The problem with Dota 2's 'low prio' punishment system

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Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

Prior to this week, I'd played only a single game in Dota 2's low priority queue. It was about a year and a half ago, and EU server weirdness resulted in a friend and I getting booted from a game-in-progress with an instant abandon. We were condemned to low prio for a single match, and I don't remember it being particularly eventful. Perhaps a lot of people were unexpectedly finding themselves there that week. It felt much like any other game of pub Dota, which is to say that it was a bit of a shitshow.

A friend recently got themselves stuck with a longer sentence—five or possibly ten games, I'm not sure. Said friend is a member of my regular team, and the rules of low prio means that she can't play with the rest of us until those games are played. And that, reader, is how I ended up spending a couple of hours in the trench at the bottom of Dota 2's trench. Double Trench, ostensibly a punishment mechanic designed to improve the community, actually a bizarre parallel Dota where nothing matters and almost nobody who actually should be there understands why they are there.

Have you ever heard the allegory of the long spoons? I first heard it in school during my teens, and for some reason, unlike the majority of things I heard in school during my teens, I've remembered it. It feels pertinent here: the allegory goes that when you die you find yourself in a long banquet hall with a heaped table of food in front of you. A problem: the cutlery is incredibly long, and for the purposes of this analogy you're not allowed to use your hands. Maybe they're tied to the spoons, or they are the spoons, or something.

In hell, where people are selfish assholes, everybody attempts to feed themselves and as a result nobody gets to eat. In heaven, however, everybody figures out that if they feed each other then the length of the spoon doesn't matter. The point, or one of them, is that the circumstances by which people are sent to these places makes them a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Send assholes to hell and it becomes a terrible place to be; stick all of the nice people in the same room and, guess what, it's nice.

The low prio system is intended, I think, to confront people with something similar. Flame, grief and abandon games and you'll be forced to play with people who flame, grief, and abandon games. The flaw in this line of thinking is that it assumes that badly-behaved players will, upon encountering other badly-behaved players, see themselves reflected and experience a Scrooge-type personal revelation. Guess what: this doesn't seem to actually happen. Here is a brief history of the last three games I played.

Game one: entire Radiant team feeds mid constantly in order to end the match faster. Our mid Warlock gets most of the kills, has an Aghanim's Scepter and Refresher Orb within ten minutes. One enemy player, Tinker, becomes outraged that myself and another member of our team are not pushing mid as fast as he would like. I suggest that he might be missing a valuable life lesson of some kind, and he threatens to report me.

Game two: I random Visage (all low prio games are All Random) and have a reasonably good time. We lose terribly, and at the end the enemy Wraith King types 'ez' over and over again until I disconnect. It is not entirely unlike regular Dota.

Game three: myself and my friend attempt a Clockwerk/Morphling dual offlane. For some reason, it works. Our mid Necrophos handily outlanes Pudge. On our safelane, however, Disruptor/Sniper loses to Pugna/Ogre Magi. As the long game goes on, Disruptor becomes angrier and angrier at Sniper, calls Pudge a 'fat fuck', and so on. I ask him if he knows why he's in low prio. 'BECAUSE I AM ALWAYS PLAY WITH FUCKS LIKE SNIPER', he replies.

Here's the thing: these games were actually kind of fun. They came after a weekend of going full tryhard in the Rektreational. Playing All Random made for a relaxing break. The terrible behaviour and worse strategies compounded the sense that nothing had any consequence whatsoever; it was a bit like playing Team Fortress 2. I went bottle-first on a support Lina because nobody gave a shit. None of it threatened my MMR. I had quite a nice time.

That's the first reason why I don't think low prio works as a punishment. The second is that by surrounding ragers and quitters with ragers and quitters, the act of raging and quitting is normalised. There's nothing in the low prio environment that suggests that these things are wrong. In fact, raging and quitting (expressed by feeding constantly) is the fastest way to dodge the punishment. This is a bit like telling a convicted thief that if they can successfully steal the keys to their jail cell then they can go home early.

Rather than being a corrective punishment where players learn that they must consider others and be willing to share if they want to thrive—as in the long spoon allegory—low prio is simply an alternative form of Dota where the rules are taken less seriously. At its most punitive it's an inconvenience, an annoyance that restricts you to playing All Random for a set amount of time. Beyond that the punishment is so light that I suspect many of the players who belong in low prio don't see the difference at all.

While it makes sense to preserve the experience of well-behaved players by exiling the worst element to their own dimension, I suspect that this is the worst way to actually resolve the problem. The lessons that need to be learned by these players are best learned by example, and that example can only be provided by players who don't act the same way. The solution to the trench isn't more trench, it's more exposure to the community.

God help us.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.