Repeating the same stage in “Mario Maker” can stir up a deep, bubbling rage in me, but the springy, congratulatory tune at the long-awaited end of the level transforms any traces of anger into euphoric satisfaction. The alternative to this success is an all-too-familiar frustration that settles deep in the core. On some occasions, the perceived difficulty of a Mario level would bother me for hours, even days, prompting me to shame myself into trying again until I won.
Most, if not all, single-player games have mastered the art of motivating a player to improve. Games challenging a player’s agility, cleverness and coordination drive the player to become “skilled” enough to advance. As we are pitted up against the programming and game design, the battle to achieve an ego-fueled, highly incentivized goal ensues.
Multiplayer games take the stakes of single-player challenges and amplify them tenfold. Every competing player is another person to beat before winning; more importantly, any player could be laughing at your defeat on the other side of the screen. In multiplayer games, there is the glory that comes with winning a competition against real players. There is also a more hostile way to shame or taunt players who perform poorly: Five minutes in an online Call of Duty lobby will leave impressionable players deeply insulted, assuming that they aren’t the ones doing the insulting.
Without the sacred experience of multiplayer games, the video game industry would be smaller and much quieter. However, as the use of bots (AI-controlled players) in place of players in some online multiplayer games mimics the authentic multiplayer experience, the definition of “multiplayer” accelerates toward something more ambiguous.
In 2015, game developer Matheus Valadares released “Agar.io” in a 4chan post. The browser-based game ran on one simple mechanic: The player’s goal was to float around in a gridded arena, gaining as much mass as possible on their virtual “cell” by consuming other players. Like many middle-schoolers, I had a tab of “Agar.io” tucked in my browser during my computer class for the fleeting moments when I could sneak in a game without being caught.
“Agar.io” was a viral success, and given the simplicity of the game design, several imitations of this original “.io” game style have been produced, including “hole.io”, “slither.io” and others. There quickly were too many games and not nearly enough players to go around, so a number of “.io” games began to implement bots in their servers as a way to keep the games “populated” and increase the likelihood of real players staying in the game.
The decision to employ bots may seem inconsequential, or maybe even necessary at some points, but some games have been accused of taking this loosely defined deception an extra step further. “Hole.io” is among the several iterations of .io games suspected to replace the multiplayer arena entirely with bots. In a Reddit post, a player describes their experience of disabling their Wi-Fi network mid-game to find “hole.io” still up and running.
There are important distinctions between different types of artificial intelligence in games. Bots written by independent programmers and developers are used to perform tasks in video games — these are far from new. In fact, some game companies use detection software to squander the efforts of players who “cheat” with bots. Beyond the petty frustrations of amateur gamers who clash with impossibly perfect AI, these bots don’t typically garner much concern. They are another form of competition among players where, instead of the most skilled gamer, the “player” with the most meticulous programming skills reigns superior.
However, the bots found in “.io” games have a darker side. It seems game developers are reluctant to admit that they stick you in an offline arena, advertised as online gameplay. Yet if basic business ethics call for honesty and transparency to the customers, developers who don’t disclose the use of bots in their games are directly violating the relationship they have with players.
Of course, “.io” games that use bots are not the greatest calamity the gaming industry currently faces; however, it could become increasingly difficult to distinguish between real players and “fake” ones if businesses don’t disclose their use of bots.
In the lens of some, the use of bots could be a good thing: A cavalry of bots will always be online, flexible to every schedule in every time zone. Additionally, bots with adjustable difficulty levels can give rise to a variety of experiences. With bots, the player will not be trash-talked, screamed at, harassed or terrorized, making for a peaceful gaming experience.
But isn’t loud, rancorous chaos part of multiplayer games’ charm? Imagine logging on after a long day to be met with a baseless insult that exacerbates your latent anger, and using that frustration to carry you through an exhilarating victory. Isn’t this why winning feels so much better? So far, bots have not recreated the insufferable yet amusing dynamics that exist between people in online games.
Beyond that, communities online for games like “Titanfall 2” and “Halo 5” thrive on the collaborative game design. What happens if those games have built-in bots? Maybe in some dark future, the concept of “multiplayer” will be completely arbitrary as artificial intelligence impedes our perception of human connections online.
Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.