Criticism from Within

Spec Ops

Spec Ops: The Line

For the past few days, I’ve been watching as my boyfriend tore through Spec Ops. It’s a remarkable game: beautiful graphics, realistic characters who are truly affected by their choices, and a combat system that works very well with the player. However, while all of these factors are important, the most significant aspect of the game is its ability to force gamers to take another look at violence.

Most war games alienate the victims and enemies of the player. The targets you face are just that: inanimate objects, ones without realistic goals or emotions. In Spec Ops, this is not the case. The enemy you’re fighting isn’t comprised of random “bogies”, but is, in fact, a mixture of civilians, some foreign militia, and soldiers that used to be on your side. On top of this, they all have goals that are independent of “kill the player”, and the major characters in question all have proper reasoning for why they are doing what they’re doing.

Now, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’m going to keep this rather close-lipped. Those of you who’ve played Spec Ops will know what I’m talking about exactly, though. Perhaps the most meaningful scene in the game is a criticism of a popular airborne sequence that occurs in every Modern Warfare title. You are treated to a view of dots from above, each of these vague shapes representative of a person. In most war games, you’re simply told to wipe out the dots and never have to see the consequences of your actions.

This is all your fault.

This is all your fault.

That’s not the case in Spec Ops.

In Spec Ops‘ version of this sequence, the player is forced to walk through the carnage. Not only that, but you also learn a heartbreaking lesson about shooting first – that bit I told you about how the “enemy” has realistic goals and isn’t comprised entirely of mindless villains? Yeah, that’ll punch you in the gut, here.

In the United States, at least, Spec Ops is the perfect starter for a discussion the industry has needed for a long time. We are often dismissive of conversations surrounding violence in gaming, but there comes a point where, regardless of your stance, that violence needs to be dissected and understood. Games don’t kill people, but they do sometimes train us to think of other people as inanimate objects; a little reminder that the “tangos” you shoot in games are representative of people just like you is key to resisting this.

Long story short? Play the hell out of Spec Ops. It’ll make you think. Just remember at the end: You Are Still A Good Person.

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What Makes A Friendly PVP Environment?

SO ANGRY.

SO ANGRY.

A common issue that has plagued MMOGs and online tournament-style games since the birth of Starcraft lies in the gamers themselves. More often than not, we tend to take our games a little too seriously and get caught up in the moment, forgetting that there are actual people behind the characters you see on your screen. It’s understandable to an extent; you’re in a competitive environment, facing against people you’ve never seen and will very likely never meet in your entire life. So what’s stopping you, then, from telling them off when they mess up or, heaven forbid, kill your beloved set of pixels?

One would hope common human decency, but I think we’re all guilty of a little online aggression now and then (particularly those of us who played the original Diablo – permadeath, anyone?). The big question is why this happens. Is it solely the gift of anonyminity, or is there another force driving gamers to act unpleasantly towards one another?

I would argue that the situation is trifold. Yes, you have the anonymous factor; when there are no perceived consequences, it’s in human nature to do whatever the hell we want without regard towards other people. That’s what laws and social pressures are for in the “real world.” However, if that were a uniform case, every single forum on the Internet would be filled with belligerent users.

So what makes video games special? Why is it so uncommon to go through an online session without getting called “fag,” “retard,” or “slut”?

Two things, in my opinion: 1. the game’s offered means of communication, and 2., the community that the game’s genre attracts. Most of us are familiar with the hostile individuals that FPS games attract – in particular, those that are on the XBOX 360 appear to be even more aggressive than others. My theory for this is that there really is a lack of in-game communication; most of how you’re interacting with other players is reliant entirely upon headsets and, well, your gun. When there’s a lack of friendly actions presented in a video game, there is a lack of comradery. You can’t hit a button and give your fellow players a thumbs up, or say you’re sorry. Tension builds, and eventually, players become overly aggressive, to the point where they’re screaming obscenities at each other.

Compare this to, say, Resident Evil 6. I’ve been watching my boyfriend play online co-op in this game for the past couple weeks, and I’ve noticed something surprising: people are really utilizing the “good job” emote you can use in-game. This feature allows you to make your character give your teammates a thumbs up, a little reminder that you appreciate them helping you out. I believe this type of option has, in turn, resulted in a much nicer response from players who are also using headsets. I have yet to hear a single gamer yell something obscene at him. Mostly, all I’ve heard is, “hey” and remarks upon the campaign they are playing.

A pat on the back alone can’t be causing such a great difference, though, can it? Well, that’s where the community comes in. Let’s look at three examples here: the traditional FPS, the co-op RPG, and MMOGs.

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The Traditional FPS

As mentioned previously, this is the genre that attracts the most hostility between players. There have been many more in-depth studies on the subject, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to be as brief as possible here. It’s my belief that there a multitude of factors are pushing FPS players to be more aggressive: the fact that you’re playing the character in first-person being a major candidate. Players feel more attached to their character since it is a digital representation of themselves, rather than just a pre-established character in a game. Young males in particular are more likely to exhibit aggression and increased heart-rates after playing FPS games. Although FPS players tend to play less hours than gamers that favor RPGs (an average of 16 hours per week vs. 23-35), the time they spend in-game is much more heated and competitive. Placing young, red-blooded men in a competitive environment is naturally going to create more hostility – giving them the ability to communicate solely through headsets and pixellated guns leads to the logical conclusion that there’s going to be some pretty naughty words yelled into the microphones.

The Co-Op RPG

Unfortunately, due to its less volatile nature, there aren’t too many articles for me to cite in reference to co-op RPGs; most of what I’m saying here is going to be from extensive experience instead. I already talked a bit about Resident Evil 6, which has a quiet but relatively friendly player base. I’m going to mention a two other games here that I’ve been playing during the past few weeks (only two, again for the sake of  brevity): Borderlands 2 and, more recently, Chivalry.

Borderlands 2, from my experience, has a really excellent community. There are groups on Steam devoted to friendly players adding each other, along with the usual (groups based on nationality, sex, etc.). Every co-op experience I’ve had in this game has been pleasant – players are friendly and seem to enjoy each other’s company. Why? The game is based entirely around co-op. You’re fully capable of soloing it, but Gearbox Software focused strongly on developing a game where players were encouraged to help each other in co-op. The rewards are simple, but have a large impact: more players means more enemies, more loot, and in general, more fun. You can talk to each other both via text and headsets, which I believe decreases the anonymity factor. Hell, if you’re a Siren, you can even shoot your team-mates to heal them.

Chivalry is a new game that also, so far, appears to have a great community for much of the same reasons. It combines being able to communicate via text and headsets with positive in-game gestures, such as yelling incomprehensibly to rally your team. It is, in short, funny as hell to see a bunch of medieval dudes running around screaming like idiots; most of the players are laughing and, as a result, talking to each other in a much more pleasant manner than if the game had only, say, a taunt option. Humor does a lot to reduce hostility.

The MMOG

Finally, the MMOG. This is perhaps the most complicated example of a gaming community. Demographics for MMOGs are much more diverse than in FPSes, but as we all know, women can be pretty catty in games, themselves (which is getting into inter and intrasexual competition, a whole ‘nother topic that has entire academic endeavors devoted to it). If you login to League of Legends, you’re probably going to have a much different experience than if you’re playing  Guild Wars 2 (LoL being famous for its absurdly hostile playerbase, whereas GW2 is more levelheaded).

The reason for this is due to the wildly different natures of one MMOG to the next. All MMOGs follow a  basic formula, but they are sub-divided into so many different genres and markets that you end up with a really broad spectrum of players. Said players are presented with a myriad number of ways to communicate, without time restraint or other pressures. In short, you can talk about whatever the hell you want whenever the hell you want. A lot of strong friendships and even marriages are formed from MMOGs, although you can get the opposite, too. If you want a wild card – a control in an experiment about hostility – an MMOG would be a good choice.

A recent concept that’s been introduced into PVP in MMOGs is the random assignment of teams. For example, in a more traditional MMOG, you’ll select your side and stick to it. You play with the same people against the same people over and over. What does this mean? You can be an asshole, and people on your side will support you. However, more recent MMOGs have created a system where players either get to pick  between two sides and switch around, or are tossed with other teams at random. This eliminates the group-think situation introduced by the previous method, which means hey, if you’re a prick to that guy in round 1? He might be on your side in round 2. It behooves the player to be more mature when dealing with others.

The fact that MMOGs can appeal to any market based on their content makes them a great comparison for the other genres presented in this article. Go out and try it yourself – do a little PVP in SWTOR, then compare it to WoW, and see what you get.

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In conclusion, it all depends on the environment. Developers could make a huge change in gaming communities worldwide if they promoted more positive reinforcement techniques in games, rather than supporting hostile competition. Keep in mind that that’s not a plea for them to eliminate competition altogether – online games would be incredibly boring without it. What we need are more games that encourage players via in-game gestures and a mixed community to be more polite to the people they meet.

We all need a little reminder now and then that we’re playing with real people. Developers, this is your time – help us keep on track with positive features, and everyone will profit (both emotionally and uh, monetarily, hint hint) from it.