The Social Order Behind Video Games
By Jon Jeckell
Multiplayer video games rise as players flock to their virtual worlds only to fall because they are no longer fun to play. This often happens because players become disgusted with the behavior of other players and it becomes impossible to play without someone else’s antics ruining their adventure and escapism. Perhaps a serious study of what works and doesn’t work in bringing order to multi-player video games would help us understand why certain laws work, how gangs form, and how to bring lasting peace in international conflicts. Video game companies reap enormous amounts of data and record interactions between players in an intricate detail that cannot be matched in the real world. Sociologists and anthropologists could learn about how and why rules work to bring about social order in artificial worlds where the rules are completely different from reality, or perhaps why humans developed rules and social order in the first place and set aside chaos.
Video games often become big hits in the first place because of imaginative and amazing world building that allow players to do things they cannot do in the real world. For example, many games not only allow you to kill other characters but explicitly reward you for doing so. For a time, a player can escape real-world limitations and feel powerful as they explore a new environment and experience new things. Some games, such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild feature enormous worlds and a seemingly limitless combination of adventures against non-player characters generated by the game AI. But eventually the novelty wears off. Multiplayer games with real human adversaries present more of a dynamic and interesting challenge.
A new order creeps in, however, as they encounter other players that challenge their ability to do what they want, and eventually their social status may fall as much more talented players become too powerful for them to contend with. Some players also go too far with throwing social norms and real-world laws out the window to bully other players, or cheat to gain status.
Some game systems have recognized the impacts of cyber-bullying or miscreants running amok and have implemented various rules to keep this in check over time, but the bad behavior adapts and seems to continue to get worse. Once a platform is infested with bad actors, players flee it because it is no longer fun to play and the fortune made from online subscriptions flees with them. A friend recently told me he stopped playing a recent very popular video game set in an anarchic environment where the rules allow you to kill anyone because he gets sniped by someone random before he can even leave town to start an adventure.
But early video game environments limited players only by what was physically possible to do in the game. This began to change with multi-player games, particularly when video game violence spilled over to the real world. Some game platforms started monitoring game play and added mechanisms for reporting abusive players, sometimes resulting in bans from the platform. Some of the worst offenders merely adapted and shrugged off the loss. Others used the reporting mechanisms to take down popular and powerful legitimate players.
But deliberate misbehavior isn’t the only thing that spoils the fun. Players become increasingly powerful the more they succeed, so a power law effect takes hold, snowballing the capabilities of the best players quickly out of reach of more average players. Sharp distinctions can develop that make marginally better players completely untouchable. This fuels the drive to cheat, which can take many forms. Some players find loopholes in the game, others buy increased status from other players online. Some platforms automatically ban players that cheat, but this can be difficult to detect and only makes the cheating adapt accordingly. Some gamers have dealt with this by posting the names of suspected cheats online, and some gaming systems place a bounty on suspected cheaters, providing extra rewards for killing their characters whenever they see them.
Video game developers spend enormous amounts of money developing games and many of them depend on the success of these blockbusters. The up front sale of the games themselves don’t cover the expenses of developing them and they also count on the continued revenue from subscriptions to the online environment. Consequently most video game developers have added legitimate mechanisms for players to buy upgrades within the game. Unfortunately this has largely backfired as most players simply want to play the game for fun without constantly having to pay for things that were once a normal part of the experience, and many perceive that players who could not earn their status are buying it at their expense. Many players quit in disgust after being defeated by inferior players who beat them simply because of purchased upgrades.
Sandbagging is another form of cheating found in multiplayer games with team play. A player will join a team under false pretenses and play much less well than normal to help his or her real team win the tournament, much like a boxer taking a fall. This is also difficult to prove, but some gaming systems are using statistics to ferret these players out.
Many people play online video games with their friends for fun, but also because they are people they trust. Some video games have teams that developed among strangers that have strong internal rules and enforcement that can make some of these teams very potent for everyone in it.
Players face no consequences for dying in most games, but in others they can lose equipment or money. Some people in Eve Online spend substantial amounts of real money building space ships and can lose everything in one bad battle. Newer players are particularly vulnerable against more experienced players, and ships rapidly become more powerful and advanced the more the player invests in them. So players are forced to cooperate with others early on simply to survive. Even powerful teams avoid unnecessary battles unless the payoff is worth the potential losses, and often form alliances and treaties with other teams.
Some games have enhanced this effect by making performance more dependent on the performance of the team than the individual. For example, Call of Duty and Halo feature team play, but the characters fight as individuals with interchangeable roles. Although players can truly try to play as a team, re-spawn points are random, so players are continually scattered throughout the game. While players can pick up different weapons to temporarily play specialized roles, the lack of mutual support and other aspects limit the utility of doing this, so most players select what is generally considered the optimum weapons and individual tactics for the setting instead of functioning as a real team, like a US Army squad or platoon. In contrast, the Battlefield series has distinct roles that reward and reinforce effective team play. Some characters are engineers who are the only members who can eliminate certain obstacles or repair equipment, medics who can revive injured teammates, machine gunners, snipers, etc. Teams that trust each other and have performed well together in the past will tend to look for each other in the future or form permanent teams. The more they play together the more effective they become as they specialize and can anticipate each other’s moves.
Video games were worth $30.4B in 2016 in the US alone, which was up 6% from 2015. Internationally it was more like $108.7B in 2017 and is expected to easily reach $128B by 2020. Yet many video game developers are going under when games flop. Unlike the hit or miss nature of the movie industry that are one time encounters, some of these games are initially roaring successes and should be blockbuster hits, but later fall apart. This often occurs because of the dynamics among the players that stems from social patterns that emerge from the rules of how they can and should interact to be successful in the game. If they are not doing so already, video game developers should bring in sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, international relations experts, or other consultants who understand group dynamics. But these experts would need to throw out what they know about the real world and evaluate how the realities and rules in a video game shape group interactions inside of it. What makes a video game playable and interesting? How do you bring in novices and get them hooked without being dominated by more advanced players? How do you use group behavior to reinforce constructive norms and rules that keep people playing? The video game industry has enormous stakes in finding out.
But government agencies, law enforcement, aid workers, academia, and others also have a huge stake in understanding it too. Video games could provide unique laboratories to provide insights into what really curbs bad behavior, sometimes much more powerfully than the law or consequences stemming from it. While some games allow and reward random killing and looting, environments like this is rare in the real world even in the total absence of government. Even the most powerful criminals band together with others to form gangs and other organizations with powerful bonds of trust, and out of that trust comes a form of order. When tightly bound groups encounter each other those bonds can become even stronger as they depend on each other to defeat their adversaries. Or the bond can be extended to form alliances. Understanding how and why this happens in greater detail, particularly in unique environments that may not bear any resemblance to the real world, could provide profound insights into making lasting peace.