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Tuesday
Jul072009

Dr. House and The Professor Who Played to Win

Professor David Myers of Loyola University has been playing to win the last few years, and he's been doing it in an MMO of all places, so you can imagine how that went. The story of Myers and his character Twixt should make you laugh and also cry over the sorry state of humanity. What he encountered was entirely predictable, hilarious, and pathetic should any alien races ever see how we handle things.

Dr. House

But before we get to Twixt, I can't help but discuss the fictional doctor Gregory House. House is a genius when it comes to solving puzzles--the kind of medical puzzles needed to save people's lives. His "game" is to save the lives of as many of his own patients as possible. While some might quibble that his game is more to solve puzzles successfully than save lives, I think we can safely say that House does everything he possibly can to save lives, even when it's mean, cruel, abhorrent, distasteful, or illegal. It's just that if a patient dies, he wants to solve the puzzle anyway.

House is self-aware of his "game," and his entire staff and his supervisor (if she can be called that) is also fully aware. That is the very reason they are all there: to save patients' lives. The television show very often (as in multiple times per episode) creates a situation where social convention is opposed to winning this game. Maybe Dr. House must conceal some information from his boss in order to save the patient this time. He often breaks into the houses of the patients, looking for the obscure toxin that's killing them so he can formulate a cure. Sometimes causing physical pain to the patient is medically necessary to figure out the problem. Sometimes causing them emotional stress is necessary to solve the problem. Exposing their lies comes up often, too.

People don't like Dr. House. It's unfortunate that his character is so extreme, such a caricature at times, in that he's mean for no other purpose than to be mean. I think some people think *that* is why he is disliked. Others who can look past this might say that his ends-justify-the-means methods don't give him license to break the law by doing things like breaking into people's houses. (If it saves their lives, it seems worth it though, no?) So even if we disregarded all the times he goes against social convention for no reason other than meanness or spite, and even if we disregarded his (usually justified) illegal activities, he still has plenty of *purposeful* anti-social behavior left. That is, behavior that wins his game.

A common line on the show is when someone says that some plan of his is "impolite" (maybe exposing a lie between husband and wife because doing so is the only way to reveal the medical fact needed to save the life). House responds "would it be more polite to let them die?" It's not even that the person he's talking to has a win-win solution that allows for politeness AND saving the life. Usually, no one involved knows of any better plan than the impolite, life-saving one. Dr. House simply plays his game effectively and he's disliked for it, even though the people doing the disliking are all part of the same game and have the same objectives of saving lives. It's as if they forget the objective and care only for social convention. Or at least they momentarily forget, but usually reluctantly agree that breaking social convention is the right move. (And yeah, it doesn't help that House is unjustifiably mean all the time on top of things, but as I said, even if he weren't, he'd still be disliked.)

Twixt

Enter Twixt. He is a character, or rather set of characters on different servers in City of Heros/City of Villains, that Professor David Myers created to explore a certain playstyle: playing to win.

Professor David Myers of Loyola University

The professor talks about Twixt in the third person, as if his actions are completely unrelated to the human being controlling him. Ok fine, I'll gloss over that I guess. Twixt's goal is to maintain superiority of the Hero faction over the villain faction using PvP combat. Twixt only uses legal moves allowed by the game design and code, and never illegal moves. That is, he does not use any illegal 3rd party software or hacks, and he doesn't violate the EULA (not that I think squishy rules in a EULA matter much anyway, but I'm just saying).

People hate Twixt. I think they hate him even more than Dr. House. When Twixt is in a PvP zone designed to foster combat between the two factions, he actually does combat against the enemy faction. This is considered a huge breech of social etiquette in areas where both factions decided to collude in order to avoid PvP action and instead farm NPCs for money. (Apparently colluding with the enemy faction is a-ok, social etiquette-wise?)

Twixt uses--no strike that--Professor Myers uses some specific tactics in PvP that get people extremely angry. The in-game mechanics allow him, in certain situations, to teleport enemies away. This technique can put them next to enemy guards, enemy turrets that kill right away, or enormous enemy monsters that overwhelm the foe. The tactic can even kill instantly if you teleport the enemy into a certain type of droid or something. I haven't really played the game, so my description of this is surely poor, but you get the idea. Teleporting is damn good. Even if it dealt no damage and only delayed the enemy from attacking you, it would still be incredibly powerful in a PvP zone, allowing a smaller force to separate and delay a larger force.

By any objective measure, the professor's PvP is absurdly successful. In his words:

For instance, Twixt was able to win the zone (capture all six pillboxes for the heroes) literally hundreds of times during his year-long period of breaching play on three different servers. Twixt’s opponents, during this same period, may have won the zone, in total, less than twenty times. Twixt was normally able to defeat, on average, ten to twenty villains a night, while villains seldom killed him more than once or twice during the same period of play -- and, more often, didn’t kill him at all.

If you have ever played a competitive game before, you already know the reaction to his success. Many players claimed they didn't die at Twixt's hands at all, even when the Professor posted game logs plainly showing they did. He is often called "skill-less" (even though he vastly out-paces his opponents), a "noob" (even though he vastly outpaces his opponents), and a "griefer" (even though he pursues objectives intended by the game design). A note on that last point is that I'm not simply claiming he used only legal game mechanics (that's also true) because that could also be true of a legitimate griefer. In this case though, Twixt's objective is not to "grief" anyone, but simply play the game as it was meant--to PvP for his side in PvP areas. The "grief" that players experience is because they have constructed their own social norms which are actually *contrary* to the real rules of the game, and feel victimized by a player who plays according to the real rules of the game and its intended objectives.

The professor's essay is worth a read for the comedy value alone, as it contains ample quotes from actual players calling him a "griefing pussy" and so on. Professor Myers has great points beyond just comedy though. He explains that in social science, when two cultures collide, it's hard to really analyze the trash-talking statements of one culture about another. Maybe there is truth to them? Maybe it's too hard to judge the quality that's being trash talked? Maybe there's other apologies that make it ok? But here, the rules of the game codified into programming code make it clear which moves are allowed. *Numerous* players called him cheap and reported him to moderators, asking that his tactics not be allowed, but no moderator ever took any action or ever stated these tactics were not allowed, according to Myers. My point is that his methods were certainly legal and allowed. Also, the stats of his enormous success in PvP make it clear that he's acting in an effective way as far as PvP combat goes.

It's just that people don't like him. They don't like that he's breaking social conventions which here, are a layer on top of the game that actually *opposes* the true rules of the game. Myers asks how will people explore the game mechanics without Twixt's type of behavior though? How will people learn counters to those tactics or advance the state of exploration of the game's mechanics? How, indeed.

And if the best answer is that the game *with* these "frowned upon" mechanics is simply less fun or less deep, then why can't players understand that the correct course of action is to ask the developers to change the mechanics? Being mad a Twixt completely misses the point.

What's so sad about all this is that it's not just a game. Humans have a long history of saying "noob" and "skill-less" in the face of effective behavior that defies social convention. From Myers's paper:

A well known example in this regard, as noted in Cole (1996), are those characteristics 19th century Europeans attached to the native cultures of their foreign conquests, e.g. “an inability to control the emotions, animistic thinking, [and an] inability to reason out cause or plan for the future”

So when we finally do have contact with some alien race, probably one vastly more advanced than our own, I think it's pretty much a given that we'll call them "skill-less noobs" when they violate any of our social conventions.

One final question. Will the City of Villains playerbase learn anything from the existence of Twixt?

--Sirlin

Reader Comments (1)

Wow it's a fantastic blog post.Thanks.

May 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor
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