Gear Score, Ranking, and the Ego

Gamers want metrics. We love them. We live by them. But what happens when our beloved ranking metrics are turned against us?

Anyone who’s spent any modicum of time progressing their character/profile or any other manner of metric-gathering progression path will know the heights of joy and pits of anger that arise from continuously comparing one’s progress with that of internet strangers.

For better or worse, the majority of online games that ship today not only include the capability to play with other players online but the express function to compare your progress directly against one another.

While these metrics can serve as a useful barometer for seeing where your personal performance fits, there are often bastardized into sigils of elitism.

For the uninitiated, the term “gear score” typically reflects your player character’s overall level. It is a numerical icon that tends to carry more weight than an individual player level at the higher echelons of play in most online games. This can also be equated to a “prestige level”, “rank level” or any other sort of attribution made toward a player’s competency.

The inherent problem with all these forms of categorization is that that they are ultimately a “best guess scenario” in an environment where many take them to be the word of the law.

As such, gear score has become a sort of calling card for those who may have found themselves getting lucky with RNG, or have simply worked their way out to the rank necessary to be viewed as a “top-tier” player.

This, extrapolated across entire genres, has been one of the greatest symptoms of toxicity plaguing the online gaming community.

As previously mentioned, completive environments will always bring out the worst in people, but baking-in design elements that help perpetuate the issue won’t help anyone. Far be it for us to only complain about the situation, let’s look at some possible fixes that devs could implement.

Making the progression horizontal, not vertical.

It’s rather silly, but a large portion of the issue stems from the utilization of a vertical progression path.

Every ranking system is based on the precept that a higher number is a better one – after all, how many times have you been pushing toward a lower rating?

As such, there is absolutely no ambiguity toward the direction of the progression path. Up is better and down is worse. The logic is “black or white” and there is no room for ambiguity.

As this method of thinking takes root, it begins to infect the mentality of nearly all players across game activities. Lower itemized players are to be avoided, and higher-level players are to be lauded and sought after – any perceived rift between the two is an invitation into toxicity.

A horizontal progression path – one that would afford players greater access to activities, perks, and greater freedom to access a game’s activities could be a potential step in the right direction. Without an outright vertical path, player progression is forced to expand upon a lateral path.

With such a focus, devs can not only cut down on community toxicity but also expand their game worlds without invalidating previously added content by placing it on a lower rung with each successive patch.

This issue is something that development houses have been dealing with for years on end. Every iteration, every tweak, threatens to tip the balance of the scales in a direction that could spell disaster for any persistent online gaming community. However, the issues at the crux of the problem remain the same: elitism runs rampant, and modern design encourages it.

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