Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Game Objectives vs. Social Behavior

The work of Loyola University Professor David Myers in studying online game interaction has been a recent and popular topic of discussion. In a paper published last year, “Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt,” Myers describes his attempts at Garfinkeling (the act of disrupting social rules in order to better understand them) City of Heroes/Villians with his in-game hero, Twixt.

Almost two years after the release of the original game, a player vs. player (pvp) zone was introduced to City of Heroes/Villians. The purpose of the pvp zone was to provide high level heroes and villains the opportunity to compete in performing objectives that ultimately led to control of the zone. Due to the previously cooperative nature of the game, the new pvp zone ran counter to established social norms and behavior. As Myers puts it, “the designers of CoH/V had Garfinkeled their game.”

Instead of pursuing the objectives of the pvp zone, veteran players utilized the zone for other more established social activities, such as farming. In his attempt to Garfinkel the game, Myers adhered to three behaviors in the zone that ran counter to the prevalent social etiquette, yet allowed him to pursue the game objectives. These three behaviors included “rigidly competitive pvp tactics,” “steadfastly uncooperative social play outside the game context,” and “steadfastly uncooperative social play within the game context.”

Myers’ actions were not well received. He was verbally abused, banned from an in-game clan, and even received a death threat. Despite his general ostracization from the community, Myers was most astounded by the lack of adherence to developer and game established rules. As he states, “the most surprising result of Twixt’s play within [the pvp zone] was not merely the severity of the online community’s negative reactions to his behavior, but the degree to which game rules played such an insignificant role in those reactions.”

This conflict between developer created objectives and socially acceptable behavior seems to be prevalent in online games of all types. Developers will create and release multiplayer games with specific objectives for winning, and the online community will establish a social etiquette that tends to run counter to accomplishing those objectives.

In Team Fortress 2, as in most online first-person shooters, spawn-camping can be a very useful means for successfully completing a round. A smart player utilizing the demoman class can place sticky traps on the spawn-room door of the opposing team, gaining kills each time an opponent leaves the spawn-room. Doing so allows other members of his team to easily capture the necessary control points, therefore winning the round.

Despite being strategically sound, spawn-camping is generally frowned upon. Attempting the tactic can result in verbal abuse from the opposing team, and can sometimes get the player kicked or banned from a server.

Despite being prevalent across a wide variety of online games, all socially accepted rules seem to have a few traits in common. One trait, as stated before, is that socially established canon is counterproductive to in-game objectives. This is fairly intuitive as the external establishment of etiquette that corresponds to a game’s objectives is redundant. Every game creates such etiquette implicitly.

A second trait is that these socially accepted rules are meant to increase the videogame’s entertainment value for the majority. In the case of City of Heroes/Villians, prior to the release of the pvp zone, the majority of players had experienced a mostly cooperative game which called for players to battle computer-controlled enemies or non-playable characters. With the introduction of the new pvp zone, players began utilizing the zone to farm, which involved heroes teaming with villains to increase their levels quickly. This allowed players to continue the cooperative play against non-playable enemies that they had previously enjoyed, as opposed to engaging in a new type of gameplay.

In the case of Team Fortress 2, and other first-person shooters, spawn-camping can create a great deal of frustration for those that it is inflicted upon. Even those on the winning team may not enjoy a win accomplished through spawn-camping, given the lack of challenging gameplay. As such, in order to maximize the satisfaction of the majority, spawn-camping is established as a “cheap” tactic.

The dichotomy between in-game objectives and social etiquette is in and of itself contradictory when evaluating its resulting reactions. The enforcement of social etiquette can be extremely off-putting and hostile, and can create an elitist environment. Paradoxically, the institution of in-game social etiquette exists to maximize the enjoyment for the majority.

Social development is often lauded as one of the redeeming qualities of online games. Given how socially accepted behavior is created for the satisfaction of the majority, this is seemingly evident. However, the extreme ostracization of those who don’t follow the social norm educes the society presented by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Do we want to participate in an environment that rejects all deviations from the norm with hostility? Do developers want to create games that allow for such environments?

Perhaps a more appropriate question is how can developers unify in-game objectives with emergent social behavior? If such a unification were possible, social ostracization theoretically could not occur, at least the type of ostracization discussed. Any online social environment will have some form of exclusion.

Personally, I enjoy games that have very specific and identifiable objectives. I enjoy identifying methods through which I can achieve goals, and completing those objectives provides me with a sense of accomplishment. It’s because of the lack of such interesting and diverse objectives, and the existing social environment, that I tend not to play MMORPGs. My view seems to run counter to the norm however, given the popularity of the genre, along with other sandbox and open-ended games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and The Sims.

1 comment:

  1. very reasonable analysis. sorry I didnt link to this earlier. I will now.

    ReplyDelete