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So Far, So Good: League of Legends Takes An Honorable Approach To Improving Player Behavior

Essay

If you keep tabs on the world of gaming, you’re probably aware that the League of Legends community has a somewhat caustic reputation. This isn’t terribly surprising, considering that LoL is a MOBA, a genre often associated with trash talk. But LoL developer Riot Games has a kinder, gentler future in mind for their players. Since October 1, Riot’s been conducting a fascinating social experiment through LoL’s new Honor system — an attempt to curb toxic behavior not through punishment, but positive reinforcement.

And the awesome thing is, it seems to be working.

Here’s the background: Six months ago, Riot established Team Player Behavior — affectionately called Team PB&J — a group of experts in psychology, neuroscience, and statistics (already, I am impressed). At the helm is Jeffrey Lin, better known as Dr. Lyte, Riot’s lead designer of social systems. As quoted in a recent article at Polygon:

We want to show other companies and other games that it is possible to tackle player behavior, and with certain systems and game design tools, we can shape players to be more positive.

Which brings us to the Honor system. Honor is a way for players to reward each other for good behavior. This is divvied up into four categories: Friendly, Helpful, Teamwork, and Honorable Opponent. At the end of a match, players can hand out points to those they deem worthy. These points are reflected on players’ profiles, but do not result in any in-game bonuses or rewards (though this may change in the future). All Honor does is show that you played nicely.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t the first time something like this has been done. DOTA 2 has had a similar system in place for some time now. However, the anecdotes I’ve heard from DOTA 2 players indicate that it hasn’t been very effective. Commendations are easily traded between friends, and generally speaking, players don’t care much about them one way or the other. An editorial by Christina Gonzalez at RTSguru suggests that LoL has taken a more thorough approach, implementing restrictions and safeguards to help prevent players from gaming the system. To start, players can only earn Honor through matchmade games, thus preventing friends from creating premades to trade points. Honor earned from strangers is worth more than Honor earned from friends, which coaxes players to impress the community, not just their own clique. Honor distribution is tracked and analyzed to prevent trading (some players have already been caught redhanded and stripped of their points). Furthermore, players only have a set amount of Honor points they can hand out, which encourages that Honor only goes to those who truly deserve it (additional distributable Honor is accrued through gameplay). Team PB&J put a lot of thought (and math) into limiting the potential for abuse.

Ten days after Honor went live, an update from Dr. Lyte appeared on the official LoL blog, detailing the global changes they’d noticed in reported bad behavior:

Negative Attitude reports: -29% in normals and -11% in ranked
Offensive Language reports: -35% in normals and -20% in ranked
Verbal Abuse reports: -41% in normals -17% in ranked

Check that out. Ten days of a voluntary system that grants nothing more than a tiny perk for being amiable, and folks were already cleaning up their acts. Of course, these stats only show a decline of reported incidents, which, while encouraging, is could be different than how things look down in the trenches. As LoL is not part of my repertoire, I took to Twitter earlier this week to get the word on the street. Lo and behold, players are indeed noticing a difference.

I first got some feedback from a player named Paige, who cites LoL as her favorite game despite the “negativity and hostility” within the community. In her opinion, Honor is a welcome addition. “Players seem to be making more of an effort to be just generally friendly,” she wrote in an email, noting that she’s seen a slight improvement in cross-team chat. She also pointed out that this hasn’t prevented insults from flying when a match goes badly, but nonetheless, she’s glad for a way to give props for good behavior.

I like that now when I play a game and 3 of the other 4 players are total jerks I can do something nice for that one other player. We can reward each other for not being jerks. I don’t know if it will really help, but at least it is something more positive for those of us who are trying to make the community better.

A summoner by the name of habibti chimed in by saying that “it’s kind of sad that in order to be a decent human being people feel like they need cookies,” but spoke about Honor with nothing but praise.

When Honor went live, there was an immediate difference in tone. I had allchat [cross-team chat] disabled in the game because I was tired of hearing incredibly sexist, racist, and homophobic comments being tossed both ways, and if I was playing with randoms, I would often mute them as well. After Honor went up, EVERYONE became nicer – I went from seeing problematic behaviour in almost every game to seeing it something like twice over the span of 20 games (and even then, it got shut down pretty quickly). I’ve turned allchat back on, and I love the dynamic both in game and after game. People compliment each other’s play-style, and on top of giving people on the other team credit for being honorable opponents, you can also give your own team points for being friendly, helpful, and being team-oriented. It’s nice to be able to give the good ones credit for what they do, and it’s also nice to be able to see such a drastic shift in mentality, even if it is sort of constructed.

Nick (aka summoner BuddyBoombox) commended Riot’s active role in improving their community, mentioning LoL’s well-established Tribunal system and reform cards as steps in the right direction. He was skeptical that Honor would do any good, but noticed the effects right away.

I initially thought it would be a disaster. No rewards? Ha! Like that’s going to work! But I was astonished. The day the patch dropped, that night, there was more positive communication and less angry opponents. I thought it had to be a fluke, but it has continued to be true. Occasionally you will get snarky people saying things like, “I’m so glad you’re nice, I guess I have to honor you now.” But for the most part it has had a massively positive impact on the community.

Twitter user @piratedustin was less enthused, and echoed Paige’s comment that things go south when competition gets heated.

I haven’t seen a change in bad behavior. I have seen people be more vocal on occasion about positive behavior…[The problem tends to be] competitive gamers, they immediately shit talk someone for any action they do not understand. That has not stopped or slowed.

Interestingly, those less encouraging observations fall right in line with Team PB&J’s expectations. According to Dr. Lyte, the Honor system isn’t aimed at incurable jerks, but rather players on the fence. From the Polygon article:

“The average player in the game is not toxic or positive, they’re neutral,” Lin says. Because the Honor system allows players to praise other players for their actions “we’re able to nudge them a little toward the positive.”

That, right there, is why I think this system, though imperfect, is a fantastic idea. Good players and bad players are going to stick to their alignments no matter what, but those in between tend to follow by example. Since I’m not a LoL player, I can’t comment on Honor directly, but in concept, this approach addresses a trend I’ve seen throughout public multiplayer games. I have often had the impression that a lot of bad behavior online — both in-game and otherwise — is based in social mimicry (not universally, of course, and it’s not the only factor). This is especially true for younger players and people who are new to a particular community. If the loudest, most dominant players are acting like jackasses without consequence, it sets the tone for everybody else. More importantly, it tells newbies how they’re expected to act if they want to fit in. Monkey see, monkey do. Players who like the game but not the climate tend to play in closed groups, shunning public chat and opting for private Ventrilo servers. Punitive measures do help to curb the worst of the worst, especially when real-world threats come into play, but in my experience, many players are more likely to mute or ignore unpleasant behavior than report it. If you have the sense that you’re the only one in the whole game who has a problem with how people are talking, it can be intimidating to speak up.

But by putting the focus on reward, rather than punishment, Riot is placing themselves firmly in the corner of players who just want to have fun. If you think of a multiplayer game as a big party, the developer is the host. Their guests may determine the mood, but it’s ultimately their house. If they make it clear what kind of behavior they want to see — not through scolding, but rather support — most people will take that into account. Reporting is a wrist slap. Honor is a fist bump. I know which one I’d prefer to get.

Though it’s too early to say whether Honor will be a lasting success, I would love to see systems like this in more multiplayer games. Much as I want to win, my primary objective is to have a good time. If I were selecting players for my team, I’d be far more likely to choose someone with the Friendly or Teamwork badge over the person with the best gear. A fun match with helpful folks who can play hard and still shake hands at the end? That sounds like a win to me.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

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