“Players generally don’t AFK/troll when they’re winning.”
I think players become toxic mostly when they’re losing. And the worse they’re doing (relative to the opposing team) the more likely they are to become toxic.
Isn’t losing always bad? Why are moba’s different?
Someone might think that’s not a relevant piece of information. “Of course people are more toxic when they’re losing, that’s just human nature.” And while it’s true that nobody likes to lose I don’t think that’s enough to explain the way players react to losing in mobas. There’re plenty of competitive games out there and while many of them have some background level of toxicity only Mobas really stand out as having a particularly severe problem with toxic communities and persistent afking. Anecdotally, I find it much more frustrating to lose at a moba than I do in any other type of game. So what is it about losing in a moba that makes players lose their tempers so much more frequently?
Is it time? Matches in Mobas take a long time and it can be frustrating to lose after 50 minutes of effort. I don’t think this is enough to explain it, there’re plenty of other games that last a long time. A Starcraft set can take longer than that, competitive counter strike games can be played best of 21 or first to 15 and can run on a long time. A complete five round Overwatch game can run in excess of forty minutes. None of these games have anywhere near the same problem with players consistently losing their tempers though. It happens, certainly, but it’s not a genre defining trait in the way it is with mobas.
Is it team-play? In a moba you’re dependent on your team, you can lose because of factors totally outside of your control if your teammates can’t pull their weight. That can be frustrating. But again, FPS games are played as teams, so are some RTS’s even fighting games which are normally 1v1 have team formats. These genres aren’t known for their negative communities in the same way that LoL/Dota are.
So what’s the real problem?
Ok, here’s my theory: “Mobas are unusually toxic because they have a problem with excessive positive feedback.” Positive feedback (sometime called slippery slope) is a property in which doing well in the present increases the likelihood that’ll you’ll do well in the future. I.e. if I kill you now I get xp, gold, items, etc that increase my power and make it easier to kill you in the future.
Negative feedback would be something like a racing game with rubber banding (to speed up the racers in last position). In sports terms slippery slope is the effect you would get if each time you scored a touchdown in football you were able to field an extra player in your offensive line or remove a player from the opposing defence. Each time you score your chances of scoring again get better.
Of course all of this also means that if you lose early you’re more likely to keep on losing as the game goes on. When you, or a teammate, dies your opponents get stronger from the kill and also from the time they’re able to spend farming experience while a member of your team is dead. The gap in power makes them more likely to kill you again in the future and also makes it easier for them to farm while it’s more dangerous for you. Not only are they more powerful than you now but it’s also easier for your opponents to increase in power. Once you start losing, things can snowball on you very easily and while comebacks do happen the set up of the game makes them inherently difficult to pull off.
I don’t think I need to make the case for how strong this effect is in Mobas. Though it should be easy enough to demonstrate from data. How often does the team who gets first blood go on to win? If a team is 10-15% ahead in gold/xp/points at the fifteen minute mark how likely are they to win the game?
This is what makes losing so frustrating in mobas: As you fall behind your opponents your viable options are restricted, you become less and less able to meaningfully influence the outcome of the game. As your opponents gradually widen the gap your ability to fight against them is diminished. I often describe losing in Mobas as “an exercise in mounting impotence”. As matches draw on and players fall behind they feel increasingly powerless to affect the outcome of the game.
As a point of psychological interest; it’s well documented by now that the best way to make someone throw a huge temper tantrum is to make them feel helpless, to take away their sense of agency and control.
Essentially, Mobas have a lot of positive feedback. Therefore players often feel (with some justification) that once they’re behind it’s going to be very hard to stage a comeback. Once they believe their odds of winning have fallen below an acceptable level they get frustrated and become toxic or try to surrender. If they can’t surrender they’ll become increasingly toxic or just quit.
Players regularly feel that games are unwinnable at the twenty minute mark even though it might take another twenty minutes for the opponents to actually destroy the core. The “lame duck” situation can last as long as the meaningful gameplay does. We know this is true because we have a surrender mechanic. If it wasn’t the case that players regularly want to call a game before it’s technically “lost” then there’d be no need for a surrender mechanic at all.
This is important because it means the frustrating, toxicity inducing feeling of powerlessness can go on for a really long time. If players get far behind very early in the game they could potentially be looking at half an hour or more of getting stomped by an enemy team that’re close to numerically untouchable.
This is a good explanation for why AFKs track negatively with match length. If players suffer a big loss and fall behind forty minutes or more into a game they’ll likely think “well, at least this won’t last a long time” and the match will probably end within five to ten minutes. Alternatively if they get teamwiped in the jungle at level two they’ll think “omg, it’s lost, I’m not sitting through half an hour of this” and since they can’t surrender that early they’re much more likely to go AFK.
Why does this matter?
I think this theory is important because it casts toxicity not as a problem of onboarding, messaging or progression structures, or as a problem of player education and community management but as a problem of gameplay. Players don’t afk because they’re confused by the tutorials or because they don’t understand that Mobas are “srs bzns”.
They become toxic and AFK because the gameplay of mobas is designed in such a way that it’s likely to make players frustrated and angry. It’s pretty telling IMO that while all mobas have inherent slippery slope the moba with the strongest inherent comeback mechanics is also the one with by far the least toxicity.