sagittarius from California (and also my brother). What I would like to see however, is more permanence in the profile used when gaming. The AGDC panel concluded with some thoughts on an "ebay-style user rating system". We've already got achievement points, why not shame points? If repeat offenders carry with them visible negative titles such as Team Killer, Blabber Mouth, or Griefer into the games they play, they can no longer hide behind anonymity. Then give players the ability to filter their games free of players with certain negative titles and we can marginalize and isolate the negative elements.

Additionally, social capital elements can be included into gameplay. If there were achievements points available based on cooperative and friendly behavior (perhaps enough positive ratings from gamers not on your friends list), maybe the game environment would be more mature. If these paragon achievements were attached to in-game benefits, perhaps certain "leadership" abilities, there would be tangible advantageous to maintaining a welcoming and friendly atmosphere. If players want these rewards, they'll have to earn them. For those rougher elements of our community, it should be an uphill battle.

Unless player behavior scares off potential consumers, developers may not have an incentive to support give players the tools to self-police Internet gaming. Even banning or muting players can be bothersome at times. With an influx of more casual gamers however, the threat of loss business is a serious one. Our best bet for now is to strengthen the amiable communities we do have. Though I do believe the industry will inevitably give players the tools to filter hostile elements out of our gaming experiences. After all, polite, kind, and caring gamers hugely outnumber the hostile elements. And if these griefers don't like what's coming? Well they can QQ more for all I care.


  1. Thanks for such an insightful essay. I especially appreciate the fact that you offer helpful solutions - something most people who complain about the often toxic online environment don't bother to do.

    I wonder about your statement: "Call of Duty: World at Peace just doesn't have that special something to get people excited." I'd like to think that with the right designers and the right innovative approach, such a game could, in fact, be just what the doctor ordered. I admit I may be overly idealistic here, but I hold out hope that games can address social justice issues in compelling ways if designers commit themselves to building interesting interactive experiences around these themes.

    You're probably right; but I don't want to give up on the idea that such a game could be made and could be great.

  2. I'm with Michael: I cautiously hope someone can make a game focused on building and peacemaking as the method of resolving conflict. Think of how interesting the gameplay would be.

    Maybe someone with a background in Peace and Conflict Studies should go consult for one of the big game studios...I'm looking at you Jorge!