Role-playing, interrupted

Can we construct the act of playing a MOBA as role-playing? The different construction of “role” as a set of game actions and expectations illuminates the variation in performative acts. We might argue that because most players don’t imagine themselves as a mermaid looking to save her homeland, or a man out to avenge his wife’s death, that playing a game like League of Legends does not involve role-playing. On the other hand, League explicitly constructs “role” as a set of actions, behaviors, and limitations: the “marksman” role stands out of the way of incoming damage and attempts to dole out damage to enemies, while the “tank” soaks up damage and attempts to disrupt the enemy team. A lead Riot designer, Morello, describes the working definition of role as corresponding to “the type of value they contribute to a team, or else communicates the fundamentals of their playstyle. It sets expectations for what a player’s experience will be like and what they can do for their team.”

These roles were formalized (and changed from earlier terms) in July 2013, coalescing into a set of six terms that relate to vernacular distinctions:

  • Assassin: a relatively squishy champion who focuses on eliminating a single target. Ex. Akali
  • Mage: a caster who uses spells to get ahead and mostly deals magic damage. Ex. Veigar
  • Tank: an unkillable monster who takes one for the team, repeatedly. Ex. Mundo (I love Mundo)
  • Support: a champion who can either make plays with good initiation, or make plays with disengage (and then there’s supports like Soraka who are sustain bots). Ex. Nami (I also love Nami)
  • Fighter: a champion with some brawling ability who can also deal damage. Ex. Renekton
  • Marksman: a champion still generally referred to as “AD Carry,” who deals lots of scaling damage through basic attacks. Ex. Caitlyn

See Morello’s post, linked above, for his descriptions of these roles. (I tried to summarize them in one sentence, partly to offer my own interpretation of these, but partly just because I need to practice that kind of synthesis of vernacular comments, “word of god,” and my own interpretations.)

In formalizing these terms, Riot has used them as champion filters throughout their site and the in-game client (e.g., the store, or when searching for available champions). To this end, Riot has assigned each champion a set of roles, usually a primary and a secondary role. For example, Leona is a Tank/Support. Riot has also used this set of roles as part of the new Team Builder queue, wherein players select a champion, a location, and a role, from this controlled vocabulary. In this queue, the champion and the role are not restricted in any way, although a role is suggested for the player based on the formal assignment of roles discussed above. For instance, selecting Caitlyn places a star next to the “Marksman” role in the drop-down menu, but a player may also elect to play Caitlyn as a tank.

The drop-down menu for selecting a role in Team Builder, listing all six roles.

The drop-down menu for selecting a role in Team Builder. Marksman is recommended for Caitlyn.

Now that we’ve established the general idea of roles in League of Legends, let’s talk about how players role-play (using my expanded definition of role-playing). To perform a role involves a combination of actions (verbs) and items (object nouns). Within the context of League, actions are things like casting spells, performing basic attacks, and moving around. Items refer mostly to the choice of items bought, but using my definition can also refer to the rune and mastery pages that add several small advantages like a small percentage of extra health, or a tiny bit of crowd-control reduction. These action and item sets also accompany an expected attitude: the marksman is supposed to be careful about positioning, build items that give massive physical damage, and take kills for themself. (Draven is perhaps the embodiment of the marksman attitude.) In contrast, a support is supposed to set up kills for the marksman, get them out of danger, and avoid taking champion or minion kills (more gold for the lane partner). Playing a support champion according to the role is often a thankless task, and Riot has attempted to rectify this: recognizing the competing actions expected of the role was step 1. Items, too, reflect the expected attitude: stacking items like Mejai’s Soulstealer reward kills but punish deaths heavily—the mage or marksman role. (n.b.: Before you say I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not suggesting you go out and build a Mejai’s on Caitlyn. Maybe try it on Kog’maw, though.)

What I’ve been calling attitude, in the previous paragraph, is actually the performance of a role. The strange thing about games like League, perhaps, is that success in the game is tied to success in this performance—according to the current meta. The “current meta” is the informal understanding of roles that most players assimilate and contribute to, a kind of invisible script. This can be frustrating to try to accommodate to, as a role player.

Screenshot of Game Lobby with Two Players

Screenshot of game lobby with two players in selected roles.

What things like Team Builder attempt to do is to generate an ad hoc script in “conversation” with players. This conversation takes the form of showing one’s hand and selecting a desired champion, position, and role, in that order. Once a player has chosen these, they go on the market, and team captains can add desired players to the team. If a player doesn’t like their team, they can leave without penalty. In this way, Team Builder makes it possible to negotiate their own roles to perform in game, rather than attempting to fit into an existing, and perhaps restrictive, script.

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