Civic Education and Video Games: The League of Legends Tribunal
About a month ago, I hosted a talk by two folks from Riot Games, the makers of the incredible popular League of Legends game. Jeffrey Lin (@riotlyte), the lead designer of social systems, and Carl "Status" Kwoh (@statuskwoh #besthandleever), the producer for the player behavior team, joined me for a conversation entitled "Play Nice: The Science of Player Behavior." Jeff has his PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Washington, and his job at Riot is to use social science to help the community be nice to one another. The talk is fascinating, and the conversation afterwards worth watching in its entirety.
Online game communities are widely known as being dreadfully uncivil places. This is particularly important in League of Legends. In League, players are randomly assigned to teams of five, and they play together in games that typically last 40 minutes and no surrender is possible for at least 20 minutes. People being cruel or unkind can ruin the experience for 9 other people. League of Legends is also free to play, so its impossible to really ban people from the community. The only way to make the community better is to make everyone play nice.
A lot of people play League of Legends. They have 30 million people log on each month, 5 million people at any given time, and they log over 1 billion play hours around the world every month. Billion. With a "B." So Jeff and Carl's experiments have enormous influence over the recreational lives of millions of people around the world. They also have enormous influence (at scale, and perhaps in depth) over the moral and civic education of young people globally.
In the talk Jeff and Carl outline a number of different initiatives they have tried over the past year to get players to be nice. One of the most important is the Tribunal, a player-facilitated judicial system. Players can report other players for moral or other normative infractions, and then players volunteer, in their free time, to review data from cases and make judgments to pardon or punish reported players. A team of professionals from Riot oversee the final distribution of punishments, but in every country or region where the game is played, players play a considerable role in policing other players.
Jeff and Carl's research presentation provoked a very rich conversation about how we can help people be better people on the internet. For me, it also sparks many ideas about how we might use young people's participation in these player-facilitated judicial systems to ask questions about the building blocks of justice and the judiciary, the best ways to manage community, and how our communities and responsibilities towards each other will evolve as we spend more of our time in global, online communities owned and moderated by private entities.
On that final note, I'm very grateful to Jeff and Carl for sharing their work in a public forum at MIT. As more of our recreation and leisure time is spent in privately-owned public spaces, we'll need to continue to evolve our thinking on the responsibilities of citizens and corporations within those spaces. We need to call the private owners of these spaces into the public sphere to explain their thinking and management, and I'm grateful to Riot Games for enagaging with the public on these issues. Thanks also to Philip Tan at the MIT Game Lab for helping put the event together and getting the video put together.