Is it just me or is it getting harder and harder to devote time into games that are seemingly more and more complex?

Complexity in many games might not be apparent at first, but some have a surprising depth to them that can make it intimidating to get your hands on, especially after watching people who’ve mastered the game, understand all of the intricacies and nuances of the complexities at play.

League of Legends is the prime example of a game with an astounding amount of depth making it entertaining to watch experts strategize around the depth within the game, but extremely intimidating to pick up and exhausting to keep playing as those strategies evolve, change completely or go extinct like the failed traits of an evolutionary tree because some new apex predator was created leaving a wake or genetic devastation.

Keeping up with the strategies is one troublesome aspect of League of Legends, but what’s worse is being berated by the community for not keeping up with those strategies when you’re trying to be a casual player or a semi-skilled player but one who doesn’t devote more than an hour or so per day to gaming, or by making one bad play causing everyone to criticize you more harshly for the rest of the game. Doesn’t sound like a good time, does it?

Then a game like Overwatch comes along, lightening the load of complexity, less resources to manage, less strategy to manage and making it feel all the more accessible, inviting spectators and players alike much like the early days of League of Legends. A game that’s still new (as of writing this) with a metagame that’s not completely defined yet and a community which doesn’t judge everyone so harshly for one or two bad plays.

Why is it that Overwatch and League of Legends has such differing community behavior, one toxic to all new-comers, casual players and nonprofessionals while the other is currently inviting to the same crowd? Well, that’s probably a bias worth looking into.

Cognitive Load (Complixity of Tasks) and our Behavior

Testing mental performance has been looked into heavily by many fields of the experimental sciences. Psychology, Economics, Biology, Business Management, Advertising and Marketing… Knowing what affects our ability to process information and make better choices based on our surroundings is important so that people can perform their best when working on a task, or perform at their worst when they’re being suckered into buying something that they don’t need and all of the range in-between where we don’t know if we’re making decisions in the best of environments.

What’s important about testing mental performance is how it affects our behavior, or how our setting and the tasks that we’re doing affect our behavior.

Self-Control and Willpower

Around 2007-2008, there were a few studies conducted by Vohs et al around the subject of behavior changes while performing complex tasks. More specifically, how increased cognitive load affects our ability to self-regulate, i.e. affects our willpower/self-control.

The experimenters developed a few tests around being given a few items such as shirts, pens and magazines, where one group was asked to state if they had used the items in the past week (the non-choice group) and the second group was asked which items within the same group that they preferred (the choice group) e.g. Black shirt to white shirt.

Choice and Willpower
Group A – Have you used these in the past week? Group B – Which of these to you prefer

Both groups were then asked to do things that would test their willpower like drinking a concoction of vinegar/water, holding their arm in an icebath or to study for a test in the presence of procrastination-temptations like magazine or video games as doing these tasks would require more willpower to be performed for longer periods of time.

The idea behind this being that if our willpower wasn’t affected by cognitive load than the amount of vinegar/water that we would drink or the amount of time we procrastinated would be similar.

What they found was that even doing a simple decision like picking between articles of clothing and other everyday items caused their reserve of willpower to diminish considerably for each task. 7 oz of vinegar/water was consumed in the no-choice group while 2 oz was consumed in the choice group. 70 seconds in the icebath vs 30 seconds. 8.5 minutes of procrastination vs 11.5 minutes of procrastination.


Across the board, they found that even making a simple set of decisions causes our ability for self-control and willpower to diminish drastically. The above are only a subset of the experiments that they ran, but all experiments in the study held that willpower was depleted more quickly after decision making was made. [1]


A few years ago there were other studies going on involving complexity of tasks, but this time they were looking at its affect on trust.

One study held by Ainsworth et al went like this: After performing or not performing a self-control task, participants learned and played a trust-game. The trust-game involved a Sender and Receiver. The Sender is given $10 to split however they see fit between the sender and receiver.


Trust Game1
Sender chooses how to split their $10

The Receiver will receive triple the amount given.

Trust Game2
Receiver receives 3-times the amount of the money that the Sender has split
Trust Game3
Receiver chooses how to split their money

And the Receiver can now choose to split this portion however they see fit.


Trust Game4
Receiver sends back some portion of their earnings, in gratitude from the Senders trust in Receiver (or some other reasoning behind this)

Trust Game5

The implications of the different behaviors of the sender are as follow:

If you (as the Sender) don’t trust the Receiver, then you probably wouldn’t want to give him much of the money (if at all), so you opt to keep the majority of the $10.

Trust Game1
Sender doesn’t trust that the receiver will send any money back (lack of trust in reciprocity), so opts to keep their $10

The more you trust the Receiver then the more you would be willing to give your initial portion, trusting that they will give you back as close to even an amount of the final amount of money as possible.

Trust Game5
Trust of reciprocity was established and now everyone is financially better

If you trust them completely, then you would give them all of the $10 that you had, and trust that they would divide the final $30 equally so that you both receive the maximum amount of income.


What the game showed was that Senders who performed the self-control task was less trusting of the Receiver, opting to send them less money believing that the Receiver wouldn’t send much (if any) back, compared to Senders who didn’t perform the self-control task.


But there were other versions of the experiment that changed this behavior.

If the Sender believed that they would meet the Receiver after the experiment was completed, then they sent money similarly to Senders that did not perform the self-control task.

They also found that if Senders believe that Receivers were similar to one-another like they were from the same school, same class, same fraternity (e.g. in-group bias) that they sent money similarly to Senders that didn’t perform the self-control task.


In general, that means that we are less trusting of others when our mental faculties are stressed if the interaction context is anonymous, but less so when the potential of meeting these people are raised.[2]

Persistent Behavior

This last bit doesn’t have much to do with complexity of tasks, but more that our past actions dictate our present behavior. What this means is that regardless of why we did something in the past, we typically will follow doing the same thing again.

In 2008, Ariely and Norton did a study testing this out.

People were asked to perform a boring task and were paid to lie about enjoying the task and then asked if they would be willing to do the task again. They found that people who were paid less were willing to perform the task again, with the idea that if people were not paid enough to justify lying about the task, those participants believed that they derived pleasure from the task and so were willing to do it again.

They essentially convinced themselves that because they did the task previously, they must’ve enjoyed it.[3]

Comparing player experience in League of Legends to Overwatch?

What does all of this research mean when looking at games like League of Legends, Overwatch or the multitude of other multiplayer games in the market. I guess that would depend on the differences in the games and their communities.


For League of Legends, you could say that the game is complex to play. Maybe complex is an understatement when compared to Overwatch or an overstatement when compared to Starcraft, but League of Legends definitely has a lot more aspects to manage and master than Overwatch.

League of Legends has a very extensive meta-game to learn, from differences in lane objectives and priorities to item composition and knowing how to adapt if teams counter your team composition or item build composition to every little bit of management that you can think of. Objectives in game; killing minions to increase your income; tracking the refresh time of skills between your skill, your team’s skills and your enemies’ skills; map awareness to know if the enemy team is up to no good because you saw some of them wander towards you teammates half the map away; team communication to let everyone know where you think the danger zones are. The list is pretty long.



Compare this to the complexity of Overwatch which has a relatively less defined meta-game, especially since ranked and tournament play isn’t around yet (though competitive play is being rolled out as I’m writing this) but with vastly less things to track in order to play well.

You only have one real objective at a time with very few things to focus on other than the team and maybe the health spawn locations; no income to manage; and only have one or two pockets of where the fighting is happening which makes it easy to know when you have to have your guard up.

Anubis Overview
Anubis with annotated deathzones

Match Length

The match length between the two games is also a big factor. With average League of Legends match lengths lasting 40 minutes vs the 10 minute average for Overwatch, it requires a lot more effort and is a bigger commitment to play a game of League of Legends

Current Culture

It is pretty wide-spread knowledge that the League of Legends community toxic to play in. Not knowing the current meta-game, criticizing every move that you make, from decisions on when you walk through the brush to when you use your skills to making one bad play. People look for any excuse possible to blame others for how the match doesn’t go their way.

Compare this to the relatively infantile community of Overwatch where the community is seemingly tranquil by comparison. That’s not to say that this won’t change, but at the moment there is very little hate being spread around the Overwatch community. It’s also wholly less competitive than League of Legends at the moment, partly because of the previously mentioned lack of ranked/tournament play.

Implications of their differences

So what? So what if League of Legends is a more complex game than Overwatch? So what if the match lengths are double or triple the length in League of Legends or that the community is already toxic when compared to Overwatch?

Well… here’s the thing.

Remember back to when we talked about how when dealing with complex tasks, that we have less self-control and less trust when dealing with others in an anonymous setting. The inordinate difference in complexity is a large reason why the community in League of Legends is so toxic. Higher complexity leads to less self-control and less trust, both things that you need in order to not criticize your teammates because you would’ve done something different. Self-control to not belittle others and trust that if you communicated something about how to fix the problem, constructively, that they would try to incorporate it into their gameplay.

The long match times also means a few things. You’ve felt like you wasted time if a match doesn’t go right off the bat, that your time commitment was wasted. More related, that your self-control gets depleted more quickly because of those long match times. And like Vohs et al found out, self-control is a finite resource, so it being depleted means that you’re more likely to become agitated, cranky and snap at others if you’re forced to exercise that self-control.

Lastly, that bit about persistent behavior is a problem because once you follow a behavior pattern in a setting, you’re more likely to follow the same behavior when put in the same setting. In this case, if you contribute to the toxicity of League of Legends, you’re more likely to fallback into contributing to the toxicity of the game unless that behavior is curbed early on.


That doesn’t mean that League of Legends is a lost cause, nor has Riot (the game’s developers) taken a blind eye to the degrade in behavior in League of Legends.

To combat complexity and time-commitment issues they added multiple game modes that focus on faster turn-around (decreased play time) and less things to manage in game (less complexity), like the Capture-the-point style of Dominion or the everybody-group-up-and-test-team-synergy-style of the Howling Abyss. Both modes are less mentally taxing and as a result were a welcome break from the more-complex classic style gameplay.

Howling Abyss

Riot also tried to address the toxicity issue of the community, building nudges into game like reminders in the loading screen to be constructive or avoiding verbal abuse means that their team loses 16% less often. Funny that they framed it as a loss vs the possibility of winning increasing, as people hate losses more than gains (see Loss-Aversion Bias). They also put plenty of other tools to try and stop toxic behavior like muting other players, allowing your team to surrender after 20 minutes so that the feeling of wasting time can be avoided and reporting other players for toxic behavior.

The big problem that League of Legends is facing is that its community will always have a view of toxicity, a psychologic myopia (short-sightedness bias) that everyone associates with the game because they’ve had one too many bad experiences dealing with toxic players. There was a stat back in 2014 that 95% of players have never received punishment due to toxic behavior. The problem with this is that, assuming equal probability of meeting all players, you’re likely to have a toxic player ever 2 games that you play (given 10 people per game). That means that we’re taking a gamble of having a 50% gamble in every game that we play of dealing with a player who was toxic enough to be punished. That probability increases if we consider players that aren’t necessarily toxic enough to be reprimanded, but are still deserving of punishment some of the time. That really isn’t a statistic that I would want to consider when devoting some time to a game that I want to enjoy recreationally.

In closing

League of Legends is a game 7 years old. It’s not exactly like its community won’t look for something new after playing a game for such a long time. And while Riot has done a lot to make the game fun for everyone, there’s still a lot of differences that make other games like Overwatch more enticing to pick up.

Both games are fun with a ton of polish, and they would have to be to have so many active players currently, but Overwatch has a lot more psychological persuasion than League of Legends at the moment. Overwatch is less complex in many aspects (while still being complex enough to keep things interesting, making every game feel different) but that complexity means that less cognitive pressure is put on you and your team while you play leading to a less toxic environment.

But that doesn’t mean that Overwatch will always stay like this. Competitive play is being rolled out as of writing this, creating a more rigidly defined metagame dictating how everyone should play which means complexity, pressure and willpower will start being stressed. The need to curb toxic behavior will always be present because, like League of Legends, once toxic behavior starts it’ll be hard to keep it from getting out of control, starting the cycle of toxic behavior and perception of a toxic community to continue, making a fun game to be less enjoyable.

Twitter: @GIntrospection

Other Bias in Gaming Posts


[1] – Vohs, K.D. Baumeister, R.F., Schmeichel, B.J., Twenge, J.M., Nelson, N.M. & Tice, D.M. (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent Self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 883-898 [link]

[2] – Ainsworth, Baumeister, Vohs, Ariely (2014). Ego depletion decreases trust in economic decision making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 40-49 [link]

[3] – Ariely, Norton (2008). How actions create – not just reveal – preferences. Trends in Cognitive Science, 12-1, 13-16 [pdf]

[4] – Big Data at Riot Games – Using Hadoop to Understand Player Experience – StampedeCon 2013 [link]