Lunch or Lose

Emergent Language in an Online Game Design Community

Alisha Karabinus is a PhD candidate in English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN and a co-host of the long-running Not Your Mama’s Gamer podcast. Her research centers on experience in games and gaming culture, as well as student experiences in writing and rhetoric. With Rachel Atherton, she received the 2018 SIGDOC Best Paper Award for previous research in their ongoing project on amateur game design communities. Follow the author on Twitter

Rachel Atherton is a PhD student in English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. Her research interests mainly lie in the intersection of technical communication, public or community writing, and data science. She has also done research in media studies and in feminist mentorship. With Alisha Karabinus, she received the 2018 SIGDOC Best Paper Award for previous research in their ongoing project on amateur game design communities. Follow the author on Twitter

Since the Mafia social deception games were created in the mid-1980s by Dmitry Davidoff and students at Moscow State University, they have been played everywhere from conventions to television shows and films to classrooms. Over the years, robust online communities across hundreds of forums dedicated to the games have grown as well. These communities have adapted the games to a play-by-post system suitable for online forums, where players conduct the game via asynchronous text posts which can also incorporate gifs, emoji, links, and other media.

Forum-based Mafia games lack the reliance on body language and visual cues that are central to many social deception party games, but the play-by-post format allows for secret role setups as well as the ability to re-read and reconsider statements made by individual players. This shift in format means play-by-post games can require dozens if not hundreds of hours to complete, and require long term commitment from players and facilitators.

These communities utilize systems, mechanics, and terminology that combine the original Mafia game and Andrew Plotkin’s Werewolf-themed version. In addition, there are several expansive wikis that detail Mafia mechanics and offer new players the chance to study strategy. Unfortunately, given that this is a game based on murder, deception, and collateral damage, game terminology is not always particularly progressive. At the core of the game is the “lynch” mechanic: each “day” (which on a forum-based game may last anywhere from a few hours to several real-time days), players select one suspect to vote out in the hopes of discovering a villain. In the most common Mafia or Werewolf parlance, this is referred to as “lynching,” but with historical connections to the murder of African Americans, some players have expressed reluctance at using the word and a desire to change it. The importance of language, and its relationship to identity, comfort, and inclusion, lies at the heart of the world—both in their community and within individual games—that MafiEra strives to create. In this piece, we discuss the use of “lynch” and similar language in Mafia, unpack the MafiEra community and their relationship to language, including their move away from such problematic terms, and demonstrate the role of language in text-based games. Due to MafiEra’s uniquely flattened structure, the entire community participates in “designing” (or co-creating) not only the games they play, but the environment in which they are played, and this shift in language is one example of how the community’s particular style of world-building approaches issues of toxicity in gaming culture.

Troubling Terms

It is unclear when “lynch” came into use as the preferred term for the daily kill voted by majority. The (reportedly) original rules for Mafia by Dmitry Davidoff refer to the daily kill as a death sentence, while Andrew Plotkin’s old website features Werewolf rules from around 2009 that employ “lynch.” Within the context of a Werewolf game, the word makes sense; in Werewolf, the setting is a village, with a mob gathering to hunt and kill potential wolves. It’s easy to imagine the players clutching pitchforks and torches as panic rises when a person appears suspect. “Lynch,” in this case, evokes a common scenario in fiction: a group forms to chase and kill someone or something deemed monstrous. And while the image of the so-called “lynch mob” appears in films from Frankenstein (1931) to Shrek (2001), such images aren’t always just fictional. Historically, lynchings have too often been leveraged as tools of prejudice, wherein minorities were perceived as monsters, savages, or otherwise less than human. This is particularly true in the United States, where “more than 4,000 African Americans were lynched across twenty states between 1877 and 1950.” And worse, lynching was often a public spectacle in American history, further problematizing the concept’s use in a game. Building game mechanics on words and concepts associated with racial trauma can reinforce that trauma. While that isn’t the reference point for “lynching” for all players in a global community, for Americans, particularly Black Americans, lynching is inherently linked to racial violence.

Several online Mafia wikis utilize this term, such as MafiaManiac and Mafia Wiki, and use of “lynch” is included in the command code for the site that hosts the yearly Mafia World Championships, Mafia Universe. It’s also part of acronyms like LYLO (“lynch [correctly] or lose,” used when a game is extremely close), which describe endgame states. Online Mafia slang is full of words with offensive roots, like “Chinese Fire Drill” to describe when many people switch their votes at the last minute, and “derp clear” to signify a move that indicates less knowledge about the game than a member of the villain team would have. The former has racist roots in anti-Asian sentiment, while many consider the latter ableist. These terms continue to persist in many online social deception communities, likely either out of habit, ignorance, or lack of concern.

The MafiEra Community

The MafiEra community, which currently holds main operations on the ResetEra forum, was founded in 2014. Mafia games are organized into groups called seasons, and after each season, they host a review thread, encouraging players to discuss what worked well and what can be improved. Since its inception, the community has utilized this continual cycle of iterative design to foster an inclusive atmosphere, with player concerns about attitudes, aggression, and player pronouns serving as the impetus to evolving rules and structures. This continual iteration translates into high player engagement and consistent refinement of rules and mechanics.

While previous discussions about the use of the word “lynch” and some other troubling terms in Mafia and Werewolf vernacular have occurred, the community struggles with replacing a term so entrenched in play. The daily kill is a lynch; voting against the daily kill is not only called a “No Lynch” vote, but it’s coded as such in the automated tool players use to tabulate votes. The MafiEra community is also global, with players on six continents, and diverse in terms of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation (Atherton & Karabinus, in press); not all members of the community have the same experience with and reaction to such words as “lynch.” However, when new member “saenima” raised the issue in February 2019, players began considering alternatives for the loaded term, from the serious to the comedic. Autocorrect functions often correct “lynch” to lunch, so some players supported the comedic replacement “lunch,” and it has since worked its way into games, i.e. “let’s take Player X to lunch today” and “we really need to lunch Player X.” Other suggested alternatives included “flip” (often used already in referenced to “flipping” someone’s role card, since teams in boxed Mafia and Werewolf games are determined by a dealt card) and “defenestrate.”

Perhaps more significant was the discussion of enforcement and educating newcomers to the community. Members began rightfully pointing out that some indication of the change would need to be included in official community rules, as Mafia players both new and experienced join MafiEra and may be accustomed to regularly reading and using the word “lynch.” Members also felt uncomfortable heavily enforcing or policing this change. Major infractions within a game are subject to warnings and/or “modkills” (removal from the game by the facilitator), a move that can damage an ongoing game, or even end it early. Members were reluctant to suggest such a harsh repercussion and decided instead to simply encourage the terminology shift as an organic process.

As we noted in a previous study, while MafiEra is a site of continual iteration, changes may at times be slow, happening over multiple seasons. At the time of this writing, only a few games and one post-season review thread have occurred since the initial discussion, and the community continues to grapple with how best to handle the change. However, uses of the word “lynch” have gone down in games. In longer games, with 6,000-8,000 individual posts, uses of “lynch” may climb to more than 3,000; the word has been one of the most frequently employed, as it referred to the game’s most common mechanic: the day kill. In a game in May 2019 however, with some 6700 individual posts, instances of “lynch” have been reduced to fewer than 600. In the following game, in June 2019, “lynch” appeared in 160 posts out of approximately 2900. While use of “lynch” has not stopped completely, there has been a significant reduction in the use of the term.

As referenced above, the community as a whole is working to move away from problematic language. Rather than employing “Chinese Fire Drill” in a recent game, one player joked, with full meta awareness, that a stagnant game needed a “non-racist fire drill,” and members worked together to find a replacement for the role title “Overseers,” (community leaders who “oversee” other teams, such as game schedulers, game vetters, etc.), which evokes connotations of slavery. Eventually they settled on “Facilitators.”

But it may not be fully accurate to state that the community “as a whole” is working toward these changes. Not every member supports the shift—or rather, some members were not in favor of the change simply because using “lynch” has become a habit. Others expressed reluctance out of concern for clarity, or due to a lack of familiarity with the specifically American context where “lynch” is problematic. Regardless, with instances of the word going steadily down in games, it seems “lynch” may slowly fade from MafiEra.

The Role of Language

Language creates the world in online Mafia; everything is text-based in play-by-post games. For that reason, “excluding race (and intersections with gender, nation, and sexuality) from public discussions through erasure and acceptance of larger discourses of colorblindness,” as David Leonard (2006) says, is an issue in online Mafia despite the lack of avatars or visual depictions of any particular character. But the usual measures of race (and other identifying characteristics) are less apparent in online Mafia. While in the ResetEra community, players do list pronouns, race is only made known if a player chooses to make it known. Without any direct cue, whiteness is often assumed in such spaces. Kishonna Gray (2012), in writing about dominant whiteness on Xbox Live, cites Tanner Higgen (2009) and Leonard (2003) to demonstrate not only dominant whiteness in player demographics and visual representation, but also a lack of interest in discussing race and racist content in games. Leonard, in particular, focuses on the intersection of a default or dominant whiteness as a determinant for what is discussed in games or allowed in a game world: games “provide cues as to reality and explanations for [their] organization. Video games are not just games, or sites of stereotypes, but a space to engage American discourses, ideologies, and racial dynamics” (2003, p. 3).

While we don’t know why or how “lynch” arose as the accepted term for the day vote in Werewolf, and later in these online versions, the combination of dominant voices and a reluctance to discuss racial issues likely cemented use of the term, leaving little room for considering “lynch” as a loaded concept.

Community Building, Co-Creation, & Emergence

A key factor in MafiEra’s ability to address problematic terms and introduce changes over time is its community structure. While there are administrators who enforce community rules, MafiEra isn’t a top-down community with strict divisions between players and staff. Rather, the community’s flattened hierarchy, where members assume multiple roles (designers, gamerunners, players, moderators, etc.) in different situations, means that change comes from within. MafiEra’s participatory and iterative community and game design reinforces this principle of co-creation; when change happens, it is a response to community needs and desires. Even those community members who are only players in any given moment are free to suggest changes and ideas, as with the initial comment that began the move away from “lynch.” Terms like “lynch” are globally accepted Mafia terminology, part of the basis of playing and talking about the game. However, some members in the discussion on changing the term in the MafiEra community specifically stated that they didn’t think anything of using it in context, but that they didn’t like saying it to outsiders who weren’t already steeped in Mafia language. Because all members, regardless of role, are active participants in community design, they are all participating in creating a world for each game, and for the community as a whole.

We have previously studied this phenomenon in MafiEra through the lens of participatory design (Karabinus & Atherton, 2019), but similar literature on co-creation offers insight both on why MafiEra’s approach works and why it is important for game scholars to study such communities. Reimer’s 2017 study of Riot Games and League of Legends and Banks and Potts’ (2010) work to model co-creation demonstrate that player communities heavily influence design, and communication between designers and players impact iterative design in significant ways. In a community like MafiEra, however, there is no distance, no filter; player needs, complaints, and desires do not go up a chain of multiple reports. The community’s flattened hierarchy means all discussions are immediate and personal. MafiEra is a co-creation model in hyperdrive, because designers are not just creating games for players—everyone is working together to create a community, and games are part of that community. As the influence of fan and player communities rises, the MafiEra model (and similar communities) may become increasingly important sites of study.

MafiEra’s language shift is of interest to games scholars because of the prevalence of toxic/abusive gamer culture. MafiEra, due to its dedication to inclusivity, is an example of an environment less troubled by toxicity and abuse. In a community where non-dominant voices are present, heard, and engaged with, challenges to dominant power structures become possible. It is in participatory spaces like MafiEra where we as scholars can find examples of more just community design, and it is in amateur spaces like MafiEra where that participation can happen.



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