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When Players Make the Rules: On Memes and the Meta-Game
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When Players Make the Rules: On Memes and the Meta-Game

November 15, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Are players pushing your game in directions you never intended it to go? In this article, Gamasutra explores how games like StarCraft II and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare encourage good and bad player behaviors.

An interesting thing about games is that the player always helps design them. No matter how simple or complex the game is, there is always room for our own creative input. We add new rules, new contexts, new narratives and new measures of success, and we choose which of the original characteristics of the game we want to interact with. Games are much like books in this manner, and we will often find the most interesting things about games between the lines of the author's instructions.

When designing games, this is both a blessing and curse. How the player behaves within the context of the game has an enormous impact on how enjoyable the game will be for the player, and game designers often find themselves struggling with how to encourage the players to play in a way that will be rewarding. Managing the expectations and behaviors of the player is a daunting task, but one of tremendous importance. Games that are well developed in every sense can still fall short to an unhealthy in-game culture. The game is only as good as the players.

So how does one manage, or even anticipate, how players might behave within the game? To understand how, we will first have to gain a rudimentary understanding of behavior itself.

Behavior is the way someone acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus. It's important here that we don't confuse behavior, which is a model for describing someone's actions, with the actions themselves.

"I am going to sleep" is a good example of what an action might be, and "I will go to sleep after this TV show, even if I'm tired now" shows us what a behavior would be. Whereas an action could be described as a data point, behavior is a graph attempting to make sense of the data. If we have a good model for someone's behavior, we can extrapolate, and derive, and experiment.

Some behaviors are particularly successful at achieving things that are good for us, while other behaviors can be wasteful, detrimental, and destructive to us. This helps us rationally choose some of our behaviors, and avoid others. We brush our teeth with toothpaste to keep our teeth white, but only very few will make the leap and attempt to brush their teeth with bleach.

But we aren't that good at avoiding destructive behavior. We routinely engage in behaviors that are bad for us, even when we are very well aware of the negative effects the behavior might have. Consider things like smoking, gambling, unprotected sex, and speeding. How can we explain these irrational behaviors?

The key lies in understanding that the roles we ourselves play in determining what behaviors are prevalent in our culture are fairly limited. Behaviors and ideas seem to have a life of their own.

The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his book The Selfish Gene, in an attempt to better explain what generates culture. As a game enthusiast, you may remember that Huizinga thought that our desire to play was what generates culture, but that is not a complete model. Dawkins found a way to explain how the things that play generated got to be so popular -- how they could move from isolated behaviors into the realm of culture.

A meme is a chunk of behavioral code -- a behavioral gene -- that can get copied from one individual to another. Memes are the building blocks of behavior. The words and gestures we use, the phrases we choose, the way we fold our laundry, the way we get our hair cut, these are all memes, and they are ideas that can be observed, copied, and mutated. 

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains to us how natural selection acts on the genes, rather than the individuals. This gene-centric view of evolution has helped shed a lot of light on some of the more peculiar aspects of biology. The theory shows us that certain genes are more successful at being reproduced than others. The more successful genes will outperform the less successful genes and, with time, we will see more of the successful genes than we will of the less successful genes.

This simple process generates organisms that are very well adapted to the environment they live in. The gene-centric view of evolution has helped explain things like diseases and cancer, and is now a more useful model than Charles Darwin's own model of evolution. The individual is a machine built by and for genes, with the sole purpose of replicating genes.

Although they obviously do not exist in any physical sense of the word, imagining that same process of natural selection on ideas helps us understand why bad ideas spread. The survival fitness of a meme is not determined by the effect it has on its host, but rather by how well it propagates to other hosts. Memes seemingly hijack our brains and make us into machines for spreading more memes. Behaviors and ideas have a viral life of their own, just like our genes do, and we are the sometimes-unfortunate hosts of this second replicator. Memes spread through observation (even involuntary observation), and they copy themselves and mutate into new, potentially viral, strains of ideas.

When designing games, we are not completely at the mercy of these memes; there are ways for us to guide the evolutionary process of memes to a place we want. Although we can't choose which particular memes will emerge from selection, we can alter the environment of selection itself. By carefully designing the environment that the memes will populate, we can make some predictions about what will emerge.

A fitness function is a model for evaluating the fitness of an entity. When programming things like genetic algorithms we are in complete control of the fitness function -- we author it ourselves -- but even when we are not the direct authors of the fitness function, we can approach it sideways and try to model how it would work in the environment we created.

In the real world, we can see things like giraffes evolving over time to fill a niche where they have an opportunity to thrive. The victory condition for a giraffe is to survive long enough to reproduce, and this will require a steady source of food, relative safety from predators and a fair chance at competing for a mate.

Their longer necks allow them access to a food source with less competition, and the population grows in response to the improved living conditions.

 Just like the possible emergence of something like giraffes can be predicted by seeing that there are untapped resources in the form of tall, lush trees, we can anticipate the emergence of certain behaviors by examining the victory conditions of the game.

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Chris McLeod
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I supposed in a less locked down game the map would simply be fixed, just like SC2 is. Internal rules to the rescue. Interesting read Nils.

Nils Pihl
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I'm glad you found it interesting, Chris.

I think our intuitions immediately go towards solutions that revolve around changing the level design (maps are often the least holy part of a game design, it seem), but I think it is instructive to think of other ways to modify the internal rules.

Most important is, however, that you think ahead when you design games. If the desired behavior within a game does not match the optimal winning strategy you will end up with a different product than what you had in mind.

I think that it is often more informative, illuminating and inspiring to think of memes as the population of your game world than to revert to the almost astrological oversimplifications you end with when you design for player "archetypes".

Travis Ross
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Nils, this is a really neat perspective. I passed it around to my colleagues. I've been thinking about the same stuff from an angle of social learning, descriptive norms, and information cascades. I hadn't really thought to label it with memetics. I think people naturally think of memes as viral videos and popular ideas, but not the drivers of behavior. I really enjoyed your writing. Also, nice identification of dynamic equilibrium in Star Craft, I was trying to explain to my game design class the other day how paper rock scissors can be viewed in a similar light if it is played with the rules of evolutionary game theory. I'm not sure if you are interested, but a colleague of mine and I wrote a piece on heuristics use on online games - there's a small section on social learning heuristics and descriptive norms -


Nils Pihl
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@Travis, I'd love to read your paper if you had a copy that didn't cost 30 dollars :)

What Blizzard is doing with Starcraft is to stamp out any impending Nash Equilibrium. I submit to you that a lot of the games that we leave behind because of boredom have already reached their NEs.

You get bored with TicTacToe once every game becomes a draw.
You get bored beating an AI in a game when all you have to do is repeat what you did last time.
You get bored city building games once you've realized the very best way to build a city.

Travis Ross
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Yes - a little bit of complexity and multiplayer interaction seem to do a good job of stamping out dominant strategies, but they do crop up in unlikely places.

Also, my fault I should have grabbed the 2nd link off of Google Scholar.

Nils Pihl
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I'll be sure to read it this weekend and share my thoughts with you.

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That’s a very interesting article indeed.

I’m having the same kind of thoughts playing League of Legends.

As a matter of fact, the meta-game not only includes the combat strategies / playing actions, but the team compositions as well. Those 2 factors are obviously intricated, but they act on different levels.

Given the extraordinary diversity of champions, one might expect a great diversity in team comps. But that’s not the case.
Probably due to (a) the important exposition of tournaments, that tends to show the “mainstream audience” compositions that are – and sometimes can only be – handled by professional players, and (b) the fact that most of the players play the famous “Solo Queue”, were one CANNOT get an optimal team coordination.

This observation is made on the champion-role level (Solo Top, AP Mid, Jungle, Support-AD Carry), but also on the champion level itself.

The result being a forced selection of team comps that are either not really fun, nor necessarily effective.
For example, we recently observed CLG Froggen use an AD Carry as a Solo Mid champion (which is generally an AP champion). This looked like a small meta-game revolution, when it’s actually not so much. Just the fruit of a carefully thought team strategy, and, in my opinion a clever picks&bans roll out as well.

Used to sometimes pick Darius mid in Solo Queue, I previsouly was "100% n00b". Now, I’m a "tryhard troll n00b copying CLG Froggen".
Let's put aside the never-ending story about the good-mannered LoL community, and just point out that my teammates are maybe statistically right, not being in the timings of the meta cycles.

The paradox being - and this is were your article comes - although the game is designed to bring an extreme diversity, the designer probably has to implement light reworks to help new metas come through.
Waiting for Season 3 patches….

Nils Pihl
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"The paradox being - and this is were your article comes - although the game is designed to bring an extreme diversity, the designer probably has to implement light reworks to help new metas come through."

If the metagame starts approaching a Nash Equilibrium, then you only have two options: Change the internal rules or pray that someone is stupid enough to not follow the equilibrium AND smart enough to actually beat it, haha.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Well done Sir, this is now my favourite article on Gamasutra.

I would really like to hear your thoughts on the ethical dimension of this Memetic Dilemma. You mention this specifically in the subtitle, where you talk about "good" and "bad" player behavior. There are multiple levels of "goodness"/"badness" obviously.

On a gamemechanics level, every gamer wants to discover an optimal winning strategy, and almost any (non random based) game is figured out eventually. The art of the gamedesign would be to obfuscate this internal clockwork, so that it can only be discovered with great timeinvestement. Because if once discovered, it tends to spread with viral speed.

This "destructive drift", where you are forced to use the optimal winning strategy if you want to compete, in competitive gameplay is often mirrored in communitys too. From the trashtalk on xboxlive to the racist/sexist commentaries on gamesites. While most gamecompanies distance themselves officially from such "political incorrect" behavior it is reenforced by our media preference for "bad" things happening. "Bad" behaviour simply said makes "good" press, and the only "bad" press is no press at all. This has of course to do with the "impersonal" selfishness of Memes, that only want to piggy-back on their replicators.

And it becomes weirder: a company could deliberatly feel encouraged to deliver a "bad" game simply to create a s**itstorm, that will ensure its virality for a long time.
Not saying that they fabricated it intentionally, but the press Bioware got out of the "controverse" endings of their Mass Effect Trilogy was unprecedented, even months after its release there were articles on news sites how fans were devastated, petititons and sues were launched to change the ending etc. To be honest: If the end would have been perfect ("good" in a sense that was in the normal quality expectations of the fanbase/industry, Bioware by no means would have stayed viral for months to come.

Nils Pihl
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@Andreas, feel free to add me on Skype and we can discuss the ethical dimensions of it all, perhaps something good will come out of it. My account is "nipibo".

I don't know if making a bad job as a winning strategy has made it into gaming yet, but I know from my interactions with PR companies that it has there...

Luciano Lombardi
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Great article, I wonder how to draw the line between controlling the experience (to avoid frustration arising from unintended player behaviour) and nurturing emergent gameplay. I guess that taking either of these two possibilities to their extremes should be avoided, and maybe a balance between them can be achieved.

But I don't know if there is any way to plan this balance in advance. Maybe it has more to do with fast analysis and response to the way the community responds to the game itself.

Once the game is released, I think that besides the game mechanics such as the kill-cam, other interesting aspect of the behaviour spreading within multiplayer games is the pro-gaming scene. Streaming tournaments and youtube replays can often be the 'ground zero' of new strategies or memetic behaviours coming from looking up to the pros/winners. In MOBA games it is relatively common to see how a specific heroe/build becomes highly popular after a professional player has won a tournament using it.

Even if your game doesn't have a million dollar pro-gaming scene, if you keep track of the community, you can use it at your advantage by promoting the behaviours you think are interesting (Play of the week videos in the game client?), or quickly fix and patch the game to prevent what you think are detrimental to the game experience

Nils Pihl
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I don't think you can plan ahead perfectly, but it is definitely possible to make fairly accurate predictions.

Jeremie Sinic
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When I saw "46 comments" I didn't expect this... But very interesting article :)