If you keep up with my articles, you’d know I often site independent games journalist and weird sex advocate Jim Sterling when composing pieces, typically because the two of us are on the same wavelength and I find his pieces to be both passionate and insightful. It’s not often I disagree with him, and yet this week I find myself thinking about, and at odds with, one of his more recent claims. I’ll link the video below but I’ll summarize it afterwards.
In the video, Jim Sterling cites another youtuber and games journalist YongYea, who uncovered some articles posted by EA online about ways to “maximize the engagement” of gamers by dynamically adjusting the difficulty of their games. That’s fine and well enough, but then Mr. Sterling sites a second article where EA talks about using the same dynamic adjustment in multiplayer matchmaking: specifically, pairing you up with weaker players if you find yourself in a losing streak so you can feel better about yourself, or pairing you up with tougher players if you’re doing well in order to remind you that you ain’t all that.
In the video proper, Jim Sterling accuses EA of “rigging” matchmaking, using an unfair and manipulative system to control players. He says that they’re trying to reduce churn, to turn “players into payers”, and manipulate people into spending money by increasing their engagement. He accuses them, in effect, of being crooks.
...now, I’m not going to say EA isn’t a crook. But I’m also not going to look at a game, who has a system in place that uses difficulty adjustments in order to keep players interested in the game, and see an evil mastermind puppeteering gamers and controlling their brains. I’m going to see a game doing its job.
It may have slipped some people’s minds, but games exist as an illusion designed to manipulate players and increase engagement. Engagement is a good thing. It’s only by being engaged with a game that we feel good when we win, and feel encouraged to try again when we lose. Engagement is caring. Engagement is the measure in which we decide how much time we invest in a game, because if we’re engaged, we feel as if that time is well spent. It helps us forget the troubles of our lives by taking us someplace better, letting us focus on something else. And if EA wants to use the same dynamic system to boost engagement on multiplayer as it uses in single-player, I fail to see how that’s a problem.
Jim Sterling accuses EA of using hidden strings to mess with the player, but I know enough about the game’s industry to know EA is not the only person who does it. Heck, I’ll let some industry veterans explain how common, nay, how NECESSARY it is to have hidden systems in games:
If you don’t feel like watching that video either, it basically details how smoke and mirrors are necessary for video games to even work. Every game has hidden systems, these “invisible strings” that are pulled to make the player feel good: either by making your last few bullets do extra damage, or by having your last slice of HP worth a whole lot more than the ones before it, or even by having enemies who “ambush” you always miss their first few shots so you never feel outmatched. All of it is done to help gamers have a good time, and all of them could be called systems designed to manipulate you emotionally to boost engagement.
But going back to the EA example, I’d even go so far as to say it’s what matchmaking is supposed to do in the first place. What Jim Sterling is describing in the video is just matchmaking: if you’re doing really well and winning a lot of games, you’re supposed to go up against more skilled players. If you’re doing really badly and lose a lot of games, it makes sense to give you a morale boost and put you against easier players: every game is supposed to do that. It’s what makes competitive games... you know… competitive.
So no, I don’t think this is a prime example of EA being greedy and manipulative and evil. There are lots, and lots of examples of EA being greedy and manipulative. This is only an example of them being a games company, making games, the way that all games companies do. Sure, the fact that they proudly declare themselves as innovators in the “games as a service” field, and they’re really, really open about wanting to turn players into payers taints the whole enterprise a deep shade of greed… but it’s still just how games work.
Which is what brings me to part two of this article: do you think this would have raised the hubbub that it apparently did if, say, Valve had published these articles? Or Nintendo? Or CD Projekt Red? Bethesda? Blizzard? No. Of course it wouldn’t. The only thing that makes these very mundane documents detailing a common facet of the gaming industry “controversial” is that they were authored by an awful company. I imagine a similar, if smaller controversy would arise if Ubisoft or Konami tried to publish this, but any other developer? No one would bat an eyelash.
My concern here is that people are taking the right and proper view that EA is evil, but then projecting that onto everything EA does. Which would be a big problem, because if people start taking that view and, say, look to the other companies who practice something similar, then suddenly the whole industry seems evil because, look, they’re doing the thing EA does!
Take, for example, “churn”. The word is spat out like a curse by Mr. Jim Sterling, but tell me one video game company who would be ‘happy’ when players stop playing their game. There’s not a single one. Even if you drop the whole monetization argument, where engagement = possibility of extra money, name one game that would be thrilled if you stopped playing it and decided to pick up something else.
...okay, bad example, but you have to admit that’s an outlier. Everyone wants people to enjoy their games, that’s why people are so excited about things like replay value. There might be a cynical side to it, but it’s also just something people want. And just because EA wants their games to be enjoyed for a long time doesn’t mean that’s a bad, manipulative thing: that’s normal!
Look, the games industry does a lot of bad things for the sake of engagement, bad things that lead to bad engagement. Skinner box techniques. Daily login bonuses. Too much focus on social aspects. Needless progress markers. And of course, the almighty loot box. Those are the types of predatory systems we need to be aware of, because they don’t make the game more fun, really, all they do is incentivize bad behavior and bombard you with stress and unhealthy motivation. But we can’t confuse good engagement with bad engagement. The moment we start villainizing “wanting to play the game” is the moment we lose track of the whole reason we play games in the first place.
So we have to kind of make a pact when we decide to play video games: we have to understand and accept that it will have to mess with our mind and perception in order to craft a good experience. But we also have to stay vigilant to ensure that it doesn’t try to drive you with guilt, or obligation, or anything that isn’t directly related to fun.
Case in point: I played World of Warcraft for about two years. And when I started, I was having so much fun: leveling up, earning new abilities and traits, and discovering the massive world was all the thrill I needed to keep going. But that couldn’t sustain a two year dive into the game. And there reached a point near the end where I realized the only thing that kept me coming back was this weird feeling of necessity. I was thinking of all the daily quests I had to do, the “routine” of PvP/grinding that would get me stuff that I might use to save time during the routine. It was a self-defeating loop. The game stopped being fun.
Deciding to quit was one of the best choices I made at the time, and I realized just how little it all meant to me. Smoke and mirrors can be the most amazing thing in the world when you’re engaged in it, as part of the show. But the minute you leave the theater, you can’t help but think on how shallow and pointless it all was. But that’s okay. Because the whole reason you show up is so you can enjoy that special moment, where you’re so swept up you enter a new world of your own, a world that mattered, right then and there.
And we shouldn’t punish anyone, even EA, for wanting to craft that for us.
...we should punish them for all the other terrible things they’re going to do to Anthem.