Video game communities really are interesting microcosms; small societies that have their own ways of life and governance. A major part of sociology is examining how social institutions(Religion, Government, Law Enforcement, Social Clubs, etc.) reproduce societal beliefs. Video games are a relatively new social institution, as for a long time their social components were reliant on other forms of society, such as the creation of social clubs or social ties with others. With the advent of the internet and online communities, video games have arose as a social institution of their own; a formative social structure that brings people together and replicates what it means to be apart of society. For example, if a person had no outside knowledge of the world, video games may be able to give that person a sense of the morals and beliefs of the greater society.
Even games like Grand Theft Auto can teach about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a society, as if you break the law in the game cops and bystanders will react to your actions. There’s morals and lessons to learn in about any game, but where sociology really finds its footing is in the online communities that have formed in and around specific games.
Why do I bring up all of this nonsense? It’s because the development staff over at Riot Games have created a governing system in their insanely popular game, League of Legends, that exemplifies this idea of video games as a social institution. Jeffery Lin, a lead game designer for the team, wrote a really insightful piece for Recode.net.
Let’s go over some of it.
But that led to a big question: How do you introduce structure and governance into a society that didn’t have one before? The answer wasn’t as simple as abolishing anonymity. Privacy has become increasingly important online as data becomes more widely available, and numerous studies have shown that anonymity is not the strongest cause of online toxicity. While anonymity can be a catalyst for online toxicity, we focused on the more powerful factor of whether or not there are consequences (both negative and positive) for behaviors.
The team had been seeing a problem of online harassment for sometime; problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia were among the community’s issues. To curve the amount of harassment, the team at Riot created something called the Tribunal System. The system effectively creates case files for the community to view and judge whether they deem them acceptable or unacceptable. If an action is deemed unacceptable by the majority of members, then players will be given warnings and then an eventual ban if they persist.
As a result of these governance systems changing online cultural norms, incidences of homophobia, sexism and racism in League of Legends have fallen to a combined 2 percent of all games. Verbal abuse has dropped by more than 40 percent, and 91.6 percent of negative players change their act and never commit another offense after just one reported penalty.
That’s pretty remarkable, and a clear indicator that online communities can benefit from a form of organized structure. By putting it up to the majority of gamers, you’re probably not going to see bans given out for trivial things like gloating or leaving a game early.
However, the system isn’t just to penalize people, as there is also a system in place for rewarding gamers who effect the game positively.
In League of Legends, we’re now able to deliver feedback to players in near-real-time. Every single time a player “reports” another player in the game for a negative act, it informs the machine-learning system. Every time a player “honors” another player in the game for a positive act, it also trains the machine-learning system. As soon as we detect these behaviors in-game, we can deliver the appropriate consequence, whether it is a customized penalty or an incentive. Critically, players in the society are driving the decisions behind the machine-learning feedback system — their votes determine what is considered acceptable behavior in this online society.
I’m just going over what you can read in the article itself, but I think it’s important to point out how meaningful this is to the study of video games as social institutions. Games can now have their own system of government, penal systems, and other facets of society that we probably would have never guessed would appear in a video games. They’re mirroring society, yes, but they’re also expanding and changing what it means to live in society. Video games have the unique ability to augment the parts of society that we deem important or interesting; we can potentially create more dynamic and interesting societies than even our own.