I've been sitting on this one for a few weeks, not really knowing when the best time to post it. The game released this week. Perhaps it's fitting now? While at OGDC I attended what was for me, one of the most interesting sessions in my 7+ years in games. It was a psychological approach to reducing cheating and griefing in games. Cheating people have worked on over the years, but griefing from a psychological approach? Never that I've seen. Shadowrun is designed with certain principles in mind. Namely, that if you give people a set of rules and expectations in any given situation and they know what those are, they'll follow them. If they know that there are consequences and rewards, they'll work to earn the rewards and avoid the consequences. Simple stuff. Imagine if it works...
The session was held by Bill Fulton, the designer of the matchmaking system, UI, economy and a whole other plethora of player interaction systems for Shadowrun. He's trained in Social Psychology and is a founder of the User-Testing Group for Microsoft Games, which uses psychological research methods to get feedback that improves the usability and fun of games published by Microsoft. Basically, his work stems from the idea that people aren't naturally jerks (well, some are). But given the right situation, they'll become one.
Say...the anonymity of the internet combined with an audience and throw in a little competition...just ask Penny Arcade. (Warning: Strong Language) Though Gabe and Tycho forgot the competition. Gotta win!
How to proceed...
Bill told a social psychology urban legend that really sums things up:
After WWII, the age of commercial flight began and people were flying into what was to become JFK. They'd land, go outside and need to find a taxi. One gentleman comes outside to see fistfights everywhere and police arresting people. Total chaos. He tells the officers, "With $100 and two days I can solve your problem." They don't believe him but nothing else has worked so they agree to let him try. He does two things: he paints lines on the curb and a line on the sidewalk and places two signs, Taxi Lane and Line for Taxis. Both the taxi drivers and the people waiting now know what they are expected to do.
When entering Live for the first time we had no rules, no expectations of behavior and no consequences for our actions. Chaos ensued and now years later we accept it as normal. Asking for civility will only get you mocked. But, cheating isn't tolerated. Cheating is breaking the system in place and that a player will scream vociferously about (when it's someone else doing it). Just not...behaving like a jerk. That's ok.
On to the design for Shadowrun...
Cheating, why do we cheat? Well, it's fun...the challenge of it. And to gain respect or be envied either for the skill of the cheat or the results if it's not known you gained them through cheating. And it's a bit of an arms race because really, it's a tech issue. You can build better tech, but that creates a bigger challenge. You can't really remove the challenge; but, you can remove the brag, the "respect".
To do this, they have no visible skill or rank. There are no persistent stats. Each game has its own set of stats but they don't mean anything beyond that specific session. This reduces the chance of envy. You can still talk about how great things were in that particular game but once you've moved on to the next game, your stats are wiped.
And there are no ladders. No comparison to another player over time. Just in that one instance.
Also, you only see your stats while you're waiting for the next game to queue because there are no lobbies. The game itself auto-balances the player mix and then throws you into the next game. If you do find a way of cheating, you may end up playing with the person you just played with and they may recognize the behavior pattern. Over time, they could report you. This in turn will risk a ban.
It's a simple thing, no stats. But, if you've got nowhere to brag and nothing to, where's the advantage to cheating the system? The hackers? They'll always hack...the tech guys will have to work on that.
Griefing isn't necessarily the bigger challenging but what I find interesting is that it's something that as a culture, we've simply ignored. Which is rather why we grief in the first place: to avoid feeling ignored; to feel powerful without the repercussions. *flexes her muscles*
By doing away with the concept of lobbies entirely, Shadowrun has done two things: you'll never be ignored - particularly by some 13-year old on a power trip. Two problems solved in one fell swoop just by removing a lobby. But not only that, you don't spend 30% of your time searching for a game you want to play (you can still play private games with your friends). You simply go from game to game to game.
And you know that whole, "Dude, you suck!" attitude that persists. Doesn't matter if you do, but if your team lost, it's your fault. There are very robust stats. They're simply not persistent. Even though you may not have contributed the most direct kills there will be something you'll have been the best at - there are a lot of ways to have contributed. Because you jump from one game to the next, bad mouthing your team mate may not be the best idea; he could just as easily be your team mate again, or your enemy.
And what about that "verbal griefing", to put it politely? Some days, it just gets old. As Bill Fulton asked, "Would you really want your mother playing on Xbox Live?" Uh, no. I'm not sure I'd want my dad. In Shadowrun, each time you speak there is an icon indicating exactly who is speaking. Become obnoxious enough and your teammates may mute you. More so? They'll just kick you. And I did say teammates because cross-team voice simply isn't allowed during a match. It serves no purpose except to taunt and anger. Once the match is over, you can talk freely. But during? Keeping it down reduces friction.
There are some hefty penalties for friendly fire as well. Shadowrun requires money in order to upgrade your weapons. It's one of the "wins" you get from playing. Hitting a teammate reduces the money you earn. Killing them? Bill stated that if you killed a teammate, you could kill the entire opposing team single-handedly and still only break even. There's no advantage to griefing your own team in this manner. The closest you could do would be to jump in front of friendly fire but then they just mark you as "do not play" from that point on. Problem solved.
There's no way to know (yet) how this will work out. In my opinion it's all pretty obvious but the, I'm a parent. Redirection, reward vs. punishment - these are part of my daily life. Applying them to adults (and a whole lot of kids online) just may not have occurred to anyone in the past. But if it works, imagine how much more fun games will be. Imagine if game companies started treating us like customers who paid them dollars and not like players; they want our dollars, they want us to return! So they make the place where we play somewhere we like to be. Somewhere fun.
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.