Climbing the Ladder: An Analysis of Class Divides in Player Communities
In this essay, I use forum analysis to explain how players who cultivate skill in their game of choice obtain a sense of empowerment over less skilled players, as well as how this authority becomes a motivating factor for them to engage further with the game and its community. In doing this, I also argue that the process of mastery leads to the creation of networks of elites formed around a hierarchy of skill, which provide each member greater influence in their opinions and thoughts on aspects of the game. By following a single player’s journey from new to veteran player of the game Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup (DCSS) and analysing how he navigates between digital social classes, I construct a narrative on how the authority and reputation of a player’s increases as they develop their skills and expertise. My data is taken from Reddit, which is one of the primary discussion hubs for the game. Through my analysis, I conclude that players that have achieved an elite status indeed crowd out less skilled players in discussions, and determine that this power can be wielded actively and unconsciously. The power is exhibited primarily through the elite player’s feats being used as evidence of authority, as well as through the support of high-skill allies who validate the elite user’s claim over the non-elite.
It has been known since the days of Pong that video games and skill are inseparably linked, with competency-building being both a side effect and a motivator for play (Egliston, 2017). In this essay, I argue that players who cultivate skill in their game obtain a sense of empowerment over less skilled players, which motivates them to engaging more intimately with the game and its community. Empowerment in this instance refers to the way in which players view themselves relative to others in their community, and manifests itself in the way that elite individuals are able to call upon a network of other players to support their viewpoints. This power can most commonly be seen in times of discourse concerning any aspect of a game (such as the strength of a particular strategy), where meaning and understandings need to be negotiated between two parties. Having power in these discussions grants the individual more freedom to express their own views within these debates. I use Bourdieu’s concept of social capital to measure the success of an individual in achieving the elite status which grants them power. Social capital can be considered as the sum of one’s connections within a community (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p.119). A high-capital player has authority behind their voice, usually due to their exceptional nature in either skill or influence of skilled players. This essay looks specifically at the community for Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup (DCSS), a game that requires a high amount of skill to achieve competency and thus naturally creates discourse on subjective analysis of game mechanics due to its difficulty. In order to investigate the effects of skill on player power, I conduct analysis on Reddit’s /r/dcss, one of the game’s primary discussion hubs. Reddit uses an upvote system in which users can silently show approval or disapproval of comments and threads, which then determines how prominently the original poster is displayed within the thread. The system provides a useful measuring stick for determining the influence individuals have on specific conversations based on how many upvotes they gather relative to other commenters.
In order to understand the complex interactions between individuals in this space, this essay takes a player-centred approach (Sweetser & Johnson, 2004), with a particular focus on environments built by volunteers. While platforms such as Discord and Twitter could have been reasonable alternatives to analyse, I have chosen the discussion site Reddit for DCSS, as it offers the most robust discussion base due to new players being the major demographic for the forum. By considering these player-built communities rather than those driven by intentional developer involvement, I seek to explain that players are motivated to engage intimately with video games and their respective communities beyond casual play in order to improve their standing relative to other players. It is important to distinguish between these two: player-built communities thrive without the need for the game to continue updating, and therefore make it more obvious that there is some motivating force behind player mastery other than consumerism. I hypothesise that this factor aligns with Bourdieu’s application of social capital; classism, where digital equivalents of upper and middle-class players wield their capital as a tool to enforce their own beliefs. Using his framework as a lens to study conversations within gaming sub-communities anchors the analysis around the player: “Who knows who in a given discussion? Does this play a role in how the situation plays out? Is the weaker party excluded?”
As such, my first step is to explain the process by which one builds social capital. I use the notion of “superplay”, a range of gaming practices that display mastery over the game’s mechanics (Newman, 2008, p.153), to illustrate skill-based capital accumulation. A feat of superplay is something that makes a player noteworthy to others, which gives them a recognisable attribute that is conducive to capital-building. Superplay may be original to the individual, such as being the first to complete a specific task, or may come from consumption and application of informative resources such as guides and walkthroughs made by other players. Examples of superplay might include holding a high win percentage, “conduct play”, where the user restricts their in-game behaviour and seeks to perform well despite the handicap, or completing difficult achievements. Demonstrating one’s ability to engage in superplay effectively places them in a position of power relative to other less decorated individuals. This power can be best exhibited when the now-elite player makes a statement about a game that conflicts with another player, effectively causing a clash in the interpretations of meaning. In the negotiation process, the elite player is advantaged in part due to their inherent skill, but also due to the authority granted to them by the passive audience. Reddit’s upvoting system gives a crude indication of this authority.
It is important to state that I do not believe that skill-building is a purely self-indulgent act: Rather, I believe that superplay acts as way to create connections between players, with authority by reputation being just one motivating factor for play. If it was the only factor, players would hide their strategies to achieving impressive goals in order to make their achievements — and thus their elite status — exclusive. Instead, we observe the existence of informational wikis and guides where individuals willingly post their feats of superplay, breaking down their strategies for others to learn from and potentially imitate. This is because the act of displaying superplay is the means to attain social capital, explaining why high-skill players play an educative role to players with lower skill. Lower-capital players then assist dissemination of information, which in turn lets them build connections with other players based on the exchange of knowledge. Newman (2008, p. 127) sums up the experience of community-driven resource creation eloquently. He states that to the capital-wealthy player, providing video examples of their play is a way of “confirming their position within the community and providing a benchmark, and also to teach less able gamers of successful routes through the often seemingly impassable and impenetrable melee.” In this way, an individual can build significant social capital from superplay through shared knowledge.
My own personal experiences with superplay and social capital in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup initially raised this research question, making the game an appropriate case study to demonstrate player empowerment. I have been invested in the game for well over 5 years, drawn to the process of skill-building through thousands of hours of play by a desire to obtain and showcase my mastery over its mechanics. DCSS’s difficulty stems from its nature as a rogue-like, an umbrella term designed to capture games that have similar features to DOS-based game Rogue (1980). Cerny and Dechterenko (2018, p.1) define the genre as “a single-player, turn-based, highly difficult Role-playing Game, featuring a randomized environment and permanent death”. The current iteration of the game is a branch from Linley Henzell’s Dungeon Crawl (1995), with volunteers taking over the game’s development by converting it to an open-source project. The player chooses a combination of race and starting class, which vary in difficulty, and delve into a multi-branch dungeon in search of the Orb of Zot. The game runs bi-annual tournaments lasting 16 days, in which each participant seeks to complete the game as many times as possible while being assigned points based on the race/class combination and impressiveness of their run (in terms of objectives completed, real-time taken and turn-count). The game is extremely difficult and the tournaments attracts fierce competition, with the average win percentage of 3187 players at just 2.64% in 2018, and only 629 players winning at all.
Reflexive to this difficulty, the DCSS community strongly adheres to the hierarchy of skill: Those who demonstrate mastery over the game are given authority to make claims. The transparency of user statistics aids with this process, as player profiles publicly display the player’s wins and, by extension, their achievements. In addition to this, tournaments are built to showcase high-ranking players and superplayers, allowing for individuals to gain significant capital simply by placing well. The community also contains a number of individuals who have used their skill as a platform to speak authoritatively on media channels such as YouTube and Reddit, increasing their own influence considerably. As to the general purpose of this essay, the game functions as a prime example of player-run competition. Despite being single player and being first created well over two decades ago, the game continues to display a tightly knit community and a healthy development cycle. One can surmise that the idea of developing one’s skill in a game as difficult as DCSS — thus displaying a mastery of strategic play — must be attractive enough to retain players for a period well beyond that of many games.
By closely reading game studies literature, I have come to understand how others have sought to explain the social aspect of play, while also refining the gap in the field that I wish to explore: The classist nature of gaming sub-cultures. Much of the focus of contemporary game studies has revolved around online play, with surveys being the primary method of analysing player motivations. Each individual study has offered a fairly fresh perspective due to the infancy of the field, and focus on the positive benefits of community-based interaction.
Johnson et al (2005), for example, looked at the motivations of community play and came to a similar conclusion to my hypothesis by analysing a mixture of digital and physical games. They mention social climbing and keeping a social position as one of the motivators of “playmaking”, or voluntary management of community resources (p. 3). Their perspective on the situation is quite positive, citing to some extent altruism and a positive improvement in the environment in which they are self-actualised. The study offers many useful insights for this essay, but did not explore deeply into how the individual can actually use their social status in a meaningful way.
Tseng, Huang and Teng (2015) further develop the idea of motivation in play, using social capital theory to explain player retention in online games. They concluded that players are motivated in part to continue playing due to the non-transferability of social capital between games. Their study looks at the phenomena from a consumer-producer perspective more so than the players’.
Ryan, Rigby and Przybylski (2006) used self-determination theory to explain the motivations behind playing video games. In one of their four player-base studies, they suggested that for some, “the desire for power and mastery in a game can be associated with negative aftereffects” (p. 361), referring specifically to the physical and mental toll of persevering with repetitive, difficult tasks. Indeed, players within the Crawl community have been recorded to have reached up to a staggering 13 hours per day on average for the entirety of the game’s 16 day long tournaments. Ultimately though, the study largely ignored the player’s effects on the community and focused on each individual as discreet and unrecognisable to the player-base at large.
Taylor (2009, p.50) offered a counter-point to the use of player-centric approaches in game studies, critiquing it within the context of organised competitive gaming. He stated that Ramusch, Jakobsson, and Pargman’s cognitive ethnography (2007) dismissed the technologies that made professionalism and competition possible by over-analysing the individual without acknowledging the role of physical mediums. While convincing, this statement was made in reference to communities in which money was involved at a professional level. Crawl seems to be the antithesis of Taylor’s point: It offers no tangible rewards other than social capital for mastery, and is available to play for free through any internet browser or Secure Shell (SSH) terminal.
Because of this motivating factor that is seemingly independent of any one game, I choose to continue the trend of player-centred approach with the understanding that this essay does not focus on the game itself, but rather elaborates on the players themselves. My own theoretical framework primarily therefore consists of Bordieu’s social capital theory and Castells’ network power, which combined can offer an observable measure of authority through skill for any individual within a network.
Since I am analysing the power behind player relations, Bourdieu’s framework of social capital is most suitable to understanding how players earn their fame through communicating with others in a digital environment. Newton (1999) expounds upon this idea, stating that “Individual actors do something for the general good … because they trust that their own action will be ‘rewarded’ via the positive development of communal relations”. Bourdieu paints a harsh portrait when he discusses the capital of recognition, where the elite and middle class use social capital to exclude others from joining their ranks (Bourdieu, 1992). Indeed, there is a certain pushback that occurs when brash new players, drunk on their own success, make bold generalisations, only to be quickly attacked by the high-capital elites.
Putnam (1995) offers a more positive perspective on social capital, focusing on civic engagement as a way of building community trust, but his argument has been set aside in this paper simply due to its specificity towards the American lifestyle. For gaming communities, conflict and skill reign supreme: Players who excel in gathering social capital enjoy authority behind their words, while newer players are seen as unable to form cohesive arguments due to their lack of knowledge. Analysing the frictions between the two groups when they clash confirm Bourdieu’s perspective on social capital, but is not relevant for Putnam’s argument.
In order to demonstrate the process that social capital is gained by a player, I use superplay to describe acts of skill-based capital-building. For the purposes of DCSS, high-skilled superplay can either be exhibited by performing well in global tournaments, completing difficult tasks such as speed-running, maintaining a high win ratio on one’s player profile and, once sufficiently recognised as skilled, creation of community educative resources. All of these areas of excellence are extremely difficult, each requiring hundreds of hours of dedicated work to achieve. For more analysis on exactly what drives the player to commit to such labour, see Taylor (2012), who discusses the notion of power gamers.
The product of social capital which follows from superplay — power — can be framed in two ways. The first is through the lens of Foucalt (1998), where power is intertwined with truth and knowledge. In this sense, power simply refers to the ability to influence the negotiation of a truth, and to be the person in charge of spreading knowledge. The literal value of power, or its practical application, I consider with reference to Castell’s Network Theory of Power (2011), who develops four primary forms of power within a network: Networking Power, Network Power, Networked Power and Network-making Power. Effectively, these forms describe how social capital-rich individuals are able to negotiate and control interactions with one another, as well as create and rely upon the aid of other affluent members to support their causes. I have chosen to use Castells’ theory to explain Foucalt’s, as it has a very practical application to the samples I have chosen. Despite this, the themes of power and truth underlie much of my analysis.
In my research, I sought to analyse instances in which social capital-rich users engage in discourse with less prominent users on the DCSS subreddit. For simplicity, I generalised players into categories, labelling them either as elite or non-elite. The process of sorting individuals into the two groups involved inspecting their social capital, which may come in a variety of forms. In this research, I primarily used the player’s appearance and performance in the bi-annual tournaments and their online player profile (revealing any feats of superplay) as evidence of skill-based social capital. This resulted in some players who had influence due to their tenure as Redditors being excluded from elite status due to their lack of skill.
The overall process of analysis involved identifying key contributors to a given discussion, categorising them as elites or non-elites, explaining how their comment related to the power struggle and correlating this to the number of up-votes they gained. If it could be established that high capital users enjoyed a positive bias once their status as a prominent user was revealed or known, then I could confirm whether or not high-capital individuals do indeed enjoy benefits for reaching their elite status. These benefits also came in the form of other elite players entering the discourse in support of the initial party, which would be in line with Bourdieu’s notions of social capital.
I followed one individual as the common actor between the samples. Through the course of the three distinct threads in different periods of time, X underwent a significant change in status, beginning as a new player and finishing as a high capital elite. By analysing his role in each discussion over a 5 year period, I considered whether or not social capital could be used to explain his power and therefore motivation to continue playing. In threads 2 and 3, I personally appeared as player D. My private conversations with X were thus included, as they partially caused the interactions that occurred. I took note of each significant actor in the conversation, and observed how X interacted with them. Generally, I saw that as he gained more skill, X began to rely more heavily on his social capital as evidence of his authority on the matter, benefiting greatly in thread 3 from his connections with various players.
The main limitation to this method is that creating a narrative necessarily requires an injection of a personal voice. Due to my nature as a high-capital user within the community, there may consequently be a distortion in the lens which I used to recount events, as I was privy to a number of conversations with the actors that are not visible in the threads. I took steps to prevent this by removing several clear instances of bias in terms of subjective opinion, as well as choosing to focus on a player other than myself.
The three threads that I have chosen were specifically picked due to the interactions between elite and non-elite players. They demonstrate how new players will often face what they perceive as hostility from the entire community for arguing their points, and how their development into skilled players eventually turns them into the hostile party against the stubborn and misguided non-elite.
The results returned from my analysis provide good evidence that there is an element of power in social interactions within gaming communities. Bourdieu’s claim of classism and exclusion of lower-class individuals certainly seems to extend to the digital sphere in this instance. By linking superplay to social capital, I have connected the concepts of building skill in gaming to a purpose beyond enjoyment from mastery over the game. This helps explain the fact that individuals compete significantly beyond what the developers envision. Players such as myself have broken the boundaries of ordinary play in an attempt to become recognized by others. This recognition eventually converted into an authority that could be keenly felt during conversation and dialogue, which prompted me to continue to develop my skill.
This essay therefore has probed into the rarely discussed selfish motivations of individuals during their tenure with a particular game, and helped provide an explanation as to why social capital is actually valuable to the individual. This builds on the ideas of Tseng, Huang and Teng (2015), who looked at the concept of social capital almost as if it were possible to come to a calculable figure amount. They recognized that capital was valuable inherently to the individual but did not consider its practical application other than the utility stemming from the foundation of relationships with other players. By using Castells’ network power to discuss the practical applications of high social capital, I have highlighted that players can and often do abuse their standing over others.
I am not, however, implying that this power is the only reason for play, or that engaging in communities is a purely selfish motivation. Rather, I wish to clarify that an inherent danger of climbing the social ladder in small communities is that a player can lose sight of the intense sway that they hold. Even falsities can be accepted by the weaker party when enough people gather around the stronger individual. Those with high capital should seek to view discourse in light of their own authority, and consider whether or not their opinion is actually correct or if their authority has preceded them.
This essay has explained how players who have achieved elite status within a gaming community are given significant privileges when they enter a discussion that allow them to speak authoritatively. More generally, I have provided further reasoning to readers as to why players exhibit fervour when it comes to what is considered “play” in a manner that is easily understood as universal truths: self-interest and authority-building. To some players, these benefits are actually a motivating factor in continuing to play, as the individual grows their network of allies over time. Skill plays an important role in this process, with outstanding achievements giving the player renown, allowing for an easier time in building social capital.
To the player, developing a particular skill is a means to carve out an identity that can be used to show authority on the subject. There are many positive externalities to this behaviour which have been looked at from a number of perspectives from other game studies academics, such as the forming of bonds with other like-minded players or the creation of resources for others to enjoy.
I have merely opened the door for others to search more deeply into the idea of classism in gaming communities. Future research on this matter might look towards games with a set match-making rating system, such as Riot Games’ League of Legends or Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft. These communities are larger, competitive and more complex to analyse, but will offer a much closer look at the way most players behave due to their closeness to mainstream gaming culture.
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· Egliston, B. (2017). Building Skill in Videogames: A Play of Bodies, Controllers and Game-Guides. M/C Journal, 20(2). Retrieved from http://www.journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/1218
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Please note that due to Reddit’s automated up-vote randomisation in order to prevent certain users from discovering that they have been banned from the site, the number of up-votes seen in the discussion may not align perfectly with the images below.