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.

Emulating reality

When we think of emulation, we usually think of the emulation of software that exists only as a digital artifact. But something recently brought to my attention challenges this predominant narrative of software and emulation. In the world of digital preservation, it’s a fairly obvious point that the digital is not any less real, any less material, and this example only highlights that.

So, the topic in question: I found an old blog post (from 2009) celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing. This post describes a project to emulate some of the original code from the command module and lunar module. It’s mostly really just something cool on the web, but more than that, there’s a reason why I’m writing a(n admittedly short) blog post about this: this is a clear case of emulation applied to something that was undeniably “real-world.” What could it even mean to emulate the code from the lunar module? What draws someone to do that? I guess you have to be fascinated with the Apollo Program, and also really into old code. Or something. But how can you emulate this code and forget that three people were inside the module that this code represents? How can you emulate this code and forget that two people used this code to set foot on the moon?

It’s a reminder that even when we are talking about emulation of games (link to a thought-provoking and vaguely relevant blog post), we’re talking about a constellation of things that real people played in real space. And sure, maybe emulation isn’t responsible for representing that aspect of the experience, but we are.

Constructive criticism

Okay, so based on the three responses to the readability poll (still in the sidebar), I’m going to avoid using “read more” cuts in the future. I will also go back and remove them in older posts, probably, but not right this second.

Thanks for making your opinions known, faceless readers! This blog thanks you. (And as I said in the other post, feel free to continue to do so, though it would be nice if you could save it for housekeeping posts such as these.)

Edited to add: I went back and removed (I think all) of the read more tags, so there’s that. Next readability poll might be on infinite scroll. Hate it or love it?


On Minecraft and positive reinforcement

In which your author decides to try Minecraft.

I’ve had Don’t Starve and enjoyed it for some time now (I think I first tried it in June 2013), and I’ve always heard that it’s basically a Minecraft clone with fancier graphics and a different set of problems. Not that different, but different enough. So I downloaded the demo for Minecraft several months ago (onto my old computer), and didn’t have much fun with it.

Today, however, was the end of a stressful week, and I wanted to do something that was fun and cooperative (we’ll get to that part later I think) and without win-conditions. I don’t feel like playing a game that put pressure on me to perform. So I booted up the demo, started a new world with “Peaceful” selected, and actually put some effort into trying to learn the controls. So far, I’m enjoying it, and if I like the demo I think I’ll actually buy the game so I can play with people. I’m going to be the boring person who just wanders around and makes stuff…but I think I’m okay with that. Maybe I should try Farmville instead (no).

I think this is known as self-care, and I’ll let you know how it works (and if I end up deciding to buy the game).

Also, if you’re curious, I highly recommend Don’t Starve if you’re looking for an enjoyable but intense single-player game. The spiders are adorable. But don’t go near them.

On Digital Humanities and community

A funny thing about Digital Humanities is that whenever two or more DH people (I know the accepted phrasing is Digital Humanist but like, lol no) get together, they have to agree on what DH means for them. Quite often it’s a strategic term, deployed more to establish an in-group and an out-group, than a real marker of a community of practice.

Although, that’s an interesting digression: understanding DH as a Wengerian Community of Practice, with peripheral identities and marginal identities and trajectories of participation. But as interesting as that path is to follow, I think I’ll wait a bit to pursue it.

Returning to the main topic of discussion: “DH.” The construction of DH as a discipline is quite strange to me, because of this phenomenon. I talked about fields and disciplines earlier on this blog, but I’d argue that DH isn’t really a field either. If disciplines are identified by shared methods and fields identified by shared objects of study, DH is identified by…a social network. There is a set of people who use the term in describing what they do, and this set of people meets in a variety of venues. DH is a particularly patchwork network, moreover, so these venues don’t necessarily overlap. I’ve been to a few DH conferences/events/thingamajigs in my time, and while there are certain people I’ve seen repeatedly, the vast majority travel in their little packs that don’t necessarily overlap with my pack (which for two years was the Boston-area DH group, based out of my home lab).

In sixth grade there was a system for class changes: the administration assigned each student to a “pod” of 4-6 people with an identical schedule. At this stage in my education history, there wasn’t anything too complex so scheduling this was not a problem. It helped us get used to our schedules, and also helped us feel a sense of stability when, for the first time, we were moving rooms every class period.

The DH community is kind of like this: there are pods based around projects and places, and these pods move through the currents of the community.

I’ve had the fortune, or the misfortune, to leap away from my pod and find myself in a new place with new projects and people. So, going to the first gathering of the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium was an enlightening experience. I’ll write more about that another day (no promises), but suffice it to say I met people and learned about projects, and I’m looking forward to see where this pod is going.

On readability

It just occurred to me to wonder whether I’ve been doing the right thing with “read more” cuts/jumps. On the one hand, it makes each front page cleaner and easier to navigate. On the other hand, it makes it harder to just scroll through posts (though you can still click on individual posts and read an entire backlog by using the prev/next links within those).

So I’m asking you lot (all…what…five? of you?) to speak now or forever hold your peace.

Kidding, I’ll probably look at the results in a week and make changes based on those. But if things change drastically after that I’ll reconsider I guess.

If you have comments, leave them here in this post. Anything related to ease of reading for this blog is welcome.