Last week I published a piece on Ars Technica about the player behavior experiments being conducted at Riot Games. Long story short, Riot decided that just banning players for bad behavior wasn't good enough, so they have tried to include the entire League of Legends community in policing and improving toxic behavior, defined as basically all the horrible things we half-jokingly associate with Call of Duty online play and open Xbox Live chat rooms in general. Riot Games has an entire player behavior team led by a trio of PhDs, and their efforts are demonstrably successful.
All of that was interesting to me in its own right when I heard it at the GDC panel where their lead player behavior guru, Jeffrey Lin, shared some results of the experiments at Riot, but what made me jump out of my seat after the panel session ended, walk up to the podium to introduce myself, and ask Lin for an interview, was the final experiment he talked about which involved the psychological principle of priming.
Priming is giving someone a stimulus to affect their reaction to the following stimulus. I talk to you about old people for an hour and then you leave the room walking slower than you otherwise might have, probably because you're thinking about old people, and old people move slowly.
Riot Games was kind enough to let myself and Ars Technica use some slides from their GDC presentation. That material is now available in the GDC Vault for anyone who attended the conference this year to view, but that's not most of you, and when I encounter a GDC panel with excellent visual references I like to share them, like I did with last year's piece over on G4 about level design in Gears of War 3, which I saw at a GDC 2012 panel.
I want to share with you some of the slides we couldn't use for the feature, because I think these charts nail home just how cool the priming experiment is.
I was very excited for Brink to be released in May of 2011. I love first person shooters and am almost always disappointed in the lack of team coherency when I play multiplayer FPS games without my friends. I prefer objective-based modes to deathmatch and when no one on the team is speaking on chat or otherwise coordinating there's no teamwork, and that's no fun. The AI Squad Commander in Brink was a way to keep teams on task without requiring any direct communication between them. My Brink feature for Gamasutra was about the narrative design I found interesting as a writer, but the Squad Commander is what I really looked forward to as a player.
I talked up the game to friends and convinced a bunch of them to jump into Brink on day one. We arranged to meet in an Xbox Live party chat, spun the discs up...and the game didn't work. Getting into a server together was sometimes impossible, and when we did get into a match together we often found ourselves fighting bots on the other team rather than human players. Incensed after a few days of this most of my friends turned the game in to GameStop and that was the end of Brink as far as playing with my friends was concerned.
Luckily the Squad Commander worked as advertised, because I stuck with the game for a while and once the server issues settled down Brink was a hell of a lot of fun to play. The game itself was solid. It wasn't bad design that chased my friends away, it was the horrible server issues at the beginning. And this is the lens through which I am looking at Polygon's reviews policy. I think I understand what they're trying to do here. Russ Pitts gave the game a 9.5 based on its design, and maybe that's a fair score. I haven't played SimCity (and now am not likely to as I'll probably be knee-deep in a half dozen other games before SimCity is fixed) but a game is more than design as Joystiq's Alexander Sliwinski so brilliantly argued in this editorial.
Games are increasingly becoming services and inasmuch as reviews are used by the audience to inform purchases it's difficult in my mind to justify separating the game from the service, though I remember Brink and wishing my friends could have done just that. Game reviewers aren't our gaming buddies, however.
When it was revealed that Vice President Biden was meeting with representatives of the video game industry along with other parties like representatives of the film industry and the National Rifle Association about what America can do to curb gun violence, Gamasutra Editor-in-Chief Kris Graft penned an editorial about why the video game industry should not have met with Biden, and IGN Editor-in-Chief Casey Lynch penned a rebuttal which argued why the video game industry should have met with Biden. Graft's position can be boiled down to the idea that responding to an illegitimate charge - that video games have anything whatsoever to do with inspiring real life violence such the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut which prompted Biden's meetings - lends legitimacy to those charges, and Lynch's argument comes down to the argument that if Biden wanted input from the video game industry it was important for the video game industry to represent itself versus allowing someone else to have that conversation with Biden.
I fall on Graft's side of the debate not because I think attending that meeting lent credence to the charge that video games have anything to do with these sorts of school shootings - and if you want to read about what I think these school shootings are about you can read my editorial published on Kotaku today - but because I debate the value of trying to explain what video games are nowadays to Vice President Biden, or anyone else who doesn't actually play them.
Today is World Mental Health Day. I wouldn't know this if not for a tweet I saw from a game journalist linking to a blog post they wrote last year about suffering from depression. World Mental Health Day is about spreading awareness of mental illness. I ought to know when this day falls every year because I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999 and had been suffering from it for almost a decade before finally seeking help.
There were two reasons why I never sought help. First I didn't understand what was going on, and later when I had an idea that something was wrong I was afraid to do anything about it.
Over a few pieces at Unwinnable I've slowly been working into writing about this, stating that I had a mood disorder, having been severely ill in the past, and citing my issues with drug addiction that arose around trying to self-medicate my condition - a common enough state of affairs that there's actually a formal, medical diagnosis for it - but other than these few references to the past I've avoided ever talking about having a mood disorder, or being bipolar. The precise, medical definition of my condition changes with each new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, but I've been afraid to mention my mental illness by whatever name because I've been afraid that doing so would come back to haunt me. The reason we need World Mental Health Day, and why people like me who are capable of effectively communicating the experience of being mentally ill need to speak up, is because these illnesses are still stigmatized.
I remember the first time I ever told anyone I was going to therapy. I was in seventh grade and mentioned it to a friend of mine while we were walking with three other people to class. He looked at me like I was an alien and am pretty sure he told me to get away from him. That was the last time I ever tried talking about going to therapy to anyone other than the closest of friends until, well, until right now, actually. It wasn't until 1999, after a failed year of graduate school that I could lay on being high pretty much every day, and a year of working at a brokerage house in-between transferring to another graduate school rather than sucking up to mistakes and thus wasting an insane amount of federal student loan money as only three credits transferred over from an entire year's worth of work, that I finally decided to deal with this issue because quite frankly I was tired of feeling like I wanted to kill myself on a regular basis because I was so depressed, so distraught, and so utterly devoid of hope.
I published something on Stu Horvath's gaming and geek culture blog Unwinnable last week. They do themed weeks over there and the themes have been resonating with me, and I really like Stu and his crew so I participate whenever I can. I don't get paid for any of it, but I think the stuff I've been contributing to Unwinnable is some of the better content I've been writing lately. And I think there's a connection between the lack of remuneration and the nature of the work. My reasons for writing on Unwinnable are different than when I take professional assignments elsewhere.
Part of it has to do with how I perceive Unwinnable. It's a place where I can take some risks I can't take elsewhere. Unwinnable is much more a potpourri of different perspectives and lenses, whereas when I write for commercial sites they have established voices at the outlet level and part of a freelancer's job is to learn how to write to that voice. The fact that I'm writing for free does seem to matter, though. I'm writing this stuff purely because I want to share something with an audience, not to try and further my career or make new inroads at a new outlet, and I suppose that's why anyone ought to be writing.
If one wants to make a living at this, though, they're going to have to take gigs that have nothing to do with self-expression or the craft of the writing, or have less to do with either due to the nature of the assignment, and those pieces are inevitably, I think, going to be of lesser quality. I've seen this in my own writing, I've heard my wife saying as much as she moved from blogging to full-time writing and editing, and I've seen it happen to numerous people who have moved into paid positions on game journalism outlets. That isn't offered as a revelation or anything, but it isn't something I really thought about until recently, and realized how often I've seen it happen.