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Greed Is Good: Incentivizing Good Sportsmanship in Online Gaming

Sometimes to get a positive result, you need to appeal to people's baser instincts, not their better angels. Is Dawngate's karma system a better solution to changing player behavior than League of Legends's honor system?

Last week, my colleague Jorge Albor wrote about the problem of sportsmanship in multiplayer games like League of Legends (“‘Duel Me, Noob’: Salvaging Honor in Games”, PopMatters, 1 May 2014). And it is true that League has an unfortunate (albeit accurate) reputation for having a community who struggles a great deal with sportsmanship. Since MOBAs are games that rely heavily on an economy based on performance (killing opponents gains players gold that can then be used to buy equipment that will give them an advantage as a game progresses), one of the chief causes of trash talking is people chastising their own teammates for “helping the other team” by getting themselves killed.

Albor was less focused on that specific issue, though, and more on addressing the problem of general bad behavior in League of Legends‘s matches and how to develop a sense of honor in players of the game to offset bad sportsmanship of all stripes. Riot Games themselves have taken steps to discourage bad behavior (via a reporting system that can lead to a banned account) and to encourage good behavior by allowing players to honor one another for good teamwork, friendliness, and helpfulness, though there is no tangible reward for earning accolades from teammates beyond a ribbon that is affixed to one’s avatar before matches that indicates that you are an “honorable” player.

Beyond the few weeks following the implementation of this system when players were revved up to earn these badges, this system of honor hasn’t had too much impact on the general tone of League of Legends. Indeed, Albor suggested that, perhaps, an additional badge, “a Badge of Shame,” might be needed to make the reputations of players that much clearer to the community and to further clarify a code of honor for Leagueplay, separating the sheep from the goats, as it were.

While I understand Albor’s position (and wholeheartedly agree that sportsmanship is a huge problem in the game), being the cynic that I am, though, I found the proposal of a “Badge of Shame” potentially problematic as a means of discouraging bad behavior and only see in it the possibility of creating another avenue for players to grief weaker players in a game by awarding “shame points” not merely to poorly behaved players, but to weak players. In effect, I fear that a system of shame would only perpetuate the same sort of griefing that goes on in matches themselves. Further, I responded to the overall problem of modifying player attitudes in game by saying, “I’m skeptical that any attempt at systematized behavior modification isn’t doomed to failure. Human nature and human instinct can’t be ‘cured.’”

Which, of course, left me with no good answer to the problem myself and feeling a little guilty that I critiqued Albor’s position. He at least was trying to formulate a solution to the problem. Me? I was just complaining about the complainers.

Enter Dawngate, the new MOBA from EA, which has recently emerged from closed beta and that I sat down and played several games of very recently.

I have to tell you that I entered this new space with some trepidation, knowing that I was about to play some matches of a game that I didn’t fully understand yet (I watched a couple YouTube videos to get the gist of play before jumping in) and fully expecting to play like a complete noob. Given my past experiences with League, I was also fully expecting to catch a lot of heat from my teammates should I feed the other team or fail to understand where I should be on the map. Basically, I was just waiting for the grief to come pouring in.

Nut it didn’t.

I played four games, two of which I did pretty decently at (surprisingly the first two) and two of which I played dreadfully, and yet, there was nary a peep from my teammates about how awful I was. Oddly in not one of those games did anyone talk any trash to me at all (and it would have been well deserved in the latter two games). This lack of hostility left me scratching my head, baffled that for some reason Dawngate players were more forgiving of bad play by kindly keeping their mouths shut and just playing. (And in fact, we ended up still winning one of the two really bad games, despite my painful performance). However, during one of those matches, I heard a phrase uttered, “karma points,” which caused me to started paying attention to what happened at the end of matches when points were awarded.

Like League of Legends, Dawngate awards players points for participating in a match, points that can be saved up and spent to buy new characters and stat boosts to use in later games. Wins, of course, award more points and losses award less. However, in addition to those points, Dawngate also features a blessing system, which awards some random prizes (additional points, stat boosts, and even characters) after a match as well. Apparently, the results of the blessing system are randomized, though, leaving the possibility of receiving better prizes contingent on an additional system, a karma system. Karma functions much like honor in League of Legends, allowing you to award players that you felt had a positive effect on the game with karma points that add to your tally of total points at the end of a match, the tally of which determine the outcome of the “blessings” (that is, prizes) the player receives. Suddenly, the reason for the lack of trash talking became clear to me. I might not be playing well in some matches, but my teammates still wanted me to award them some karma points at the end of the match, after all, their blessing depended on it.

Which brought me back to my own observation the week before about the idea that “human nature and human instinct can’t be ‘cured.’” Indeed, it can’t, but maybe the solution is to recognize our baser instincts and to use those to some advantage. Instincts like, say, for example, greed.

In essence the name of Dawngate‘s karma system is an appropriate one, what goes around comes around, and if you send bad energy out into the universe (like, say, trash talking your fellows throughout a match), you’re going to have bad energy sent back your way (like, say, having those same fellows withhold the points you know might get you a greater reward). This is not so much a system that suggests that carrots are more useful to behavior modification than sticks, then that dangling raw meat in front of a junkyard dog will turn that junkyard dog into your best friend and pal at least for the time being. He’s awfully hungry, after all.

The trouble with Riot’s honor system as a means of incentivizing good sportsmanship is that a ribbon signifying an intangible is no incentive at all. EA’s solution seems more graceful and more cynical — reward restraint, but make it a reward that is more than merely symbolic., one that appeals to the belly, not to the soul.