Discouraging the Anti-Social

I was planning to spend this week talking about TOJam games, but it appears that they won’t be posted to the TOJam site until next week, and then only a small number at a time. That’s cool with me, but it means rearranging the posting schedule a little bit.

A Really True Picture of an Anti Social Gamer

A Really True Picture of an Anti Social Gamer

So, today I’d like to talk about Anti-Social behavior in games. If you’ve played online, you’ve seen it. People going above and beyond the call of jerkdom, feeling that yelling obscenities at other players isn’t enough, and that they need to go the extra length to make everyone else playing miserable — they kill their team mates, get in the way, hack and cheat; anything they can do to bother other players. It’s beyond winning and all about exercising some infantile power trip. It may be one of the biggest problems in online gaming.

Infiniminer, which I talked about last week, suffers from this problem in it’s public severs fairly heavily — a number of cheats and exploits have been created in the short time since the game has been released, leading to a large volume of cheaters. However, a common trait you’ll notice amongst the cheating population is their complete lack of desire to win games with their ill-gotten powers. They just want to screw around with other players.

We can see this is a number of problematic ways — there’s a hack that let’s the players fly and dig at an accelerated pace, which is commonly used to dig hole under unsuspecting players and drop them down enormous depths, or to strip mine large portions of the stage and flood them with lava, making it nearly impossible for legitimate players to reach their goals.

There’s also a hack which allows players to spawn any kind of tile, including lava, which can be used for flooding, or trapping other players. And another which can be used to dig out enormous swaths of the map all at once, often killing a number of players in the process by dropping them as the world disappears. Finally, a number of players have found some exploit which can instantly crash more or less any Infiniminer server.

Now, these problems are not difficult to deal with, so long as an omnipresent Administrator is watching the server, but not all servers are monitored, and most aren’t monitored all the time. So what can we do to prevent this behavior?

Well, there’s a number of things. The problem with hacking in games is that you can really only be reactive — exploits will be found and messed with; you can just only hope to be ahead of the curve and close those exploits as they are found. In the case of Infiniminer, you could have the server monitor for aberrant activity — players moving consistently at an accelerated speed or players flying could be detected and kicked from the game. When a player digs more than is possible all at once, they could be booted. When a player has something unusual spawn near them, they could be booted. The trick would be to make sure that these fail-safes don’t effect legitimate players.

That could all-together solve most of the trouble. But it doesn’t begin to nip at the root of the problem — why are these players being anti-social? (As it’s not just cheaters who act this way — people will be jerks inside of the rules.) As ridiculous as it sounds, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory holds water. When people have anonymity, they’re only bound by the social rules they believe in, and when they have an audience of people who will react, those who only use civility as a charade are then open to attracting whatever attention they can get. Negative attention is both easy and powerful; if you’re the strongest, people have to fall in line.

There are a number of attempts to purge this behavior in a number of games and systems. The key is to isolate the key factors and eliminate them, wherein we have two choices: eliminate anonymity, or eliminate reaction.

Anonymity is a tricky issue. Really; it’s not the fact that we cannot identify the anti-social players that encourages them to run wild, it’s the fact that there are no consequences. With games as they are, the worst punishment is banning — preventing the player from playing on the server. Troublesome for a legitimate player, but for an anti-social it’s nothing — they’ll just move on to the next target. It’s unlike that they’ll run out of servers before they run out of interest. Even then, bans have their own problems — a wide ban can hit multiple players and target the innocent. A narrow ban can be easily circumvented. And regardless, the internet is full of proxy services which will allow players to avoid any kind of ban aimed at their computer or internet connection.

That last bit is key however; if we ban players closer to the server, it’s much safer, and much more difficult to avoid. We’ll come back to that.

Reaction — the audience — is another odd trick to avoid. We see a lot of complaints about Nintendo’s approach to online gaming for their response to this problem. In Nintendo games, you can either play with people you know via codes, or with random people at approximately your skill level. When dealing with random people, you can’t chat with them, or if you can, you can only say a limited number of preselected phrases; all of which are fairly wholesome. This means you really can’t talk much with people you don’t know, even if you’re intending to be polite. While a little more boring, it does tend to drive away the anti-social players. It also helps that in many of the online Nintendo titles, players are unable to directly influence other players in any manner unfitting of the game.

Now, I personally find Nintendo’s method too constricting, regardless of it’s effectiveness. There has to be other solutions. What if we marked certain players who had been known to ruin the fun of others and only made them perceive that their fun was gone? Imagine if a particularly bad player would become unable to see your server, or would be told that it is full or empty all the time, so that they’d never join it? (Not that they could, mind you.) Or how about if they joined a banned server, they wouldn’t actually connect, but instead be sent to a pseudo server that would be empty, or have fake players populating it? They may be fooled, or they may become bored. The key there is that if they don’t know that they’re banned, they may not try to circumvent it.

Additionally, they could be allowed to play, but prevent them from sending or receiving chat messages. For a team-killer, perhaps suspend their ability to hurt their teammates. (There may be another exploit there, but it’s a thought.)

Returning to the idea of removing Anonymity — The idea of a ban is usually to block a particular computer from connecting. This is troublesome with networks and proxies, since players may be banned for the actions of another, or the offending player may easily circumvent the ban. The other possibility is to ban the person — and that means the server needs to know more about YOU.

The key is in accounts. The games with the biggest problems have the easiest access — case and point with Infiniminer; you can be up and playing in about 5 minutes; no accounts or customization needed. MMOs, however, have a much lower instance of this problem; sometimes this is because they are paid for and the money is nonrefundable. But more often is the fact that players need to invest time and energy to progress in these games, all of which is undone should their account be banned.

So perhaps we should be thinking about more games using accounts. The server could track any number of things for players, like their progress and victories. The key is to make players interested in keeping their accounts pristine, which means offering benefits to ‘good’ players and punishments for the ‘bad’. I keep thinking of a Tier system of official servers; the gold, silver and bronze server levels — players start with access to all three levels. Misbehaving will make you lose access to the gold level (which maybe you have to earn), and more misbehaving will have you reduced only to bronze. Gold Servers have more available stuff — if it were a shooter, maybe there are weapons and vehicles there that don’t appear elsewhere, or maybe they have events or special features like tournaments.

You’d have to find a way to keep the player’s from just making new accounts though — there’d need to be time limits before benefits were available or what have you. There isn’t a game out there that could implement a model like this, though it’d be much more difficult for small developers, as running servers can be pricey and tricky. However, it could be that a large number of games could operate on the same system and they could all help police each other.

Maybe we could have a jerk-free internet, some day.

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