‘Hush’-ed; or, Hearthstone’s positive result from The Gentlemen’s visit

buffy_hush2_hs
Can’t even shout, can’t even cry
The Gentlemen are coming by
Playing on iPads and PCs online
They play Priest in arena and they need to win nine
Can’t call to mom, can’t say a word
You’ll rage when they MC but you won’t be heard.

Haha, that was for my fellow Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans. “Hush” was probably one of the most poignant episodes from the frequently awkward season four, The College Years.

The other day, Polygon Senior Editor Ben Kuchera, offered a rather interesting editorial on Blizzard’s somewhat controversial decision to silence players in their latest free-to-play offering, Hearthstone.

As a day-one closed beta tester, and a proud Mage deck player (yes, they still exist post-pyroblast nerf), I always found it to be an interesting turn to disallow communication between players during a match, save for the limited number of emotes one is able to use to engage the opposing player.

But when you think about it, it’s really not that hard to see why Blizzard made this decision. Let’s take a look at a few things:

Vitriolic Behavior Amongst Competitive Players

Last night, I was watching one of my favorite Twitch streamers, Gigasnail, stream – as he usually does – his 2v2 arena matches in World of Warcraft.

During their round of matches for which they were doing relatively well, they came across an Arms Warrior-Mistweaver Monk duo that proved to be particularly difficult to take down. Even to the viewing audience, it became apparent that the Monk was a rare, and unwelcome breed of player that resorts to the use of what is known as an “orb bot” which auto casts Healing Spheres at the feet of the Monk’s target be it himself or his partner as the Monk moves around the arena (which is hard to get around when you couple the bot with the Monk’s natural mastery, Gift of the Serpent, which ALREADY autodrops healing spheres — the resulting arena becomes RIDDLED with spheres that heal for an incredible amount and is an overpowered ROI for the mana-to-ability cost ratio). While the PVP community is undecided on the fairness of such a bot, it was apparent during Gigasnail’s match up that it was a rather difficult road block to overcome.

The result of the match was a verbal exchange between Giga and the Monk that while entertaining, was an example of the type of player behavior Blizzard wishes to prevent in Hearthstone. There are some extremely smart players in the Hearthstone community, some who play incredible hands that are difficult to counter, and as such, being on the losing end can be quite rage-inducing. The problem with Giga’s post match exchange is that both players were Alliance which thus enabled the two to talk to each other and encourage a more negative exchange with the colorful use of some words and phrases that would make the most politically-minded people grind their teeth into a fine powder. While I’m not easily offended, I can’t speak for everyone and when that vocal exchange happens all the time, eventually you will find someone who raise a stink and thus create an uncomfortable situation for everyone.

Such vocal negativity isn’t limited to Blizzard. Even more notable is the toxic exchange that can exist in the League of Legends community (and not just between opposing team players, but AMONGST team members themselves). According to Riot Games’ publicly released internal data, upwards of 80-percent of chat exchanges were negative. This forced Riot to deal with the issue by hiring a team of social behaviorists who set out on a mission to solve the problem.

Riot’s experiments on solving the issue had several options

The first and simplest option was cutting off all communications, or muting them so to speak. According to the linked Polygon article, this had a near immediate effect as players opted in, and thus, dropped negative communication 32-percent.

The next option involved the implementation of an honor system that offers interesting rewards to players for positive  and good sportsmanlike behavior.

But I think the most important and interesting option is the tribunal system that incorporates the use of “reform” cards that are offered to offending players. While MMO developers like Blizzard also offer an in-game reporting feature, bans and warnings that result from player abuse reports tend to offer the offender little insight on corrective behavior. Riot takes those actions and through such reform cards, offers feedback on what and why the player was receiving punitive action and what their corrective action hopes to accomplish.

While Riot’s actions are still evolving, it is a step in a much needed direction and can have a ripple effect throughout the gaming industry and beyond. Even non-virtual realm instances exist when in a competitive environment, people can suck. Riots ensue when favored soccer teams lose in the World Cup, or even when teams lose in the Stanley Cup.

To put it simply, in a game highly social and equally competitive in nature, people can ironically be its worst enemy, and as such, can hurt a publisher’s bottom line.

While some MMOs like Rift and Star Wars the Old Republic have adopted the ability to at least /say and /yell to enemy faction members, publishers of competitive games like League of Legends, have found that when pitting player versus player, it’s important to allow people the option to cut off or greatly limit others from communication.

Enter the (Hearthstone) Dragon

buffy_hush1

In “Hush,” the important message was that in a world where we can no longer speak, we find other ways to communicate that tend to be more, well, human. Body language, emotes, and expressions became a more endearing form of communication in the absence of vocal cords that ended up nurturing or re-establishing neglected relationships.

So Hearthstone gave players a handful of basic emotes. A greeting, a compliment, a friendly threat, an apology, etc. aimed at REMINDING you that you’re playing a person while keeping you from belittling that person’s existence (save for that annoying Wombo-Combo play you tried to avoid and still annoyingly fell for, HAHA).

What has been the overall effect of the game? A rather positive one. Where in a one-on-one environment it could easily become a nasty exchange of “aw, you jerk, I knew you were going to play that, you donkey raping shit eater,” it’s now a place where the focus is on what it should be, the “deceptively simple” and fantastic game Blizzard has built.

So as Buffy asks in the photo above, how DO we get our voices back? Well, in Hearthstone, you already DO have a voice. Our speech is communicated in great gameplay whether you’re on the winning or losing side of a match up. Seriously, WATCH any streamer on Twitch and even the most annoying plays are heralded on both sides for their creativity or luck…

…because as I always say, your best friend and worst enemy in Hearthstone is RNG, not the other player.

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