Reading the game: teamwork in MOBA’s (SMITE, League of Legends, DOTA)

In my latest blog post, I’ve finally covered something else than philosophy, and this Reading the game article will do the same. Today, I will be taking a look at the general art of teamwork, and how teamwork in gaming can teach us about (and improve) teamwork in real life!

Smite
To be sure, this choice of topic is not unrelated to my personal preferences. I’ve been playing a lot of Smite recently. It’s a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game, that has two teams of five players trying to take the other’s base. Smite stands out from other MOBA’s like League of Legends and DotA 2 by making its playable characters gods and other mythical figures. When you start playing Smite, you’re able to choose from Egyptian gods Neith and Anubis, the Norse frost giant Ymir and god of thunder Thor, and Chinese war god Guan Yu. An upgrade gets you the full package, with currently around 90 gods from the Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Chinese, Mayan, Japanese and Hindu pantheons. It’s a lot of fun, but the way it keeps players captivated up to professional levels has a lot of thought behind it. And it is specifically the aspect of teamwork, which is absolutely essential to a good Smite game, that I want to discuss today. And since MOBA’s are fairly similar in their design, most of the below can be said for League of Legends and DotA 2 as well.

smite-banner

Teamwork in Smite
For those unfamiliar with the game, this section will briefly describe how the game works and specifically how teamwork is such an essential part of it.

Smite‘s main game mode Conquest puts two teams of five players against each other. Each team has a base with a titan, and the team that kills the enemy titan wins. In that sense, it’s a “golden goal” scenario, but Smite is much more complex than that. The area between the two bases consists of three “lanes” or straight roads, with a “jungle” with forest and monsters between them. In the lanes, each team has three phoenixes that guard the titan, and in the lanes of the battleground, six towers. To get to the titan and defeat it, you have to destroy at least one lane with a phoenix and two towers.

On a map, this then looks something like this:

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Image credit: SMITEFire

As you can see, the lanes are given specific names. This has to do with the team roles that are assigned to them.

For the mid lane, this is straightforward: it’s the middle lane, and since it is in the middle of the action it is the most vulnerable. This means that the player in the mid lane must be prepared for ambushes (ganks), and must be able to get away quickly or stand their ground.

In the duo lane, the towers are the furthest apart. This means that this lane is nearly impossible to defend alone, because going too far can easily get you trapped behind enemy lines. It is called the duo lane because it is meant to be defended by two players. Generally, one will do the damage while the other provides support in the form of an attacking, speed or healing bonus.

The solo lane, like the mid lane, is defended by only one player, but because this lane is on the edge of the map and the furthest away from other players, the solo laner will have to be the most self sufficient player of the team. He will receive the least support and will need the most sustain (the ability to stay and defend the lane, instead of going back to base to heal or restock).

This leaves the jungle, and this is the area of the most advanced role in Smite: the jungler. The jungler will be responsible for clearing out the monsters in the jungle (which provide all kinds of “buffs” or extras), and assisting the team when and wherever help is needed.

If you want to know more about roles in Smite, here’s a very good video series about it.

As you can see, each player has a very specific role and responsibility, and when playing against a team that knows its roles, one player on your team ignoring their task will probably mean you’re going to lose. Also, pitching in elsewhere when your have some “spare time” is of immense value to your team members. In a normally progressing game, two players will always win from one player, and this can give your team member and thus your team a significant advantage.

There are many more elements to Smite than I have mentioned here, and especially at the professional level, that makes for a game that is at once one about quick reactions, about strategy and judgment, and teamwork. Those first two aspects are mighty interesting as well, but today I want to focus on the aspect of teamwork.

Teamwork in education

First of all, let’s ask what makes teamwork so important. This is a blog about education as much as about gaming, so what arguments can be given for using teamwork for learning? During my Master’s I learned three important arguments from Effectief Leren (effective learning) by Ebbens & Ettekoven:

  1. Effective learning. Learning together stimulates thinking out loud, comparing your own knowledge to that of others. Saying things out loud is a proven strategy to remember better, and in a combination with practicing (with) the information, this lets students retain information much better than if they would learn it on their own.
  2. Students teach themselves and each other. Learning in a team reveals that students have as much to teach each other as the teacher might have. Effectively, they take over some of the teacher’s tasks, giving the teacher more time and room for other aspects of a class.
  3. Society asks for people that work well in a team. Schools have a major responsibility towards society. In our society, now more than ever, being able to work in a team is important. Practicing it in school (or in gaming) makes you better at it in other aspects of life.

So teamwork, if approached right, can be a huge boost to learning. But how can a game like Smite teach you about teamwork?

Aspects of teamwork in Smite

Of course, teamwork can take many shapes, and there is no one definition of it. In this article, I’ll cover four aspects of it that I think Smite features very strongly.

chronos.png

Chronos is a god with a difficult skillset to use, and requires preparation and knowledge to be used well.

Preparation
I’ll just start off this one, because aside from being crucial, it’s often forgotten to be a part of doing something with a team, or doing anything for that matter. I have to thank the quality YouTube Smite channel Raynday Gaming for this point. Nowadays, we have information, communication, products, etc. at our fingertips, and we sometimes forget that to get somewhere, you have to put in the work and prepare. This is as valid for a scientific, engineering, marketing, business, fundraising project, you name it, as for playing a competitive video game. If you go at it tired, in a bad mood, or without doing the research on the character or role you’ll be playing, you’ll do worse than if you don’t, period. Just compare: if your manager at work is in a bad mood, good chance that within no time you’ll be in a bad mood as well and your performance will drop.

 

 

geb

Geb is a god who is mobile and strong in support, and is most useful supporting the team in various places. 

Distribution of tasks
Teamwork is not just distributing a project of (say) five tasks over five members. Teamwork is about completing a project together. In Smite, this means that when your initial task is done, you’ll look for other ways to aid your team, or that when someone else has a bad day, you see what you can do to make up for it. For example: when you have cleared the towers in your lane, you’re not just going to push on towards the phoenix and the titan alone, because that will get you killed and affect your team badly. And when your mid laner gets killed often, you see if you can make the jump to the mid lane every now and then to keep the enemy from advancing. In a work or school project, this could mean that if your task turns out to be easier than you expect, you offer to take up some work from someone else. Or when someone is struggling with a specific task, offer to exchange tasks, or give them some advice that will help them do better.

 

Dealing with non-cooperative or bad team members
There is a reason that sometimes, working alone is preferred over teamwork, even in professional contexts, and that reason is a fear of “bad” team members. We’ve all been there in school, that you were in a group and some of you had to do more work because someone else underperformed or communicated badly. These are risks of working in a team, but they are things you can counter. A crucial aspect of teamwork is recognizing the possibility that things might not go as planned (preparation!), dealing with that so that the project can be completed succesfully, but maybe more importantly, dealing with it personally, i.e. not losing your temper, or worse, your motivation to complete the project. In Smite, a game can go bad, but blaming your teammates for the whole of it is not only not a nice thing to do, but also the worst thing to do if you want to turn the game around and win. Smite is a game of communication, and whether you are just starting to play or are a veteran, being clear with each other about your roles and your strategy will greatly improve your game, even when you’re losing.

loki

Loki is the most popular assassin god in Smite, but needs a team to distract his targets. 

Communication
Which brings me to my fourth and maybe most important point: communication. One of the advantages of teamwork is that you have a group of critical peers who can give advice on something the other person may not be as strong in. If you just split up a project so multiple people can work at a different task, it’s not actually teamwork. In a well functioning team, you can take over someone else’s job if that person is having a difficult time, or you can warn someone about difficulties you’re experiencing so that they won’t have the same problem. Communication is the channel that can make this happen. This is the case in teamwork at work, school and Smite. When your lane opponent is gone, shout out ‘Enemy missing’ to your team, so they know they that enemy could appear in their lane. When you have to go back to base, let your jungler know so he can take over your lane for a while. When you see the enemy team grouping up, warn your team so they won’t get overrun.

 

Using Smite in education

These are four aspects of teamwork that are featured in Smite, and that you’ll come across in teamwork elsewhere. Reflecting on the arguments for teamwork, it of course depends on what goal you want to achieve how you should use the game.

You could play Smite for establishing the baseline of how students are operating in teams. You could train the skill of working in a team as a practice for using it in a specific class. This will mean you’ll look at specific aspects of teamwork and how you can improve them. Why not let them play the game, and have different groups focus on different aspects of working in a team, then ask them to compare their experiences? Or you could train the skill of working in a team for its own sake. This will mean that you’ll look at how the teams in the game work overall and judge them on the output as well as the process. Or you could even use it to train the very specific skills of communication and giving feedback.

I’m not saying you should have a Smite or League of Legends class. But it’s a free game. Why not take a few hours of your class time, have your students play in teams and record their footage? There! You have a document of how they operate in a team, how quickly they learn to cooperate, or whatever skill in play that you want to look at. And all of you have fun in the process. Sure, it’ll take a few hours. But even teachers can forget that effective learning takes time. And when you put the time in anyway, it’s better to spend it effectively (by doing) instead of learning stuff with no practical application that you’ll forget as soon as the test is done.

Reading the above, you were probably convinced from the start or you’re still skeptical about using a game that’s originally designed for entertainment purposes for learning. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until games are out of education’s black books: we use books, films, theater and music in education, and so should we use games. Games are equally valid media, that share some qualities with films and books, but also have many unique qualities of their own. In the case of Smite, do you know a book or film that you can train teamwork with?

Would you use Smite or a similar game to study or develop students’s teamwork? Could you see other potential uses? Let me know in the comments.

 

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