Games should let us choose our own stakes

After more than 2,000 hours Dota 2, I was finally sent to gamer prison for the first time. It’s worse than I could have ever imagined, making it an extremely effective remedy daunting in a competitive game where teamwork is essential. But now that I’ve been punished, I see there’s a better way to do multiplayer justice.

I’ve been proud of my Perfect Player Behavior score since Valve introduced the rating system in 2019. (By the way, that’s a score of 10,000, and it comes with a reassuring green smiley face if you get it right.) The score is a loose measure of whether you’re a genuine member of the player community. If you get reported a lot by your teammates or leave games before they are over, your score will go down. I think these are the right metrics to keep track of, even though people routinely abuse the reporting feature for petty reasons.

So here’s why I am in the Dota 2 cone of shame: I’ve “left” several games over the past few weeks because of have a life. For various reasons, I’ve had more urgent calls than usual and other things that demanded my attention in a way that I can’t ignore. To be clear, I think it’s stupid when people leave and enter team games early Dota, which means you only go AFK for a few minutes at a time. Even if you return to your keyboard and resume the game, the puzzle is over: you’re officially judged to have left the game. I’m not proud of letting my teammates down, even though we still won some of those games when I came back.

I’ve now been placed in what’s called the “low priority penalty pool,” which is a terribly lonely place. It’s hard to find a match; in my experience it can take up to 20 minutes to find enough players to queue up with. And the really punishing measure is that you have to earn several victories to escape this matchmaking pool; losing a game doesn’t get you any closer to freedom. Since each match can last from 20 minutes to over an hour, it can take many hours to get out of purgatory. As I write this, I have one win left after about five hours of trying to get out of this.

Some players are punished more than others for reasons beyond their control

The way this system is set up means that some players are penalized more than others for reasons beyond their control, be it their own skill level, their ability to complete a match while life takes a back seat or because they’ve got to complete matches with people who are probably terrible trolls.

I’m a big proponent of moderation in social games, and I’ve put Valve to the test in the past by making people pay to avoid toxic members of the community. I’m usually on the side of more moderation in games. But my recent experience has made me realize that many team games aren’t made to recognize a particular segment of their audience: people who love the game but just can’t commit to its demands. This group includes all ages: children called for dinner; parents who suddenly have to take care of their children; and anyone facing a pressing need in real life that is more important than playing a video game.

Let me repeat something: I to deserve to be inside Dota 2s penalty pool because i did quit those games and left my teammates hanging. And that’s true, even if there were legitimate reasons for me to move away from the keyboard. But that makes me think that multiplayer games that require moderation should create space for people who want to deliberately lower the stakes.

I thought Dota 2s “Turbo” mode, an unranked mode that plays at a faster pace (kind of like listening to a podcast at 2x speed), was that solution. But I’ve found people take it just as seriously as other modes. Players in turbo still often get angry with teammates for not showing expert skills. And the system seems to penalize people for letting turbo games be the same as in other more serious game modes. While I played exclusively in turbo mode for a while as it better suits my lifestyle, it hasn’t really lowered the stakes of the game.

So here’s my request. Multiplayer games that require moderation and penalty pools should consider a bailout. There should be a way of playing where everyone involved agrees that it’s okay to leave early if you need to. You may want to play this mode because everyone understands that you are learning the game or trying new things. Or maybe you know that even though you love the game, it really demands your attention and you might be drawn away. Whatever the reason, it would be nice if games created space for people to all agree – like on Whose line is it anyway? – everything is made up and the points don’t matter.

Leave a Comment