Capitalism, Communism, and League of Legends

The Western worldview demands that one player be the best. It demands that one player’s success or failure be attributable to their own hard-earned genius or shameful failure. The analysis of performance and outcomes is simple (and simplistic), under this view. If your teammate Jax lost top lane, it’s because he is bad. If your teammate Vayne killed all 5 of the enemy team, it is because she is extremely good. For the Westerner, a few numbers tell the whole story: The players with lots of kills are good players and they are the cause of victory. The players with many deaths are the bad players and they are the cause of defeat.

I posit that this view is misguided and the consistent success of Eastern teams over Western teams can be interpreted as evidence of different views of teamwork. Perhaps some of these differences are manifestations of the emphasis placed by American capitalism and democracy on individual performance, and the emphasis placed by communism and agrarianism on community and role-interconnection.

Having no more than a general education regarding Eastern culture (so, take this with a grain of salt), I suggest that it is easier for a member of an Eastern culture to see a League of Legends game as deeply teamwork-oriented in a way that does not resonate with Westerners. For the Westerner, in all things, there must be a single person whose genius and skill determines the outcome; something analogous to the “Great Person” theory of historical interpretation (that history is largely shaped and determined by singular individuals who “move history,” rather than economic, cultural, or other larger, faceless forces). I wonder if it is easier for Eastners to embrace the notion that no single person on a team can succeed without the entire team.

Eastern teams do recognize individual talent, of course, but they place it in a different context. One of the best players in Korea for the first 3 seasons of League of Legends was MadLife. He played Support, and led his team to victory through leadership, macro-play decision making, vision control, protecting teammates, initiating fights at the best moments, as well as some amazing mechanical prowess to disable key points of the enemy team.

In contrast, the players who generate the highest levels of hype in NA and EU are Midlaners and ADCs- players with more potential to score more kills. The Eastern teams understand that the game is not about individual glory, but about 5 players filling different but equally essential roles. Western team struggle to internalize this lesson, and emphasize the “highlight-reel” ability to get kills over the more abstract strategic value of vision and communication.

In my personal experience playing on the North American server, it is difficult for Westerners to see the web of interconnection between each player’s actions, whether the outcome is success or defeat. The relationship between Taric’s wards and Vayne’s pentakill goes unmentioned. The only time such elaborate interconnection is brought up is when players experienced an undesired outcome, as illustrated by Tim Buckley:

The greatest success (measured both by victory and by enjoyment) I have experienced in League of Legends has come when the team recognizes both their dependence on their teammates as well as their teammates’ dependence on them. When a team sees themselves as 5 individuals operating side by side towards a semi-common goal, disaster and frustration result. When a team sees themselves as one entity that can be subdivided and grouped as multiple co-dependent organs, with an interdependence as intricate as any mechanical, electrical, biological, or structural system, I am reminded why I play the game at all.

Does Theorycrafting Take the Magic Out of the Game?

I could never get into competitive RTS play because it seemed to amount to a speed-clicking competition. The “strategies” became so pre-baked and scripted that it never felt like I was really a commander of a force, but rather that I was an accountant who had researched and crunched the numbers. So much of the fun of games is finding creative solutions to surprising challenges. Predictability is the enemy of this endeavor, and nothing indicates predictability like “optimal strategy.”

The term “optimal strategy” is used in both video games and game theory (the study of decision making, discussed often in economics and philosophy), but I think there is an important (if subtle) distinction between their usages in these areas. In game theory, an optimal strategy is the one which yields the best outcome given the values selected. In a video game, an optimal strategy is the mathematically calculated best combination of skills and gear to produce the highest ratings of armor, DPS, or some other selected trait.  The important difference is that the game prescribes and directs the nature of the optimal strategy in a way that a game theory scenario does not.

For game theory, an optimal strategy depends on what you value as an outcome. For a scenario involving distribution of ice cream among 3 children, one person might value equality of distribution while another might value giving the children the illusion of equality (to keep them happy), while a 3rd might value teaching a lesson about the unfairness of life (and so distribute it unequally). That’s a terrible example because it’s not really about game theory, but it’s quicker than a proper game theory scenario would be, and you get the idea: in this type of “game,” you can value almost anything.

Most video games don’t have this kind of value flexibility, in that they only reward specific outcomes or achievements (“winning”). Therefore, the optimal strategy is always directed toward winning (in the sense defined by the game, not the player). An optimal strategy (in a game theory sense), could involve collecting pretty flowers in a video game because that makes me happy. However, the optimal strategy in the video game sense is not interested in my happiness, only in achieving the goal designed by the developer (who has proudly assumed this goal will bring me happiness).

Theorycrafting—the practice of finding the optimal strategy for a video game—is a great way to mathematically calculate a path to doing what the developer tells you to do: win. However, for those of us who play games to play them (not win them), theorycrafting can feel misguided, even undermining the point. Winning feels good, but so does playing. And somehow, a victory never feels as good if it came from someone else’s script rather than my own intuition or as a result of my own experience. Perhaps your feelings toward theorycrafting are a direct result of why you play games: to WIN, or to PLAY.

League of Legends and the Famously Vitriolic Online Gamer Community

(NOTE: LoL is not alone- or even the worst case- in problems of bad behavior of online gamers. I use it here only as a case study.)

Riot Games, Inc.  reportedly hired psychology PhDs to improve the community. Predictably, they failed—what would a PhD know about the real world? The “Honor” mechanism (which did not require a PhD to invent) was met with some dramatic decreases in reports of bad behavior (perhaps because it felt like punishing others to just not give them Honor). But players continue to rage. I wonder: how much raging and toxicity can be attributed to poor communication?

 The common scenario is this: an event happens in the game (like a team fight), and one player on my team feels it went badly (probably because he died). That player considers why it went badly and perceives a failing of another team member. But in what did this other team member fail? To follow the strategy envisioned by the first player. Yet in all likelihood, the second player feels that the first has failed to follow her strategy. It may even be the case that either strategy- if effectively communicated and executed, would be entirely successful.  Yet each players feels the other has simply performed poorly, even though each player had a carefully considered plan and executed that plan with precision. There may be other psychological factors (e.g., a supporting role may pre-emptively blame a damage-dealing role in anticipation of receiving blame), but it seems from my experience that much of the toxic behavior: 1) Only starts after a player perceives the game to be going badly (even though by all objective measures it might be going quite well for our team), 2) Involves vague accusations of the failings of others to succeed (though RARELY does it include specific, helpful criticism) 3) Denies personal responsibility for any role in the perceived failing, 4) Makes little to no effort to understand the actions of the accused fail-er, 5) Quickly disintegrates the team, becomes unnecessarily (and even psychotically) vitriolic, extends to “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face,” and often the efforts of complaining about one’s teammates cause losses more than the actual activities of the teammates about which one complains (both in time wasted typing insults and useless remarks as well as in animosity among team members).

While others’ imperfections are often frustrating, I think LoL shows how bad our society is at social problem solving: our population consistently lacks the skills to bring people together to solve a problem. We toss around terms like “communication skills” and “team player” on resumes and in job interviews, but I estimate fewer than 10% of the population actually has these skills, for they are antithetical to selfishness, insecurity, self-doubt, suspicion, mistrust, greed, envy, apathy, anger, and most of the other characteristics our culture subtly lauds and rewards. At the end of the day, it is hardly of any consequence how immature strangers may be while playing a videogame. However, my deep and serious concern is that these are the same people who consume our media, who vote, who teach, who manage, who run our public services and our private industries. They are the people of our democracy, and I am gravely worried that they are fundamentally immature, unaware, ignorant, selfish, and fearful.  Hopefully, most LoL players are just 10-18 year olds acting their age, but I suspect this is not the case. And it isn’t just something that makes my hobby a little less fun: it’s something that makes everything about my society- from the news, movies, and music to the literature, politics, and communities- much, much worse.