Research at a click away: The inter-relational ethics of a connective methodology

A couple of Wednesdays ago I had the pleasure to give a short overview of my research, its online methodology and some of the ethical grey areas at a University of the West of England event called ‘Ethics, Digital Data and Research using Social Media’. In this post I want to recall some of the points that were touched upon during the day, give an insight into my own online research and delve into exactly what some of the ethical grey areas are for online researchers.

MOBAs? A brief introduction to playful co-creativity

Before I talk about specifics I should say a little more about myself and my research. I am a PhD researcher in my third year of research into the themes of online play and collaboration with the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England. More specifically, my research is interested in the ways online players creatively play in games and the way these acts of playful creativity carry ramifications far beyond the immediate actions of the player. For example if a player innovates a new play style in a game that had previously not been tried and this new style proves to be especially effective, how does this act of creativity carry further consequences to other stakeholders of the play space? Although it may seem like nothing particularly new for online games or acts of play more widely it is within these dynamics that one of the most played online games genres, the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), is underpinned. Known for games such as League of Legends or Dota 2, the MOBA genre has come to define the games and digital landscape in significant ways through popularising live streaming on sites such as twitch.tv, giving rise to a thriving worldwide electronic-sports industry and introducing new models of fair ‘free to play’ allowing vast numbers of players to play. All of these trends have meant the MOBA space is one laden in different stakeholders, from its millions of daily players, its worldwide network of professional players who make a living off playing and its developers who ultimately seek to monetise all of this activity. My research looks at the role of online play in co-creating this genre and more critically, how the differing power dynamics between stakeholders affect their respective values in the play space. For this post I want to leave all of that to the side however and talk a bit about how I go about ethnographically grasping this vast and dynamic online culture.

A connective Reddit methodology 

My methodology consists of three distinct strands of data collection. These are auto-ethnographic in-game experiences, (professional) player interviews and open Reddit discussions. All of these research methods take place online and what is interesting is how they all share a connected relationship. Although my main source of data collection is open discussions on the news and social networking site Reddit (which is the focus of this post), it is vital to consider the methodology as a whole.

The auto-ethnographic element to this research is similar to many studies of games, an essential element that informs nearly all of the work. As a research method auto-ethnography has been employed in numerous online games (Boellstorff et al, 2012) and it informs the questions posed in wider dialogues with players in Reddit spaces. However the auto-ethnography also serves as a window into more than just knowledge of the game and its culture but it also serves as a mode of authenticity when posing questions to players.

A recurring theme throughout the day was how different online platforms share a connected relationship and can often bypass the privacy settings of one through the other, for example in case of Storify and Twitter that Kandy Woodfield touched upon. I find this example pertinent to the context of my own research as it taps into what Dijck (2013) has termed the ‘connective’ context of social media, which is to say the interrelated and ecological relationship different platforms share with each other online. Storify for example, is a site that heavily relies upon Twitter feeds to construct its content and in doing so the ethics of how to use Twitter must also consider Storify’s interrelation. In my own research this ‘connective’ context is one that is heavily woven into everything I do. By a large margin the open discussion format in Reddit is my main mode of data collection however it is largely enabled through my wider auto-ethnographic experience.

When opening up a discussion with participants upon Reddit I am wholly transparent about my status as a researcher and always link my blog and state I am open to questions myself. In addition, I also introduce myself as a player through linking my in-game profile and stating an example of what I am talking about from my own experience. For players who are in a space to talk with other players and not expecting questions posed by an academic researcher this further introduction of myself as a fellow player is significant and opens up a much more casual, intuitive, and insightful response to my questions than it would if the questions were strictly formal. The status of the researcher as a player is especially important here as Reddit’s format can be extremely resistant to researchers due to (among other reasons…) the architecture of the platform.

 Reddit is similar to a forum in many ways and it works through the same persistent threads of conversation often heavy in memes and external links. The vital difference between Reddit and a forum is its system of up-voting and down-voting posts that leads to what many have dubbed a ‘Hive Mind’ whereby only certain types of posts are up-voted and therefore visible for the vast majority of users. In practice this means getting attention to a research question posed on Reddit can be difficult if, for example, people perceive your reasons for being in the space as not similar to theirs. In my experience of making threads in the /r/leagueoflegends sub-Reddit that has thousands of active users at any given time, attention to these dynamics has proven essential.  If a post does not get up-votes quickly it will sink and essentially vanish from users; so introductions are important! A connective sense of authenticity (I.E. auto-ethnographically playing the game as well as externally researching it) is one way of gaining traction here and it’s this kind of wider attention to online platforms that is an essential consideration throughout my online methodology.

Connective ethics

Similar to the Twitter / Storify example touched upon above, a space such as Reddit must be considered in relation to other platforms when considering the ethical implications of the research. If for example, you state not to use the name of participants as a measure of protection against their identity (even avoiding use of their pseudonyms) but you quote their responses from an open discussion, it is very easy for a search engine such as Google to identify the quote and take you to the page where the discussion happened. Throughout the ethics in social media research day similar examples of these interrelations between platforms undermining ethical standards were touched upon and just as the relationship between Reddit and Google is here problematic, so too are numerous other examples. Potential solutions to this particular ethical concern included closing threads after conversations end and paraphrasing quotes (as is often done when working with children) from participants to avoid search engine detection, however there is no clear or effective answer here.

As with many other researchers working with online participants, I do not have an answer to unravelling a universal code of ethical standards here. The interrelations between online platforms are constantly changing as they respond to a variety of socio-technical developments and as a researcher, the only thing I can say with any certainty is that attention to these dynamics is essential. A particularly connective methodology such as my own that I have touched upon here points towards the opportunities inherent in online research as much as it sketches out potential ethical grey areas. There might not be any clear or definitive answer when approaching these grey areas but nonetheless they need to be sketched out and carefully considered. Research at a click away is exciting, insightful and potentially rich as much as it can be problematic.

The short presentation I gave can be found here:

I also recommend keeping up with the New social media, new social science blog for more discussions surrounding the ethical implications for social media research.

Bibliography

Boellstorff, T. Nardi, B. Pearce, C. and Taylor, T, L. (2012) Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Dijck, V, J. (2013) Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, New York: Oxford University Press.

Custom rules, custom content: Zombies, ARAM and paidiac innovation

So a subject I have been considering for a while now is playful innovation in digital play spaces and specifically, what the relationship between players who innovate is with wider stakeholders. In my research and in some of the blog posts I have made here that has been largely through the genre of MOBAs and their deeply complex, emergent and competitive modes of innovation – however what about non-competitive playful innovation? In this post I want to draw attention to two particularly influential examples of playful innovation that have taken place within ‘custom’ game spaces. My perspective is one that views play and its activities as an act similar to wider online participatory actions in both agency and relation to overarching platform holders or developers.

What follows is an edited extract from a chapter I have been writing that considers the case of two custom game spaces and the influential impact the activities of these spaces have had upon the wider structure of the game. Through a reconsideration of Caillois’ ludus and paidia alongside the perspective of play as participatory this blog post touches upon wider themes of this chapter and my PhD that, if you’re interested, I plan to make available in the near future. So stay tuned!

 

Almost a decade ago with the release of Halo 2 (Bungie Inc, 2004) I was involved with the development of these new forms of playful emergence in a much less research orientated capacity. At the time I was in my mid-teens and online play was a new and rapidly rising mode of play for many people on consoles due in large part to Halo 2. Next to the primary mode of playing Halo 2 which was a highly competitive, ludus orientated mode of play with strict goals such as ‘capture the flag’ was a custom game mode and it was here that many paidiac lead innovations took place that changed the lasting structure of the franchise and genre. In contrast to the strict goals of the primary game, the custom game mode was much more open to players changing the rules of the game through for example, changing the required number of kills, the starting weapons or health options. Unlike the highly structured and regulated primary mode of play Halo 2 was designed for, custom games encouraged a much more non-competitive and freely social experience. Customs games typically took place between existing social circles, they often invited the use of explicit and even banned mods and they were responsible for many forms of playful emergence such as the influential machinma series Red vs Blue (Bardzell, 2011: 212). More relevantly here however, they were responsible for a plethora of alternative modes of play (Parker, 2008; Gardner, 2013).

The Halo 2 Wikipedia extensively lists these modes of play in a Wikipedia article that exceeds fifty pages and 25,000 words describing these alternative modes of play (1). What becomes apparent through looking at these games that include names such as ‘Golf’, ‘DDay’, Cops and Robbers’, ‘Hide and Seek, ‘Cat and Mouse’ and ‘Zombies’ is how reminiscent these games and their improvised and often unstable rule sets were of playground games. These games were likely conceived as Caillois (1958) argued all games originally are, through the paidiac interactions of the players and the formalisation of rule sets that gradually refine moments of spontaneity. The notion of paidia is here taken as more than simply the complete absence of rule systems but instead, as Henricks (2010: 180) argues in a close reading of Caillois’s work, as incorporating ‘ideas about the attitudes of the players themselves – that they are enjoying and improvising’. The custom game space was for all intents and purposes, a sandbox space and the innovations of players in this space were in their conception at least, definitively non-competitive. In the most popular of these custom games, ‘Zombies’, what has followed in the years subsequent to Halo 2 with the release of numerous sequels was the implementation of this paidiac innovation and its unique rule set into the structural design of future Halo games (see below). Under the name of ‘Infection’ or ‘Flood’, the original premise of ‘Zombies’ that players created through their interactions in a sandbox space resulted in future implementations and an essential erosion of any grassroots and paidiac residue the game once represented. What was an imperfect, improvised, paidiac and notably non-competitive game has now become the opposite as developers Bungie Inc and later 343 Industries (who were later responsible for the franchise) fully implemented the paidiac innovations of players into a structured, formalised and hugely popular game mode.

 

zombie evolution

Another example of this definitively non-competitive emergence that has been well documented by its community comes from League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009). Similar to the Halo series, as the most popular and archetypal MOBA game League of Legends is one of the most ludus orientated games in the world that supports its own thriving e-sports scene. However League of Legends, the same as Halo, has its own custom game space where players can play in a far less competitive environment. Unlike the Halo custom game space, the options available in the League of Legends custom space are extremely limited and the ‘custom’ refers more to the mode of play. By playing a custom game in League of Legends players can fill the game with up with players (maximum of ten) they know as opposed to the regular mode of play whereby players must face an opponent not of their choosing. Although nothing changes about the game itself in this ‘custom’ space, the simple change of opposition gives the game a different ethos of play. In a game where everyone knows each other the play essentially becomes much more collaborative as opposed to competitive giving players the chance to experiment with rules in a way not possible through the standard competitive mode of play. Free from the competitive context of play, what was presumed to be a largely static arena of play with regards to the constraints imposed upon players proved to be something far more open to creative emergence than was originally assumed.

Through playing in these non-competitive ‘custom’ spaces players developed a simple reinterpretation of the rules that would radically alter the mode of play. As with nearly all MOBA games, League of Legends is built around three ‘lanes’ and a structured series of ‘picks’ on each team to fill particular roles and correspond with the highly structured ‘metagame’ (Ferrari, 2013). In custom spaces however, players changed these two core components of the game through limiting the lane to one single middle lane and making the players choose entirely random characters instead of picking for structured roles. The result was a hugely popular and distinctly less competitive mode of play dubbed ‘All Random All Mid’ or ‘ARAM’. Similar to the many Halo 2 custom games, this mode of play took place within a game that was not designed for it and as a result enforcing these custom rules was never perfect. The custom game space offered no means of enforcing the player created rules onto players and instead relied upon a tacit agreement between players or ‘honour rules’ (2) in upholding the player generated rules. Reminiscent of the exploratory play Jenkins (2004) describes whereby play is a test of limitations through the act of exploring the surroundings; the creation of these games is in many ways a digital equivalent. Through the grassroots creation of games such as ARAM players were testing the durability of rule sets in highly alternative, social and non-competitive ways. Crucially here, this new mode of play was paidiac in its ethos and could not challenge the function of the primary game mode in any way. Unlike playful innovation that takes place in a much more competitive or ludus orientated context, such as ‘the fountain hook‘, the innovation described here does not challenge any existing rules. It creates new games within the game that in contrast to challenging any existing rules, offer a distinctly new set of rules of their own.

Similar to forms of social emergence that arise in MMOG’s (Pearce, 2009: 45) or even social networking environments (Dijck, 2013: 21), these additional paidiac reinterpretations of a game represent additional ‘networks’ (Pearce, 2009) or ‘microsystems’ (Dijck, 2013) that can be unproblematically implemented into the larger framework of a game. As with Zombies, this is exactly what happenend to ARAM. As a result of the notably paidiac mode of innovation Riot Games eventually took notice of how popular the custom game culture of ARAM was and it now exists (as Zombies does in Halo) as one of the most popular game modes available within the League of Legends (3).

aram evolution..

It should not come as any surprise that these playful grassroots innovations have proven to be as popular as they are. In a similar way to the conception of the MOBA genre that was created and refined by a large community of modders and players, these extremely appealing alternative modes of play represent a similar model of bottom up innovation. Just as digital platforms are created by developers and their participants bring the substance that defines their content, so too are playful rule systems constantly re-imagined and refined through the procedural processes of play. It is through these playful forms of innovation that games develop in distinct and unexpected ways as the emergent dynamic of play can only be exercised through the human interaction of its players. Where this becomes an extremely grey area however is in relation to the critical aspects of this digital co-creativity. Although this interwoven state of relations between player and developer is far from unique and many wider fan or participatory cultures also share a dynamic relationship with commercial stakeholders; exactly what does it mean when someone profits off of your creativity in this way?

None of this is altogether new. There’s a comparison to be made here to many examples of modding free labour or going even further back, to the development of sub-cultural styles that were often capitalised upon by commercial interests. As it stands, asking these types of questions in relation playful custom game cultures such as the ones touched upon here seems almost counter intuitive to the values of players who ultimately seek more refined ways to play their own creations (although this needs more research). However it is a cultural milieu common across nearly all digital platforms and one that demands what Jenkins et al (2013: 165) describe as a ‘more refined vocabulary for thinking about the reality of power relations’. Custom game spaces demonstrate how even the most alternative, grassroots and paidiac of playful innovation is far from isolated in the connective landscape.

 

 

Notes

1. The Halo 2 Wikipedia extensively lists many different modes of play that were prevalent in Halo 2 custom games. The Wikipedia page exceeds fifty pages and 25,000 words of different games including ‘Golf’, ‘DDay’, ‘Hide and Seek, ‘Cat and Mouse’ and ‘Zombies’. http://web.archive.org/web/20130330063451/http://h2.halowiki.net/p/Custom_Game_Types

2. Custom game spaces often have no way of ensuring players uphold the rules of a game beyond players regulating themselves or what is described as ‘honour rules’. ‘Since there were no facilities in Halo 2 Custom Games to limit what weapons each team could use or to force players to switch teams upon death, zombie gametypes relied on honor rules.’ http://www.halopedia.org/Infection

3. The popular League of Legends site ‘LoLking.net’ lists may statistics connected to the game, including the popularity of ARAM which exceeds eight million players per month in Europe and North America (March 2014). See: http://www.lolking.net/charts?region=all&type=champion-winrate&range=weekly&map=ha&queue=normal

 

Bibliography

 

Bardzell, J. (2011) ‘Machinimatic Realism’, in Lowood, H. and Nitsche, M. (2011) The Machinima Reader, London: MIT Press.

Caillois, R. (1958) Man, Play and Games, trans by Barash, M. (2001) New York: The Free Press.

Dijck, V, J. (2013) Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, New York: Oxford University Press.

Ferrari, S. (2013) From Generative to Conventional Play: MOBA and League of Legends, Proceedings of DiGRA 2013: DeFragging Game Studies, Volume 1 (1), P.1-17.

Gardner, L. (2013) ‘17 Great Ways to Have Fun in Halo Custom Games’, WhatCulture!, January 1st 2013.

Henricks, S, T. (2010) ‘Caillois’s Man, Play, and Games: An Appreciation and Evaluation’, American Journal of Play, Volume 3: 2, 2010.

Jenkins, H. (2004) ‘Complete Freedom of Movement; Video Games as Gendered Spaces’, in Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, pp 330 – 363, London: MIT Press.

Jenkins, H. Ford, S. and Green, J. (2013) Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture¸ New York: New York University Press.

Parker, F. (2008) ‘The Significance of Jeep Tag: On Player-Imposed Rules in Video Games’, Loading…, Volume 2: 3, 2008.

Pearce, C. (2009) Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds, London: MIT Press.

Revisiting the creative culture of DotA

Last week I attended a conference at Kings College in London surrounding the theme of ‘creating cultures’. The conference was both insightful and thought provoking with many different perspectives and approaches from a variety of different media forms being explored under the inclusive definition of creative / created cultures. It was in this context that I put forward the culture of DotA as one of the most interesting and influential digital cultures of the past decade and if you look past its intricate, dense and often confusing practices it’s easy to see why.

DotA stands for Defence of the Ancients and it was a hugely popular total conversion modification for Warcraft 3. Building on the work of the lesser known Starcraft mod, Aeon of Strife, DotA quickly became a game that out grew its original game in popularity. In terms of looks and aesthetics DotA was never that much different from its original game however in terms of gameplay DotA made many fundamental changes to Warcraft 3. DotA changed the mode of play in the game away from the genre of real time strategy (RTS) and towards something new where the emphasis was not on controlling many different units (the staple for RTS) but instead on controlling one single unit or ‘hero’ in a deeply teamwork orientated environment. It sounds simple but in this fundamental change to the genre a plethora of subsequent additions, innovations and deeply complex playful activities have taken place that have changed not only DotA but the wider games and digital landscape.
dota warcraft 3 comparison

Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’s (MOBAs) are based upon this DotA model and in that they have gone onto become one of the most played online genres responsible for industry defining trends such as fair free to play, popular player streams and an e-sports industry which is set to sell out the Wembley Arena in London this weekend. What is so interesting about DotA and the activities of its modders and players is how pioneering they were in developing this genre and its uniquely playful form of innovation. The deeply participatory context of DotA’s original creation which saw modders interact dynamically with players over the events of the play space lead to a game that is both deeply varied and deeply balanced. In adopting a risk taking philosophy towards game design typical of modded projects whereby any commercial motivations underpinning the game are non-existent, DotA crystallised a varied game that allowed players to customise their heroes or implement new strategies to an unprecedented and ever changing extent. What made DotA unique was how deeply co-creative (Banks, 2013) and democratic (Von Hippel, 2006) this grassroots culture was in adapting the game to the ever changing activities of the play space; a recipe for successful game design or curated ‘balancing’ which has since been adopted beyond the mod.

For popular MOBA games such as League of Legends or Dota 2 this dynamic form of co-creation is still central to the games appeal and commercial developers have adopted this innately participatory form of co-creation into their ongoing design. It can be seen any time a patch is released or a thread gains momentum surrounding the properties of a particular ‘hero’. Commercial developers, the same as the grassroots modders of DotA, must pay close attention to the dynamics of the play space in order to preserve its appeal and by extension their value. Similar to their innovative free to play models the innately participatory form of co-creation taking place in MOBAs is in many ways the residual of the grassroots culture where it all started. The space between play and participation, professional and amateur and even economic and cultural value has as Jenkins (2008) often notes on the subject of the Internet; converged.

It’s in this context that my current research is centred as the addition of commercial motivations and the onset of professional players who are also extremely invested in the play space has complicated the ongoing co-creation and also the critical perspectives. The critical position with regards to DotA was always clear to identify and in my paper I drew attention towards how the modding and play culture reacted towards the commercial adoption of their own innovations (see below for contents of presentation). The name of the paper, the DotA paradox, refers to exactly this. The paradox here was that DotA represented a fully functional and highly popular game rich with innovations and uniquely non-commercial spaces such as playdota.com. It was for all intents and purposes the promise of the Internet crystallised, a grassroots culture of creation not occupied with any commercial ties beyond that of the original game platform Warcraft 3. However it was exactly the non-corporate focus underlying the DotA culture that was central to it being as venerable to commercial iterations as it was. Any concerns for copyright or intellectual property is non-existent for a culture driven by the sole appeal of its play space. For the majority of players I asked, the commercial iterations of their own innovations did not pose a problem in the same way that it did for more traditional cultural innovations such as sub-cultural styles. Nonetheless, the economic value that has been extracted from the innovations DotA’s culture in the past four to five years is nothing short of staggering. The MOBA genre remains a genre where the appeal and cultural values arise from the bottom up interpretations of players however its economic value are as with any digital platform, still harnessed and dispersed from the top.

Critical approaches become a very grey area here as professional players, content producers and indeed the wider e-sports industry have all emerged out of the deeply co-creative and converged appeal that DotA and now MOBAs represent. The challenge for critically approaching a connective (Djick. 2013) context such as this comes through the identification of multiple value sets that exist in the cultural and economic activities at stake here. DotA was the crucible of creativity that these interwoven relations begun to emerge from and although the activities of this culture are often forgotten in the current activities of the MOBA genre; they still provide an important insight into the functionality and values inherent in playful online ecosystems.

If anyone is interested in the contents of the original presentation, it can be found here:

Bibliography

Banks, J. (2013) Co-creating Videogames, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Dijck, V, J. (2013) Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, New York: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2008) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, London: New York University Press.

Von Hippel, E. (2006) Democratising Innovation, Boston: MIT Press.

Twitch plays Pokemon: the curious case of too much connectivity

100,000 people play pokemon
Twitchtv has become the home of many of the most avant-garde modes of play currently circulating in the digital space, from world first speed runs in the name of charity; to popular streaming sessions resulting in worldwide server shut downs and of course, the various international e-sporting events. The latest development to take place upon this platform is undoubtedly one of the most unique yet however. ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ (TPP) see’s the audience for the stream of a Pokemon Red (Nintendo, 1996) game directly control the actions of the player via chat commands that correspond to the options available in-game. Up, down, left, right, A, B, start, select – the original gameboy inputs – are the options available and whatever proves to be the most popular input from the viewers in the chat box results in that action taking place in the Pokemon game.

It’s an elegantly simple premise and one that has proven to be phenomenally popular. To the extent that its activity has at times overloaded the twitch chat system (no small feat considering the huge influxes of inputs Twitch is used to dealing with), TPP has now been running for over seven days with concurrent viewers / players often numbering in the hundreds of thousands. On paper it sounds like a fantastic idea. It is one of the largest massively multiplayer events to have ever taken place, where hundreds of thousands of players actions converge upon the crucible of a series of actions. A truly connective and democratic mode of play that fairly synthesises the inputs of players into one final end product. At times there is an enormous sense of accomplishment here as the audience / players collectively revel in any progression that is made in-game safe in the knowledge that they, in some small sense, contributed towards the outcome. Progress is however, slow.

For all the well made arguments supporting the potential of large scale collective action that I often draw upon here on this very blog, the amalgamation of playful inputs assembled in TPP is nothing short of a mess. At present, the game stands at 8 days and 10 hours of playtime with progress amounting to roughly 3 or so hours of regular play from a single person. In contrast to a collectively intelligent (Levy, 1997) or wise crowd (Surowiecki, 2005) mode of play that TPP represents, it has become emblematic of a chaotic collection of uncoordinated noise. The typical viewing experience of watching ‘Twitch plays Pokemon’ is almost an ironic self-parody of the sharp and focused speed runs built around the ‘twitch’ response that the popular streaming platform borrows its name from. Red, the character everyone collectively controls, is often seen walking around in circles, browsing through useless items, backtracking on himself and effectively carrying out ill fated actions. If there is any sensible and coordinated effort on the part of players to progress through the game it is drowned out as the different inputs, troll commands and stream delay all assemble together to create an eternal struggle that does not look to reside any time soon.

Watching TPP, one can’t help but be reminded of Jaron Lanier’s (2010) critique of the dehumanising quality of digital technologies and in particular, the polemic of collective actions that destroy any sense of cohesion or expression. It may be out of its original context but Lanier’s assertion that “we should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence’ is a theme that instantly resonates when watching TPP play out. As much as TPP may crystallise many wider issues surrounding technological expression and freedom however; it has also grown into an extremely unique social experiment. Outside of the stream and the never ending inputs of the chat box a thriving culture has built up around the game as players attempt to bring order to this seemingly chaotic milieu. Similar to so many fan cultures that attempt to collectively solve seemingly impossible challenges (Jenkins, 2006: 25), the culture surrounding TPP is paradoxically trying to achieve Lanier’s wish for more individual intelligence by overcoming its very own existence as a connective one. In order for progression to be made here some semblance of order is required and in places of discussion such as the thriving subreddit for TPP, that task has begun to be methodically broken down.

TPP strategy

The original developer of this experiment, an Australian programmer who wishes to remain anonymous, has also aided this goal by adding the commands of ‘democracy’ and ‘anarchy’ to help bring further order and control to the game. Anarchy mode is the ‘classic’ mode, where everyone’s inputs are applied immediately. Democracy mode chooses the most popular input provided during a 20 second voting period. Although any consensus on the effectiveness of these commands is still not clear, the distinction of ‘democracy’ and ‘anarchy’ has lead to a division within the community as some wish to democratically progress the game and some wish to see the anarchistic style of play manifest. Identities have begun to form around this distinction and players have begun making posters and supporting cases for various commands or ideological positions on how Red should progress. A parody of a religion has also arisen as players continue to make memes surrounding the commonplace action of Red to attempt to use the Helix fossil in the most inappropriate of places. Reflecting on the winter Olympics that are currently taking place, some posters have remarked that the experience of watching TPP is similar in that one can turn on the stream briefly to catch up with Reds story and due to the ease of participation, it is a story that so many people are now invested in. For the past week, TPP has lifted Pokemon Red to one of the most popular streams on twitchtv and if it remains beyond the control of Nintento who have a history of actively interferring in fan activity, then it’s uncertain how this new mode of play could continue to develop.

maintain-anarchy-pidgetot

What is certain however, is that as painfully slow as progress may be, it is being made here. In Steinkuehler’s account of the playful practices of the early Lineage 2 player base the term ‘interactively stabilised’ is coined to describe the way that rule systems are slowly brought into a state of functional balance by players and sometimes developers who are invested in the game. TPP is a unique example of collective play that finds itself going through that process of interactive stabilisation. Exactly how much order or potential this mode of play carries is unclear but for now at least; its popularity is staggering and as with so many seemingly insurmountable tasks, the devotion shown towards the play through of this unique Pokemon Red game is demonstrating both the enormous dangers and potential of collective online actions.

Bibliography

Jenkins, H. (2008) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, London: New York University Press.

Lanier, J. (2010) You are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Levy, P. (1997) Cyberculture, trans by Bonnono, R. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Steinkuehler, C. (2006) ‘The Mangle of Play’, Games and Culture, Volume 1: 3, pp 119 – 213, July 2006.

Surowiecki, J. (2005) The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smart than the Few, London: Abacus.

Emergence, exploits and the MOBA balancing act

A couple of months ago I gave a talk at the Bristol Games Hub on the on subject of MOBA games and the role that emergent play has in their function, development and popularity. I want to revisit those themes here and touch on some of the perspectives and frameworks I have been recently considering to further understand why some modes of play are considered beneficial (emergent) and some dangerous (exploitative) to the play space.

It is a commonplace topic among players of MOBA games, the same as many online games, to fiercely debate the way developers are reacting to developments taking place within the play space. A quick search of the most talked about topics on the League of Legends reddit page (a discussion space that attracts thousands of daily users) on January 22nd reveals the most talked about topic with over 3000 comments is one regarding developer’s reaction to innovative play. ‘Nerfing every champion that breaks into the competitive scene is getting really old riot’ see’s players discussing in fervent detail the way that the developers Riot Games, are controlling (or ‘nerfing’) aspects of their game in reaction to innovative competitive play. The format here is as follows, if players (in particular professional players as is taken issue with here) prove an aspect of the game to be particularly effective through innovative combinations or strategies then developers will review its properties and decide if that particular aspect requires ‘balancing’. Or in other words, a structural change to the rules. It is this continuous process that utilises the experiences of huge amounts of players that saw the original modification that inspired the MOBA genre, Defence of the Ancients (DotA), become the highly varied and refined game that it became. Unlike the mod however, the MOBA games that exist now are the site of many different value sets as games such as League of Legends or Dota 2 have corporate developers implementing balance changes. It is a subject I have discussed before, however this process of continuous reaction towards developments taking place in the play space represents a highly co-creative (Banks and Potts, 2010) context of play with different approaches being explored towards the regulation of innovative play.

Some developers such as Riot games and their phenomenally popular game League of Legends, a game which now attracts 27 million daily players, are often criticised by players for the way their playful innovations are handled. In the discussion already mentioned, many players criticise Riot Games for destroying elements of the game that have proven effective in professional play and in the process destroyed elements of the game that players have spent non-trivial amounts of time and effort perfecting. Taking issue with the choice of changes made to the game one poster points out:

‘It’s their balance philosophy that irks me. If they only brought overtuned champions down to par then I’d be fine with it. But when Riot nerfs, they often gut a champion in one patch to the point that there’s no reason to play them. So people find new things to replace them and the whole thing continues.

If the changes were ‘balances’ instead of ‘nerfs’ then I could keep playing my favourite champions without that fear of them becoming unviable. But it barely seems worth trying to master a champion when in 2 weeks they may appear in the LCS [professional e-sports league] and get steamrolled in a patch a shortly after.’

 
The expertise or ‘gaming capital’ (Consalvo, 2009: 122 – 23) of players is at stake here as the game changes according to logics that are beyond the players control. As this comment demonstrates, balance changes can often result in a conflict of interests as players, professional players, user generated content producers and the developers all have differing notions of what is considered ‘balanced’. Paul has described this strive towards balance in online games as an underlying ideology of ‘meritocracy’ that is prevalent among players and developers. Similar to any functioning meritocracy, Paul (2012: 147) argues that online games represent a space constantly ‘striving for perfection in balance’ to ensure that ‘skill, rather than birthright, will enable players to succeed’. However as this discussion and MOBA games illustrate, the ‘balance philosophy’ utilised by those controlling the game is an incredibly nuanced and influential process that is seeing differing approaches being utilised towards achieving this ‘meritocracy’[1].

The underlying distinction any balance related decision hinges on here is if the innovating play style in question can be considered an ‘exploit’ (Consalvo, 2009: 114). in the game or an unproblematic form of ‘emergence’ (Juul, 2002). Adapting the term ‘emergence’ from the field of complexity studies Juul (323) describes emergence in games as ‘simple rules combining, leading to variation’ and it is this depth of playful variables that MOBA games embody to an often problematic extent. Emergent play is the core consequence of any game with variation and it represents the ability of players to creatively explore or re-imagine the rules or materials of a game. In many games, in particular sandbox games, all forms of emergence are encouraged due to the ludic (Caillios, 1958: 27) element of the game not manifesting into strict goals of the game. In other words, due to sandbox games representing a blank canvas emergent play can only re-imagine the game rather than challenge it. In contrast, games with strict ludic boundaries such as the arena MOBA’s represent are often less varied, less open to emergence but also fairer and ideally suited to competitive play.

MOBA’s represent a combination of this as their form along with their clear ethos of balance represents an extremely ludic bound genre that accounts for its extreme popularity as an e-sport. Importantly however, it is a genre that allows for an enormous reservoir of potential emergence. As of January 2014, League of Legends contains 116 different player controllable ‘champions’, each of these have champions have four different unique moves that combine with other characters moves. In addition there are a variety of items that further customise and add depth to variety taking place here. Considering every game contains ten different player controlled champions and the dynamics of teamwork vary with every game, the potential for creative expression through emergent possibility is almost endless. User generated content such as guides, videos and live streams demonstrate how far this depth of theorycraft goes as their constant search for new potentialities or particularly strong modes of play continues to emerge.

In this series of player made lectures surrounding League of Legends players discuss in depth the prevailing ways to play the game

MOBA’s may be arenas as their name alludes to, however they offer an incredible degree of space for the emergent practices of players to flourish. On the subject of ‘agon’ or the competitive element in games, Caillios (1958: 30) asserted that ‘a situation [seemingly] susceptible to indefinite repetition turns out to be capable of producing ever new combinations’ and MOBA games have come to crystallise that notion to new extents. It is a depth of complexity and room for emergence that is why the genre is as popular as it is however it is that ultimately ludic form that also accounts for emergent play often being considered exploitative and thus removed, by developers. As approaches towards balance in MOBA games continue to be experimented with it is likely that players, user generated content producers and developers alike will continue to be perplexed, enraged and thoroughly entranced by the combination of variety and balance MOBA’s have come to represent.

Notes

  1. This is a subject I have discussed in more depth in another post, however in the two most popular MOBA games, League of Legends and Dota 2, a different ethos towards balance separates the two games. To put it succinctly, League of Legends favours a more heavily regulated and less varied game whereas Dota 2 favours a more hands off approach towards balance that see’s the playful innovations made by players have a more lasting impact.

Bibliography

Banks, J. and Potts, J. (2010) Co-Creating Games: a Co- Evolutionary Analysis, New Media and Society, Volume 12: 2, pp 253 – 270.

Consalvo, M. (2009) Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, London: MIT Press.

Juul, J. (2002). “The open and the closed: Games of emergence and games of Progression”. In Mayra, F. Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, (pp. 323–329). Tampere, Finland: Tampere University Press.

Paul, A, C. Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analysing Words, Design, and Play, New York: Routledge.

Gaming the gift: The paradox of pay-to-win and why a free and fair game reciprocates participation and creates value

In this post I thought I would share a piece of writing I did a couple of months ago surrounding free to play models and the influential notion of the gift economy. Free to play is a subject that is often contained to the area of monetisation however as this post touches on, the model of monetisation has a far greater influence over the play space and it’s longevity. This is a piece I am looking to expand so watch this space.

 

On the 3rd of June 2013 Wargaming.net, the online games developer of the popular free to play (F2P) title World of Tanks (2011, Wargaming.net) announced a new initiative to remove all ‘pay to win’ (P2W) options from their games (Graft, 2013). ‘P2W’ (also referred to as ‘freemium’) takes many forms however at its core; it stands for a type of F2P game whereby paying external economic money can equate to tangible in-game advantages. It is a difference concerning play that has not always been clearly defined as the F2P model has continued to develop into the dominant mode of online games production that it now is. However as this paper seeks to explore through a comparative case study of P2W social media games and the archetypal ‘fair’ F2P game League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009); the difference between P2W and a fair form of F2P is an extremely contentious issue for contemporary players of online games and the reasons behind that are tied to wider trends in participatory values. Through focusing on the tension between fair F2P and P2W this short essay seeks to confront two separate but interlocking themes. What can this ongoing tension tell us about the priorities of online players in F2P games? More critically however, what does the shift towards a fair form of F2P that relies on the symbolic value of aesthetic virtual goods and the reciprocation of players towards developers represent for wider notions of online value?

From its outset the F2P model has been an example of online participatory action manifest. F2P games can be read as a consequence of the ‘zero-cost’ (Anderson, 2009: 27) distribution online technologies have afforded, it can be read as a reaction towards the widespread piracy or ‘napsterisation’ (Stranglelove, 2005: 56) of traditional means of monetisation and it can be read as a symptom of the turn towards new forms of affective value (Arvidsson and Colleoni, 2012: 139) where corporate and cultural values often converge (see Jenkins, 2008). An archetypal example of all of these factors is League of Legends that begun as a relatively small scale project developed by an indie developer made up of enthusiasts from the modification Defence of the Ancients. Its distribution was entirely the consequence of the Internet as a means of ‘zero-cost’ digital distribution. Its business model was a new form of F2P that made a specific point out of deriding P2W (a term Riot Games coined) as something inherently negative towards the play experience (1). Its developers also retained the ethos of their grassroots background by integrating the experience of its players into the continual evolution of the game (2) and it is all of these factors that have culminated in its existence as the most played online game (Peterson, 2012) and the towering success story of F2P without P2W. Jenkins (2006: 148) suggests that ‘passionate affiliation or brand loyalty’ can ensure ‘the longevity of particular product lines’ and in no other industry does this appear truer than online games, especially fair F2P games. It is this model that developers such as Wargaming.net are now beginning to strive towards however if this recipe for success is so simple, then why do more developers not embrace it? Exploring what it means to create a fair F2P game at the expense of P2W methods of monetisation demands an understanding of how P2W works and why players themselves engage in the activity of paying to win.

In Consalvo’s (2009: 122 – 23) exploration of in-game ‘cheating’ she coins the term ‘gaming capital’ as an adaptation of Bourdieu’s (1984) notion of cultural capital. For Consalvo, possessing gaming capital connotes cultural authenticity upon an individual and often the wish to ‘acquire status or prestige’ leads people to adopting ‘specific techniques or programs to gain that wealth and power more quickly than they would if they didn’t cheat’. Although Consalvo’s investigation of cheating makes no direct reference to P2W, the ramifications of ‘gaming capital’ and the status or prestige that it can connote are extremely relevant in understanding the appeals of P2W for players. In social media games the term ‘whale’ has become popular as a derogatory term for the top two percent of players who drive roughly forty percent of the revenue in P2W games (Carmichael , 2013: 1) such as Legacy of Heroes (5th Planet Games, 2011) or Dragons of Atlantis (Kabam, 2011). ‘Whales’ are players who overtly pay to win at games and as Carmichael (2) has found through interviews with these players, the value of paying to win is inherently social.

“Some of them relish the glory of competition — being the top player or owning the most — just as much as they value the fellowship that comes out of it.” (Carmichael, 2013: 2)

It is here that the purchase of in-game goods that represent status or prestige can be read as a form of gaming capital not altogether alien from notions of cheating in multiplayer games. Although the purchase of in-game advantages or tokens of authenticity is legitimised, indeed encouraged, the effect of players such as ‘whales’ on the overall balance of a game appears to be the equivalent of cheating. Or in other words an extremely serious and detrimental action for the majority of players (Consalvo, 2009: 114). Numerous games researchers (Castronova, 2005: 164; Ham, 2010; Taylor, 2006: 90) have noted that the subject of balance is an extremely important issue for players and with regards to the P2W model of monetisation; it is becoming clear just how compromised that balance almost always is.

Virtual economist Shokrizade (2012: 1) has defined P2W as any game that sells ‘supremacy goods’ to its players. Describing the P2W model in paradoxical terms, Shokrizade describes supremacy goods asa good or service that reduces the value of all other linked goods and services in its space, including itself.’  Similar to the introduction of a foreign species to a balanced ecosystem, the P2W models reliance on supremacy goods as a means of harvesting value out its players is ultimately a self-destructing mechanic in online games. Although the sale of P2W content or supremacy goods is initially valuable to the player who owns it as a form of gaming capital, it alienates the much larger player base who pay in moderation or not at all. The paradox for the P2W model is that the sales of supremacy goods representing economic value for the developers also represent a diminished value of their virtual world, community and by extension, their future supremacy goods. Huizinga (1949: 52) once asserted that the essence of civilised play was abiding by the rules in order to ensure play does not descend into cheating and anarchy. ‘Whalers’, although lucrative in the short term, ultimately destroy the ‘essence of play’ by paradoxically prescribing to the very rules the game requires and therein lies the reason why developers such as ‘Wargaming.net’ are turning away from P2W and towards more sustainable forms of fair F2P.

As touched on, League of Legends represents the archetypal fair F2P model and it has achieved its success through multiple forms of affective address with its players (3). However the focus here is where that relationship starts, with the gift of a free and fair game. In Hyde’s (1983: 4) account of the gift economy as a recurring model of non-commodity trade prevalent in primitive cultures throughout the world, he suggests that the gift is an act that invites reciprocation as social connections are formed around the exchange of gifts. Importantly for Hyde, ‘One man’s gift must not be another man’s capital’; the gift is something inherently separate from economic commodity and innately social in its value. However Hydes notion of a gift economy has since been applied to many new contexts (Barbrook, 1998; Anderson, 2009: 186; Jenkins et al, 2013: 67) and the notion of a gift seems to carry weight in explaining the multifaceted state of value new forms of participatory action represent; such as paying for a game when nothing tangible is gained. Although the sale of ‘gaming capital’ is still the way Riot Games monetises League of Legends, that capital is now purely aesthetic. Changing the way you look is the only tangible difference money can make in-game and for the vast majority of players that is a hugely appealing and admirable stance for a free game to adopt. In comparison to the P2W model that relies on roughly 10% of players to sustain the game (Castronova, 2013), the fair F2P model creates a much more egalitarian, sustainable, meaningful and participatory environment for play, creation and gifts to flow within. Hyde’s notion of a gift may have never been intended for use in this context however the gift of a fair game is effective in reciprocating value as the players receive the ludic and social value the game offers and that value is reciprocated in the form of economic value for the developer.

It is not a model that fits every game and it is likely that as long as the existence of ‘whales’ continues then P2W games will always craft out an existence however as this essay as has argued, that existence is always a fleeting one. At present, the only fair F2P games that survive on this model are the extremely popular ones and as the model continues to mature it may be the case that it is only viable for a select number of games to be both fair and free (Starkey, 2013). However as the Wargaming.net announcement suggests; that risk is worth taking. As participatory content continues to thrive across the Internet and value is increasingly measured in terms of affect, the value of fair play is likely to keep increasingly as players wish to meaningfully interact with each another on equal ground, while reciprocating the morale stance of the developer with monetary purchases of non-consequential goods.

 

Notes

  1. The exact definition of pay-to-win is still contentious for some. In League of Legends some have criticised the game as innately unfair on beginners because you have to play more to unlock more characters and runes (although this is typical of many role playing games). However the most common consensus among players and commentators is that as long as these things can be achieved by playing more, as opposed to externally paying more, then that connotes a free to play model without pay-to-win.
  2. 2.      League of Legends relies on a constantly shifting ‘metagame’ whereby the experience of players is effectively incorporated into the balance and content updates that are continuously made to the game.  
  3. 3.      Riot Games retain an extremely close link with their player base through a number of ways. Beyond the release of a free and fair game, they also frequently reply to comments made in their forum, they support the professional e-sports scene in an unprecedented way through structured salaries and leagues for professional players, they seek to improve the behavior of the community through their ‘tribunal’ system that allows players to regulate in-game behavior themselves and they also justify all of their decisions made with regards to the metagame through open discussion with players.

 

Bibliography

Anderson, C. (2009) Free: How today’s smartest businesses profit by giving something for nothing, New York: Business Books.

Arvidsson, A. and Colleoni, E. (2012) ‘Value in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet’, The Information Society, Issue 28: 135 – 150, 2012.

Barbrook, R. (1998) The Hi-Tech Gift Economy, First Monday. Available at:

http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1517/1432

Bourdieu, P. (2010) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.  

Carmichael, S. (2013) ‘What it means to be a ‘whale’ – and why social gamers are just gamers’, Vulturebeat, March 14th 2013.

Available at: http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/14/whales-and-why-social-gamers-are-just-gamers/

Castronova, E. (2013) ‘Save the Whales! And exploit them I guess’, Terra Nova weblog, May 30th 2013.

Available at: http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2013/05/save-the-whales-and-exploit-them-i-guess.html

Castronova, E. (2005) Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, London: University of Chicago Press.

Consalvo, M. (2009) Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, London: MIT Press.

Graft, K. (2013) ‘Wargaming kicks ‘pay-to-win’ monetization to the curb’, Gamasutra, June 3rd 2013. Available at: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/193520/Wargaming_kicks_paytowin_monetization_to_the_curb.php

Ham, E. (2010) ‘Rarity and Power: Balance in Collectable Object Games’, Games Studies, Volume 10: Issue 1, 2010.

Available at: http://gamestudies.org/1001/articles/ham

Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, London: Routledge.

Hyde, L. (1983) The Gift How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, London: Cannongate.

Jenkins, H. (2006) Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, London: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2008) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, London: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H. Ford, S. Green, J. (2013) Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture¸ New York: New York University Press.

Peterson, S. (2012) ‘League of Legends and Riot’s Play for Global Domination’, Gamesindustry International, 17th October, 2012.

Available at:  http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-10-16-riot-president-make-the-s-in-riot-games-mean-something

Shokrizade, R. (2012) ‘Next Generation Monetization: Supremacy Goods’, Gamasutra, September 6th, 2012.

Available at: http://gamasutra.com/view/feature/177190/next_generation_monetization_.php

Stranglelove, M. (2005) The Empire of Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement, London: University of Toronto Press.

Starkey, D. (2013) ‘Free-to-play “apocalypse” on the horizon, says Mythic co-founder’, PC GAMER, April 13th, 2013.
Available at: http://www.pcgamer.com/2013/04/13/free-to-play-apocalypse-on-the-horizon/

Taylor, T, L. (2006) Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Gaming Culture, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Regulating playful ecosystems: an exploration of innovation and balance

In this post I thought I would share some thoughts I have recently had surrounding issues of balance and regulation that underpin playful online ecosystems. With a focus on MOBA games, I look at how innovation is defined in this new playing environment and how those innovations are causing a renegotiation of the role of players and developers. Weighing up two distinctive approaches towards regulation of playful online ecosystems, this post goes on to ask what can be learned from similar discussions of balance and innovation.

Cheating or Innovation: defining fair play in online games

 The latest major Dota 2 tournament was met with a huge reception and the largest prize pool in e-sports history to date. For the developers Valve, the tournament was a huge success and another stepping stone in e-sports rapid rise towards mainstream popularity and acceptance. However Valve also made another and no less profound statement of intent with the tournament that marks them as a distinctive force in the e-sports and wider gaming industry and that is one of emphasising the generative power of play. This statement of intent became clear after a controversial incident occurred with the Ukrainian team Natus Vincere who employed a strategy that many considered to be a ‘bug’, ‘glitch’ or ‘exploit’, or at least, certainly to an outsiders view. The strategy in question was the now infamous ‘fountain hook’ Pudge / Chen combination that utilises a unique ability of the two champions (Pudges ‘Meat Hook’ and Chens ‘Test of Faith’) to create an effectively unstoppable move that pulls an enemy hero into the certain death of the base fountain if executed correctly. The ‘if’ word is key here. This was an extremely hard combination to successfully employ that not only relies on a perfection of team unity in combining moves, but also on a huge level of individual skill on the part of Natus Vincere’s ‘Dendi’ in landing the initial Meat Hook from Pudge. However for the average spectator, many of whom were from a League of Legends background (1), it looked like an (albeit fun) exploit in the game and one that should be removed. By all accounts the move was an exploit. Valve and Dota 2 lead designer ‘IceFrog’ never intended for the abilities to be used this way and as such, it was proving controversial. However it is important to remember that cheating is, as Kerr argues (2011: 30), a ‘negotiated practice’ that is always reliant on context.

Taylor (2006: 69) has described the notion of ‘cheating’ as dependant on the classification of players themselves as either ‘casual’ or ‘power’ players. For the power players, the ones pushing at the boundaries of a games premise and rules, ‘cheating’ is a very blurred concept as if the game allows it, it is seen as fair play in their context of ‘power’ play. Professional players playing for potentially millions of dollars, needless to say, fit this category. Indeed, notions of cheating with regards to the players themselves are a subject almost (2) entirely absent from the e-sporting arena with descriptions such as skill, innovation and metagame development all being preffered than what may once have been described as ‘cheating’. Conversely to traditional games or sports (Huizinga, 1949: 52), the pressure of fairness is put entirely onto the developers to ensure the play environment is suitably balanced enough for competitive play. However Valves response to the controversial ‘fountain hook’ was not like the one typical of game developers such as Riot Games who continually balance and refine their MOBA League of Legends against perceived ‘exploits’. Valves response, much to the surprise of the huge international audience, was simply to leave it in and let the players figure out a counter of their own.

Although this may seem like a minor footnote in the larger picture of a huge event, this decision marks an approach that defines Valve as a distinct force in the competitive gaming space as it effectively empowers their players in the ongoing evolution of the game in a way that no other online developer does. It should not come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with Valve and IceFrog that this stance was adopted however. Valve’s history of empowering players in the creation of their games and their hiring of IceFrog as lead designer for Dota 2, an ex player / modder himself, is crucial here. IceFrogs influence on the original DotA was essential to the games substance and identity. However in a similar manor to this example, IceFrog adopted a relaxed approach to the way DotA governered its metagame, preferring to take a backseat and see what solutions players could develop first before taking actions such as ‘balancing’ a controversial development in the metagame. For years, this approach was hugely popular with fans and despite constant cries of ‘unbalanced’ or ‘over powered’ which are seemingly always the case within MOBA games (see any forum, discussion space or in-game chat from frustrated players), IceFrogs approach endured and was crucial in making DotA develop in the multifaceted way it did. Now contrast this with Riot Games approach to what is now undisputedly the most popular game on the PC and there is a huge contrast.

IceFrog versus Morello: the question of regulation in playful ecosystems

 In contrast to IceFrog’s approach, the lead content designer for League of Legends, Morello, has a notorious reputation within the community for destroying facets of the game that players innovate. To take an example of a comparably contentious development in the metagame within League of Legends, for example that of ‘AP Tryndamere ’, the resulting reaction from Riot Games was one of swift severity in controlling a contentious development in the metagame. A player solution, if one existed, was never given a chance in Morello’s approach and now ‘AP Tryndamere is a player innovation of the past, no longer a viable option for competitive play. The value of player originality, innovation and participation is diminished here in favour of a more widespread acceptance of what is considered ‘fair’ within the wider gaming culture (a common criticism labelled at League of Legends as opposed to Dota 2 is that it caters for ‘casual’ play in a way Dota 2 does not, their approach to balancing against perceived exploits or ‘cheating’ certainly supports this). Although it is important to remember that League of Legends is economically successful, phenomenally popular and the largest competitive computer game in the world, this approach to player innovations does seem incredibly short sighted when comparing it with wider notions participation and online value creation.

On the subject of corporate tied knowledge communities Lévy (1997: 236) has claimed that ‘By preventing the knowledge space from becoming autonomous, they deprive the circuits of commodity space…of an extraordinary source of energy’. For Lévy, the freedom of participants to act freely in the way they want and not be constricted by any overarching power is essential to ushering in a new form of creative intelligence he dubbed ‘collective intelligence’. Although Lévy never discussed the application of these ideas into game systems, the underlying logic here is applicable. Integral to the concept of collective intelligence is a position that has been repeated many times since with reference to games, that the most profound innovations happen in a ‘circular’ fashion (Kerr, 2011: 31) or through  what Banks and Humphreys (2008) have described as interwoven ‘hybrid relations’. Game developers must work in tandem with their players in the ongoing evolution of gaming ecosystems because the innate time, passion and connected expertise of the people playing cannot be understated. In order for games to achieve a sustained level of grassroots innovation, games developers, the same as intellectual property rights holders or digital platform holders, should arguably grant the same level of autonomy given to participatory actions (Jenkins, 2006: 37; Bruns, 2006: 275) with regards to their lasting impact. What is at stake here is not the act of play itself but rather the ongoing repercussions of that play. Innovative play such as the examples taken here have the ability to add undoubted depth, development and longevity to a game however that level of impact is decided by the developer.

Both Valve’s IceFrog and Riot Games Morello embody different approaches to balance. However that ideal level of developer involvement is still a subject being defined. Comparing innovative play with intellectual property, although seemingly disparate, provides an intriguing comparison and one that suggests autonomy should be given to players to regulate their own ecosystem of ludic balance. It is only through this approach that the innate expertise, creativity and gaming capital (Consalvo, 2009: 122 – 23) of the people playing can flourish into lasting structural changes in a games metagame. Lawrence Lessig (2004, 1999), another critic of intellectual property laws and a major proponent of the free culture movement is absolute in this position towards deregulation as he has claimed;

‘Overregulation stifles creativity. It smothers innovation. It gives dinosaurs a veto over the future. It wastes an extraordinary opportunity for democratic creativity that digital technology enables.’

IceFrog’s approach with DotA and subsequently Valves Dota 2 certainly supports this position and when IceFrog was recently asked about who should control the balance of these games his answers were strikingly similar;

The players. That’s how games like basketball are balanced. Each generation has its necessities, so the rules are always evolving. It’s the same with Dota.

Indeed the subject of balance itself is for IceFrog oxymoronic, as he argues;

Balance is the arch-enemy of art and creativity. Creativity comes from a conflict of different ideas. Controversy is a natural part of creativity. Accidents like Blink Dagger + Epicenter would never surface in a “balanced” game.

IceFrogs assertion that a deregulation of ‘balance’ from developers is essential in harnessing the innate potential of players towards the evolution of the ‘art’ of gaming systems is a subject I and others have touched on before and IceFrogs position echoes that of Lévy and Lessig, however it is important to remember both positions carry merit here. Morello’s position towards balance, although it goes against the wider logics of participatory value creation touched on here is nonetheless phenomenally successful on multiple levels. It is important to remember that, for the argument supporting deregulation of player innovations put forward here, that play is still an innately participatory act. Play, even for Morello and Riot Games, has still been a significant driving force in defining the metagame of League of Legends. The art of balance for Morello and Riot Games is as I have argued before, an innately co-creative process of advances and retreats from the developers in adopting influential player innovations. This can be seen in a core facet to the League of Legends ‘metagame’, that of the positions of ‘attack damage carry’ and ‘support’. These positions that are now a core facet of the game that developers design specifically around was originally an innovating European style of play that surfaced during season one (it played a significant part in Europe’s season one dominance). In this example and many more, it is players that have defined an aspect of the game and it is their innovations that have been built around subsequently by Riot Games. So although there is a clear difference of ideology between IceFrog and Morello, they both acknowledge the role of the player as integral; they just do so to different extremes.

In many ways these differences of approach with regards to balance have similarities with many wider discussions of similar subjects throughout wider society. The classic oppositional positions of economic philosophers Fredrich Hayak and Maynard Keynes is in many ways similar to that of IceFrog and Morello. Hayak, similar to IceFrog, saw economic growth and prosperity as the result of deregulation and a total empowerment of the potential of people to effectively control themselves and thus innovate the wider structures of society. Keynes on the other hand, saw the role of government (through regulation and stimulus spending) in promoting economic growth as indispensible in the same way that Morello see’s the developer’s role in balancing the metagame. Both positions have since been open to a multitude of criticisms. Hayekian economics has been criticised as promoting a survival of the fittest society that ultimately comes to embody the ideologies of social Darwinism. Keynes has been criticised for curving the economic / innovative potential of people through the regulation of their profits. Although I am only touching on these influential economic approaches in both examples it is easy to see the similarities to IceFrogs innovative player driven, but hardcore and uneven gaming system ecosystem, to Morello’s extremely balanced and player friendly but arguably less innovative and risky model.

The stakes of this comparison may be different however it is not worth discounting the comparison completely. Games, especially MMOG’s such as MOBA’s attract a huge and fervently dedicated player base who scrutinise the games details at length. Cook (2013) recently made the compelling case for games as an exercise in mastery through the playing of single games for large amounts of time. For Cook games in a pre-electronic era were an activity of mastery, defined by lifelong play and a social identity tied to the play of that single game. The onset of electronic games and subsequent influx of single player games (see Herz, 1997) created a market that relied on the sales of multiple games. However with the onset of free to play models and continued development of games via content updates, games such as League of Legends and Dota 2 mark a return of the single mastery focused and identity driven game of that were typical of a pre-industrial era. The stakes for players of these games is much higher than the typical experience of a computer game as huge amounts of non-trivial play and an incredibly pervasive sense of identity is at stake here. The same issues of fairness and innovation that underpin larger economic debates are not entirely alien from the ones now taking place in playful online ecosystems and it is possible that any widely accepted model may be just as illusive.

It may be entirely too soon or indeed it may never be possible to say with any certainty that one approach is more effective than another. However as touched on here, online games, in particular the MOBA genre, are bringing these discussions regarding playful ecosystems and their management to new levels of scrutiny and severity. Given that the growth of these games does not look to reside any time soon it is likely that these debates are ones that will also keep resurfacing as players and developers both attempt to negotiate their role in the increasingly complex milieu of playful online ecosystems.

moba map

Notes

1. Riot Games cancelled their own LCS series events which usually draw hundreds of thousands of views in respect for the Dota 2 event. This partnership between Valve and Riot Games is one that looks to continue as the two developers continue to grow the e-sports space and in this case, it meant a lot of the League of Legends audience switching over to Dota 2.

2. ‘Cheating’ in an e-sports context is a discussion that has a far less prominent role than in other sporting contexts. There are very few examples where accusations of cheating can be pinned onto the players, one example that arose last year is notable however it is very much the exception. In comparison to the debate surrounding diving for example, a discussion that is constantly discussed with within sports such as football or basketball, similarly contentious acts that challenge notions of fair play are absent from e-sports. Any issues surrounding fair play that do exist, for example with the ‘fountain hook’, are pinned entirely onto the developers. The technological properties of an e-sports context allow no room for doubt or subjectivity with regards to in-game actions and as a result any contentious issues are a problem with the system (by extension the developers) rather than the players.

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