Published Study Hints at Further Use of ‘League of Legends’ Playerbase as Guinea Pigs

You may recall approximately one month ago when Breitbart published a report that Riot Games, the developer behind League of Legends, started changing player usernames they deemed offensive and requesting that they take part in a mental health survey.

These tests appeared to be modified versions of the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” created by Robert Raskin and Howard Terry, and “The Aggression Scale: A Self-Report Measure of Aggressive Behavior for Young Adolescents,” created by Pamela Orpinas and Ralph Frankowski. The implication was clear; if you had an “offensive” username, then you may also have some underlying mental health problem.

After publication of our report, multiple people on social media voiced their concerns, reminding Riot Games that they are simply a game developer and questioning the ethics behind a study such as this. Even left-leaning tech media outlets, that have traditionally praised Riot’s attempts to combat negative in-game behaviour at every opportunity, seemed to balk at the nature of the testing. This was mainly due to the matter of “informed consent,” given that the players in League of Legends can be as young as 13-years old.

The driving force behind these tests is Jeffrey “Lyte” Lin, an individual who has referenced his Ph.D, which happens to be in cognitive neuroscience, perhaps more than any other academic in the history of the world. Head of Riot’s “player behaviour team,” he has openly crusaded against what he refers to as “toxic behaviour” — commonly known as trash-talk or insults to us mere peons — often under the guise of combatting racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

Despite the game featuring a mute button that prevents players from having to read anything typed to them from a specific individual, Lin has always rejected this as a solution. “We consider the ‘Mute’ feature to be a last resort,” he has stated on his Ask.fm. “When a player has to use the ‘Mute’ feature, the damage has already been done.” Quite what that “damage” constitutes isn’t clear.

Breitbart spoke with Lin about these tests, where he stated that minors were excluded from the data and that he would be “happy to shed more light on the goals” of the surveys once the project had concluded. It seems that the tests were related to a study that was published on the 12th November but had its final revisions back in September, before the surveys were implemented: “What’s in a name? Ages and names predict the valence of social interactions in a massive online game.” Lin is named on the paper, along with Riot Games researcher Davin Pavlas, as well as two members of the psychology department of the UK’s York University.

The study’s groundbreaking revelation is that “[their] findings suggest that players’ real-world characteristics influence behaviour and interpersonal interactions within online games” according to the abstract. Who knew? Other findings in the study competing for the “most obvious statement of the year award” also include that the younger a player is, the more likely they are to engage in behaviour they deem “anti-social.”

To put to bed any concerns about the ethical nature of the study, it states, “Strict controls were imposed of the type of data that were analysed. Data were collected and analysed in accordance with guidelines from both the Association of Internet Researchers (Markham & Buchanan, 2012) and the American Psychological Association (Kraut et al., 2004). It is important to note that only anonymized datasets were analysed. Researchers had no access to personal identifying information and no modification of players’ online experience was performed as a result of this research.”

It is worth noting, for those who maybe skipped the small-print of League of Legends’ terms of service, that agreeing to them “explicitly allow LoL to use their data for research purposes” such as this study.

The study also admits that there were 1,031 false positives when scanning for offensive nicknames, which were excluded from the study. It’s not clear if all of them have had their usernames changed back, as Riot had said the onus was on players to contact the support team in order to rectify their own mistake.

Given the rather benign nature of the findings, many will doubtlessly take no issue with this action. However there are still some concerning components of the study and what it means for people who are currently playing League of Legends casually. First is the fact the study seems to try and draw conclusions about the real lives of the players with offending usernames based on little more data than the username itself. The report also admits that they will be investigating that hypothesis further in future experiments.

“Although the actual usernames cannot be reported here for reasons of privacy, they lie well outside the adult societal norms and there can be little doubt that they are specifically designed to shock or draw attention from other players,” the study states. It then adds, “Although we have no other psychological information about the subjects who choose these names, it is plausible that they indicate real-life antisocial or attention-seeking tendencies and we are currently investigating this hypothesis in ongoing lab-based experiments.”

Secondly, in the study’s conclusion, again only based on its findings pertaining to username and age, it also mentions the likelihood of the players having clinical psychiatric disorders as being another avenue to explore.

“It is intriguing to ask if other clinical psychiatric disorders such as autism, sociopathy or addictive personality traits might be evident in these types of data,” it reads.

This seems to fly contrary to the assurances made by Lin in our Breitbart interview, where he said, “these surveys assess personality, and not mental health. Researchers employing these surveys should not be solely using this data for any mental health assessments, and we do not make any assumptions about mental health from this data either.”

The third, and perhaps most worrying aspect of this study, is its conclusion, which states they will be looking to see if forcing players to alter their in-game behaviour will equally force them to “behave” differently in their real lives: “We are currently investigating the possibility that reinforcing altruistic strategies within a game environment condition players to modify antisocial behaviour in their day-to-day life.”

This is a big part of Lin’s philosophy and at times it feels like the game is a conduit for this goal. He has boasted about talking with teachers at schools about his player behaviour models and has stated that he believes what he implements in his game can help make the whole internet a better place.

If you’re not happy with being a guinea pig for Riot Games, now might be the time to speak up about it.


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