The angry fundamentalists of the church of gaming

Why are gamers such an angry bunch?

I like the idea that the hate storm surrounding Anita Sarkeesian is a surprise to some people. It pleases me that there are still people in the world who possess that level of innocence, that people can still be outraged by the viciousness and ignorance that so many people take for granted when using the Internet.

Sarkeesian you see broke two rules of online communication, the first, which I don’t want to dwell on, is that she forgot to be male. If you want to express any sort of opinion without a penis to give you credibility then you are going to get a certain type of abuse from men, almost regardless of topic.

The second rule she broke however is that she poked the sacred cow, video games.

Gamers are an incredibly diverse bunch as I’m sure we all know, but like with any broad church there are going to be some people in there who are, for want of a better word, fundamentalists.

Gaming is no exception to this and in many ways gaming culture mirrors the structure of an established religion. The younger gamers are often more radical, more extreme in their views and how they express them, the fanboys and the fanatics. The games industry is itself the church, delivering the games which are to be worshipped and revered by the masses. The older generation of gamers tend to view this church with more suspicion, but most, at heart, are still believers.

The big element which links gaming culture to a religion however is just how conservative it is. A lot of gamers do not like change, they will wait like hungry dogs for the next game in a series, but they don’t want it to be too different. Just like the faithful going to church they are expecting to hear what they want to hear, nothing radical, nothing too different, but not word for word what was said last week. It is no coincidence or surprise that so many of the most successful games in recent years are sequels, giving the public more of the same.

You can see evidence of this gaming conservatism if you look at the kind of language that gamers often use to describe new games. New games are jumped upon and embraced of course, but at the same time they are often resented by the faithful. Many games, even successful ones like Skyrim and Battlefield 3, are seen as toned down and casual shadows of the tougher, less forgiving and less accessible games that we cut our teeth on. 

In the face of this orthodoxy the arrival of women on the scene, carrying with them an agenda of change, it is inevitably greeted with vitriol and anger by gamers who perceive their precious stream of the same thing as last year to be under threat. Worse it is not just the women who openly have an agenda who face this wrath; female gamers are also abused merely for the crime of being female. Female gamers are seen as harbingers of some sort of oestrogen induced end of days for gaming, a spoilt little sister who has climbed the rope ladder to our clubhouse and is intending to paint it pink.

It is this conservatism that Sarkeesian’s project confronted, a desire of many gamers to not see things changed. While it only takes a small minority to unleash the torrent of abuse she was subjected to the views held by those who abused her are not that rare, as evidenced by how often they are encountered by female gamers themselves.

This mind set is of course not common to all gamers and gaming does see radical ideas breaking out into the world on a regular basis, but it is something of a concern for anybody wanting to see the medium progress that the biggest titles are always the hardy perennials, Call of Duty, Halo, FIFA, the same Malibu Stacy as last year with a new hat.

To an extent change is already happening, Lara Croft being transformed from a heavily armed blow up doll into a relatable teenage girl wielding a bow is a laudable if clumsy step in the right direction. Of course it could also be seen as an attempt to cash in on The Hunger Games, but even that in itself shows a change in the focus of marketing. Meanwhile recent games like Duke Nukem Forever and Postal 3 which have used their misogyny and crassness as a selling point have been total failures.

Games and gaming are growing up fast and no amount of hostility and rage from the hard line gamers is going to change that.

A gamer of yesteryear. This dying breed will defend its turf to the death.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism