In 1987, thrash metal stalwarts (and eventual rap-metal pioneers) Anthrax released what is commonly regarded as their breakthrough album, Among the Living. There were two singles released for the album, with one of them (“Indians”) getting the full MTV treatment. The other single centered on a British comic book character by the name of Judge Dredd, which had come to life in the pages of 2000 A.D. a decade earlier.
A stern and granite-faced judge, jury, and occasional executioner in a dystopian future, Dredd’s mix of unflinching grit, humor, and social satire became a breakout hit for the magazine. In 1983, Eagle Comics picked up the rights to reprint Dredd strips in comic-book form in the US, and Dredd’s profile only grew from there.
Anthrax’s hit song- and today’s Battle Stories– takes its title from Dredd’s signature catchphrase. But while Dredd is relevant to today’s piece, the law in the legal sense isn’t the one that we’ll be discussing.
Rather, it’s the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Okay, let’s jump right in. The first of today’s two stories comes to us by way of an aspect of War Robots I haven’t covered a lot of here- its community- and both stories are connected.
When I first started playing War Robots, like many folks in this day and age I sought to find more insights and information about the game on the internet. That quickly led me to the War Robots Wiki, and its companion Forum. There, I found a positive, welcoming, and engaging community, filled with enthusiasm for the game.
Sure, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. At that time, the divisive issue of the day was “seal clubbing,” most typically (but not exclusively) using low-level Gepards with high-level Magnums to harvest Gold off of new or junior players. I need to be sure that I’m not allowing the comforting ribbon of hazy nostalgia to obscure the realities of the memory.
But overall, I learned a great deal in a short time, and had lots of fun connecting with fellow players. A number of weeks later, the administration team approached me and asked if I would consider serving as a moderator. I knew from past experience that that would mean the end of my unconstrained enjoyment of the board, and that it would come to share some characteristics more closely aligned with professions rather than hobbies.
But I was honored to be asked to give back to the community that gave me so much, and I accepted. And while the ins and outs of moderatorship are perhaps a subject for a different time, likely the biggest contribution I’ve made on the forum’s organization was the implementation of a codified set of rules.
I’m not saying I did this single-handedly- at all- but it was something I relentlessly championed on the inside. There were a number of reasons for this, and not all of them apparent from the outside looking in.
First, Pixonic had advised us that they would be putting a link to the Wiki Forum ingame. That meant we’d likely expect to see a lot more people registering to participate, which could be something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a growing community with a multitude of experiences and perspectives is exactly the kind of thing you want for a healthy forum.
On the other hand, a sudden influx of people risked eroding some of the cultural norms we’d taken for granted. Up ’til then, the accumulation of new faces was slow and steady, and each person would have plenty of opportunity to get the ‘lay of the land’ as they acculturated. Lots of new people almost certainly meant lots of new moderation.
And to be fair, it wasn’t entirely clear what that was. The “code of conduct” we had was a bit archaic, a holdover from the days when the Forum was directly a part of the Wiki. Some of the legacy rules even referred to conduct on the Wiki itself, despite the fact that they’d split apart into two separate website entities.
In addition to being a better guide for the community, it would solve two related problems I had with the way the Forum was being administered. Although we had a code of conduct with some sentencing guidelines, they weren’t consistently enforced. That’s not the fault of the admin team, so much as an unrealistic code of conduct. Some of the offenses, for instance, could earn a three hour ban. Who has time to flip on the egg timer and make sure to come back to ensure that a justly-deserved 180-minute time out doesn’t become an unjust 181-minute time out?
Nobody who isn’t getting paid, that’s who. And we are all volunteers.
As a result, moderation was exceedingly casual, and often seemed by whim and caprice. Whether or not someone got banned could be up to as little as whether or not a couple mods felt they were “good for the forum,” which seemed fundamentally unfair to the community to me. There were times when the judgment even seemed personal, or too much attention was being paid to a person’s apparent (lack of) character rather than their conduct.
For me, just like the law on Mega-City One, it was cut and dry. There were a list of transgressions, and you either did them or you didn’t. Equally, I wanted standardized punishments, and the opportunity for offenders to reform and clear their record. So a solid rules system would not only keep the posters in check- it would keep the mods in check too.
The second problem actually gets to the heart of the first- some guys were burning out. It takes a no small amount of mental energy to police a community, and these guys had been doing it for a long time. As anyone who’s ever done it can tell you, moderation can be a bit of a drag after awhile, because it takes your limited leisure time and fills it with the very worst your forum has to offer. After all, posters aren’t reporting each other for having a sunny disposition and inspiring word or two.
A codified system would help address this problem as well. Offender management would effectively be put on a thumbs-up or thumbs-down assembly line. With a clear path of escalating punishment (warning, 1-week ban, permanent ban), no mental energy had to be dedicated to figuring out the optimal punishment for a transgression.
It was either a strike, or it wasn’t. Whenever someone occasionally stressed out about how toxic someone was being for the community, I could point to the system and say, “relax, bad apples will weed themselves out. Let the system work.”
And it had…for the most part- or so I thought. One of the things being immersed in Magic: the Gathering and RPG culture for so long has given me is an appreciation for how the gamer mind works. The angle shooting, the min/maxing, the ability to wring every little advantage out of something, or bend a rule just up to-but not beyond- the rule of breaking. One could be forgiven for thinking that gamers and lawyers are perhaps related in the same way apes and humans are.
Then one night I came across this while doing the rounds:
A member had deleted their account and walked away with a parting shot I couldn’t dismiss. I thought back to my early days in the Forum, and how refreshingly positive they’d seemed when compared to some of the groups I’d seen on Facebook. Focused on knowledge, discussion, and banter rather than vulgar one-upsmanship and trash-talk.
I thought of all the arguments across all the different threads, the endless parade of reported posts, and asked, “was he right?”
And I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t tell. A small, David Byrne-sounding voice within me is telling me that it’s the same as it ever was. But the rest of me thinks he’s right. The overwhelming percentage of the community are amazing. And a small but outsizedly vocal handful, well…
And some of that’s on me. By creating a system that could be gamed, I’ve allowed people to get away with being toxic, so long as they weren’t so toxic that they violated the rules. In essence, the code of conduct doesn’t become a way of ensuring good behavior so much as a way of entrenching bad. It doesn’t take any breaking of the rules to contribute to a negative atmosphere, just time and complaining.
I was so busy looking at the forest, that I didn’t see the trees. Some of the worst offenders, under the old system, would have simply been banned when admin realized they weren’t interested in making a positive contribution to the community. And I’d been the one railing against arbitrary bans. Oh irony, you kidder you.
Is that fair? I mean, I may have drafted up the rules, but at the end of the day the trolls are the ones deciding to be trolls, right? While that’s true, if you build a system that works wonderfully on the assumption that people are going to be their best selves and treat it in the spirit you’d intended, well congratulations, you’ve just built a failed system.
I’ve made this point before in the context of the War Robots matchmaker. Here, too, we see the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. I’m of the firm conviction that what we have right now in the game isn’t what Pixonic desired, intended- or foresaw.
You can make a credible argument that the progression model drives more revenue than the old tier-based system it replaced. I’ve certainly spent more under the new system than I did in the old, but there’s no way to know whether or not I would have spent that money regardless.
In a Forum thread about the interest level of some players for organizing a financial boycott of Pixonic as a way to protest the current state of the game, member zer00eyz asked me the following question:
I didn’t have an answer for him. It’s true that I’ve had my frustrations with the game, but while I do see the occasional tanker, my experience has not been the same disheartening one others have experienced. That sentiment is almost becoming a theme here on the Diary, with the different problems we’ve looked at, but it’s also been suggested that those of us on the iOS platform haven’t been having the same experience as the unfortunates on Android.
Then I ran into Paps on Flexpoint’s War Robots community-wide Discord server, who told me about a match he just had that was particularly disheartening.
“Not at all uncommon,” he sighed. Paps is on Android.
Flash forward to last Tuesday morning. I unexpectedly had a few minutes left of a break at work, and decide to treat myself to a quick game of War Robots. After all, I’ve done enough data collection for the next By the Numbers post, so I can simply play for fun without having to jot down stats after every game.
I spawned in on Canyon, opting for the leadoff-hitting Galahad. Looking to my left and right, I see swift Lights for early beacons, so I make my way towards center bridge. Pivoting so I’m running sideways, letting the shield soak up any early Trebuchet blasts, I start scanning the horizon to see what direction the Reds are beginning to mobilize.
Reds are beginning to mobilize…
There’s not a single one. Puzzled, I look up at the status bars, and see only Blue. Someone shoots at me from behind with a harmless Magnum. Ha, a glitch! What a silly game, chuckles all around. Mercifully, it ends quickly, but I’m quite surprised to see the final result.
Apparently, I’d just had my first taste of “ethical tanking.”
It was a strange feeling, difficult to describe. Part of me was irritated with the tankers for having wasted my time. I’d wanted a game, came up with something hollow, and had to go back to work.
Another part of me thought, “well, that was a minute of my life I’ll never get back- but not much more than a minute.”
And as for Pixonic, I wasn’t frustrated with them, so much as just embarrassed. Here you have this giant undertaking, this amazing game that’s been installed millions of times. People playing all over the world. A design and development team spending countless hours coming up with new robots and weapons, maps, mechanics.
And it’s getting thwarted by the less-pleasant aspects of very simple (and predictable) human nature.
It reminded me of the War of the Worlds, the invasion of Earth by an advanced, powerful, and militaristic alien species…which are killed off when exposed to frickin’ everyday germs.
Forest. Trees. And all that.
So to answer to zer00eyz question, of what would it take for me to send a message to Pixonic about the distress of the community I’m a part of?
Maybe this is the message.
The “leaver protection” button was turned on this week on the iOS side, though curiously some folks are reporting higher occurrences of tankers. The hope is that the system will work, that like the Wiki Forum, the bad actors will see themselves out.
For my part, I can only hope that the parallel ends there, and that the Law of Unintended Consequences doesn’t let the minority of bad actors fly just under the radar.
Just like the Forum.