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When Players Make the Rules: On Memes and the Meta-Game
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When Players Make the Rules: On Memes and the Meta-Game

November 15, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Modern Warfare and the Tragedy of the Commons

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a tremendously popular first person shooter -- fast-paced and nerve-wracking. Being good at it required great reflexes, fantastic hand-eye-coordination, and a fair deal of strategic thinking. Being good at Call of Duty is hard, and not everyone can be competitive on the leaderboard...At least, that was the intent. The map Crossfire in Modern Warfare illustrates beautifully how a detrimental meme can gain a foothold because of the game's internal rules.

The Crossfire map was very popular because it supported a range of different play styles, but there was a crucial design element of the map that gave rise to some of the most frustrating and prevalent behaviors in Modern Warfare. The opposing teams would start on either end of the map, separated by various buildings and other obstacles. To get to the enemy, you would have to leave the relative safety of your starting location and move into the more dangerous warzones in the middle of the map. To be a successful player on the Crossfire map, you had to strike a difficult balance between forward momentum and tactical retreats -- it was a difficult map with a lot of room for improvisation. Topping the leaderboards on the Crossfire map could prove very difficult.

But players quickly found a way to get cheap points. One of the walls that separated the two teams early in the game was low enough for a grenade to be blindly thrown to the other side. There was a good statistical likelihood that an enemy would be on the other side, and chance would determine if you got a "free" point or not. The combination of predetermined starting points and insufficient obstacles between the teams had allowed one creative player to get a stylish kill.

The very first time it happened it was undoubtedly impressive -- to have invented the technique, you needed to have a very intimate knowledge of the game and the map. The problem was that the meme was easy to copy, without requiring any particular skill at all.

More and more people started blindly throwing grenades over that wall, which decreased the chances of each individual thrower getting a point -- but increased the chances of a hapless opponent being unfairly killed early on. The "nade spamming" meme was the perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances.

The strategy was attractive to players because it was easy to use. Very little skill or exertion was needed to have a chance at a free point or two, so a lot of people gravitated towards it. The cost of trying it was also exceedingly low -- in the fast-paced environment of the Crossfire map, it would be hard to use the grenades later on, so you might as well throw a few off early in the game and hope for the best.

And in hoping for the best lay the second rub. Random interval reward schedules can be incredibly addictive. The fact that you didn't know if you would hit an enemy or not turned throwing the grenade into highly addictive gambling scenario. All you had to wager was a cheap grenade, and you could win very desirable points in exchange. It was a meme that was easy to copy because it was so easy to observe and understand the required actions, it was fairly successful at a low cost, and it was very addictive.

The more people copied the meme, the faster it spread, and after a while the meme was so prevalent that it was expected behavior. Both teams would throw grenades over the wall in the first 20 seconds of the game, and chance would determine how many players from either side would be taken out of combat before the battle even begun. Needless to say, being taken out in the first 20 seconds of the game is incredibly frustrating -- but if you chose to avoid the situation where you could get killed early, you would forfeit an opportunity to stay competitive with your teammates.

Once the meme had become popular enough, no one really stood to gain anything from it anymore. Too many people were nade spamming, and the overall fun of the game was taking a severe hit. The problem was that the meme proved very difficult to eradicate -- the cost of changing the map itself was prohibitive, and for game hosts to kick offenders proved to be a task of Sisyphean dimensions. The viral meme was spreading too fast to be contained. The internal rules of the game made it fantastically easy for the meme to spread; KillCams would replay the moments before your avatar's death, and the victims quickly caught on and reciprocated with more nade spamming. Teammates on either side observed the behavior and joined in.

Although the behavior had been perfectly rational, beneficial, and entertaining before the meme become widely adopted, the situation changed with scale. There was only room for so many people to nade spam, but there was no mechanism from preventing everyone from having a go at it.

In game theory, what happened to Modern Warfare is referred to as the Tragedy of the Commons, and it is a surprisingly common occurrence in all kinds of everyday situations. But the problem of containing the spread, and preventing the Tragedy of the Commons, is better explained with another game theory classic: the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Because the meme was so easily copied, players would have to reach an agreement (explicit or otherwise) to cooperate in maintaining its spread. If everyone agrees not to nade spam, the game will be more enjoyable for everyone. The problem is that once people have stopped nade spamming, the winning potential for someone trying it gets very high -- and it only takes one defector to nudge the uroboric cycle back towards the Tragedy of the Commons. Richard Dawkins, the father of meme theory, explains the phenomena of both the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoner's Dilemma very well in his 1987 documentary Nice Guys Finish First.

Interesting to note is that the KillCam was designed as a way of deterring people from engaging in negative behaviors like nade spamming and spawn camping. Although the KillCam introduced an element of penalizing the bad behaviors, it also created a new and very effective vector for the memes to spread. Measures like the KillCam are double-edged swords: on one hand, they punish wrongdoers, but recruit more wrongdoers on the other. At the end of the day, Modern Warfare's internal rules gave birth to an optimal winning strategy that was not in line with the desired behavior of players.

In Conclusion

Designers should take great care when creating the internal rules of their products, as the in-game culture that the game will inevitably have can have a greater impact on the product than your own direct design input. The meme can be a very powerful friend or foe, and although the meme cannot be tamed, we are ultimately the architects of the environments in which they spawn.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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Chris McLeod
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I supposed in a less locked down game the map would simply be fixed, just like SC2 is. Internal rules to the rescue. Interesting read Nils.

Nils Pihl
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I'm glad you found it interesting, Chris.

I think our intuitions immediately go towards solutions that revolve around changing the level design (maps are often the least holy part of a game design, it seem), but I think it is instructive to think of other ways to modify the internal rules.

Most important is, however, that you think ahead when you design games. If the desired behavior within a game does not match the optimal winning strategy you will end up with a different product than what you had in mind.

I think that it is often more informative, illuminating and inspiring to think of memes as the population of your game world than to revert to the almost astrological oversimplifications you end with when you design for player "archetypes".

Travis Ross
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Nils, this is a really neat perspective. I passed it around to my colleagues. I've been thinking about the same stuff from an angle of social learning, descriptive norms, and information cascades. I hadn't really thought to label it with memetics. I think people naturally think of memes as viral videos and popular ideas, but not the drivers of behavior. I really enjoyed your writing. Also, nice identification of dynamic equilibrium in Star Craft, I was trying to explain to my game design class the other day how paper rock scissors can be viewed in a similar light if it is played with the rules of evolutionary game theory. I'm not sure if you are interested, but a colleague of mine and I wrote a piece on heuristics use on online games - there's a small section on social learning heuristics and descriptive norms -


Nils Pihl
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@Travis, I'd love to read your paper if you had a copy that didn't cost 30 dollars :)

What Blizzard is doing with Starcraft is to stamp out any impending Nash Equilibrium. I submit to you that a lot of the games that we leave behind because of boredom have already reached their NEs.

You get bored with TicTacToe once every game becomes a draw.
You get bored beating an AI in a game when all you have to do is repeat what you did last time.
You get bored city building games once you've realized the very best way to build a city.

Travis Ross
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Yes - a little bit of complexity and multiplayer interaction seem to do a good job of stamping out dominant strategies, but they do crop up in unlikely places.

Also, my fault I should have grabbed the 2nd link off of Google Scholar.

Nils Pihl
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I'll be sure to read it this weekend and share my thoughts with you.

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That’s a very interesting article indeed.

I’m having the same kind of thoughts playing League of Legends.

As a matter of fact, the meta-game not only includes the combat strategies / playing actions, but the team compositions as well. Those 2 factors are obviously intricated, but they act on different levels.

Given the extraordinary diversity of champions, one might expect a great diversity in team comps. But that’s not the case.
Probably due to (a) the important exposition of tournaments, that tends to show the “mainstream audience” compositions that are – and sometimes can only be – handled by professional players, and (b) the fact that most of the players play the famous “Solo Queue”, were one CANNOT get an optimal team coordination.

This observation is made on the champion-role level (Solo Top, AP Mid, Jungle, Support-AD Carry), but also on the champion level itself.

The result being a forced selection of team comps that are either not really fun, nor necessarily effective.
For example, we recently observed CLG Froggen use an AD Carry as a Solo Mid champion (which is generally an AP champion). This looked like a small meta-game revolution, when it’s actually not so much. Just the fruit of a carefully thought team strategy, and, in my opinion a clever picks&bans roll out as well.

Used to sometimes pick Darius mid in Solo Queue, I previsouly was "100% n00b". Now, I’m a "tryhard troll n00b copying CLG Froggen".
Let's put aside the never-ending story about the good-mannered LoL community, and just point out that my teammates are maybe statistically right, not being in the timings of the meta cycles.

The paradox being - and this is were your article comes - although the game is designed to bring an extreme diversity, the designer probably has to implement light reworks to help new metas come through.
Waiting for Season 3 patches….

Nils Pihl
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"The paradox being - and this is were your article comes - although the game is designed to bring an extreme diversity, the designer probably has to implement light reworks to help new metas come through."

If the metagame starts approaching a Nash Equilibrium, then you only have two options: Change the internal rules or pray that someone is stupid enough to not follow the equilibrium AND smart enough to actually beat it, haha.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Well done Sir, this is now my favourite article on Gamasutra.

I would really like to hear your thoughts on the ethical dimension of this Memetic Dilemma. You mention this specifically in the subtitle, where you talk about "good" and "bad" player behavior. There are multiple levels of "goodness"/"badness" obviously.

On a gamemechanics level, every gamer wants to discover an optimal winning strategy, and almost any (non random based) game is figured out eventually. The art of the gamedesign would be to obfuscate this internal clockwork, so that it can only be discovered with great timeinvestement. Because if once discovered, it tends to spread with viral speed.

This "destructive drift", where you are forced to use the optimal winning strategy if you want to compete, in competitive gameplay is often mirrored in communitys too. From the trashtalk on xboxlive to the racist/sexist commentaries on gamesites. While most gamecompanies distance themselves officially from such "political incorrect" behavior it is reenforced by our media preference for "bad" things happening. "Bad" behaviour simply said makes "good" press, and the only "bad" press is no press at all. This has of course to do with the "impersonal" selfishness of Memes, that only want to piggy-back on their replicators.

And it becomes weirder: a company could deliberatly feel encouraged to deliver a "bad" game simply to create a s**itstorm, that will ensure its virality for a long time.
Not saying that they fabricated it intentionally, but the press Bioware got out of the "controverse" endings of their Mass Effect Trilogy was unprecedented, even months after its release there were articles on news sites how fans were devastated, petititons and sues were launched to change the ending etc. To be honest: If the end would have been perfect ("good" in a sense that was in the normal quality expectations of the fanbase/industry, Bioware by no means would have stayed viral for months to come.

Nils Pihl
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@Andreas, feel free to add me on Skype and we can discuss the ethical dimensions of it all, perhaps something good will come out of it. My account is "nipibo".

I don't know if making a bad job as a winning strategy has made it into gaming yet, but I know from my interactions with PR companies that it has there...

Luciano Lombardi
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Great article, I wonder how to draw the line between controlling the experience (to avoid frustration arising from unintended player behaviour) and nurturing emergent gameplay. I guess that taking either of these two possibilities to their extremes should be avoided, and maybe a balance between them can be achieved.

But I don't know if there is any way to plan this balance in advance. Maybe it has more to do with fast analysis and response to the way the community responds to the game itself.

Once the game is released, I think that besides the game mechanics such as the kill-cam, other interesting aspect of the behaviour spreading within multiplayer games is the pro-gaming scene. Streaming tournaments and youtube replays can often be the 'ground zero' of new strategies or memetic behaviours coming from looking up to the pros/winners. In MOBA games it is relatively common to see how a specific heroe/build becomes highly popular after a professional player has won a tournament using it.

Even if your game doesn't have a million dollar pro-gaming scene, if you keep track of the community, you can use it at your advantage by promoting the behaviours you think are interesting (Play of the week videos in the game client?), or quickly fix and patch the game to prevent what you think are detrimental to the game experience

Nils Pihl
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I don't think you can plan ahead perfectly, but it is definitely possible to make fairly accurate predictions.

Jeremie Sinic
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When I saw "46 comments" I didn't expect this... But very interesting article :)