Twixt: Stressing it further.

You know, I’m sort of glad as this gamer media blow-up happened– not the TROLL and GRIEFER and DOUCHEBAG and ASSHAT part.. Just the awareness part.

After Twixt was done, I tried to go back on the CoH forums — after I had thought I had waited more than long enough for Twixtrage to expire — and do a sort of debriefing with the community. But the Twixtrage had not died down and everyone became a little defensive. Well, the Twixtrage remains and it’s not going away because I think it’s mostly among those who have never played with Twixt, never pvp’ed in CoH, and/or don’t know how the CoH pvp game mechanics really work. It may also be largely because of the study’s conclusions. I dunno. Nevertheless and in any case, at least I get to say some stuff I didn’t get a chance to say earlier.

[Also, btw, sorry for what will probably be the tldr version of this, but I’ve got basically an email-ish situation here — don’t even have 3G — so I’m not gonna be able to keep up with the ebb and flow very well.]

Playing as “stress”

While the analogy of Garfinkel’s breaching experiments is used to frame much of the study’s discussion, a more accurate and less rhetorical summary is this: “…by introducing player vs. player competition, the designers of CoH/V had Garfinkeled their game.  My play inside RV explored this disruption with Twixt.” And, again, in the paper’s conclusion: “And further, if some player — like Twixt — decides to explore those rules fully, then that player is shunned, silenced, and, if at all possible, expelled.”

Strictly speaking, Twixt’s actions inside the game were actions of exploration rather than experimentation. The most important distinction in this regard is that while Garfinkeling has the explicit goal of breaching (most read this as “breaking”) social norms to provoke and observe, Twixt’s exploration was guided by the explicit rules of the game and intended only to compete with prevailing social norms (insofar as that was necessary) in order to identity and understand their function regarding play of the game – not to break and certainly not to destroy those social norms. It was, therefore, the designers (if any) who could be in this case said to be experimentalists (as the quote from the paper above indicates), though Twixt was also, in a sense, their champion.

Nevertheless, as the paper also indicates, Twixt was well versed in the game culture and, after some extended period of play, aware of the likely responses to his play. These reactions of other players were then an important factor to consider in deciding in what manner and for how long Twixt’s behavior designed to examine the rules of the game could usefully continue. Several factors played into this determination.

Identifying stress

The level of “stress” in an online pvp game is difficult to measure given the purposeful and, indeed, expected antagonistic relationship players adopt toward one another. There still can be both objective and subjective measures of an appropriate level of stress under these circumstances, however.

Subjectively, Twixt’s experience in the game and his familiarity with other players were vital in this determination. For instance, trash talk in the pvp zones was widely used and widely expected – up to and perhaps just beyond the use of mild profanities (such as “ass” or “bitch”) or slightly risque acronyms (“pos” or “stfu”). All these were accepted parts of playing the game.  However, words like “cunt,” “motherfuck” (use of “mf” and/or just “f” were occasionally appropriate substitutes), and “nigger” were always inappropriate and petitionable offenses. And the use of these latter words could be taken as an indication of a heightened level of stress.

Another important but still subjective indicator of stress was the player’s overall play style, e. g., a persistent, kamikazee rush into certain defeat situations could indicate increasing frustration – or, under other circumstances, disinterest. Certainly, one of the more critical indicators of stress was an increased reliance on “tell” or private messages. Hostility inside these private messages was almost always an indication of some level of stress beyond the game’s immediate context. Accordingly, rather than responding to these messages, Twixt’s practice was to withdraw and/or ignore, even in situations where the hostility may well have been feigned. As mentioned in the paper, there was only one serious incident of this kind, that seemed, based on Twixt’s experience, largely unprovoked, certainly unexpected, and even somewhat random.

More objective indications of appropriate levels of stress required reference to the game rules. For instance, attacking opponents – through any means available – within RV was not considered to cause an undue level of stress since it was a clearly stated objective of the zone, should be reasonably expected by all players entering the zone, and could easily be avoided at any time by exiting the zone (or simply standing in safe spots within the zone). Ultimately, however, the fullest and most objective determination of properly antagonistic play came from the NCsoft moderators and their responses to player petitions. Both judges and juries, the moderators’ word was final.

Response to stress

If there was any sort of extreme level of hostility, particularly in the beginning portions of the study, Twixt withdrew either from direct confrontation or from the zone entirely. However, one of the reasons the study went on as long as it did, is that it became increasingly interesting, I thought, to observe social pressures while pursing a full set of game rules options within the zone. That is, in a sense, the social pressures themselves were more interesting and telling when the game was played skillfully — or, in other words, at an expert level of play.

As an example, in the beginning, Twixt’s droning was met with roundabout dismay, but, over time, became an expected part of doing battle with Twixt, reducing the stress level associated with it. While players remained (surprisingly, given their many options to counter it) annoyed with the droning, they came to accept it with only minor complaints, which in turn allowed Twixt to apply that tactic – and others – more regularly and skillfully. Once learning (I would almost say teaching) what was acceptable tactics within the zone, Twixt was able to improve those tactics and increase the challenge for both him and his opponents. This increased challenge, in some cases, brought with it an increased level of “stress.” However, it’s important to note that this stress was increasingly often a positive and socially beneficial aspect of Twixt’s play inside the zone.

Alongside this ratcheting up of the competition inside RV, Twixt eventually, on Freedom, more actively attempted to make playing by the rules of the game inside RV fun. He did this in several ways: by being funny, by being whimsical, by being “whacky,” by writing poems and speaking in meter, and by trash talking (in his distinctive Twixtish way) with the trash talkers. This did have some effect, when used sparingly, to generate camaraderie, aid in accomplishing game goals, and reduce stress. (But it did not simultaneously have the effect of reducing the widespread denouncement of Twixt.)

Another, simple way to reduce stress over time was for Twixt make sure he was defeated at the end of his play sessions. Normally, if Twixt could be defeated and “as a result” be forced to leave the zone, this effectively undermined any previously superior position he had held in the zone, another cause of stress. [Twixt windup doll says: “Always die when you leave, gives the noobs hope.”]

Similarly, to avoid stressful situations, Twixt never gloated over individual victories (though this, too, might be well considered acceptable and expected game play), always emphasizing his goal was “to defeat vills” rather than “to defeat vill X.” For the same reason, throughout the study, Twixt refused all one-on-one challenges from other players and remained entirely inside the RV zone during play.

Overall, the simplest and safest way to reduce stress during play, particularly during the early period of Twixt’s play when he was relatively unknown and his allegiance to the rules most misunderstood, was to play completely silently, without participating in any sort of verbal banter whatsoever. This single and simple tactic helped prevent most taunts and insults from escalating into threats.

Admittedly, however, throughout Twixt’s play, he placed himself in an openly antagonistic relationship with opponents in the zone. This was necessary and important component of playing by the rules within RV.

Determining when to move on

Twixt visited a total of four servers. While the total time of observation was approximately 14 months, Twixt spent only about 50-150 hours inside RV on each server. The rest of the time was spent, after his initial activity on the Champion server, leveling and preparing and transferring (when available) similar Twixt characters. The least amount time was spent on Virtue, then Infinity, then Champion, and the most amount of time was spent playing on Freedom, the most populous server. Familiar and practiced with his tactics by the time he got to Freedom, Twixt’s strategies for winning the zone there (kill vills, win zone — like always) were the most varied and, I believe, practiced most skillfully.