Punishing and reforming negative behavior is important, but the player behavior team also wanted to enable League players to reward one another for positive behaviors. This desire led to the Honor Initiative, which allows players to recognize positive behaviors like helpfulness, friendliness, good teamwork, and sportsmanlike play. The Honor status of every League player is displayed on their profile, encouraging players to work for these kudos from their competitors and teammates.
The most radical experiment Riot has performed on its players so far, though, is based on the psychological principle of priming. Basically, priming involves exposing people to a specific stimulus in order to influence how they’ll react to another stimulus later. In experiments, for example, groups of subjects that discussed the topic of rudeness might be more likely to interrupt an experimenter faster and more often than a control group that discussed the concept of politeness.
Riot Games decided to experiment with priming players by introducing game tips that would be shown to players on loading screens, during gameplay, or both. The tips were divided into five categories, including commentary on positive behavior (“If you cooperate with your teammates you’ll actually win more games.”), negative behavior (“If you engage in toxic behaviors you’ll be punished by our Tribunal system.”), and self-reflection (“Who will be the most sportsmanlike player in this particular game?”). These priming messages could also be displayed in red, blue, or white, a decision spurred by other priming experiments that showed font color could affect test performance in different ways in different cultures.
Despite the large number of variables (tip location, tip type, and color), League of Legends’ large player base meant the player behavior team could examine lots of permutations incredibly quickly “If you look at the social sciences or neurosciences most studies are 2×2 designs or 2×3 [variable] designs,” Lin said. “That’s because in the lab you’re limited by the number of people you can get through your studies in time—it takes three months to do 20 subjects. But in League of Legends we can do these crazy designs with 217 unique conditions and get the data in a couple of days.”
Riot’s results showed clearly that in-game tips were much less effective at changing behavior than those shown on the loading screen. “As soon as players get into the game they open up the store and start immediately buying items, so in-game [tips] have lesser effects than the loading screen [tips],” Lin said. “During the loading screen you don’t really have much to do other than read the tips, but during in-game you’re already busy setting up your equipment and trying to get to your lanes.”
Other than that, the priming results were a little more difficult to pin down. A red loading-screen message about player abuse was more effective at curbing bad behavior than the same message in white, but a red message about sportsmanship actually produced results in the wrong direction, for instance.
While the priming experiment may open up more questions than it answers, it does show that Riot is trying to influence the behavior that feeds into the Tribunal and Honor systems. The player behavior team also wants to begin experimenting with match chemistry as another way to head off toxic behavior at the pass.
Riot Games hopes that by sharing these initiatives and their results, they can inspire similar efforts across the video game industry. “We’re starting to see sprinkles and pockets of other studios doing similar things now. That really excites us,” Lin said. “We’ve long realized that this isn’t necessarily a problem with online games and League of Legends only. It’s gamers in general and online societies in general. It’s more than just Riot jumping in and solving this problem. We need the players to be involved. They need to be a part of the solution [and] other studios have to get in and be involved as well.”