On playing the big bad spider: Elise

League of Legends features a champion known as Elise, the spider queen. Yes, that’s her actual in-game title. I have a lot of happy memories associated with Elise, even though she has fallen out of favor lately and I’ve been playing her less. I began playing League on the patch in which Elise was released, and picked her up as my second champion (after Mundo, who is bae). I’ve always had a soft spot for her as a champion, and have recently been trying to build her in a relatively unorthodox way (if you’re a LoL person we can talk more about this).

Elise’s schtick is that she can transform between human and spider forms, and therefore has access to a greater variety of spells than most other champions. Elise is not unique in this; I can think of Nidalee and Jayce who also transform between ranged and melee forms.

Elise has three skins which allow her to appear slightly differently. In the image below, the picture on the top left is Elise’s default appearance, and the other three are the alternates. The picture on the top right represents a skin that was given as a reward for achieving a high level in ranked play (Championship Elise).
All four (including the base) skins for EliseElise is also described as an archetypal femme fatale/black widow, and her basic character design supports this. From her lore:

Elise’s entrancing beauty and grace conceal the pitiless, black heart of a deadly predator. With ruthless cunning, she lures the unsuspecting with promises of favor from the spider god. Having exchanged her humanity to become something far more sinister, Elise sacrifices the innocent to maintain her power and seemingly eternal youth. No one can fathom how many have been caught in her web, slain to feed her insatiable hunger.

Biggest Pet Peeve: Despite the fact that she correctly has eight legs and that some of her skills depict this, one image for one skill depicts a spiderling with six legs. 😦

Image Courtesy Riot Games

Image Courtesy Riot Games

Elise is an example of a spidery champion designed to be vaguely terrifying. If we look at an interview with some of the designers, we can see that they intended to tap into a widespread cultural arachnophobia. In fact, some of the designers suffered from this same arachnophobia:

When our animation director RiotBamDragon goes over animations for review, he looks at everything for little fixes. I found it weird that he only had suggestions for the female-form, when he’s usually more comprehensive with feedback. I quickly realized that he never looked at the spider form because he’s terrified of spiders. “The spider’s fine. Spider’s fine. Just ship it.” I asked him, “Did you even look at the spider?” “Yeah, I’m sure it’s fine,” he hastily replied.

– “Inside Design: Weaving the Spider Queen’s Web,” Post to Riot Forums, 19 October 2012 (Retrieved 10 June 2015)

In fact, the designers mention having to put effort into editing Elise’s design in order to make her less scary to view and play. Mike “ohmikegoodness” Laygo, –Senior Animator, says in that same interview, “I had to de-creepify her a bunch … reduce a lot of the twitchiness because it was just too frightening and unnerving.” Similarly, Mark “Riot G Mang” Sassenrath,– Game Analyst, remembers, “She actually became too scary, so we had to tone it down.” Despite comments like these, it is clear that being terrifying is part of Elise’s character design; perhaps the real challenge was making her scary without being unplayable.

As a side note, one thing that emerged from that interview was a meditation on the challenges of cross-cultural design. Sassenrath mentions in an aside that “something that I didn’t know was that arachnophobia is pretty much a uniquely western phenomenon. In China, for instance, there isn’t the widespread association between spiders and scary that we have here.” Designing a game for a worldwide audience makes some of these culturally-specific fears apparent, waggling an eyebrow at socialization as a means of intensifying a small fright.

On playing the big, bad spider: Overview

This post is a follow-up to an earlier post where I outlined the problem of spider representation in popular culture. Here, I will give an overview of all of the (digital, mostly) games where you can play as a spider, or that feature spider protagonists. There will be a few examples where I stretch the concept of protagonist to include what I see as meaningful representation. List presented in no particular order (release dates in parentheses, but note that many of these games have regular updates):

  • League of Legends (2009), a popular online multiplayer game, where you can play as Elise, the Spider Queen. Elise has a human form and a spider form. In League of Legends, you control a single champion from a third-person view (Elise is one of many champions).
  • In both DOTA (2003) and DOTA 2 (2013), you have the opportunity to play as Black Arachnia, the Broodmother. Like League of Legends (the original DOTA mod was the inspiration for many MOBAs), you control your character from a third-person perspective. Unlike League of Legends, you can control multiple units at once. The Broodmother spawns spiderlings out of the corpses of her enemies; these spiderlings are also controllable.
  • In Don’t Starve (2013), which has single-player and multiplayer capability (as of June 2015 with the release of Don’t Starve Together), you can choose to play as Webber. Webber is a boy who was eaten by a spider—it’s complicated, but Webber is effectively a spider-human hybrid with an affinity for spiders. Don’t Starve also has the player control one character from a third-person perspective.
  • In Arachnophilia (2008), a free online flash game hosted on a variety of sites, you control a spider trying to build an effective web. Insects fly through your web, and depending on the insect, are either caught or break your web. Different insects provide you with extra stats or do more damage. It’s a cute flash game about web-building, although the interface could be smoother.
  • The card game Hearthstone (2014) features a few spider cards, although it’s debatable whether they count for this. In Hearthstone you play as a hero and then play minions (cards), and there isn’t really a spider hero. I’m arguing that since they’re your minions they count as protagonists for the purposes of this post—although it’s definitely possible that I’m just swayed by the cute spider tank. Look at it!
  • That’s all I can think of, although I’m sure there are some oversights here. I’m pretty confident that there are a number of board or card games with spiders (Betrayal at House on the Hill seems particularly suited to this), but I haven’t played them or played those scenarios so I can’t say. Feel free to comment and point me towards additions to the list!

On meeting the big bad spider

From a discussion on twitter (see this link for an anchor to the discussion), I am inspired to make a post about a subject I’ve thought about for a long time: spiders in games (and other cultural artifacts).

Part of why I’m writing this post is to interrogate why exactly spiders are featured as monsters and villains so often. Western popular culture is full of mythic villain spider figures, and some of these are detailed in Michalski and Michalski (2010) if you’d like to explore this archetype. Other cultures include vampire-like spiders, like the Jorōgumo (絡新婦) of Japanese legend who seduce and kill men (not coincidentally, this word colloquially refers to several species in Argiope and Nephilia, known for their striking webs and coloring). The trickster Anansi, whose stories were first told among the Ashanti, usually appears as a spider. It is important to note that like many trickster figures, Anansi is not quite good and not quite bad—but always clever. A very different sense of spiders comes out of a story I grew up hearing, although infrequently, details the spider responsible for saving Muhammed’s life when he was hiding in a cave: she spun a web over the mouth of the cave and the searchers passed it by (spiders have a small measure of respect because of this myth). This list is by no means exhaustive.

Here, we must first take a short detour and think about Tolkien (as perhaps the originator of much of what passes for fantasy these days). In Middle-Earth, giant spiders (including Shelob, so don’t nerd out at me and say she doesn’t count) are evil, horrific aberrations, who want only to kill and eat what they find. Shelob happily exists on the border of Mordor, and she is never shown as having interiority or a sense of self. She is just a big bad. It’s not surprising that most high fantasy treats spiders the same way. Anything vaguely arachnid is bad, especially if it’s also magic and also giant. I’m not going to veer into literature too much, but I will list a few examples:

  • R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels (based on a Dungeons and Dragons setting and inspiration for some of the Bioware Forgotten Realms games!) depict the drow living in service to their goddess Lloth, the spider queen. For all intents and purposes, the drow are evil, spiders are also evil, and the morality imposed by living according to spider rules is bad. (Yes, it’s kind of reductive…luckily there’s a lot to work with within these extremes and thus role-playing can be entertaining.)
  • Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels (featuring feminist heroes like Alanna, Kel, and Daine!) include an immortal race known as spidren, giant furry spiders with human faces (I’ve never quite understood how exactly this is supposed to work…magic?). Most other immortal races are given the benefit of ambiguous morality, or even of members who exemplify goodness—anyone else remember Rikash Moonsword, the stormwing? No spidrens are ever named (unless things have changed since 2005 or so), and none of them are shown to speak. They are violent: according to the wikia, which I visited to get that link for Rikash, they are “intractably vicious.”
  • Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, in the second book, features a race of Weavers who hate giant bugs almost as much as the mammals hate giant bugs (n.b., this series is incredibly bizarre). This example is a bit of a switch-and-bait, because it’s actually one of the relatively positive depictions of spiders; giant spider warriors are terrifying and led by a queen (who resembles a black widow and wants to mate with and eat the protagonist??), but they also end up allying themselves with the mammals to save the world. Soooooo….
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Aragog—I mean, Chamber of Secrets. Need I say more? OK OK, giant talking spider with hundreds of spawn who want to eat Harry and his best pal Ron. He helps out, first, though, which I guess makes it okay. (I’m not even going to start nitpicking about how Aragog is long-lived and stuff but is male…)

Some of these examples, and many more, can be found on the exhaustive TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider,” which I found as a result of googling the Weavers from Spellsinger. This page also has a subcategory for “Tabletop Games” and one for “Video Games.” (So my work here is done, right? Right?)

Naw, my work is not done, and let me tell you exactly why. These lists are great (no seriously, I learned a lot just by glancing at it), but they don’t do two things: 1) they don’t tell us why this convention keeps propagating, and 2) they don’t feature games where you can play as a spider. Even with some beneficial giant spiders, we still don’t have a sense of the interiority of spiders. As the TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider” says, “[t]hey usually have little personality, beyond vague malevolence.” That said, I’m in no way arguing that spiders have demonstrated a sense of self or anything, but some species have been shown to exhibit personality traits (Jackson et al., 2002 ($); Holbrook et al., 2014 ($)). And creators throughout history have endowed all sorts of things and creatures with personalities—how many candelabras do you personally know that can talk? Why is it that this creative license seems to falter in the face of an overwhelming, learned, social stigma against spiders?

I could speculate about this, and I have. But I don’t want to leave you with answers, I want to leave you with that one question, and hopefully, if you make something in the future, you’ll consider the spiders.

(They’re way cool, really.)

Part 2 of this post might involve me actually listing or critiquing some games where you play as spiders, and no, Spiderman doesn’t count…stay tuned!

On counting the uncountable

For many game scholars, archival material means either old game platforms, old games, or occasionally, old game ephemera such as magazines or fan sites. For many digital archivists, archival material means technical data and metadata about software. What about when the two collide? Do game logs—not even replays or recordings but the barely readable logs—have archival value?

I ask this because for the past two days I’ve been working on a small python program to extract information from the League of Legends logs on my computer. The reason I started this in the first place was because it bothered me that I didn’t have a way to know how many total games I’ve played with a given champion. There are several good web tools out there for grabbing gameplay data like champions played, win-rate, items built, etc. These tools allow players to look back at their games and to correlate performance with choices of champion, item, team, or role. For example, most of these tools include a “most played champions” visualization with win and loss statistics (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Screenshot from OP.GG's landing page for myself. Search performed on 19 December 2014.

Figure 1: Screenshot from OP.GG‘s landing page for myself. Search performed on 19 December 2014.

In May 2014, Riot Games introduced their new Match History site (link goes to my own match history) for recording much of this information, and it’s extremely comprehensive. The history stored only goes back to the introduction of this tool, however, and prior history has been lost. In addition, Riot has not decided how long this information will live on their servers. According to a blog post introducing the new Match History site, Riot planned to store games for a year (FAQ, “How long will games be saved?”). This match history, like many of the other web tools, is not supposed to be a time capsule of gameplay. Rather, it serves the purposes of current players, by visualizing their games and presenting statistics conducive to improvement.

Unfortunately, most of these tools were created to help players with their ranked gameplay. Thus, the gameplay data collected have to do mainly with ranked games, and secondarily with other modes such as normal (Summoner’s Rift). While this is great for most players, it normalizes a form of play to the exclusion of others. I do not play ranked, and rarely play normal (Summoner’s Rift) games. The vast majority of my games are ARAM (All Random All Mid, a “fun” game mode on Howling Abyss) and bot games (Co-op vs. AI, not PvP). We can get into the reasons for this another time, but suffice it to say that when I use these tools to examine my own performance, I get misleading or even just plain wrong results (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The same module on Elophant, another web tool for performance stats. Note the lack of champions due to lack of data.

Figure 2: The same module on Elophant, another web tool for performance stats. Note the lack of champions due to lack of data. Search performed on 19 December 2014.

So how could I fix this problem?

How can I count the games that don’t count?

Part of the answer lay in a web tool that I have used to great success, Logs of Lag (“a League of Legends netlog analyzer”). This tool allows you to drag and drop a single network log file into your browser, and outputs a graph visualizing your ping and your packet loss during the game. It also evaluates your average ping and packet loss and identifies whether your connection is good or bad. It’s clean, simple to use, well-designed (it even tells you exactly how to find these network logs) and useful. Logs of Lag pays homage to another, now defunct tool, called LoL Parse (Internet Archive link due to the whole defunct thing). Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have used LoL Parse exactly once, many months ago when it was announced, and I loved it. For the first time, this was a performance analyzer that took my performance seriously. It was fascinating to see how many times I played certain champions, and whether there were any patterns that I could unlock. I understood why people gravitated to web tools like the aforementioned OP.GG and Lolking. I wish I had saved the results of the analysis.

I didn’t articulate these feelings at the time, but the fact that I’ve thought about this tool multiple times in the intervening months should say a lot. Perhaps it was only through writing my program and digging through this material and getting inspiration from extant tools that I was able to understand why it meant something to me. Clearly, it did. I wouldn’t have taken a day of coding (and I’m not the most experienced coder, especially in Python…) if it wasn’t important. So then the question becomes, why is it meaningful to count the games that don’t count?

Part of that answer lies in a term that I discovered due to a proposed workshop at the iConference next March: “trace ethnography.” The organizers of this workshop describe it as analyzing “trace data” as evidence of engagement with information systems. In my case, it would mean analyzing these highly technical game logs as evidence of my engagement with League of Legends as a player. Hopefully, I’ll know much more about “trace ethnography” in March. I think it has a lot to add to current methods for new media studies, although I personally have a big question. How is trace ethnography any different from archival research? If the researchers who embrace and develop this method believe in a fundamental difference between “automatic” traces generated by information systems, and “hand-drawn” (lol manuscript) traces created in the context of an institution, then I don’t think I can get behind it.

First of all, canonical archives are in many ways equivalent to the data archives containing this trace data. According to foundational archival theorists like Schellenberg or Jenkinson, archival material is necessarily evidence of the functioning of a process. Archival material consists of the log files of governments, schools, corporations, and other organizations. Second of all, the creation of trace data is never removed from social and historical context. For example, my folder containing these log files is massive. My friends, who play League on Windows (I play on Mac), have much smaller log files. This isn’t due to some automatic thing where the Mac client just logs more information than the Windows client, absent any human involvement. Instead, we must understand that the Mac client is newer and less-well-developed, that the Mac client is in fact still in beta, that the Mac client crashes more often due to this, and that the developers introduced more error checking into the logs because they were aware of the nature of the software. In all cases, the reason for the file size difference is that people decided to record more information about a system in order to better understand it. Trace data are never neutral.

That aside, I’m super excited for this workshop (which I suppose means I should apply for real and include some of this). I think the concept of “trace ethnography” could benefit from conversation with archival theory and practice, and I would like to see that conversation happen and maybe even be part of it. Moreover, my work with this stupid little parser forced me to crystallize my own understanding of what trace ethnography could be.

So far, the parser’s functionality is limited to identifying names of champions that the summoner whose computer it is has played. The logs, however, contain a crapton of information beyond this. They list the summoner names (equivalent to usernames) of all players on the team. They list the champions used by said summoners. They identify the skin used, and the team. All that, in one line! (See code tag below for an example of this line from one of my many log files.)

Spawning champion (Ahri) with skinID 0 on team 200 for clientID 9 and summonername (morbidflight) (is HUMAN PLAYER)

The log files also contain information about in-game events like player character deaths. Finally, the log files contain information about events that are invisible to the player, like errors in loading certain assets.

Figure 3: Image of part of the game logs. In this game, the client apparently failed to load an asset for Yasuo's wind wall skill.

Figure 3: Image of part of the game logs. In this game, the client apparently failed to load an asset for Yasuo’s wind wall skill.

If we attempt to take these log files seriously as evidence of play, we have to acknowledge that these log files can represent the course of a game in a way that runs orthogonal to most players’ experience. We don’t see the matrix, but we play in it. The log files, however, record traces of events that act as engagement points for the player. A log file might record a series of disconnect-reconnect cycles, and the player instantly remembers how frustrating that experience was, even if they don’t recall the particular event. Log files present information intended for use by developers, but usable by archivists and scholars of games. As far as I know, no one working in game preservation has argued for storing log files instead of game recordings or game platforms, although I’ll continue with my provocative trend and say that if I can have a 3 gb folder with over 1,400 logs in it corresponding to 1351 games played, that’s more useful than massive video files for each game. After all, digital games are interactions with code. If the log files store some of the subjective experience of that interaction, or even store anchors to that subjective experience, then might that not be enough?

By the way, according to my own parser, I’ve played 87 games as Dr. Mundo on this computer (which I’ve had since around February/March). I think it’s safe to say I like the champion. What was surprising, however, was that I had 82 games played as Nami. I hadn’t realized that I played the two nearly the same number of times (again, only within the past nine months). My parser was able to tell me something I didn’t expect, and something that I could never see from using the web tools. I’d count that a success.

Home, sweet home.

This month’s Blogs of the Round Table is on homes in games, a topic I’ve thought about for years. Read other blogs on the same topic by following the links in that post.

At first, when I read the inspiration/solicitation/prompt, I thought about Minecraft. Minecraft is for building things; if you want to get a sense of what people do when given the tools and time, check out the top posts on the r/minecraft subreddit. Most of these, I can’t look at without gasping (or wondering why the hell people do this).

Since picking it up again a few months ago, I’ve made many homes, most of which I shared with other people. What can I say, I like designing and building a space for myself and for people I care about. In Minecraft, I tend towards a type of architecture best characterized as Hobbit Holes: I dig into features in the landscape, and hollow out rooms for myself. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and I don’t follow a pattern. I just carve out space to suit my fancy.

There was this one time on a server I shared with a few friends, and I basically created an underground island base by digging. The only above-ground bits were two structures, one of which was a basic shelter/harbor (because who doesn’t want a pool of water in their entrance hall?) and the other ended up becoming a giant obsidian spider (thanks creative mode). Over the course of several weeks, I just dug, and built, and dug, and built. You can see the resulting change of landscape in the three minimap images below from screenshots I took in summer 2014, and get a sense of the visible (and invisible) structures.

I am not writing this post to show off my giant obsidian spider, though. Perhaps the most important lesson from the above anecdote is one for myself: though I claim to abhor an industrialized building style in Minecraft, I still end up doing significant violence to the landscape. There’s no way that spider is natural. There’s no way that shelter is natural. But what is even natural in the world of Minecraft?

I mean, take blocks, the foundation of the game. The placement of blocks in Minecraft is procedural, except for the involvement of players or (some) hostile mobs. When I destroy a block and place it elsewhere, this feels unnatural to me, unlike the game’s block generation or the interference of mobs. Those are natural. Things created by code, and things molded by code, are natural in this cybernetic landscape. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of free will allows me to claim that my adjustments to the world in Minecraft are unnatural and unrelated to code. I dig hobbit holes because I work with the space I have, I say. I dig hobbit holes because the houses I build aren’t on a grid, I claim. I dig hobbit holes because what I am doing is human, unique, flawed, and unnatural.

Cows are very natural. Cows coming through solid wood doors are also very natural.

Cows are very natural. Cows coming through solid wood doors are also very natural. Screenshot mine.

When the fuck did that association happen? Imperfection generated in a replicable way (procedural generation) is natural, but imperfection generated by human involvement, and generally not replicable, is unnatural. What I’m doing with this association is coding my interaction with the game space as violence, as unnatural, as artificial, as conscious creation.

But it’s been a pet peeve of mine for many years to take structures like anthills created by non-human animals, call them natural, and then turn around and call a city unnatural. Either the product of living creatures is natural, or it isn’t. There’s no reason why technology can’t be natural. I could give a repetitive lecture on the rise of the pastoral in conjunction with industrialized society (try reading anything from like 1660 to 1900), but I’ll abstain, because this isn’t college. This is me wondering what it means to make things in a generated landscape in a game created by a team of people. What it means to be a person, and have a conversation with other people, through the process of creation. What it means to find something like home in that.

Homes don’t come pre-fabricated, we have to make them into homes. And in so doing, we do violence to the environment around us. I could idealize some non-conventional life philosophy that advocates living in harmony with the environment and sleeping under trees, and sure, I know there are some people and traditions who work like that. The whole world is home, because home feels right and being in the world is right. My approach to what makes a home (something set apart from nature, created, unnatural) is heavily influenced by Western cultural traditions. It’s interesting to see these traditions continued in virtual space, though not surprising; virtual space is cultural space. In Minecraft, for instance, you cannot sleep through the night without using a bed that someone has crafted. It is impossible to sleep without having changed the world around you. There are no soft patches of moss, no convenient trees, no rocks under your hip to poke into you at night. Sleep is comfort, and more importantly, sleep means no monsters to terrify you. It’s true, you don’t need to sleep to succeed in the game, and I’ve gone long periods of time in games without ever crafting a bed. But by and large, the game expects you to have a bed: sleeping in a bed makes the night pass quicker, prevents the spawning of hostile mobs, and resets your spawn point to near the bed. Beds are extremely good and cool.

Beds are good and cool and also apparently have super high pillows.

Beds are good and cool and also apparently have super high pillows. Screenshot mine.

Beds are also perfect crystallizations of an ideology at the heart of Minecraft: survival means taking things around you and making them into things that you can’t find. Survival, and gameplay.

The best part is, I wanted to get all of that out so I could talk about the Anvil house in Oblivion, which to this day feels like home even though the computer I played on is a decrepit husk and the save files are on some hard drive. The way that homes work in Elder Scrolls games is weird, and quite capitalistic. You have to buy your home after the person in charge of its town likes you enough. Returning to an earlier point, these homes do come pre-fabricated and you can even buy upgrades and DLC.

The house in Anvil (Benirus Mansion) is a bit different, though, because you have to complete a quest after buying it in order to transform it into a safe place. I’d normally say spoilers here, but really? It’s a game that came out in 2006. You’ve either already played it, or you probably won’t play it. So on to the spoiler: the house is haunted, and you need to complete a quest in order to make the ghosts go away. You don’t know about the ghosts until after sleeping in the house, but they will attack you when they appear (so here’s hoping you can defeat them!). Ghosts keep spawning when you enter the house until you complete a quest and defeat Lorgren Benirus’ undead Lich, giving you a book and a staff and an awesome house.

My house, but not my house. Thanks to the user Nutter in this forum thread for posting an image of the Anvil house: http://forums.hexus.net/gaming/168356-oblivion-iv-im-stuck.html#post1747402

My house, but not my house. Thanks to the user Nutter in this forum thread for posting an image of the Anvil house: http://forums.hexus.net/gaming/168356-oblivion-iv-im-stuck.html#post1747402

For some reason, when I played Oblivion, I fell in love with this house even during the ghost incidents. It’s green, and Anvil is a harbor city on the southern coast, and the house is full of light—these make sense to me as things I want in a home. To this day, thinking of the afternoon light streaming through the bedroom window in this house brings me peace. I know the scale of this house intimately, know when to jump to skip up the stairs and when to turn and close a door. All that, despite the fact that it’s a house created anew with every new playthrough of the game. Despite the fact that it’s not something I made, and not something I can ever make.

All this, because for however many hours I sank into Oblivion, I lived in that house. That house was home.

Update on Minecraft

I started playing Minecraft again when I was on vacation recently, on a server this time. I’m actually enjoying it, though my two main fears are definitely in effect when I play (the dark, and water). The first fear isn’t a big deal, especially since the dark is scary due to monsters spawning. The second is just weird, because a game with blocky, low-res graphics like Minecraft can still trigger the feeling of being underwater…which leads me to a small point: for me, the “graphics” or “visuals” of a game help me immerse myself in the game, but once I have done so by whatever means necessary, the game has strong affect. It’s not as simple as pretty art means I care more, or more pixels in the hair means I identify more with the protagonist. Rather, I can be put off by bad art, but if it doesn’t put me off, it is not the lens through which I engage with the game. (Disclaimer: it is the lens for some games. Only a Sith deals in absolutes.)

Another thing about Minecraft this time is that I’m playing with people I already know on a shared server. This is just another way of engaging with them, in addition to playing League or talking on various instant messaging services or using Snapchat (I like being able to write and draw on pictures I take, even if the quality takes a hit for it; also, note the recent lack-of-privacy discussions about Snapchat before running off to download it).

I’m still pretty bad at this game, though. I just make houses and put torches in them and like…that’s it. Oh well. I fell into lava once and lost a nearly-full inventory. That upset me quite a bit, and since then I’ve been either less invested or more careful. Perma-death mechanics are one of the few things I hate in games, mostly because I don’t actually like meaningful consequences for failure.

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.