Overview:

I reckon all gamers have been where I was the other day: on a team with a player who did not game well with others.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

When I talk about gaming as a way to learn social psychology, I’m not kidding around. And a recent situation I encountered really brings home that point. Even in competitive gaming, groups of players need to learn how to work as a team. Sometimes, someone doesn’t get the teamwork memo⁠—and it can wreck an otherwise great time.

Gaming Lingo

Tank: the point person in a gaming group, or party. Tanks need to be very durable, because they take the brunt of damage from enemies.

DPS: Damage per second dealers. DPS can be glass cannons, because they’re not expected to be durable. Instead, they focus on dealing as much damage to enemies in the quickest, most efficient bursts they can manage. In turn, tanks must take away all their new friends during fights.

Healer: As you might guess, this one heals the group. Healers tend to focus on tanks, because if the tank goes down the rest of the party probably will, too. If someone goes down, the healer gets them back up again through a rez, or resurrection.

Mob: Generic term that stands for mobile, the old-school coding term for anything that moves around (walks, flies, slithers, burrows, etc). Mobs aren’t necessarily always enemies, but in modern usage they usually are.

Aggro: Can be a verb, adjective, or noun. In adjective form, the term describes an enemy mob that attacks player characters (PCs) on sight. In noun form, it’s a mob that attacks, while in verb form, it’s drawing fire from any mob⁠—as happens in attacking it. Mobs usually focus on whoever initiated the attack, so in tough fights you want the tank to be aggro-ing fights.

Boss: an especially difficult aggro mob typically found at the last fight.

Kick: Remove from the team. Most online games have code that allows team leaders to kick unruly or uncooperative teammates.

MMORPG: Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. Typically, these are animated with computer code, like World of Warcraft (WoW), which leads to interesting pictures like this one:

Taken in Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). Some brilliant person figured out a way to use medieval-style windmills as the propellers on a steampunk-inspired, player-built ship. The rectangular structure to its side is a series of player-built stairways leading up to it, which the same person needed to build because that ship thing is free-floating. The gray square on the lower left is where ingame text chat lives.

We figured out this guy’s T-shirt pretty quickly

Recently, I was playing an MMORPG I like. My guild was doing a trial, which is a complicated, challenging dungeon for 12 people. As many online gamers do, we used the third-party application Discord to communicate during the trial, so everyone would know what they needed to be doing and when. This trial was particularly difficult, with a lot of complex moving parts, so the tank had made Discord coordination mandatory for all 12 teammates.

And one high-level guy we’ll call Jeffrey just was not getting with the program. For some reason, he was not getting onto Discord at all, nor even responding in ingame written chat (which I hid in the screenshot above as a matte gray square). In fact, he ignored everything our leaders were telling him to do.

Worse, he kept aggro-ing enemies. As we waited for straggling team members to get to our location for each new fight, every single time he ran ahead to start the fight ahead of the rest of us. As a DPS, he shouldn’t have been doing that at all; tanks always lead the charge in tough fights. And Jeffrey was high enough level to know that.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey’s T-shirt was Does not game well with others.

After three or four times of him doing that and refusing to listen to team leaders, the tank kicked him from the group.

But we hadn’t seen the last of Jeffrey yet

To our surprise, Jeffrey did his best to remain in the trial. After a kick, the game would have been asking him repeatedly to leave the trial, so he was specifically telling it he wanted to stay.

He knew he’d been kicked. He just didn’t want to leave yet.

We were amazed to see him still with us. But at least he wasn’t charging ahead anymore. He’d gotten at least part of the unspoken message we’d sent him. After quickly filling in his place with a new DPS, we headed onward.

Eventually, the game’s code forcibly removed him from that trial. At that point, Jeffrey made his way to our Discord chat room. Too bad he hadn’t done that much earlier, because right then we had just entered a boss fight.

While we fought this extremely difficult set of powerful enemies, Jeffrey demanded our attention right then and bloody well THERE.

He’d been unfairly kicked, he insisted. He’d been “playing the role great.” In fact, he spluttered in outrage, he’d been playing this MMO since its opening. Also, he was massively offended that we’d replaced him so quickly after kicking him, just cuz his Discord had totally malfunctioned⁠—until the exact moment he needed another route to complain to us.

How dare we kick and replace King Jeffrey, First of His Name, of DPS-Land!

Teamwork means pestering people during a really hard trial fight, obviously

While Jeffrey rattled off his MMO credentials and expertise, we were all trying to coordinate a boss fight during a trial that is difficult even by that game’s trial standards.

As a high-ranking player who’d presumably been playing that game since opening, Jeffrey would absolutely have known that this was not the best time to get into a big interpersonal argument. It’d be like saying “we need to talk right now about this relationship” during a slate-wiper hurricane.

But no. Jeffrey needed to have it out right there and right then.

Even though I was quite busy, I noticed a couple of things about his behavior.

First, even if his Discord wasn’t working earlier, which I don’t buy given the convenience of its apparent sudden return to functionality, there’s no way he didn’t see us begging him to quit running ahead in the text chat window. He never responded to any communications at all, much less told us his Discord wasn’t working. The first communication any of us got from him was him privately complaining about the kick to the team’s leaders.

Second, he never addressed the running-ahead problem. Instead, he focused completely on defusing the crappy DPS and not in voice chat accusations.

Third, this insistence on his bona fides actually worked against Jeffrey’s case. Had he gone the route of pleading ignorance, he might at least have gotten our sympathy. As it was, though, even the most mediocre DPS knows not to charge ahead in tough fights. Even a tank knows to make sure everyone’s ready.

And fourth, of course, he was trying to have this discussion while we were engaged in a boss fight in a trial. He was distracting all of us and preventing our leaders from communicating crucial directions to the team.

Refocusing the team on teamwork

So I stepped in.

After Jeffrey had gotten out the last of his points and seemed to have lost steam for a moment, I told him pointedly that this was a super-bad time and we were quite busy. We needed to be concentrating on the trial from now on, I told him. As a long-time player who understood the game so well, I said, he understood exactly why I was asking him to talk to the team leaders in an hour or so when we’d finished, right?

As I’d intended, the team’s leaders immediately took my directness as permission to stop engaging with Jeffrey. The main leader told Jeffrey he’d gladly find him after the trial. They could talk then. After that, my group immediately got down to business with the fight.

I don’t think Jeffrey was happy at all with being put off, but he couldn’t change it.

After a few more failed attempts to restart the argument, Jeffrey finally left the Discord chat. I reckon he rode off into the digital sunset to do whatever craptastic DPS players get up to when they’re not completely wrecking their former teams’ trial runs.

Why I stepped into the argument like I did

While Jeffrey argued his various points during the boss fight, I also noticed some things that didn’t surprise me too much:

First, our team leaders responded to him even though it was a complete inconvenience. They engaged with the discussion he wanted to have when he wanted to have it, even though it peeled their attention away from the boss fight we were having right then and seriously impacted our ability to complete the fight at all. Yes, our teammates were literally getting killed in this fight because nobody was giving them much-needed instructions about what to do.

Knowing all of this, our team leaders still engaged with Jeffrey instead.

Second, after Jeffrey had finally left the Discord chat, various team leaders and members expressed remorse for having kicked him at all and then, for not engaging fully with him to his satisfaction during a trial boss fight.

Both of these situations happened because of the Geek Social Fallacies.

And I realized I could use the same fallacies to rid us both of Jeffrey and their lingering guilt.

Sidebar: The Geek Social Fallacies

Michael Suileabhain-Wilson wrote his groundbreaking blog post about the Five Geek Social Fallacies back in 2003. And it’s been a lifesaver for gamers ever since.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Learn it, know it, LIVE IT.
1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Here, Brad explains his eatery’s dress code to some stoner guests.

Specifically, geeks often don’t like to feel rude to other geeks or exclude them, and they often have a lot of trouble with setting and holding reasonable boundaries with the unfortunately-numerous geeks who refuse to accept any boundaries at all. Since geeks don’t tend to be well-socialized for various reasons, they also might have a lot of trouble with what normies might call reading the room.

The result: a lot of narcissistic people in gaming have trouble recognizing that other people have needs that might take precedence over their own, and the people around them often have trouble resisting their demands because geek culture preaches against it in many ways. (Yes, it’s a bit like that whole Matthew 18 problem that evangelicals have.)

Basically, Jeffrey was (hopefully unknowingly) leveraging gaming geeks’ cultural weaknesses against them.

But in teamwork settings, I also knew that geeks tend to fall into line with a strongly-expressed and crystal-clear direction like the one I finally gave in the Discord chat. Our leaders wanted to run the trial, so they needed permission to turn away from Jeffrey. I gave them that permission by pushing hard against Jeffrey’s intrusion. Because our team leaders ultimately dearly wanted to do exactly what I was suggesting and didn’t want to do what Jeffrey wanted, they sided with me over him.

Later, I helped our team leaders see that they’d done nothing wrong at all and had nothing to regret in kicking Jeffrey and then not having his desired argument with him when he wanted to have it.

(Be happy I only use my powers for good, is what I’m also saying here.)

Teamwork comes harder to some people

In gaming, teamwork becomes absolutely essential in a number of situations. If people aren’t performing their role correctly, it messes up everybody else and can destroy an otherwise fun outing. But even someone who can perform brilliantly in a solo context can stymie an entire team by not listening to directions.

That’s why you might also see player-vs-player battles in which groups get told by their leaders to “lube up and hang on.” This tasteless phrase means that the group will absolutely lose the fight, but they must remain in it and return to it through repeated deaths because they’re distracting big chunks of enemies right then from a much more important fight elsewhere. It’s no fun at all to lose repeatedly, but sometimes a few teammates need to lose so the team as a whole can win.

We see a lack of teamwork crop up in tabletop gaming as well, though direct, in-person social pressure often keeps that nonsense to a minimum. One guy stands out in my memory on this count. Apparently, he just wanted to play a solo game starring himself as the badass ninja warrior. So he kept doing stuff like trying to conduct clandestine missions alone or starting huge fights with bad guys without checking with the rest of us. The gamemaster (GM) refused to rein him in even after a couple of us privately directly asked her to do her damn job, so I eventually got way too busy for her gaming night.

(As I discovered soon after talking to the GM, this guy also fudged dice rolls—just about the only truly unforgivable sin in tabletop gaming! We’ll talk about that another time.)

Sharing the spotlight as an exercise in teamwork

In cooperative gaming, teamwork still matters in telling a story that all the players will love and remember for years to come. But in this case, we often call that teamwork sharing the spotlight.

And it really does work just like spotlights do in a real-life play: each player’s character (PC) will, at regular points, get their moment to shine and their prominent part to play in the story. So everyone can trust the GM to regularly shine the spotlight on each one of them. They don’t need to steal the spotlight from others or dominate it for ages on end.

One of the ways that GMs grow in their craft is in learning when to switch the spotlight’s beam and how to draw out more submissive or meeker players so they can shine during their turn in it. If someone feels left out, it’s not much of a cooperative game, now is it?

For one game I ran, I allowed one such meek player to “purchase” an extraordinary perk at character creation: For a huge number of character-generation points, he would always know at least one regular patron or worker at one tavern in towns the group visited, no matter how small or isolated the town was. And that contact would be meaningfully helpful to the party. (In fact, we called the perk Where Everybody Knows Your Name.)

YouTube video
“Cheers | Every Time Norm Peterson Enters the Bar”

This perk guaranteed that the player would get a spotlight turn in every session the group ever played. Plus, it was hilarious for them to see who that helpful person would be every time, and what they knew or could do to help the party. In a lot of ways, this perk operated a lot like Presto’s magic hat in the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon from the 1980s. I tried to make its effects surprising, yet still tangible.

YouTube video
Dungeons & Dragons, Episode 13: “P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster” (1983). Man alive, I miss the 80s.

Attention-seekers NEED the eternal shine of the spotlight

Most of the time, a GM’s problem in cooperative gaming is helping quieter players find their voices to the extent they want to use them. But sometimes, a game has the opposite teamwork problem: two very domineering voices seeking the spotlight at once.

Not even meek people tend to like being nothing but secondary characters to someone else’s starring role. In a small tabletop game, the GM will usually keep the spotlight from shining on any one person for too long. And in MMORPGs, they don’t focus much on roleplay anyway; they’re more competitive than cooperative. So I saw this problem mostly on roleplay-focused MUDs (Multi-User Domains/Dungeons), which are like text-only MMORPGs.

When two attention-seekers enter a busy, player-populated space, they often have a hilarious drama-off. Imagine it: two people at once sighing, looking forlornly off into space, and muttering darkly to themselves. The winner is the first to get another PC to engage. (The loser, of course, is the PC who engages. Meanwhile, the other attention-seeker usually leaves in a muttery huff.)

Usually, though, the other players recognize what’s happening. If they give attention to attention-seekers, they know they will be there for hours dealing with a profoundly one-way session of roleplay. Just as in real life, attention-seeking players never seem to be attention-givers! So players tend to just watch and giggle about the spectacle and—most importantly—engage only with other cooperative, spotlight-sharing players.

Unfortunately, also just as in real life, the risks of attention-seeking are low. The penalties are nearly nonexistent. And the payoff, for the attention-seekers themselves, is both extremely inconsistent and astronomically high whenever the ploy works. I couldn’t design a more perfect storm than this.

When the GM doesn’t care about teamwork either

One less-well-known teamwork destroyer is the attention-seeking GMPC. A GMPC is a prominent NPC, or non-player character, played by the GM.

Most NPCs only show up briefly and when they’re specifically needed. You can see a GM briefly playing a bartender NPC in the famous Key&Peele gaming sketch:

YouTube video
“When Hip-Hop and D&D Collide”

In one game, I became a party member after its GM realized he was playing one NPC increasingly often. He invited me to take her over for just one game session when she’d be a prominent part of it, and he and the party liked how I played her well enough to ask me to permanently join the party with her as my PC. That’s how to do a rising NPC right!

By contrast with normal GM-run NPCs and NPCs-turned-PCs, a GMPC is an NPC who gets turned into a major character and played regularly by the GM. If the GM happens to be an attention-seeker, a GMPC is one sure way to guarantee success at getting it.

I’ve seen attention-seeking GMPCs show up in both tabletop and MUD games. In either case, players hate them.

Heck, I’ve also been one of the upset gamers who mysteriously got too busy to play because of a GMPC. And I’ve seen MUD administrations take serious hits to both their own credibility and players’ trust in their game as a whole because multiple admins couldn’t resist taking starring roles away from players. One long-running MUD I know even began seriously circling the drain after a few uproars along those lines.

Whosoever runs a game must be okay with being the one person who doesn’t get the spotlight. If they need it that powerfully much, they need to go be players in someone else’s game. Their teamwork role in a game might be the most essential one of all.

Resources: Building teamwork skills

When we talk about someone being good or bad at teamwork, we’re talking mostly about a set of skills that can be learned and focused upon (or not known, or even known but ignored, alas).

Luckily, it’s not only gamers who treasure teamwork! If you feel like you need to learn teamwork skills, you have a huge number of options. Don’t feel compelled to look only at gaming resources to learn those skills, either. The business world has been working on this question for many years.

And as you might have noticed from these links, learning teamwork skills might just benefit you in ways that far transcend the gaming table.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...