Loving and Hating Numbers: Quantification as a Double-Edged Sword for Teamwork
This blog post summarizes a paper, titled “Entangled with Numbers: Quantified Self and Others in a Team-Based Online Game.” The full paper, co-authored with Xinning Gui, is available here. It will be presented at the 21st ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in the early afternoon session “Team-Based Communication” on Monday, November 5th.
We love the idea of quantified self, or “self-knowledge through numbers.” Who doesn’t want to know their self better? Footsteps could tell about our daily exercise, numbers of social media likes and shares indicate our popularity, and the new Screen Time feature in iOS 12 suggests our digital habit. But how about quantified others? Does it help our social interactions and perhaps teamwork?
There has been a lot of great prior research on quantified self in health-related aspects like eating, blood pressure, and footsteps. Our study, instead, discusses quantification in a virtual teamwork context.
This work is from my seven-year ethnographic study of League of Legends (LoL), a team-based online game developed by Riot Games based in Santa Monica, CA. LoL is currently one of the most played games in the world with 100 million monthly active players, and 60 million unique viewers of its 2017 World Championship Tournament. In LoL, everyone is quantified with lots of numbers made publicly available by a variety of third-party quantification tools such as op.gg and lolking. Every tool maintains a profile for each single player, displaying and visualizing lots of their numbers. One can check every friend and stranger’s numbers without asking for permission. The figure below is a screenshot of a player profile on op.gg.
Through semi-structured interviews and participant observation, we reveal how quantification impacts individual players and complicates teamwork.
Using Numbers to Coordinate Teamwork. In many ways, players’ quantification use align with the ideal of developing “self-knowledge through numbers.” Players loved how quantification helped them monitor and evaluate their own performance. They also found pleasure and pride in owning good numbers. Like a player said, “I had 85% win rate on Ekko [a LoL character], it was amazing…”
Numbers were highly useful in teamwork for a number of reasons. First, one could announce their own numbers to seek trust and make requests. A participant said, “I would say can I mid? I’m really good at… You can look me up on op.gg… Sometimes it works, my teammates would give their role to me.”
Second, one could check their teammates’ numbers and nudge the latter. It is not uncommon to see teammates asking others using lines like “could you play this character since you are really good at it?”
Third, numbers also helped detect strong opponents to devise countermeasures. For example, some participants mentioned that they would ask team to focus on constraining the opponent(s) that had the best numbers, very similar to physical sports such as basketball and soccer where the strongest players would be focused the most.
The Downside of Quantification. For individual players, quantification could become indispensable and overwhelming. Numbers became part of their in-game identity, and players felt anxious and stressful if their numbers went down. A participant said that “I have an embarrassing win rate with Dr. Mundo… under 40%…”
Numbers had ramifications in teamwork. For example, participants complained about stat padding, a type of behavior focused merely on improving numbers, not winning the match. An example is that a team with an overwhelming advantage chooses not to finish the match, but to repeatedly kill opponents on the losing side, to improve their number of kills per match. Players on the losing side hardly enjoyed this.
In addition, players did not always refer to numbers in a friendly way, and their conversations could turn into conflict and aggression. Some quarreled with teammates over interpretation of numbers, blamed teammates for picking characters with poor numbers, and made fun of opponents who did worse than indicated by their numbers. A player mentioned that “teammates abused me very early on saying that my KDA was bad.”
Exploring “Healthy” Ways of Using Quantification. Noticing the downside of quantification, some players started to question whether they had given too much attention to numbers and no longer enjoyed playing the game. A few stopped using quantification for good. A player told us that “I am feeling much better now and my rank has moved up as well.” Others said they only used it occasionally, for reasons such as “focus on my own play because this is the only thing I can control and improve.”
In conclusion, in this culture of quantification, players could love or hate numbers, but there is no opt-out. Number becomes an authority that tells players how well or badly they play the game, and prescribes their actions. Trust is fluid, communicated and negotiated based on numbers. In the foreseeable future, increasingly more aspects of work and life will be quantified in advanced ways, impacting how one sees the self and interacts with others. And its remains a lingering question about how to stay calm and be nice to each other in the era of quantification.
Yubo Kou and Xinning Gui. 2018. Entangled with Numbers: Quantified Self and Others in a Team-Based Online Game. In Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, CSCW, Article 93 (November 2018). ACM, New York, NY. 25 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3274362