David Murphy

David Murphy is a PhD Candidate in York/Ryerson's Communication and Culture program studying video game history, theory, and culture. In addition to scholarly pursuits, Murphy is an active volunteer in the independent videogame community through his membership in Toronto's Hand Eye Society.
Contact information:
davidmurphy_5 at hotmail.com

Battle on the Metric Front: Dispatches from Call of Duty's Update War

by David Murphy


While #gamergate raised public awareness of extremist attempts to protect player identities, an earlier, less discussed conflict erupted over a software update applied to Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch, 2012). In response to data derived from the surveillance of online play, a software patch curbed a controversial tactic called “quick scoping”. Players were subsequently enraged, interpreting the update as a personal attack on their community. Arguments, criticism, and death threats followed, specifically targeting Call of Duty community manager David Vonderhaar. Echoing the uncooperative, achievement-oriented play styles contributing to the franchise’s popularity, players threatened an individual in lieu of collectively protesting the system. By combining information posted by players with a critical investigation of reward systems, this article provides analysis of the incident, contextualizing it within a neoliberal climate of player/industry mistrust.

Keywords: game studies, first-person shooter, metric testing, community management, neoliberalism, assemblage theory


On July 23, 2013, Activision released a software update for Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch, 2012). While the patch mainly fixed reported bugs, community managers also made adjustments to the multiplayer mode that targeted the statistics of various weapons. Based on data derived from monitoring online play, the update reduced the AN-94 assault rifle's damage, slowed the DSR-50 assault rifle's rate of fire, and slightly reduced the Ballista sniper rifle's rate of fire (Mathes, 2013, para. 5). The changes were not well received.

In response to the patch, a subset of the sniper community identifying as quick scopers felt unfairly targeted (Drift0r 2013, July 26). Using social media to express their frustration, some players tweeted death threats to David Vonderhaar, a community manager presumed to be responsible for the changes. Defending his colleague, Dan Amrich (2013, July 23) chastised players, decrying harassment as a broader problem plaguing gaming communities:

If the loudest voices in the Call of Duty "community" act like an angry mob […], guess how the entire world views Call of Duty? Now consider that these Internet Tough Guy rants and demands are not unique to COD, but exist everywhere, in many gaming communities. This is why the world often does not take gaming seriously; this is why gamers are assumed to be immature, whiny a-holes. Because the immature, whiny a-holes are louder. (para.12)

While many dismissed the incident as a case of trolling, the controversy exposed underlying tensions at the core of shifting player/industry relationships. An overview of game studies approaches to player/producer conflicts provides useful contextualization, situating the incident as a troubling precursor to #gamergate.

Harmony, Tension, Paranoia

In contrast to an immense body of psychological research on violent behavior effects, participatory audience studies initially treated the game industry as a positive example, applauding close relationships between players and producers. According to Jenkins (2006) "the games industry, which sees itself as marketing interactive experiences rather than commodities, has been eager to broaden consumer participation” (p. 148). Subsequent research has questioned this phenomenon, pointing to more complicated business-oriented relations. For Coleman and Dyer-Witheford (2007), the industry often tolerates an “alternative commons economy, but as often criminalizes its many breaches of intellectual property” (p. 936). More complicated than harmonious, player/producer relations cannot be separated from commodification. Examining cheating, Consalvo (2007) reveals historic tensions, some productively leading to innovation.

Similar studies complicate the industry's embrace of audience participation. Citing the perceived popularity of user-centered design models, Sotamaa (2007) notes a reluctance to adopt this strategy among professional designers, who prefer to “rely on personal experience and intuitive sense of market demand" (p. 456). In the case of PC modding, Postigo (2003) uses Terranova’s (2000) criticism of free labor, casting industry broadening of consumer participation under a post-Fordist lens. Digital games are produced "by the masses for the masses," with businesses extracting a toll for controlling the means of consumption (Postigo, 2003, p. 605).

Interestingly enough, this line of critique corresponds with analyses of protests occurring in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games (Taylor, 2002; Pearce & Artemesia, 2009). Central to these discussions is the problem of communities working alongside producers while having little input in how servers are run. Despite adding social value to MMO experiences, player requests are frequently denied, including appeals for more representative avatar options. Developers rule with authority, insulating important changes from debate. Echoing the cooperative experiences that MMOs provide, players have staged protests to argue for rights. Despite some threats occurring, demonstrations generally showcase belief in the power of collectively-oriented change. Sadly, disputes are often quelled, indicating a broader industry turn toward “privileging corporate interests above the creative independent and collaborative work of users” (Taylor, 2002, p. 238). Player/industry relations, once touted as harmonious, thus collapse into cynicism, fear, and distrust.

Neoliberal Assemblages

As a critical political concept, neoliberalism provides insight into these phenomena, relating cultural concerns to emerging forms of government. While some theorists insist that neoliberalism should be thought of as a plural set of ideas (Plehwe, Walpen, & Neunhöffer, 2006); as the intertwined manifestations of ideology, governance, and policy (Steger & Roy, 2010); or as a shift too complicated to theorize, this article draws on assemblage approaches (Ong, 2006, 2007; Lazzarato, 2012; Gilbert, 2013) rooted in the theories of Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Previous game analysis differs slightly, offering readings focused on ideology (Barrett, 2006; Humphreys, 2012) and governmentality (Baerg, 2009, 2012; Voorhees, 2012).

Assemblage approaches integrate Foucault’s (2007) definition describing neoliberalism as a technology and/or technique of government in which organizational principles derived from economics are increasingly applied to everyday life. According to Ong (2006), neoliberalism is not a “culture” or “structure,” but rather mobile calculative techniques of governing that can be decontextualized from their original sources and recontextualized in “constellations of mutually constitutive and contingent relationships" (p. 13). Peck (2008) elaborates on this point, emphasizing shifting historical patterns:

Neoliberalism, it seems, was a transnational, reactionary, and messy hybrid right from the start. There was never a pristine moment of mountaintop clarity; it never represented a singular vision free of doubt and dispute. Instead, from its origins in the 1930s, neoliberalism signified an experimental and polycentric project aimed at the contradictory problem space between the state and the market. It represented an attempt to conceive and construct a market(-like) order, one that has since been perpetually reconstructed through practice. (p. 3-4)

Understood as an assemblage, neoliberalism limits collective social activity through simultaneous forms of individual becoming. Methodology stresses creative flexibility, granting reality to the “unstable and heterogeneous structuring of everyday life” (Dewsbury, 2011, p. 149). Importance is placed on co-determinant relations between systems traditionally conceived as being distinct. Neoliberalism “is constituted by a set of vectors, emergent tendencies and potentialities with greater or lesser chances of expression” (Gilbert, 2013, p. 21). Compared to the epistemic thinking of Foucault, assemblages are “more multiple and ephemeral establishments” (Dewsbury, 2011, p. 149).

Game studies utilizes assemblage theory in a variety of ways. One approach corresponds with an anthropological/cultural studies trend of describing “a distinctive heterogeneity of a form or object in a phase of development or becoming” (Marcus & Saka, 2006, p. 102). Joseph and Knuttila (2014) use this strategy, collapsing categorical distinctions between single and multi-player into “a mess of objects and relations” (p. 214). Galloway (2004) applies a similar ontology, defining gaming as interactions between organic and inorganic machines (p. 2). A closely related interpretation involves using assemblage theory to describe “emergent social conditions” (Marcus & Saka, 2006, p. 102). Pearce and Artemesia (2009) follow this approach, describing online player communities as constituting real emergent cultures. Taylor (2009) echoes a similar sentiment, arguing for an understanding of games as “artifacts that traverse multiple communities of practice and can hold multiple, often contested, meanings” (p. 333).

Assemblage approaches (Ong, 2006, 2007; Lazzarato, 2012; Gilbert, 2013) to neoliberalism emphasize similarly complex processes: “Not all populations or areas can or should be subjected to techniques of self-governing and the free play of market forces. Neoliberal strategies respond to problems of governing by making calculative choices about intervention and risk in an unfolding situation” (Ong, 2007, pp. 4-5). Discursive support for entrepreneurialism can be targeted primarily toward the behaviour of citizens, creating a situation where it becomes "unnecessary to create one's own small business in order to become an entrepreneur; one need only behave like one" (Lazzarato, 2012, p. 94).

Contested meaning is present in distinctions between consumer choice and consumer welfare. Contrary to democratic visions of freedom popularized by Milton Friedman (1962), undemocratic consumer welfare models are also implemented through policy:

While consumer choice is a democratic concept, leaving decisions to consumers themselves, consumer welfare is a technocratic one. [...] If a group of consumers were to argue that they would prefer, say, to keep a group of local market shops rather than have these replaced by one supermarket, they would be told that they were irrational, as it cannot be in their interests to want a less efficient outcome. (Crouch, 2011, p. 55)

By emphasizing heterogeneous forms in constant states of becoming, assemblage theory provides a useful theoretical framework for understanding neoliberal disjuncture. Lazzarato (2012) echoes this perspective, distinguishing between social subjection and machinic subjugation:

“Social subjection” operates molar control on the subject through the mobilization of his conscience, memory, and representation, whereas “machinic subjugation” has a molecular, infrapersonal, and pre-individual hold on subjectivity that does not pass through reflexive consciousness and its representations, nor through “the self” (p. 146).

Central to this framing is Deleuze’s (1992) discussion of transitions from disciplinary societies to societies of control, where subjection still exists but increasingly gives way to digital subjugation. Mass/individual pairings break down, transforming individuals into “dividuals”; masses become many things including “samples, data, (and) markets” (p. 5). Via this logic, software updates can restrict community practices that designers may be unaware of. Angry players feel attacked, escalating player/industry tensions.

Ignoring the insights of participatory audiences, metric testing embraces consumer welfare models where “judges and economists decide what is good for consumers” (Crouch, 2011, p. 55). Instead of protesting, disgruntled players lash out, blaming individuals instead of systems. Further contributing to these incidents are ongoing divisions between players, creating increasingly divisive forms of self-identification. While players have always differentiated themselves by virtue of the games they play, distinctions are becoming increasingly hostile. Expanding on this point, the next section will describe how quick scoping developed into an identity that an update was presumed to be targeting.

Quick Scoping

As a learned tactic, quick scoping was not deliberately designed, but rather emerged from complex assemblages of play (Pearce & Artemesia, 2009; Taylor, 2009). In Call of Duty's Quake (id Software, 1996) based engine, players are supposed to either shoot from the hip or aim down each weapon’s sight. Hip firing is generally reserved for “running and gunning”, where accuracy is increased by an auto-aim mechanic. Depending on weapon selection, targeting can be quite forgiving, given the close proximity of enemies. Likewise, aiming down the sight is reserved for long-range shooting when players are usually stationary. If an enemy is far away, hip firing often misses, making it necessary to aim.

Hip and sight firing are supposed to be two separate mechanics, but players discovered a collusion between the two. According to Drift0r (2013a, January 18), Black Ops II contains a delay with regard to the transition time between hip firing and sight firing: auto-aim does not disappear until the zooming animation completes. Quick scoping takes advantage of this delay, leaving opponents vulnerable to a sniper rifle's auto-aim. To quick scope, players stop moving, lining up the enemy in the middle of the screen. Aiming is activated, but a bullet is fired before the animation completes. If timed properly, auto-aim ensures hits, even if the bullet misses the target (Drift0r, 2013b, January 18).

As an emergent practice, quick scoping exploits a glitch in Call of Duty’s combat system. Detractors seize on this point, citing a lack of realism implicit in a tactic that would never work on a battlefield. Central to these disputes are the franchise’s commitment to realism, inherent in a broader "military entertainment complex" (Lenoir & Lowood, 2002) persistent in war games. According to Huntemann and Payne (2010), "there is no media artifact that better illustrates the convergence of interactive media and national defense interests than the military video game" (p. 3).

Military realism has roots in Call of Duty’s early days, when branding touted historically accurate World War II campaigns (Activision, 2003, para 3-4). Quick scoping emerged in later multiplayer modes, prompting practitioners to differentiate themselves from traditional players. As the technique grew in popularity, tensions ensued. A popular definition in Urban Dictionary reflects ongoing debate:

The tactic is helpful for snipers while they're on the run, in close quarters, in place of a weaker secondary weapon. However, abuse of the tactic as a primary method of fighting has led many to view it as the "cheap" preference of noobs. Many who rely on quick scoping have furthered this stereotype by abusing it repeatedly, even going as far as ridiculing those who snipe in more traditional fashions (often calling them "hard scopers" in a derogatory manner). (ShootThemByProxy, 2010, para. 5).

Putting the ‘I’ in Team

As Call of Duty’s attention to historic realism was outpaced by the speed of multiplayer play, the use of quick scoping spread, prompting some players to begin self-identifying as quick scopers. Competitiveness also grew, creating rivalries between players racing to accomplish kill streaks. Like many online shooters, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007) pits teams against each other, but instead of limiting competition to squad vs. squad, the game provides individual incentives. Accomplishing a series of kills without dying rewards additional advantages that are celebrated and tracked on leaderboards.

In Modern Warfare, kill streaks of three are rewarded with a radar (UAV) scan, revealing the locations of enemy players; kill streaks of five result in an air strike launched at a target of choice; and kill streaks of seven gift a helicopter that rains bullets from above. Subsequent editions add customizable streaks, allowing players to combine them (stacking). In Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward, 2009), killing twenty five enemies rewards a tactical nuclear strike, guaranteeing victory even when the team is behind.

Before Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's massive success, popular online shooters were dominated by teams. Kill streaks altered this dynamic, allowing individuals to succeed on their own. By revealing enemy locations, the design facilitates constant movement. Maps are open, containing few well protected positions. As a result, hiding is difficult and running and gunning is necessary. For these reasons, sniping is far from easy. Instead of relying on teams, snipers are forced to fend for themselves.

Initially contributing to Call of Duty’s online popularity, kill streaks also cause problems. Arguments between teammates erupt over attacks; players quit when squad members cost them a streak. While neoliberalism views competition as “a better way of guiding individual efforts than any other" (Hayek, 1944, p. 85-86), cooperation can also cease. Technically, players are supposed to be playing together, but many are more interested in earning achievements.

Recognizing this problem, Black Ops II replaces kill streaks with an updated score streak system. Experience points, which were previously gained for assisting teammates, now apply to in game rewards. While changes demonstrate efforts to encourage cooperative play, kill streaks are still celebrated in thousands of You Tube videos. Titles predominantly highlight individual accomplishments, often forgetting to acknowledge teams. Fast-paced run and gun styles garner millions of views (Ali-A, 2012, November 12), but sniping traditionally necessitates a slower approach. Players often hide, waiting to ambush unsuspecting enemies who sometimes complain aggressively. The joint emphasis on speed and kill streaks keeps snipers moving, which is why it is not surprising that a software update made some feel singled out.

Sniping Bias?

In terms of design, Call of Duty’s multiplayer mode privileges assault rifles and sub-machine guns. Players like to run around, quickly racking up multiple streaks. As a minority, snipers often feel discriminated against and thus defend quick scoping from accusations of cheating. According to 9Lives (2014, January 25), the tactic is both fair and necessary due to design privileging other players.

When considering the frenetic play styles that multiplayer promotes, sniper rifles need to be unrealistically fast. Before the update, the DSR-50 assault rifle was a good option for quick scoping, but the Ballista sniper rifle’s faster reload time was favored (Drift0r, 2013). When the speeds of both weapons were subsequently reduced, snipers who already felt persecuted became enraged. Some quick scopers interpreted the update as a personal attack, lashing out at an individual deemed responsible. Neoliberalism contributes to these reactions: effects of impartial systems are ignored and individuals are blamed.

Prior to the update, Vonderhaar tweeted his balancing philosophy: "Math + Feedback = Tuning. But mostly math. Sometimes what you have to say and the math agree. Sometimes, they do not agree” (cited in Evans-Thirlwell, 2012, para. 2).

Implicit in this declaration is a clear preference for testing data, an attitude displayed in responses to queries.

On the morning of July, 23, 2013 Vonderhaar began tweeting.[i] Player complaints were initially greeted with condescending technical responses:

@OpTicMiDNiTE If by messed up you mean minorly nerfed in the patch, sure. Patch notes say exactly what was changed.
(7:54 am, 23 Jul 2013)
The best performing sniper rifle and one of the best performing guns in the game got detuned because it climbed out of its power band.
(8:00 am, 23 Jul 2013)

Conventional customer service wisdom privileges a softer approach. Technical jargon is alienating, often working to escalate frustrations. Unsurprisingly, some players sent insults, retweeted in a mocking fashion:

RT @DroneLife1: you are the worst person in the world @DavidVonderhaar
(8:08 am, 23 Jul 2013)

Vonderhaar’s followers shared a laugh, liking the post 43 times. Within an hour, official notes were sent. At first glance, the multiplayer changes appear innocuous:

AN-94: Damage slightly reduced.
DSR 50: Rate of fire reduced.
Ballista: Rate of fire slightly reduced. (Mathes, 2013, para. 5).

When politely asked for additional information, extra details were provided:

The DSR fire time was 0.2 seconds. It's now 0.4 seconds. The rechamber time was 1.0 seconds. It's now 1.1 seconds. +
(9:09 am, 23 Jul 2013)
The sprintinTime was 0.25 seconds. It's now 0.30 seconds. SprintoutTime was 0.25 seconds. It's now 0.30 seconds. +
(9:10 am, 23 Jul 2013)

For those unfamiliar with the game, changes appear to be minimal. Overall, the DSR was only thirteen milliseconds slower, a slight delay few would notice. Snipers disagreed, citing the blistering speed of gun battles, often decided in fractions of a second. Decrying bias, some left the game. Others were more aggressive, threating Vonderhaar’s family.

Reasonable snipers still disagree with the patch (9Lives, 2014, January 25), but the issue was never open to debate. According to YouTubeDude (2013, July 23), when applying the update, Vonderhaar

"really didn't listen to the community, but instead he looked at the numbers and what the numbers showed him is that over time people learned how to snipe to improve their accuracy and they were getting quad feeds" (an achievement awarded for four quick kills). So when Vonderharr [sic] adjusted the snipers "he changed a lot of game play styles for a lot of people because you can no longer rush and gun with the DSR” (1:32 - 2:08).

Quad feeds are achievements awarded for quickly killing four enemies. Speed is necessary, since bodies are only present momentarily, disappearing after a few seconds. In this scenario, a thirteen millisecond delay adds up to over half a second. As a result, the achievement was no longer possible, but this acknowledgement was decidedly absent from official notes.

Why were quad feeds so important? According to YouTubeDude (2013, July 23), there is a small portion of 'montage makers' in the Call of Duty community who share online videos of achievements (1:42 - 2:03). After the update, the DSR was too slow to earn quad feeds, an achievement quite popular in videos. Drift0r (2013, July 26) reiterates this point, confirming that it is no longer possible to show off with the gun, forcing those who have become good at quick scoping to relearn the timing all over again (7:29 - 8:35).

Fans do lots of things that metrics fail to catch. In Call of Duty’s community, popular achievement videos generate advertising revenue. After the update, DSR snipers were no longer afforded this luxury. From this perspective, testing data did not seem to indicate that an update would end a community practice. Community managers never apologized for this development.

Responding to criticism, Activision community manager Dan Amrich (2013, July 23) also defended the data:

Weapons are designed with pros and cons; they perform in specific ways for specific reasons. But if, in the course of millions of hours of gameplay and the data to go with it, weapons are found to be more effective or less effective than they should be to keep that performance balanced, they are adjusted. (para. 8)

Implicit in these responses is an unacknowledged emphasis on consumer welfare, a particularly confusing term considering the way it is defined in anti-trust law. While the phrase sounds like it refers to preserving the buyer’s wellbeing, in the United States, the term is legally applied using Bork's (1978) trickle-down microeconomic definition. According to Orbach (2010), Bork equated "consumer welfare" with "the wealth of the nation" (p. 148), insisting on a definition that holds that consumer welfare is really just "economic efficiency" (p. 151).

As a result, standard anti-trust analysis equates "low prices with consumer welfare" (Orbach, 2010, p. 153), even though consumers may not necessarily prefer lower prices in all cases. From this perspective, not only is it unnecessary to respond to consumer requests, but it may also be necessary to undermine them because "consumers will eventually receive an appropriate share of the increased social wealth created by the subordination of their immediate interest" (Brodley, 1987, pp. 1038-1039). Following this logic, community feedback is no longer trusted because an audience can respond irrationally. For Whitson (2013), metric testing echoes the same belief: players are no longer trusted because numbers tell the real truth.

According to Stenros and Sotamaa (2009), the game industry is currently moving away from product-based business models toward more service-oriented models in which players continually pay for content via subscriptions, in-game purchases, and episodic releases. In addition to avoiding piracy and limiting the second-hand market, this model also blinds itself to "aspects of game play that do not produce a tangible commodity that players are still interested in" (p. 4). Outrage over the update is a symptom of this shift: as a player activity, achievement videos were overlooked.

Cynicism, Paranoia, and Fear

Metrics are far from perfect: imbalances for some can be balances for others. If communities are divided, changes can be interpreted as personal attacks, ignoring biases already present in systems. Previously touted as harmonious, player/developer relationships become increasingly fractious. Mutual distrust creates a breeding ground for paranoia contributing to elaborate conspiracy theories.

Even after commotion over the update subsided, arguments between players persisted. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Sledgehammer Games, 2014), subsequently removed quick scoping, citing a commitment to military realism. According to Condrey (2014),

We've done some things to make sure snipers are not able to take advantage of their properties - for example, there are attachments based on weapon classes that are specific. The ability to quick-draw with an assault rifle is important, but you don't want to have the ability to quick-draw with a sniper rifle because that lends itself to being a faster, quick-scope model. (para. 23)

Although this controversy is presumably over, the backlash against a seemingly innocuous update provides a useful indicator of increasing industry/player tensions. Privileging data over debate, developers were influenced by neoliberal economic rationality. Instead of protesting a biased system, players responded cynically by blaming individuals.

As a precursor to #gamergate, the update controversy indicates emerging patterns that cannot be reduced to singular events. When an industry is unbalanced, updates threaten identities. Overlooking the biases of systems, some players target women with abuse. Isolating incidents rather than considering the broader climate in which they occur obscures shifting player/industry relations. Distrust is spreading to include relationships between players fostering conflict, paranoia, and fear.


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