“Duel me, noob.” It sounds like a juvenile display of aggression, a challenge issued in a myriad of games but one I hear most often in League of Legends. It demands a demonstration of skill on an isolated battleground, no help from teammates, no backing down. This duel is set in a digital riverbed of Summoner’s Rift, but it’s preceded by the gentlemanly combat of 19th century duelists, who in the early hours of dawn would meet to resolve quarrels in a deadly game of pistols. Are the two so far removed?
For today’s video game combatants, the duel is a proving ground, an opportunity to dominate your opponent and most importantly gain honor relative to another through martial prowess. Our violent aristocrats of yore partook in potentially deadly shoot-outs to (in the most basic sense) maintain existing honor. The difference is an important one. Proving your value via combat, as Kwame Anthony Appiah describes in his book The Honor Code, could be considered a form of “competitive honor, which comes in degrees; but there is also what we could call ‘peer honor,’ which governs among equals.” We have long since abandoned the duel as a socially acceptable method of conflict resolution and notions of honor today often carry negative connotations. Even so, there is something in notions of honor we may yet salvage for video game culture.
In 2012, Riot Games implemented their own Honor system in League of Legends to shift player behavior away from hostility and aggression toward more sportsmanlike conduct. The company is not the first to tackle player attitudes, but their method is indicative of a prevailing approach: reinforce positive behavior with in-game rewards (in this case, special ribbons). This method of engineering player behavior relies on peer respect earned via positive play, still a form of competitive honor in that you earn rewards slowly and by degree. The honor system in League of Legends is a forceful incentivization of what should be normative behavior.
For Riot, and many other studios tackling this issue, the goal is to create a safe and welcoming space by normalizing positive interactions between players, to create something more akin to the honor system of our gentlemanly 19th century duelists. Anyone, whether they are first time players or not, are worthy of respect. As Appiah describes, this is “respect among equals, grounded not in esteem but in recognition. You owed the same courtesy to one gentleman as you owed to all others.”
Creating an Honor World
Of course the old English duels on Appiah’s mind were between people of certain social standing, primarily men of wealth. Honor was not equally distributed or recognized. That being said, those within what Appiah calls an “honor world” still abide by an unspoken code of behavior. “To say that people have honor,” he explains, “is to say that they are entitled to respect according to the codes of their honor world.”
Video game players already create “honor worlds” naturally. Take the Jedi Outcast bowing norm described in the New Games Journalism article “Bow, Nigger”:
I thought it was silly, the first time I saw it. Then I saw everybody was doing it. And then I felt silly not doing it. It’s strange how much weight the actions of your peers can bring to bear, even when your social medium is only a bunch of really fast maths on a German server.
In this thrilling account of a duel between two players, our hero upholds the honor code by bowing before the battle. His opponent exploits this vulnerability and attacks, violating the honor code and revealing himself a villain in this honor world. When our hero, through cunning play, bests our villain, the story is rewarding: “I’m a fucking hero. A real one.” Yet while the villain may have tasted defeat this once, we cannot be certain his behavior has changed permanently. This is a personal victory in the face of anonymous aggression, not a broad punishment of racism and disrespect.
Punishing the Dishonorable
In the world of anonymous interactions, social repercussions are harder to create. Even so, League of Legends and a variety of other games create persistent profiles. Our digital selves are becoming more permanent. We may not chat around the breakfast table with our teammates, but we could imagine other ways to ostracize offensive players. Riot could implement badges of shame for example, ribbons that mark repeat offenders and make it harder for them to find organized games in their new Team Builder queue.
Alternatively, when entering matches, shamed players could begin automatically muted and maneuver the battlefield with an icon above their heads denoting their offense. With enough offenders, developers could even take the route that Respawn has with cheaters: let them play only with other cheaters. The goal with a recognizable form of honor code punishment is to emphasize that honorable and respectful behavior is the natural state.
I can hear the resounding cry of unfairly banned players already. We all have bad days where maybe we unfairly take out our aggression on our fellow players. Is a badge of shame an appropriate punishment for a slip up?
Again, classic gentlemanly duels provide some insight. In Appiah’s primary case study, one of the combatants, after receiving fire from his opponent, shot his gun into the air. The move signaled that the Earl of Winchilsea, who had given offense and was apologizing for his actions, albeit only after escalating the affair to a deadly head. Immediately following the shot, the two gentleman drafted — together — a formal written apology.
Isolating offenders is a moot point if they are not given opportunities to learn from their transgression. As I see it, the permanent ban is a failure of a behavior shaping system, not a tool. But where in games can players save face? How can someone who lost their honor regain it?
Maybe games should offer built-in opportunities to request and deliver apologies? Maybe after receiving punishment from a tribunal, the accused should be given an opportunity to explain their actions and atone with their testament delivered to all offended parties. Or, maybe those wearing a badge of shame can remove it by slowly earning the trust of their fellow players during gameplay. Or maybe they can help new players learn the ropes.
Honestly I don’t have all the answers, but I know we could all try harder to think about cultures of play, especially in competitive games. We might not want to revive the duel, but we do want to recreate new, clear, transparent, and powerfully influential honor worlds in which to live and play.