Communication Channels in Games

I was recently reading an article regarding the release of the new Team-Oriented FPS Brink. The game brings some new features to the table. However, one thing that struck me was the simplification of the communication channels used in the game as a means to reduce anti-social communications. What Brink does it is forces all players to opt out of the world VOIP, and lets you add friends who you want to communicate with as you play.

I have witnessed from anecdotal evidence that noise pollution is a problem in online games. FPS and RPG servers on MMO are two particular channels that seem to suffer more than others. Many of you have probably had an experience where you were verbally assaulted by what sounded like a cross between Denis Leary and Alvin and The Chipmunks. I have seen private communities spring up as a mechanism to segregate anti-social individuals from those who want to enjoy themselves and make friends in the process. Over the course of my academic career I have often wondered what makes anti-social verbal behavior – I’ll just refer to it as noise pollution from now on – so prevalent in online games.

In my own past I have written a paper that examined the problem of noise pollution on the RPG servers of World of Warcraft. The thesis of the paper was, “We can treat the communication channels of games as public goods, and in doing so, we can use insights from research to design better game mechanics and support pro-social communication.”

Given that I have some experience thinking about the problems facing communication channels in games, I thought I would explore the problem of noise pollution. For this post I’ll define noise pollution as: Behavior that reduces the quality of a communication channel for the players using the channel. This definition includes all types of communication voice, text, visual, etc. In the definition, the term quality differs depending on intended use and the goals of the community. For example, any out of character chat reduces the quality of an RPG communication channel, intentionally  causing traffic (shouts from sellers in an MMO) reduces communication quality in a general chat, and trash talking and being an a-hat reduces quality in a relaxed and social environment.</p>
<p>From here on I will lay out some factors that I think can contribute to designing better communication channels. In addition, I will also present factors that seem to moderate noise-pollution.</p>
<p><strong>The Factors</strong></p>
<p><em>Note: Something to keep in mind about these factors is that they don?t exist independent of one another and they are influenced by the previous state of the system. So, expect them to be highly context dependent. </em></p>
<p><strong>Sanctions/Rewards </strong>? Game designers are familiar with sanctions and rewards. Recent trends push rewards as the primary mechanisms in games for driving behavior. However, sanctions or the threat of sanctions also work to adjust behavior. An some really enjoyable games are engaging because of the threat of sanctions. The problem with driving pro-social behavior with rewards is that games tend to use intrinsic motivators and not all players are find the same rewards convincing or appealing. With sanctions a designer can hit closer to home by removing access to game areas or taking some resources or achievements. With sanctions, however, game developers have to balance the costs of driving away some anti-social customers to protect those following the rules.</p>
<p>There is a large body of literature that has investigated the role of sanctions in getting individuals to contribute to a public good. In experimental economics experiments have been run investigating the role of sanctions and rewards. Research investigating the use of rewards to motivate the desired behavior has been mixed ? some suggests rewards are a better mechanism, while other research suggests they are not. I am not aware of any research that has investigated the use of both sanctions and rewards in public goods games, or any other iterated game, but I think that a combination of rewards and sanctions (with leeway) are the best means of producing a desired behavior.</p>
<p><strong>Reputation/Anonymity </strong>? This may seem obvious, but in order to sanction or reward behavior effectively it is necessary to uniquely identify an individual from the crowd. Some games offer the ability for players to take on an anonymous role ? they may sign in as a guest or with a temporary account. Over the last ten years accounts have become increasingly persistent and registration codes are also being locked to specific accounts. Most modern games are tied to a Facebook or Xbox live account. The cost of remaining anonymous in these situations is the cost of switching between accounts.</p>
<p>Anonymity can come in different forms. An individual could be anonymous simply because they are cloaked by the shadow of the internet, or an individual may be part of such a large group of individuals that there is no fear of repeated interactions. Generally, in online games it is difficult to get lost in the crowd since interactions are tracked in a database.</p>
<p><strong>Surveillance</strong> ? I was just mentioning that most interactions in online games are tracked in a database. Depending on the ease with which a developer can access this data players are under almost constant surveillance. Still, in games, just like in the world, some behavior is easy to monitor and some behavior proves more difficult. The problem of surveying all types of behavior is a problem of operationalization. As any researcher and game designers know it can be difficult to operationalize and abstract concept. Communication behavior seems to fall between the abstract and non-abstract. We can define a derogatory statement, but it is more difficult to explicitly measure one in the game world. Was that a joke among friends? Or a hurtful comment? Placing computer monitoring on communication behavior can also be difficult. However, with the increased sophistication of machine learning it would appear that reliable automated monitoring systems may not be too far off.</p>
<p>Many companies have employed game masters as a mechanism for combating troublemakers. This is definitely a solution that can work when there is a low volume of complaints and it is easy to uniquely identify trouble makers. However, some research has indicated that taking the management of a public good away from the community and placing it in the hands of a third party can actually lead to less contribution to the public good. While I point that out, I want to establish that I don?t think this is the case for communication channels. Unlike roads or other public goods where there is some cost to contributing, unless you just absolutely must be a jerk, it is relatively cost free to maintain a high quality communication channel. I suppose that in a world with active trade and limited communication channels there would be a cost to sells for not engaging in high volume advertising.</p>
<p>Another strategy that has only been attempted by one game that I am aware of is the community arbitrated league of legends. In League of Legends the developers turned to established players to sanction players who violate the code of conduct. This removes the need for game masters and puts the management of the goods in the hands of the community members. If community members expect a certain code of conduct it is up to them to enforce it. I am not sure if this strategy works. I could imagine that players would opt in if the cost of service was relatively low (I would think that most players would be more inclined to want to play the game). If the cost of service was high it might be more difficult to get players to opt in, but this would provide an interesting opportunity to reward pro-social behavior.</p>
<p><strong>Segregation</strong> ? One interesting concept that I would love to see a developer explore is the idea of population segregation. Imagine a game with two sets of servers. One pro-social and the other anti-social. When a player enters the game they can play on either server. However, if a player is commits enough or a single severe enough violation of conduct they are moved to the anti-social server. In a way similar to our prison system, the player is innocent until proven guilty. Players who can be polite, but want to play in an anti-social environment can do so, and players who have proven to be idiots or jerks can?t join the pro-social servers. In situations like an RPG server where specific forms of communication define the world this seems like an interesting possibility.</p>
<p>The one big problem that segregation leaves me with is: Can we rehabilitate the a-hats? Once a player has failed to be a decent human being do we have to leave them on the prison server or can we put incentives in place for them that make cooperation seem like a better option? I suggested that threats of sanctions and rewards could act as incentives for players to behave, but I didn’t really discuss any particular rewards or threats. Given this, my next post will explore the factors that moderate cooperation and I’ll examine game mechanics that are available for promoting pro-social behavior (beyond communication) between players. Until then.

Communication Channels in Games by Travis Ross, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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