There Is No Such Thing as Honor or Cheapness: Artificial Rules in Multiplayer Gaming
I am not a good person.
Or, so I’m told, anyway. Be it XBL, PSN or Steam, I’m constantly inundated by cries and BAAAW’ings about how cheap I am, how I make the game less fun, how I shouldn’t be allowed to play games like I do.
You’ve probably heard, if not partaken in the nonsense, too. Certain practices are frowned upon depending on which game we’re talking about, usually revolving around mechanics that are considered to require no ‘skill’ to execute. Noob tubing in Call of Duty. Hado trap (WHAT!?) in Street Fighter. Then there are behaviors which are like rites of passage for acceptance within a game’s community. In Gears, for example, knowing how to handle a shotgun means you are worthy of respect. Every game seems to have a list of rules not present in the game proper, but upheld fervently by the community in an effort to arbitrarily privilege certain types of play than others. Those who can play well in spite of those rules/constraints, are considered to be the superior players, those who do not are fools, novices.
All of these factor into the wider issue of ‘sportsmanship’ in video games. Yes, you read that right. Sportsmanship–upholding a sense of fairness, ethics and respect. Being a proponent of Sirlin’s Playing To Win philosophy, though, to me that’s all hogwash. Dynamics not intended by designers aside, if it’s in the game, why isn’t it fair? I am hesitant to acknowledge issues with non-intended dynamics, too, especially with the proliferation of patches in multiplayer games. Designers cannot predict all the dynamics that will arise from mechanics–who would have thought that crouching would burgeon an era of teabagging?–but that doesn’t change my argument. Anything not intended by designers, or that they might consider to be ‘cheap’ or ‘unfair’ can be tweaked to become a more acceptable mechanic/dynamic. If the practice in question stays in spite of the patches, are cries of unfairness or cheapness legitimate? Moreover, if a designer has chosen to include a wide arsenal of weapons and abilities, how is one specific combination the only ‘legitimate’ way to play?
Admittedly, there are times when I doubt myself, when I wonder if I’m making the game less ‘fun’ for everyone involved. I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt when I’m aiming down my sights toward the spawn in Monday Night Combat as the Sniper. My current obsession is sniping people the second they get out of spawn, I have the angles down to muscle memory. Sometimes I have to settle for freezing enemies a few steps away from spawn, a skill which allows me to line up my headshot. I’m sure that makes me sound like a wonderful person, but before you start curling your lip in disgust, let’s discuss the design of Monday Night Combat a bit.
Monday Night Combat is curious in that the designers have chosen to place your objective, the thing that dictates whether you win or lose (the ‘moneyball) at the enemy spawn. Now, I can’t speak for the designers, but that layout must be by design, no? To win means not only guiding my bots into the enemy moneyball, but also controlling the enemy spawn. Good pressure is often evident by whether or not one can keep the enemy playing defensively, controlling where they can or cannot go. In this specific case, keeping them contained at spawn, if not spawn camping itself, seems like an unavoidable reality. I’m not going to ignore you because you spawned a millisecond ago, your mere existence threatens the success of my objective.
That being said, my doubts usually subside quickly: I can’t feel too bad over what I’m doing when people keep repeating their mistakes over and over again. There are 6 exits from spawn available in Monday Night Combat, but people will continue to try to get out of the two where I have clear shots. It’s here where I reassure myself that perhaps, just perhaps, these people do not deserve to live until they learn from their mistakes. It’s a tough job, this service I provide, but someone’s got to do it.
But naw, I’m just a terrible spawncamper, aren’t I? Here, the function of such labels becomes clear: it’s just people licking their wounds, being butthurt, if you will. They can’t win the game, the next best thing is to engage in verbal assault, smacktalk, demean the ‘honor’ of the other player, belittle their success by calling into question the legitimacy of their skill. When was the last time honor won you a match of Smash Bros? How is someone’s skill called into question when it’s the opponent that does not learn how to deal with the scenario at hand? While no game is 100% balanced, things tend to have counters, if not workarounds. You don’t keep trying to use Squirtle against Bulbasaur in Pokemon, you whip our your damn Charmander. In a game like Street Fighter, everyone has a move that goes through fireballs–so what’s this nonsense about hado traps, again? If someone is camping in the corner of a building, either you have the skill to take them out or you stop going through there because you lack the skill to deal with that.
Learning to deal with the scenario at hand is crucial, and that failing usually falls on the shoulders of the ‘victim.’ A player has no reason to mix up their methods if strategy X works just fine against the opponent, and expecting them to change it up is silly. Why does anyone need to ‘prove’ their skill if at the end of the day, the scoreboard does not lie? Apparently it does not take skill to defeat the opponent: who does that reflect more poorly on?
Interestingly, there are examples of ‘cheapness’ by design, if not ‘fairness’ by design. Epic Games has gone on record in regards to the Sawed Off shotgun in Gears of War 3, admitting that it’s a weapon meant to help new players out. Before that was known, though, the sawed off shotgun in Gears of War 3 was immediately considered to require no skill to acquire a kill or three by the community. Nevermind the fact that its increased power at close range is well-known, and, to meet your demise at the hands of a sawed off must mean you dun goofed and got too close. Or the fact that it’s balanced out by its long reload speed, as well as its inconsistency in attaining kills. Another interesting design choice in Gears of War 3 is how the game takes into consideration how new you are to the multiplayer. Newbies are granted not only an extra health bonus, but also a small damage boost. These are meant to make the game more fair against well-seasoned players who already have the ebb and tide of multiplayer combat down to a science. Now that, I will concede, can be a very real problem in multiplayer: balancing teams such that new players and veterans alike have a reasonable shot at winning.
And of course, I can’t ignore when games where winning is a legitimate crapshoot. In a game like, say, Mario Kart, luck is just as important as skill when a lead can be decimated by a fateful blue shell. Most games do not fall under that banner. Similarly, there are cases when an opponent bests you out of sheer chance–lobbing a grenade at the general direction of the enemy in COD, for example. As unfortunate as those are–for the victim, anyway–it still takes some knowledge of tactics for that to even have a chance of being viable. That probably sounds silly to some of you, but it’s preempting and calculating where an opponent might be based on knowledge of maps and player behavior. Knowing that sort of thing is useful in just about any game you can name; questions like ‘where would I be if I was the enemy?’ or ‘what would I be doing if I were the enemy’ can lead some some very high level play.
In the end, what I want to leave you with is this: all these self-imposed rules and behaviors exist outside of the game. To quote someone else on it, it’s a “set of rules designed to guarantee the complexity and integrity of the game system, but they’re actually already violating the integrity simply by existing outside of it.” You are not ensuring exploration and mastery of a game system by arbitrarily following rules that exist outside of its actual design mandate. In fact, you may be undermining the design by doing so.
So, yeah, maybe I’m a terrible person. Or maybe you should learn to play the game.