The Crowdsourced MMO Police

League of Legends is a popular and free MMO combining strategy and RPG elements, and like any online multiplayer game has to contend with problematic players ruining the game experience of other users (griefing, hacking, etc.). Now, it's not uncommon for online multiplayer games (massively multiplayer and otherwise) to implement abuse reporting systems, whereby a player can fill out a form describing how (s)he's been slighted by another player, and hope that the powers that be will punish the wrongdoer. Sounds simple enough, right? You're getting griefed incessantly by some cantankerous paladin on WoW, you file a report, and the Blizzard police gallop over to bring the culprit to justice.

Unfortunately, it's not quite so easy. Issues of the credibility of abuse reports aside (for all the moderators know, you just hold an undeserved grudge against the poor paladin and want him off your server), dealing with them in any efficient matter is no simple task. Any remotely fair consideration requires that a real human being review each complaint, if only briefly, and for any MMO with a large user base this represents a major commitment of man hours to running any sort of abuse reporting service. I wish I had some statistics specific to abuse reporting, but we can reasonably assume that even if only a very small minority of players actually submit reports, addressing them adequately is a lot of work. For some perspective consider that a very conservative 1/2 percent of World of Warcraft's 11.5 million subscribers represents 57,500 people.

League of Legends has gone and done something really cool to address the problem: They've empowered the user community to police itself! (here's the original article that clued me into this - thanks, Gizmodo.) What they've developed may not be the perfect system, but it's a far cry from the virtual world bureaucracies players must deal with now, and it represents as fascinating a game development method as a socio-psychological phenomenon.

In a nutshell here's how it works: John Q. Cleric enters a complaint against our (now weary of being used as an example) paladin. The complaint gets dumped into a global database that then randomly doles out cases to some subset of players eligible to serve as judges (I'll come back to this). Each judge in this as-hoc tribunal can then review the case and vote to either pardon or punish the purported offender. The majority rules, and the accused player is totally at the mercy of his peers, though they have no say in precisely what the punishment is. Riot - the game studio behind LoL - is still working out the details on that end, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some sort graduated, three-strikes-ish system where initial offenses result in some loss of in-game privilege (perhaps a loss of items or a reduction in stats), with repeated shenanigans resulting in account termination.

But let's move on to the really interesting stuff. The system is quite clever in a few important ways. First, judges have no say in what cases come up on their dockets (though they can choose to abstain on voting, skipping to the next complaint in the queue). Second, they are given no information on how many votes are required to condemn or exonerate a player, nor the status of the vote when it comes to them. To motivate players to actually take part in voting, judges are rewarded with "influence points" (one of LoL's in-game currencies), but only - and here's clever trick #3 - when they vote in the majority. If you're the one judge out of 20 who votes to punish our paladin (though of course you can't know this until after the vote is completed), no influence points for you, and repeatedly voting against the majority will result in a loss of tribunal privileges. Riot also threw in captchas and time restrictions (judges must stay on the vote screen for at least 60 seconds) to help prevent random clicking or the use of bots.

Combined, I'm betting these manipulations will work pretty well to inhibit gaming the system (pun intended). It makes it fairly difficult for judges to coordinate to try and bring down a player they don't like, and will hopefully ensure that they give each case the time it deserves (or at least more than it would have under a traditional abuse reporting system). The whole premise of course rests on the majority of judges being in support of 'fair play', and though this is far from a given, I imagine that in general it is the case. It will be interesting to see what gameplay activities end up being stigmatized and which ones do not after the system has been around for a while. Any online game community develops a set of social gameplay norms that rarely coincide exactly with the rules put in place by the game developers. I remember back in my days of playing SOCOM: US Navy Seals on the PS2, using mounted turrets - even though they were included in levels by the game developers - usually ended up in one being voted out of the game amid cries of "noooob". How will the social environment of LoL, where the community has the power to systematically enforce the norms, turn out? I'm curious to find out, and since it looks like LoL developers are open to researchers getting their mitts on game data, we just might get to find out.

One last comment on the judges (I said I'd come back to that, right?). Riot has decided to let only characters who have reached the max level in LoL participate in tribunals, under the assumption that these experienced players will be the best and fairest judges of what is and is not acceptable in the LoL world. It's tough to say how true this is, even if we assume for the moment that the safeguards against manipulating the system on the judge's end to gain influence points actually work. Is it not likely that a large chunk of the abuse complaints will involve players manipulating gameplay mechanics so as to unfairly level up? And if so, cant't we also assume that a non-trivial portion of judges will be players with no qualms about hacking, griefing, and other abuses? But I wonder, however, if this problem might be self-resolving, at least somewhat. Players presumedly try to manipulate the system and level up so as to gain prestige and distinguish themselves from other players. But of course if everyone cheats to level up, nothing sets high-level characters apart. This could motivate even those high-level characters that cheated to get there to bring punishment down on other players reported for cheating. The possibility that judges voting with the integrity and fairness of the community in mind might act the same as hacking judges considering only their own self interest is an intriguing one. Time will tell, and I hope to look at League of Legends in a few months time to see how things turn out.

The Crowdsourced MMO Police by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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