Why Dota Sucks — 11. Why Dota is "Toxic"

We have been left with the fitting conclusion that a genre of “teamwork” is now notorious for the hostile behavior of its player base.1 The most common term used in the discussion, to the point where it almost comes to parody itself, is that the dota community is “toxic”. While one could argue that many of today’s popular games feature toxic communities—particularly those on the console circuit—the nature of the dota community was cataloged in the early days of Defense of the Ancients and it was one of the reasons that Warcraft III players held dota in low regard.2

But this is not merely blood on the hands of the community. The total failure of developers to do the right thing—to curb this negative behavior—is best explained by Riot Games’ decision to build a thirty-man team that would analyze behavior in the League of Legends community.3 It’s a team of hard-working individuals that includes a “cognitive neuroscientist” and a “behavioral psychologist”. And on cursory glance, this makes for great public relations. Even if it exposes outsiders to the nature of your player base, it allows Riot to look proactive in acknowledging the problem and attempting to deal with it. It also allows the company to look like they’re on the cutting edge of game development, and using “Science!” in order to build a better game.

But in doing this, Riot is effectively asserting that the toxic nature of its community is a player issue, and they are continuing an industry standard in blaming the consumer for everything. In reality, Riot’s position is one shared by a cabal of dota developers who feel that community enforcement is the correct approach to player conduct, and they’re doing it to cover for a failure of game design. “Wait, what? How the hell does that work?” What I’m going to tell you will blow your mind: Dota does not have a toxic environment because it is “casual” and it has nothing to do with the audience that the game attracts. Dota is defined by the toxic behavior in its team game modes…because there are no proper singleplayer modes. Or, to be more specific, there are no game modes that allow the individual to learn and play the game on their own accord.

Discussions of toxic behavior most commonly focus on how inclusive a game is, the idea that the more expensive and complex games are going to shut out the younger, less mature audiences that can’t afford or understand them. But that discounts the impact that the design of a game or genre can have on its community.4 While dota is certainly inclusive on both an economic and conceptual level, it is the core design of the genre that provides the gasoline for the fire. And I should add that I do not believe the creators of the genre are entirely at fault for this. Whether IceFrog, Guinsoo, Eul, Meian, Ragn0r, or elsewise, these mapmakers never anticipated that their Warcraft III custom map would become a commercial genre, and they designed their maps for the team sizes that were encouraged by the Battle.net custom game system. But in doing this, Defense of the Ancients became an early front-runner for one of the troubling trends in multiplayer videogames, in which the games are designed and subsequently balanced for a specific team size and very specific map layouts, instead of having the flexibility to work in multiple formats, gametypes, and environments.5

What has been lost in the focus on “dota as team sport” is that the games which kicked off the versus multiplayer revolution—Street Fighter II, Doom, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Descent—all featured interesting singleplayer modes.6 The RTS genre that is home to excellent team modes is not only a thrilling test of individual mettle, but features a number of compelling singleplayer campaigns. The MMORPGs which are defined by their late-game group action are preceded by a range of content that can be accomplished on the individual’s time and interest. Even games almost entirely identified by their multiplayer modes, particularly the Halo and Unreal Tournament series, feature proper singleplayer modes.

And what these game modes achieve is that they act as a “sandbox”. They are a place where players can learn the game’s theory and design in a “safe” environment, a place where players can experiment without being harshly punished for any experimental or underwhelming actions.7 Even if these game modes will not always prepare you for the demands of live combat against other human opponents, and even if the relative value of many skills and concepts will shift dramatically in the transition to multiplayer, they are a way to familiarize yourself with the core concepts and do it in an enjoyable format.

Because the dota genre was designed for a specific game mode—versus multiplayer between two teams of five—it lacks this sandbox. It is not that the alternate game modes and content do not exist, but that the nature of the genre’s birth and development have made them boring options. The genre lacks proper singleplayer content (campaigns) for the simple reason that it is expensive to produce. It lacks proper skirmish modes against computer opponents because so much of what makes the genre appealing—broad team tactics, communication, and the process of drafting a team—was designed for use with other human players. (And even if the AI could be rendered an appealing aspect of the experience, the creators of dota games would not have the financial impetus to provide it.8) It lacks proper one-versus-one modes because “playing dota solo” is a complete waste of time. And because the genre is so rigidly adherent to five-on-five, it lacks the wide range of team modes where players have no expectation of anything less than carnage and chaos, a sandbox where players can get a feel for team action.9

So, you remember what we said about RTS games and custom maps? How a variety of game modes can accommodate players of differing needs and interests? Because the dota genre does not make these compelling or interesting choices, the sandbox becomes the five-on-five mode, where players of differing interests, intensity, and skill levels are forced into the same player pool. And, quite crucially, it is a game mode where teamwork is the chief barometer of success and failure. In order to learn the game, you must become a direct and significant burden on other players. Don’t know what items you should purchase? Don’t know how to play your character? Make the wrong play? You will cost your teammates the game and you will hear it from them, no matter what language they speak. That is why the genre is toxic, and toxic to the point where Riot Games includes “Unskilled Player” in their system for reporting “offensive players”.10

It is a failure that is best demonstrated in the culture of guides and documentation which now surround the dota genre. Unlike instruction booklets and tutorials, which teach you the rules for a game, the guides exist to specifically show how you should bend those rules to favorable ends. When we mentioned the Purge Gamers guide at the beginning of this book, that was just a cursory introduction to the culture. Web sites such as LoLKing and Dotafire act as massive community compendiums, where each character is accompanied by dozens of guides written by dozens of individuals. These guides will not only tell you which items to purchase and what order to select your skills, but what your specific aims and goals should be over the course of the game. The culture is so pervasive that many dota games integrate the guides directly into the game.11

Perhaps you will argue that the dota genre is not the only place where players have come to worship at the altar of the guide, and would point to the prevalence of guides for fighting games and real-time strategy games. Here is the difference: Those games can be learned and enjoyed by simply playing them.12 13 Because the dota genre lacks this sandbox, and it has isolated the “real game” in the cut-throat multiplayer modes, reading guides is preferable. The guides have become such a ubiquitous part of the experience that deviating from the knowledge found in these guides—and going “against the meta”—will subject you to the wrath of other players. “Playing the game and experimenting with your options”, as videogame players have done over the last forty years, is a dead-end. You either play the tedious singleplayer modes—which are tedious because they were constructed after the genre was formalized—or you cost your teammates countless games and attract their unhinged attention. And if there are flaws so deep that players want to skip or expedite the learning process, then it is probably a bad game.

Perhaps there was once a time and a place where everyone playing Aeon of Strife or a Defense of the Ancients was new to the concept, and everyone was just getting the hang of things. That time has long passed. As it has been established, the culture of dota is that you must put in the time and energy to learn the game before you choose to play it, as though you’re training and trying out for a sport. But in a sick sense, these guides aren’t really written for the new player. They’re written for the veterans who will be inconvenienced by the beginner who wants to learn the game by simply playing it. The expectation, as created by the structure of dota, is that you must be able to contribute from your very first match. But if your game does not give veteran players the agency to overcome lousy teammates, and if your game does not give weaker players the game modes where they can learn the game without inconveniencing others, then the inevitable result is a community of raving lunatics. That is what “teamwork” will accomplish, and why it will yield a “toxic” community.

But instead of rethinking the genre to accommodate the player base, it is simply easier for developers to retrofit the genre with solutions that effectively exist outside of the game. That’s why Dawngate allows players to hand out “karma” to productive, helpful, and otherwise pleasant teammates.14 That’s why Dota 2 allows you to rate the cooperation of your teammates on a match-to-match basis. And that’s why Riot Games is constantly upgrading their mechanisms for community enforcement. These systems are a hell of a lot cheaper than the new game modes and alternative approaches to design that would require developers to rethink much of what now defines the financially-lucrative dota genre. So, in the meantime, it is easier for developers to appear proactive about a solution to the issue—whether “cognitive neuroscientists” or elsewise—than it is to provide the correct one.

Continue to Chapter 12: Novelty (Why Dota is Acclaimed)