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Come see me speak at Update Show!

Your regularly scheduled programming has been interrupted to bring you this bit of shameless self promotion…

You, yes you, have the glorious opportunity to see me (and loads of people with actual talent) speak in-the-flesh! For FREE!

All you have to do is register for Update‘s event in Media City, Salford. Everything kicks off at 11am on Saturday, 12 April 2014 and the party keeps going till 19:00. There will be loads of developers showing off new games, software, and apps all day in addition to industry (and academic!) talks, tournaments, and networking opportunities. If you’re still standing by 19:00, there will be an afterparty.

You can check out Update’s website for a full list of exhibitors and presenters to whet your appetite and don’t forget to register!

Until next time,

Ashley

Why Game Reviews Are Useless: A game review of reviewing games and then a real review

Warning– Hmm, I suppose a trend for this blog will be to open with a warning, but yes, be warned that this post contains an unusual amount of large images which may eat up data allowance on mobile devices. I have tried to make them a reasonable size for the purpose of conserving precious data, so if you find you can’t read my sardonic-Photo-Shopped-text, then simply click on the image and a larger version should open in a new tab.

Additionally, please be advised that whilst there is nothing explicit or graphic (in terms of depictions of sex/violence) in this post, The Elder Scrolls Online does have a ‘Mature’ rating from the ESRB. Much of the content in this post, including the screenshots, feature vulgar language and innuendos which may not be suitable for all audiences. Also, there are puns. No one should have to suffer puns.

As always, read at your own risk.

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I spent my weekend a little tied up.

This weekend was the third Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) beta test I had the privilege of taking part in. This was also, technically, the first beta in which Zenimax Online encouraged users to document and share their experiences by lifting the non-disclosure agreement. Presumably because I have blogged about the game and the beta in the past, I received several requests through social media to do a review of TESO- something which I had previously stated I would not do.

As you may recall from my previous posts, beta tests are generating controversy within gaming communities. What was once seen as a special privilege selectively handed out to a few lucky, loyal fans, is now seen as a sneaky viral marketing scheme designed to, essentially, crowd-source advertising. I, personally, am of the opinion that blogging/ sharing/ reposting/ tweeting about a game before it comes out not only chucks wood on the hype steam train (which is just plain obnoxious), but also spoils some of the excitement for those not selected for the beta who morosely idle their days away, staring forlornly at the ceiling wondering what to do with the empty void in their lives which the game will eventually fill.

So, why am I reviewing the game if I am so against feeding the hype-monster? Namely because I was asked to and I’m a good little cog in the propaganda machine. Also because I wanted to point out the futility of game reviews. Guess what, folks?

THEY ARE SUBJECTIVE!!!

Chances are, what you look for in a game and what I look for in a game are going to be vastly different. Game scholars have chalked this up to a number of different factors- from play styles, to individual psychology, to socialisation, to conditioning- and I’m not about to address those here. Suffice to say, asking why people often develop such strong emotional attachments, preferences, and opinions about their game of choice is like asking why some people prefer pinot grigio to sauvignon blanc. And I like both, for your information.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’m going to go ahead and review TESO and I’ll show you how the things I liked/didn’t like don’t actually matter to whether or not you will buy the game and all you have to do is keep reading.

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How I Rate Game?

Like any good scholar, I decided I first needed to conduct some research on how game reviews are done before I set off to do one. After a few lazy Google searches, I came to the conclusion that there is no one best way to ‘jugde‘ a video game. IGN makes an effort at quantifying how pleasurable or ‘painful’ a game is to play using a vague numerical system, but what’s the use in that? Besides the fact there are some terrible games which are fun to play precisely because they are so broken (see Emily Flynn-Jones’s work on kusoge ),  one gamer’s 8 could be another gamer’s 8.2.

Fortunately, a Wikihow article gave me guidance. In just 13 easy steps, you too can become a videogame reviewer! The categories the Wikihow suggests (yes, I am seriously using a Wikihow in a flagrant disregard for all that is holy in this world) are: Game play, controls, challenge level, and ‘how fun it is’. The article also encourages you to proofread before submission. Pro.

Right, using these categories, let us begin!

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Game Play

The first thing I will note about game play is the combat. I made a furry lolcat Khajiit Dragonknight (aka warrior-class-archetype) for the purposes of this review. I should note that I also have a Templar (healer) and Nightblade (melee DPS) of various other races.

The first encounter is a doosey.
The first encounter is a doosey.

The primary starting zone, Coldharbour (shown above), is common to every faction. It is a relatively safe zone, despite being located on the Oblivion plane, with very few low-level baddies to sharpen your blades on. Your primary goal here is to escape the underworld and return to Tamriel where your true destiny awaits.

Spoiler alert: You don't get to fight the big bad yet.
Spoiler alert: You don’t get to fight the big bad yet. Also, there are no fishy sticks in Oblivion. 😦

The most interesting thing about this early gameplay is the iconic 3 stats-system. Prevalent in previous Elder Scrolls titles, a character’s health, magicka, and stamina are also prevalent here. Depending on your view of TESO (and whether or not you think it should be more like an MMO or more like an Elder Scrolls game) depends on how we can rate this system (subjectively, of course). The fact that ‘warriors’ use magicka and stamina to power their defensive/tanking abilities surely adds another layer of strategy to the tanking-class system, but whether or not players want this strategy- or can find an easy work-around for this strategy- is another kettle of fishy sticks.

fallingtomydeath
The only real risk in the starting zone is falling to your death. And even that is kind of amusing.

I should also mention that no time is wasted in busting out the celebrity voice cast Zenimax and Bethesda so dearly shelled out millions for. One of the first NPCs you run into is voiced by John Cleese. And he has a pot on his head. We can but approve.

John Cleese, ladies and gentlemen.
John Cleese, ladies and gentlemen.

After you escape Oblivion and are spat out into Tamriel, the true questing begins. Gone are the huge, daedric beasties- sadly replaced with bugs, skeletons, and devious members of spurned factions. Your character is filled in on the current political state of whichever faction you happened to join and it doesn’t take long before you encounter an arrow to the knee.

This is the first and last time I'll bring this up. Promise.
This is the first and last time I’ll bring this up. Promise.

For MMO players, this is standard fare and, (un)fortunately, TESO doesn’t deviate much from it. Other than a compass bar at the top of the screen which shows you where your current quests are rather than a minimap, the game play follows the standard formula:

1. Talk to an NPC.

2. Follow dot on compass bar to location on map.

3. Touch stuff, kill stuff, read stuff, look at stuff.

4. Return to NPC (who may have moved around the map).

5. Gain XP.

Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this formula- it certainly appears to be successful- but it just hasn’t changed. If you were expecting TESO to be a second-coming which revolutionises game play, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. However, if you enjoy questing and like to get stuck in a good grind, then you’ll be quite pleased that many common MMO-complaints have been addressed. 

Travel time between quests, for example, is minimal with towns and cities being big hubs for quests which take place in the town or city. There’s no need to grab a quest, run 30 minutes into the middle of nowhere and collect 20 buzzard asses, then run back to the quest giver and have another NPC ask for 20 boar asses- which were right next to the buzzards.

Also, interestingly, the game doesn’t seem to reward XP for killing baddies, so there’s no need to stand in the middle of nowhere killing buzzards and boars for hours on end till you hit level 16 and can finally move on to the awesome-looking zone to the south- I’m looking at you, Westfall. Depending on your subjective view, this can be either a positive or a negative thing. In order to level, you need to do quests and progress through the game’s narrative, which is far more time consuming than rampaging through the wilderness and decimating local flora and fauna like a zombie at a Mensa Society conference, which I actually quite liked doing. I was a bit sad that my master plan to hit level cap by killing mudcrabs was thwarted before it could come to fruition. 

On the plus side, however, the quest text is usually entertaining and the quest giver’s voice acting is quite good. The best part is that their facial expressions change to fit their tone of voice/mood (unlike the dead-eyed-cast of Guild Wars 2 which creeped me out!). See the following example:

+15 to poop-jokery.

One of the things I look for in games is a sense of humour. I need a reason to read the quest text. I need a reason to, for the 500th time, kill a load of mindless skeletons. I need something to keep me hooked, entertained. In my subjective opinion, humour is one of the key elements which made WoW such a hit. It is also what Guild Wars 2 lacked.

They have academics down pat. "Are you talking about my pet research interest? No? Then leave me!"
They have academics down pat. “Are you talking about my pet research interest? No? Then leave me!”

I was pleased to find rather subtle and refined jokes, silliness, and morbidity laced throughout the early quests of TESOA common complaint amongst many ex-WoWers on the TESO forums is that Mists of Pandaria tipped the game over the silly-cliff and left it spiralling to a pre-teen market. The general sentiment I get is that WoW had become too cartoony-both in terms of graphics and in humour.Whilst there is nothing wrong with the occasional meme reference (as I am sure you will find many in this post!) it does tend to go stale after the 200th Night Elf mohawk joke.

Perhaps for differentiation, or to be true to the Elder Scrolls franchise, TESO has gone for a more subtle art styling with a more sober sense of humour. In addition to overly-cerebral-elves, there are jokes which feature a morbid edge I imagine will go down well with the Northern European player contingent. Take this campy twist on the ol’ evil necromancer trope:

campyskele

campyskele2

campyskele3

Never has a threat to wear my skin been so amusing. I actually heard ‘Goodbye Horses‘ playing in my head as the NPC’s mandible rattled away.

Unfortunately, the beta has a level cap- which is to be expected. I’m unable to comment on whether or not this humour carries throughout the game. Likewise, I am unable to comment further on the quality of game play. I tried out PvP but spent about an hour running around aimlessly without seeing another player. Yeah, Cyrodiil is huge. I tried to get a dungeon group together but, surprise surprise, no one wanted my melee DPS and my healer and tank weren’t 1337 enough. Sigh… Onto the next criterion!

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Controls

Whilst many of the controls are the same as their Skyrim-counterparts, certain crucial commands are different- like selling stuff. Bewildered by my first interaction with a merchant, I ended up spending 300 coins on a useless, and might-I-add flavourless, soup not realising there are separate tabs for buying and selling items.

Gold is the root of all evil.
Gold is the root of all evil.

This minor annoyance will be avoided by most of you, I am sure, which once again points out the subjective nature of reviews. The game isn’t broken, this particular feature just wasn’t intuitive for me. Several other features, however, were.

On behalf of role players everywhere, I am pleased to report that the emote system is awesome. Unlike The Secret World in which you needed a cheat-sheet to remember any of the 400 commands, the emote-able actions in TESO are relatively straightforward (for me, anyway). If you want your character to lean back, type /leanback and they will do a wicked cool pose like this:

Even Fonzie wasn't this cool.
Even Fonzie wasn’t this cool.

Likewise, if you want to show off your musical talents, you can type /lute, /flute or /drum and your character will play a tasty jam for you. The best part? The bardic rocking is accompanied by in-game music. The worst part? That music doesn’t vary. Its really only a matter of time before you go AFK in a raid and return to your friends /flute-ing en masse to deafening volumes. This might be TESO‘s train set.

You can't tell, but my Khajiit is totally shredding to Kiss's 'Love Gun'.
You can’t tell, but my Khajiit is totally shredding to Kiss’s ‘Love Gun’.

As a side note, the game is ‘pretty’. I say ‘pretty’ instead of pretty because, in my opinion, it lacks style. Bethesda is known for going for ‘realness’ and, to some extent, they have achieved that with TESO- well, as much ‘realness’ can be achieved with cat- and lizard-people running around. The problem is, they don’t employ top-notch graphic engines to see this plan through. Rather than marvelling at the awesomeness of Tamriel, we are distracted by the shitty rendering of barnacles on a ship hull because TESO wanted to snare as many players as possible into their net. And why not? Isn’t that what made WoW successful over EverQuest II– that more people could play without breaking the bank on a new gaming rig?

Personally, and this is just a subjective preference, I would much rather see a game compensate graphical showmanship with a consistent and fantastical style any day. But that’s just me.

The final aspect of gameplay I’ll include in this review involves its sandbox, interactive world design. Elder Scrolls fans will be thrilled that there is plenty of shit to click on. Yes, I realise this is the second time I’ve used the word ‘shit’-whoops, third- in this post, but there is a good reason. Most of what you can click on is, in fact, shit. Unless you are obsessed with provisioning (cooking), there is little reason to click all 34 crates in a room… unless you are like me and have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. (I’m not trying to be funny here. I do have OCD and this did trigger me.)

LOOTALLTHETHINGS

There is something unfortunate about a history of RPG-playing which has filled me with the unease that if I miss a single clickable, I’ll miss either an essential quest item or the epic to end all epics.

All those yellow arrows? Clickables. I spent 20 minutes clicking, and I’m not even exaggerating. It felt like every time I emptied an urn, the one next to it refilled. I’m fairly certain, that if I hadn’t broken myself away with the promise of seeing more content before the beta ended I would still be in that room clicking away. The need to complete everything is strong with this one.

Mouse-hovering is a skill.
Mouse-hovering is a skill.

It certainly doesn’t help that some items look like they will be useful (glowing paper), but aren’t, and other items which look like a part of the environment (bottles), are filled with an essential crafting component for alchemy. This is why I have yet to hit the level cap, folks. I just can’t stop exploring and clicking! I’m actually thinking about clicking now…

Anyway, since I have yet to experience other aspects of game play, such as PvP and dungeoneering, its time to move on to the next Wikihow-suggested rating.

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Challenge Level

I got to play through the first 3 zones of an MMO. What do you think the challenge level is? If you answered face-roll, ding ding ding! We have a winner!

Next!

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‘How Fun It Is’

Judging only from the beta, I have to admit the game is fun. Many of the elements of WoW which I had missed, such as community, crafting, collecting, and achievements are all well and present in TESO. Whilst I hate comparing new MMOs to WoW, as it is often like apples to oranges or Playstations to Xboxes, there is something to be said about the fun-standard it set. As I detailed above, the main element of fun in WoW (for me) was always its humour. TESO has that, at least in early days, which gives me hope.

Moonsugar with 99% purity.
The famous blue moon sugar with its 99% purity.

There are several potential fun-killers on the horizon, however, and so I am withholding my fun-ranking until I’ve had the opportunity to mount up, do a dungeon run, and frag a n00b in PvP. (Note: I’m not being derogatory, I honestly can only kill n00bs. My PvP skills are renown for being terrible.)

Since I am reserving further judgement, pending further content, it is time for the final ranking category- and for this long-winded review to finally end! Let’s wrap things up with a final overview of my impressions of the game, shall we?

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Overall

Because every subjective game review seems to employ a subjective-disguised-by-numbers-thus-science rating system, I have made the choice to include one in this review as well. Taking into consideration all the factors listed in this review, I have decided to give TESO 3 out of 4 mudcrabs.

rating
Yes, this is photoshopped. But also yes, mudcrabs are thankfully in-game.

No, the mudcrabs don’t mean anything. No, this rating system doesn’t have an associated qualitative value. I just like mudcrabs.

So, there you have it folks, if you like Elder Scrolls games and you like MMOs, chances are you will either like or dislike this game. Go on, try it for yourself.

Until next time,

Ashley

How Trolls are Born: A Beta-Tester’s Notes

Trigger warning: As you might guess, this post is about trolls! It includes re-creations of inflammatory comments and events. It also includes words and sentiments (not the author’s!!) which German and USA readers might find offensive. Read at your own risk.

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Huzzah! The long-suffered gag-order which was the NDA has been (partially) lifted and I can finally share my beta-testing experience with you all.

Well… not precisely…

I could share my experiences of the game with you, but that wouldn’t be very interesting, now would it? It would go something like this: “The game is an MMO. You click stuff and press buttons. Sometimes you die, other times the thing dies and you get loot. Also, there are levels and crafting.”

If you know me, or my research, then you know I play games for the social experience. I wouldn’t call myself a social gamer, but I do enjoy watching- and participating- in interactions with the community of players. This is also what I study. Now, whilst I didn’t set out to study this beta, some observations naturally emerged about the social experience of beta testing. Namely, my shock that it took about 3 hours for the first trolls to emerge from under their bridges.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nej,_sicken_liten_puttefnasker!_Ropade_trollet.jpg
The beloved troll as it ventures out.

So, lets begin this story and find out how trolls are born in beta tests!

Fuelled by neon energy drinks and frozen taquitos, I began my journey into the newly nascent virtual world much like other players. After my excitement at the character customisation options, I named myself, and was tossed out into a new virtual world. Well, a rather long loading screen happened first, but you get the idea.

With senses on overload, I looked around at the blue-black cavern I had been spat into. Like a newborn, I stumbled as I tentatively tried out the WASD keys (ignoring a helpful ‘hint’ which popped up in the right corner of the screen asking me to do precisely that). Characters popped up all around me as I took my first few steps. Unsure whether they were player-characters (PCs) or non-player characters (NPCs), I ignored them. Heart thrumming in my throat, I felt a sudden competitive urge rising. I needed to be the first to clear the zone. Forgoing tutorials teaching me how to control my little lizard, I pressed and clicked, spamming and spasming my way to learning movement. I had learned to walk, I had learned to hit. In MMO terms, that means I had passed infancy well ahead of my peer-group and was quickly on my way to toddlerhood.

Figuring out shift allowed me to sprint, I ran past the recently-spawned army of n00bs and towards glory. Although I chose to listen to every voice-acted quest text in an attempt to immerse myself in the lore, I sped through objectives like no-body’s business, all the while I looted everything in sight. There wasn’t so much as a /hail toward any of my sisters-in-arms. My toddlerhood turned out to be an antisocial one, with me more focused on getting to the ‘real’ game as soon as I possibly could.

Escaping the beginning caverns, I was transported to an island in the actual game world. Although I consciously knew this was just another newbie zone, it didn’t feel like it. It felt huge, like a sandbox. I, like the other children in this virtual primary school, had finally emerged onto the playground and was ready to build some sandcastles!

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chateau_de_sable.png
How long before someone jumps on my sandcastle, though?

The bottom left corner of my screen jumped with a tentative yellow line of text. “Hello,” it read, “how is everyone enjoying the game so far?”*

So polite… Is that a game master or moderator talking? I thought about crafting a response, but /1 didn’t work. Nor did /general. After a minute ticked by, more yellow text appeared.

“Oh, if you type /zone, you can chat to everyone in the zone.”

Polite and helpful. Huh. About an hour and a half into the beta and the community was shaping up to be shockingly human. Fantastic, I thought to myself, I won’t have to deal with the typical sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic general chat this beta. A true blessing.

Having gained a naive faith in the community, I decided to test the waters (and my luck), by asking for help. Hey, I typed, has anyone found this quest giver? Either the marker on my map is wrong or I’m glitched. Fingers hovered over keys as I nervously waited for a response.

Yellow text appeared. “Yeah, you need to go back to the big building, the one to the right of where the quest marker is telling you to go.”

Trying out this advice, I ran to the suggested location and, sure enough, the quest giver was there.

Thanks, I typed, much appreciated.

“YW,” or ‘you’re welcome’ was the response. Helpful and good manners. I was speechless.

Quest completed, off I ran out of one zone and into another. Preoccupation with some wild mudcrabs combined with a disconnect resulted in an unexpected hour-long break (during which I managed to feed myself, write a short blog post, and top up my neon energy beverage). When I managed to log back in, I found my character back in the previous zone with the misplaced quest-giver.

Two and a half hours into beta now, the chat box was exploding.

“Can’t find quest giver. Game is broken.”

“Anyone know level cap for this beta?”

“How do you craft? Where are the trainers?”

“This guild is recruiting. PM me to join.”

Each of these statements/questions was met by 2-3 responses. The community was alive and talkin’. More importantly, the community was about to experience a preliminary trolling:

“The quest giver for that quest is hidden in the mountain behind the house the quest marker tells you to go to. You need to run up the side of the hill next to the house. There’s a hidden door which will drop you into a cavern. Giver is in there.”

That’s right, my helpful and kind community had shown its first troll-streak: lying to inconvenience other players and waste their time for the sin of asking for help. The child wandered lost in the woods and the troll pounced.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theodor_Kittelsen,_Askeladden.jpg
A wild troll has appeared!

A few minutes later the poor victim responded again:

“I still can’t find the quest giver. There is NOTHING on the mountain. ARGH!!!!”

And was promptly trolled again:

“I isn’t *on* the mountain, stupid, its *in* it, lol n00b.”

Shaking my head with a small smile I jumped in to rescue the poor beguiled player. Paying forward the kindness which was shown to me, I explained the issue. Presumably pushed to the point of frustration, the troll-ee either assumed I was also a troll or wasn’t in the mood to give thanks as I received no gratitude for my efforts. Shortly after, I left the zone making a note at the role mastery, or perceptions of self-efficacy, play in creating the troll.

The new zone was it. This was the actual world. This was the main meal of the beta, and I was super excited to be dining there. Ignoring chat and focusing instead on questing, my gaze flickered only to the bottom-left of the screen when a particularly large block of yellow text popped up. Glancing over it, I noted it was in a language I couldn’t read (possibly German?) but a few words stood out. ‘150’ ‘Mumble Server’ ‘PST’. It was a guild advert, and it was being spammed about once every 5 minutes. Reasonable then that it would have 150 members already, especially if the players had been organising themselves beforehand.

I found their dedication interesting, the spamming slightly annoying, but otherwise carried on poking lava-bugs with daggers and collecting their hides, as an NPC with pointy ears had so kindly asked me to do. Then something interesting, and unexpected, happened.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trollgarten.jpg

The troll garden is officially open for business!

Someone responded to the guild-spam with the most offensive comment I could imagine given the circumstances:

“Stop speaking Nazi.”

As I read and re-read the comment, my breath caught in my throat and I released the ‘W’ key. I paused, I hesitated.

The yellow-text in the box paused too- the quiet before the storm, the deep breath before the plunge. The entire zone all drew a collective breath and exhaled before the floodgates opened. Someone had just rung the dinner bell for lurking trolls everywhere, and a feeding frenzy was about to commence. Ladies and gents, keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, the ride is about to get rough and we’re going to need a bigger boat.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theodor_Kittelsen_-_Sj%C3%B8trollet,_1887_(The_Sea_Troll).jpg
This picture pretty well encapsulates the moment before an unholy shit-storm with a particularly vicious troll at its epicentre breaks loose.

The guild-spammer promptly responded (in perfect English):

“Fucking American piece of shit, shut up.”

The chessboard now set, newcomers to the Game of Trolls began to enter. Offended by the guild-spammer’s slur, one spoke up:

“How do you know they’re American, huh?”

This was echoed by several others saying comments such as: “Don’t make such harsh judgements,” or, “You’re ignorant!”

Unfortunately for our poor guild-spammer, the chat was dominated by players from the Americas who didn’t take kindly to their rage-induced comment. Nevermind that Han shot first…

The guild-spammer, undaunted, responded, “They have to be American. Only Americans are so ignorant.”

Fortunately for our guild-spammer, this comment was relateable. Several newcomers on their side joined the ‘debate’ now echoing that Americans are, in fact, ignorant and undeserving of a seat at Europe’s gaming table.

From a dual to a melee free-for-all, it seemed as though everyone in the zone jumped into the fracas. Punches were thrown here, kicks below-the-belt there, insults and stereotypes ran rampant polluting the zone chat as far as the eye could read.

As interesting as this outburst was from an academic, objective standpoint, I couldn’t personally and subjectively stand to read any more of it. I took out my daggers and resumed the slaughter of the lava-critters. It was only half an hour later that chat resumed a sense of normalcy with players looking for groups, asking for quest help, and chatting about the (neutral) game.

I had all but lost interest until a familiar block of text appeared- the original German guild advertisement which sparked Troll-Fest ’14. The next comment was from the master of ceremonies- the original troll. They said something to the effect of “Wie kann ich mitmachen?” (if Google translate tells it true).

Apparently impressed by the German response, the guild-spammer followed in English:

“You speak German?”

“Yeah, I am German. I live in Germany as well.”

The entire chat burst into a flurry of ‘lmaos’ and ‘lols’ as we all realised we had collectively taken the bait and fed the troll. The person who curtly informed the guild-advertiser to ‘stop speaking Nazi’ was German themselves- or at least was able to write enough German to convince the beta’s German population that they were a native speaker.

I sat at my computer with a smirk on my face, amused and bemused at the amount of work and effort that goes in to being an asshole, but also smiling at the fact this random, faceless asshole had somehow endeared themselves to me. I felt disgusted that a part of me felt a respect for the rabble-rouser. The mischief-maker, the Loki, the agent of chaos, the little devil had put on a performance for all of us to watch. They performed a self-referential role of the asshole who embodies historical, cultural debates which have spanned the past 70 years of living memory and made us all laugh about it. This left me a bit stumped as to the role of the troll, or ‘asshole’ (a phrase borrowed from Jaakko Stenros who borrowed it from someone else). By pointing out what we consider most profane, they also point out our value systems.

So, in closing, I can report that Godwin’s Law for this beta took about 4 hours. Until next time, enjoy yourselves and remember:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trolls.jpg

*Note: I did not record data during this beta test. Not only is it against the NDA, but I thought it would be unethical as: 1. This is not an official study, 2. If it were an official study it would have been covert which has messy ethical implications. The ‘quotes’ I use in this post are pure summaries/conjecture based on my memory and experience of the beta test.

What’s your password?

So since I still can’t blog about the stuff I want to blog about, I’ve decided to post some thoughts on a recent news article I stumbled across.

Sony and Adobe are among the most recent multinational companies to suffer security leakage on a large scale. Whether from vengeful hacking or poor security practices, the personal data of millions is floating out there somewhere for anyone to use or misuse. Aside from credit card information and addresses, affected users were understandably upset and concerned about their passwords being compromised. Why? Well, as we have recently learned, because most people use the same password for everything.

The only positive way to look at these recent security breaches is as a learning experience- not only in terms of how to build a more secure site, but also in that they provide insight into how humans interact with machines at their most intimate moment of trust. Humans, as it turns out, are extraordinarily predictable and lazy. Or are we?

This morning, Kotaku reported on the results of the Adobe hack last October. Analysis of the released password data has resulted in some interesting modalities. The top 5 Adobe passwords are reportedly the following:

  1. 123456 
  2.  password
  3. 12345678 
  4. qwerty
  5. abc123 

If you have ever worked in IT, you probably could have predicted these results. They are common. We know they are common. We know they are easy to guess, and yet, we still use them. Why? Well, some have proposed it is because we are lazy. We either mash numbers, look around our desk for inspiration, pick the name of a pet, or even the colour of the website’s logo. Quite predictable behaviours which result in predictable passwords. The security expert interviewed by the BBC, Per Thorsheim, claims people pick such predictable passwords that ‘brute forcing’- using a computer to run through every possible character combination to crack a password- is more inefficient than just guessing!

Even more interesting is the frustration expressed on the internet when users have been confronted with new protocols. In an attempt to save us from ourselves, new password fields often require a combination of letters, symbols, and numbers. To this the general internet has reacted with exasperation, as evidenced by memes:

Although most of us likely relate to the above images and think of passwords as an annoying-but-necessary hurdle to overcome, they also represent something more. They are an artefact of an extremely personal and private moment shared between human and computer. Although it may be used to protect secrets, passwords are also a type of secret in and of themselves. But if this is the case, why don’t we take their creation more seriously?

A quick Google search reveals the word ‘password’ is defined as:

password
ˈpɑːswəːd/
noun
  1. a secret word or phrase that must be used to gain admission to a place.
Interesting that the online definition still makes reference to an offline context. Of course ‘place’ is generic enough to refer to a cyber/virtual location just as easily as a physical/’real’ world locale, but it calls up imagery of the passwords of olde.
  • Leaning into the door of a prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy and whispering a word to gain entry into an gin-soaked basement…
  • Giving a special handshake which, if the receiver is in the know, will demonstrate membership in the Stone Masons…
  • Twisting a combination lock to three numbers in a sequential order to access the goods inside a safe…
  • Knowing the which stone door to approach and the correct phrase to say in Skyrim to gain entry to the Dark Brotherhood…
These are all forms of passwords- all secrets passed down and on through shared communication. And each of these example passwords allow access to even more secrets through their ability to serve as identifying markers of members of a community. When we reflect on the origin of passwords, and their contemporary use in anachronistic fantasy role playing games today, we notice they are usually shared and a part of- or barrier of access to- social groupings.
In some cases they are shared to be social- speakeasies need customers. Sometimes they are shared for practical reasons- secret orders need members. In other cases, they are shared as a type of additional security measure. If the code to a lock is forgotten, knowing someone with the combination is useful for retrieving goods without damaging property. Still, other times passwords are shared as a type of play with the secret and mysterious. And actually I (and Huizinga, probably) would argue that there is an element of play present in most uses of passwords for the secret and mysterious. I’ve seen it argued that there is also an element of playfulness within hacking communities, but I won’t get into that discussion here.
So are passwords so predictable because people are lazy? Maybe. Or maybe they are so predictable because, as social animals, we want to share them. Years ago I owned a t-shirt from J!NX which said “Social Engineering Specialist” on the front. I liked the shirt because it married my love of social behavioural science with technology. Additionally, the shirt’s description on the website mirrored my own experience. It reads:
 How can you hack a person? You can often save loads of time by simply asking for the information you want (ie. passwords, access, etc), rather than hacking in via a computer.
My personal experience has found this to be the case. Not that I have ever abused this privilege, but I am often shocked at just how eager and willing people are to give up their passwords. This experience, along with the current news articles popping up, is what got me thinking…
Passwords represent a convergence of intimate human-computer interaction and also an aspect of human social interaction. Passwords allow us to not only experience technology, but also to experience each other and connect to secret and mysterious groups (which can surround themselves with play- to bastardise Huizinga). Passwords, in my view, can be:
  • an inconvenient and prohibitive barrier
  • a semoitic identification for social groupings
  • a means to gain access to a place
  • a type of secretive play

Considering these modalities, is it really so shocking that our passwords seem to coalesce around simple and familiar themes? It is almost as though we want to share them.

Until next time,
Ashley
PS Yes I am still obsessed with Skyrim. I finally got all 24 Stones of Barenziah over the weekend.

The Blog About Not Being Able to Blog

Well, whilst I’m having technical issues, I thought I’d take the opportunity to blog. Only I can’t.

No, it isn’t due to a lack of inspiration. I am filled to bursting with ideas for future research projects and witty observations- at least I think they’re witty, but I’ve had less than 5 hours sleep and 3 cans of energy drink- but I can’t talk about any of them. Not even in an abstract, academic way which isn’t for profit. The NDA, which I (ironically enough) can’t link you to or quote because of specifications within said NDA, prevents me from writing anything.

So why write at all? Good question.

I suppose I should take this opportunity to buy more energy drinks and cook up some taquitos.

Until I can say more,

Ashley

Update: I felt like I short changed you a bit with this post, so to make up for lack of content, have a picture of my freshly re-heated taquitos.

taquitos

Why yes, I am using kitchen roll as a plate. Oh, like you haven’t done it…

Beta Test

What better way to test my blogging skills than by starting with a blog about beta tests?

If you have any sort of presence on social media and enjoy videogames, it is very likely you have recently been bombarded by hundreds of tweets and status updates from people who have been invited to beta test a new MMO. I, obnoxiously, am one of those people. Unfortunately, due to the nondisclosure agreement I signed when I agreed to the test, I can’t mention the name of the game (but I am sure you can figure it out anyway). This post isn’t about the game, luckily, or else I wouldn’t have very much I could talk about. Instead, this post is about the importance of beta testing as a facet of videogame culture.

As most of you will hopefully know, beta testing is a type of testing in which a piece of software, such as a videogame, is released to select members of the public outside the development studio to test for bugs. Other things can also be tested for, such as satisfaction of shareholders, functionality of promised product specifications, stress testing servers and viability of marketing strategies. Actually, it has become a marketing strategy in and of itself with many MMOs offering beta tests to anyone who preorders the game. (This has come under heavy criticism for obvious reasons.) But I digress… The main purpose of this post is to talk about the social functionality of a beta test and what it means for fans and researchers.

Opening your inbox and sifting through junk mail to find a beta invite is a little bit like Charlie unwrapping the chocolate bar to find the golden ticket. You have been chosen. You are special. You get to come to the front of the queue and see everything before anyone else… And you get bragging rights. This is precisely why it is such a good marketing strategy. It builds brand loyalty and exclusivity before the product is even on the shelves.

It is also an event- a spectacle to behold. When I get invited to a beta weekend, my entire life is restructured. I go grocery shopping to stock up on ready meals, cancel plans with friends, and- perhaps most extreme- rearrange my sleep pattern. Since most betas launch Friday evenings in the USA, that’s quite late for the UK. To account for this, I will stay up ridiculously late the night before, sleep in and nap during the day, and have a stockpile of caffeine at the ready to play through the night. I change my biological clock to meet the schedule of a game developer half a world away to, essentially, give them free labour. It’s insane, I know.

However, as game researchers, I feel that some of us should go to rather extreme lengths to partake, observe, and experience what a beta opening is. The last time I had the opportunity to be on the front lines of a beta was for Diablo III on 15 May 2012. I, like many others, experienced a terrible server error which meant I couldn’t log in to the game straight away. Looking up the solution to mysterious error code 33 sent me to Blizzard’s forums. There I discovered I wasn’t the only one experiencing this frustration.

diabloerrorsanon

I took screenshots (and later anonymised them) to have a record of how players were reacting to the servers being down. The above image is an example of the typical responses I witnessed. From snarky posts gloating over the fact some people got in straight away to legitimate statements and questions about current server conditions to rage posts directed at the developer, I was rather amused how some players turned the server error into a play activity in and of itself. The bragging and back-and-forth rage between players became an antagonistic sort of play. I’m tempted to code these player responses into modalities to see if it tells us more about community reactions under stress. I mean, in multiple ways the Diablo III beta was a stress test for servers and people.

But perhaps I will have to do that later. For now, I need to go grocery shopping and stock up on ready meals. It is almost time to join the hordes of other testers on the field of battle to charge through the game’s gates for glory and bragging rights.

See you in a week,

Ashley