This past Wednesday, Cameron Kunzelman posted “Bad Affect as Game Design, Or It Feels Good For Overwatch To Feel Bad,” a short piece on how the cathartic effects of limited toxic behavior, as enabled by Overwatch’s communication wheel, can lead to a more streamlined game state. Applying affect theory to things is becoming a bit cliche on my end, considering how much I’ve been doing it, but this article is a perfect springboard for some thoughts I’d like to detail.
The MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV is a very different game than Overwatch. First of all, Overwatch’s bards can actually move. More important, however, is that Final Fantasy XIV (or just FFXIV) facilitates matchmaking for content in two distinct ways: the Duty Finder and the Party Finder. The Duty Finder, or DF, allows a player to place themselves in a queue for any form of content, like a dungeon or boss battle, similarly to an Overwatch quick-play queue. In DF, you can be matched with anyone on your data center (a cluster of servers divided by real-world region) who has queued up for that same game mode. The Party Finder, or PF, allows you to place a listing for a piece of content that others join selectively. Basically an hour-long classified ad, these listings can be textually customized to broadcast to an entire data center particular reasons for joining (“farm, please know the listed fight”, “learning party! all welcome!”, “clear for 1 plz carry”…), or they can be modified to exclude players by in-game job or gear level. Duty Finder allows for quick and easy queuing into content without any restrictions, while Party Finder gives players the freedom to be selective, and all content from regular dungeons to high-level raids is represented within both systems to various degrees.
The differences between these two modes of operation lie in their investment levels. In Duty Finder, you get in, then get out. Clear rates for higher-level content are considered chance, as membership is only a click of the queue button away. In essence, time is money, and you get what you pay for — meaning the skill level of the typical Duty Finder player is usually below average. This idea of the “DF player” has been discursively constructed throughout Reddit and within guild chats since DF’s inception, and I have had to deal with these players in-game, too. However, this lack of accountability on the DF player’s part and our discussion about rather than direct confrontation with them is also indicative of DF’s fleeting nature. Players wait in the content queue for a specified amount of time until it “pops”; upon hitting commence, all party members are thrown into the content at the same time. Players apply the Protect buff, pull out their spears and shields, and get going. Dungeons especially take little communication, and should the run go smoothly, there will be little to talk about. The “DF player” may be just irritating enough to prompt veteran players to comment; however, the “DF player” will rarely make an impact any larger than the instanced incident, which makes commenting seem disruptive. The problematic party member is hence dealt with through back-channel dialogue and memes, as the “DF player”’s isolated influence on the game state prompts an appropriately minute — yet paradoxically identifiable — response. The “DF player” dungeon run may take ten agonizing minutes longer, but we can always complain on Reddit about it once it’s over with, right?
By contrast, PF often requires more commitment to the party because of its structure. Rather than waiting for a queue to pop, PF requires joining a party and staying in it until it hits its max capacity of eight players. Should you be one of the first to join the PF, small talk, battle strategies, and Discord voice channels are much more likely to be exchanged. While PF culture differs rather drastically between data centers, the PF itself allows for players to “settle down” into a party and implicitly sign up for the long haul. PF creates a tangible space through which people may interact without an overbearing feeling of ephemerality, and that space circularly standardizes a content-clearing norm. As people step into the PF for a specific purpose, often within restrictions that remind the player of such a goal, the PF encourages players to cooperatively achieve it. By the time you enter the dungeon or raid, there is most likely a clearer understanding of each player’s strengths, weaknesses, or points of ignorance, as the PF’s slow-and-steady structure emphasizes each individual that joins the party rather than grouping them together simultaneously. Under no circumstances are all PF parties successes, of course; plenty of parties, especially on the Aether data center, crumble after one wipe. However, the intent-based and player-agentic PF system at the very least supports this personalized approach to clearing content through its technology, as opposed to DF’s randomization of players.
Yet something is lost in this oversimplified explanation of these systems. FFXIV players are probably thinking it, and they would be right: PF still sucks. We join PFs masochistically, almost like train-wreck chasers. We enjoy the spectacle of our parsers, and the moments in which we realize we’re carrying. We tell stories of these failed PFs in private chats even as they’re happening, and, indeed, often we leave these parties in a huff, as quickly as we came. We document these parties on spaces like Reddit, especially in the “F — — You Friday” rage threads, where players evoke the 39th rule of the internet and vent the week’s DF/PF misfortunes. These rants demonstrate that the “DF player” exists in all forms of matchmaking, including PF content.
These matchmaking technologies are actually sides of the same coin. DF is a direct line to the most fleeting of instances: hence, vitriol is expressed (in private or in public), then let go. PF’s technology structures the content to a personalizing degree: thus, bad experiences are more solidly internalized through expectation and the subsequent letdown. My feelings, however, are still managed in similar ways via Reddit and other forms of anger-venting. So if the same affects occur in both spaces no matter how ephemeral, and if we manage these affects in similar ways, then why do we subject ourselves to them? What do we gain from joining a “trap party,” as we call them, if we expect it to disband minutes after?
A potential answer lies in the structure of another system: DF’s roulettes. FFXIV implements many kinds of “roulette” matchmaking modes that randomize select pieces of content, such as leveling dungeons or boss fights, and give daily rewards upon completion. Roulette algorithms prioritize the content that people are queued for in DF, which can lead to duty patterns; new boss fights, for example, are almost all that you get in Trials roulette for the first week of their release. Nonetheless, roulettes often grab the most random duties, keeping nearly all fights relevant and fresh in players’ minds.
The roulette, however, exemplifies the randomness of play in FFXIV. DF roulettes are often the sole deciders of a player’s daily content, which creates a constantly fluctuating game state. Should we multiply the 75,000+ potential party members by the amount of potential content in any given roulette, while adding in variables such as player skill level, job, gear, etc., we would most likely find our encounter possibilities to be in the millions. The performatively made meanings and “ludonarratives” within DF/PF-facilitated content are effectively infinite, as every trial, dungeon, or raid you participate in will be completely different as defined by their technologies.
As the DF’s roulette system is the randomized ludonarrative taken to its farthest extreme, players must justify its inner workings. When the “DF player” arises, a player vents in the aforementioned ways to mitigate the pain of these bad feelings and to constitute the DF as an ephemeral space. By consciously constructing the “DF player” as a byproduct of chance, players remind themselves that better runs are on the horizon, which creates motivation to keep playing tomorrow. Complaining about the DF on Reddit, for example, also fulfills a bias towards the “DF experience” that is universal: the laws of chance victimize players constantly, which simulates the state of playing with AI. I can construct other players participating in a DF wipe as part of the game rather than as other players because of the DF’s randomized technology. My affective responses to these events objectify other players as part of a broader ideological happening: the bard that died three times to a mechanic is a weapon I can use on Reddit to fulfill a “DF player” construct, and the negativity I generate over that person make it easier for me to justify my own place in the roulette. This phenomenon is different from blaming another player for my faults, however; the bard’s mistakes don’t matter because they don’t affect me, but they generate affect that I can use to fulfill the idea that the content revolves around my presence within it. I make the content into a single-player game state by externalizing mistakes that I’m not making, which is a byproduct of chance that I’m subjected to, and which fosters feelings that I can use online to justify the experience to others.
Yet this affect also works on another level, as demonstrated by the PF. In DF, everything is random; in PF, the party leader controls the variables enough, and humanizes the party members enough, to alleviate some of the above externalizing. It’s hard to feel like the center of the universe when I’ve spend five minutes talking with the Dark Knight about anime (no, not the Ninja; it’s always the Dark Knight). But when wipes and mistakes occur, I can use my feelings to objectify players like I do in DF content, while also turning that affect into a common thread of dissatisfaction spanning all content within this game. In DF, I feel like a human playing a quick-play game with bots. In PF, I don’t have that luxury, but I can use those same affects to connect me to something concrete amidst all of the game’s variables.
Kunzelman notes that “becoming consistently angry about particular things in Overwatch may have a calming effect that generates a smooth space of play,” and this theory is made evident when contextualizing affect in the quasi-personal space of the PF. Getting angry at unskilled players becomes symbolically intelligible no matter who I’m playing with, even if I would feel guilty for saying “you’re bad” to someone I can hear on Discord. My experiences with the so-called “bots” in DF constructs me as a victim of chance, which is a sensation replicated when a PF goes wrong, and I attach myself to these bad feelings to remind myself that all content is essentially the same. DF sucks just like PF does, and I’ve made this real by defining reality in FFXIV as synonymous with disappointment. This phenomenon occurs through the infinite amount of variability in FFXIV parties, DF or PF, that create only one constant: underperformance. The roulette system only underlines how players internalize variables and “ludonarratives”; we are trained to expect randomization of every gameplay element with the exception of our own dismay.
In sum, FFXIV players have grown accustomed to internalizing randomness via DF and PF technologies to the degree that bad affect, as both identity-constitutive device and weapon against other players, has become the norm. We don’t actually expect anything from content at this point because of how we proliferate these ideas of the “DF player” — not because we can blame our negativity on our own rants, of course, but because our negativity has performatively constructed the “DF player” as the only player that exists in DF. We are surprised when we see high-parsing players, good-quality gear, and so forth because they set the match upon the strawman — a strawman that we have assumed to be reality this entire time, as it justifies the bad feelings that have created all this “reality” in the first place. Kunzelman is right to observe that he’s “meditative” in being angry at Overwatch because that anger is assumed to be natural in such an environment, as constructed by ideas of, outbursts of, and the subsumption of “anger” within an unchanging idea of the game state. I myself have witnessed the “DF player” in action, and I would be remiss to invalidate the construct as simply an outlet through which we I can be angry on the internet. But this interpretation is wrong specifically in how it conflates the idea of the “DF player” with the event of seeing one. Remember: if we weren’t angry at the “DF player,” we wouldn’t have made them into a meme at all.
I’m certain there will be those who peep their blacklists and find my username on there. I won’t be surprised. Being who I am, I still let affect get the best of me. But understanding that game states and cultures are created by these ideas rather than being the other way around is an important step to changing them. Do not simply remind yourself that there’s a human being behind the screen: remind yourself that the emotions generated within the screen create what you believe is real about it. It’s on all of us to be the best players we can be (in all senses) to mitigate “toxicity,” yet toxicity is generally borne of a matrix of disappointment into which we’ve all been indoctrinated. Valorizing player skills, mentoring players to raise ability averages, and approaching mistakes from systemic perspectives rather than as personal failures — while not being defensive in receiving such criticism — creates a more inclusive and productive performance-based community.
Affect of all kinds has its place in video games. Affect can connect players to their environments in formative ways. Yet the normalization of negative affect masquerades as a “flow state,” a carefully constituted reality that we take at face value. Whether we’re raising the tank because they didn’t pop cooldowns, or saying “THANKS!” to the Reinhardt who never shields our asses against those who’ll gladly kick them, we should remember that the “flow” of affect farming is only as real as our faults are.