September 20, 2012 by eclare138
The article Hats of Affect: A Study of Affect, Achievements, and Hats in Team Fortress 2 examines the relationships that gamers have with each other and developers. It focuses mostly on one curious manifestation of these virtual relationships, hats in Valve’s Team Fortress 2. The author, Christopher Moore, makes the point that hats are an outward expression of one’s online persona and part of how the player presents themselves to the greater TF2 community, but they are also an expression of community made content and how developers can adapt and distribute this original content. Moore also expands this idea of gaming relationships beyond TF2 and into the greater Steam community.
To be honest, I had never really thought of hats at such a serious level before, but when Moore explains how online personas are built and maintained, specifically in a gaming community I am quite invested in I can see how this idea spreads beyond the hats and into association with certain groups of people (such as servers and clans), class association and weapon layout, and length of one’s TF2 career. Also I have the experience of being an Xbox Live TF2 player, which is quite limited in scope and unique, compared to the Steam social experience.
I have been a TF2 player for quite a long time, much longer than most. I received the Orange Box (A Valve game collection which included TF2 and four other games in 2007) as a birthday gift and quickly flew through the other games. When I came to TF2 things were difficult to start. The more I played the more I grew at ease with the controls and social conduct of the game. Although Moore focuses almost exclusively on the Steam TF2 community (his sole mention of Xbox Live is mentioning the points meta score system), I think that the social situations and ways that online personas manifest themselves in these two environment is vastly different.
First, the creator-gamer relationship is nonexistent on the Xbox platform. TF2 is still in its “vanilla” state on Xbox despite promises from Valve to update. With no updates, there are no hats to use as an expression of an online persona, at least not in the same way Moore was presenting it. Many TF2 players associate with a “main” class, or one the play most often and best. On the Steam platform, it is much easier to measure how much mastery someone has over a particular class as there is a wide variety of class specific achievements, usually they are added with each new round of class specific updates. On the Xbox platform however, the achievements are limited to the general catch-alls that were programmed in at the time of release. Player skill had to be communicated by pure performance with other players.
This seems nothing short of absurd when one thinks of the enormous size of the current Steam TF2 community, and as such it is a useless method in that area. However, the Xbox player base was severely limited for several reasons. Xbox Live Gold subscription costs additional money in order to receive online play capabilities, this financial hurdle immediately shrunk the player base. Though many Live members have Gold, The Orange Box was touted more as a single player offline experience with TF2 being the only game necessitating online play resulting in a large part of Orange Box players being uninterested in TF2 and playing the single player titles almost exclusively. Lastly, the complete lack of continued support from Valve drove even more away. The Xbox player base for TF2 was so small that if someone were to play about 2 hours a day for a week they would be recognizing a good deal of gamer tags by the end of that week.
Not only was the community vastly smaller resulting in many repeat run ins and getting to know everyone who played, at least indirectly, but the importance of each team member is weighted much heavier on the Xbox platform. The servers could only handle 16 players at a time, so 8 per a team. Opposed to 32 player servers with 16 per a team on the PC version. An Xbox player could not simply coast. A single incompetent player would be immediately noticed and could easily cripple the entire team. The recognition aspect mentioned previously combined with the high expectations fostered a very brutal skill based community. On Steam there is a spectrum of player skill expectations ranging from “noobs” to serious clan members. On Xbox there is a clear cut dichotomy between the two camps of good and bad players. Good players would often engage in matches with only other players deemed worthy by the community as a whole, leaving those not blessed with the “good player” identification to play amongst themselves or to hopefully impress the gifted with their skills if they were placed among them in a public match. Private and invite only matches were commonplace in order to keep the riff raff out. This rabid devotion to player quality also has roots in the real world costs associated with identifying oneself with a clan on Xbox. Changing one’s gamer tag costs about $10. Now this doesn’t seem so strange, especially when TF2’s Mann Co. Store provides virtual goods for real world money. But this was quite early in virtual market development and Mann Co. would not be introduced until 2010. At this point in time $10 for a name change to add a clan tag was an enormous commitment. It marked you as one of the serious gamers and it branded you with loyalty to your group. A side effect of this financial and public loyalty was that the social cliques within the community were much more rigidly defined on Live than on Steam. Compared to the fluidity of Steam circles and relationships where changing one‘s Steam ID is merely a button click away, Live seems almost tribal in its social structure.
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I made the official switch to a Steam player and brought all these social cues over with me and used them to construct my own online persona. Though I had never put too much thought into how I was constructing it, reflecting over Moore’s article made me realized just how strongly my Xbox origins influenced how I acted among Steam users. Unlike what Moore suggested, I didn’t use hats to differentiate myself but instead strived to use the same methods I had to use on Xbox. . But the logic that fuels my behavior and interactions with other players is all geared towards “But will this make me look like a good player?” despite the fact that my acceptance no longer hangs quite so delicately from the same standards. As a result, I’ve realized that I take every game very seriously, no matter the skill level of the other players. I don’t derive any validation when people notice my gear (with one exception) but instead I strive to make sure that my Steam ID is constant pooping up in the game feed as I rack up points. Ultimately I want to be defined by how many times I appear as the MVP at the end of each round. I’ll admit to even being a bit of a points diva and I get a bit pouty when someone surpasses me, and then I try even harder to be #1 out of both teams again. Though sometimes I will settle for #1 on just my team if I’m feeling lazy. It’s quite clear that my roots in the Xbox community drive me to be quantifiably better than everyone else, rather than having the swankiest hat or rarest gear.
However, my gear load out is not pure vanilla either but the logic behind my choices are similar and rooted in the same performance-obsessed origin. The day I received a Strange Minigun I was ecstatic. Strange variety weapons keep a tally of how many kills you’ve achieved with that weapon and ranks it accordingly (rankings range from “Mildly Menacing”, “Sufficiently Lethal”, to “Rage Inducing”). When an opponent is killed with the weapon, they see exactly how many kills you’ve made. It is by far my most prized weapon, and I count on being associated with it’s kill count and custom flavor text I added. It definitely contributes to my online persona in way that Moore would think a hat would if I was a well adjusted Steam user from the beginning.
In conclusion, I agree with Moore’s idea that we construct this persona in TF2 based off our items and actions. However, I think it applies beyond hats and I think noting the huge disparity between Xbox and Steam social circles and how they became so different can help apply this idea to other games with social structures that encourage persona building.