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Empower yourself, defend freedom

Jeroen Steeman

A couple of years ago my brother was close to addicted to the game Counterstrike. He played it constantly on our home computer and became quite a good player. Counterstrike is like America's Army: Operations (AA:O) a realistic Multiplayer First Person Shooter (FPS) and was extremely popular around the year 2000.
Minh Le, alias Gooseman, developed Counterstrike in 1999 as a freeware modification of Half-life. Gamers who own (or download) a copy of Half-life can download this Counterstrike modification for free and play Counterstrike. In the end this mod became more popular than the original game itself. Counterstrike has a thriving community, with active members co-working on improving the game, developing new maps to play and hosting servers for multiplayer games.
The objectives in this game also bear resemblance with AA: O. In Counterstrike two groups combat each other. On one side there are the terrorists trying to blow op a building, take a VIP into hostage, or defend a certain area. The other side, the counter terrorists (CT) try to prevent the terrorists in achieving their objective.

The main difference however between Counterstrike and AA:O is the structure of power. Where Counterstrike emerged as a modification, developed by Gooseman and his community of active gamers/developers, America's Army: Operations is completely developed by the American Army, not leaving options for a community to co-develop the game. So we can see that Counterstrike is a form of a bottom-up structured game, as where AA: O is a clear example of a top-down game. In this article I'm going to compare Counterstrike and AA: O in the way the player has possibilities to empower himself in playing the game, contributing to the game and developing the community. Unfortunately there has not been any relevant writing about power structures in games and game communities, so I'll need to make an analysis of the ways these powers emerges.
This objective can be formulated in the following question: In what way do different structures of power emerge from the games AA:O and Counterstrike, and what consequences do they have while playing the game or engaging in the communities?
I will come to an answer through different sections. In the first part I'll present the different ways in which a player can practise power in the game. These ways will be described from both sides, empowerment in AA:O and Counterstrike.
In the second part I'll discuss the differences coming out of this analysis and that hopefully will lead to anything useful to say about empowerment in these games and their game communities.
First of all I would like to state that by using the word community, I mean the in-game community of people playing the game and the outside community of clans and forums about this game.

The empowerment of gamers can be split in three parts. First we can notice the possibilities to create a community, either inside or outside the game. Second there is an option in refining or improving this community to the needs of the community. Finally there is a possibility in controlling the community without changing it. I will use these three parts to get a closer look at empowerment in AA:O and Counterstrike.

Part one: creating a community
In this category we can state all activities that result in the creation or expansion of the community. Except from the creation of the game itself there is a lot open for the gamers to help in constructing the community.
One of the popular uses of the Internet is the construction of fansites. As its name says fans create these sites. These sites contain more information about the game itself, possible tactics that can be used in the game or points in the game that should be improved. The both games Counterstrike and AA:O have a lot of fansites. (Google search for "counterstrike + fansite" , Google search for "america's army + fansite" )
On the website of America's Army fans can download a special package with images and logo's to facilitate their creation of a fansite (). The Counterstrike site hosts some fanpages on its own server. () It is however unclear what impact these fansites have on the creators of the game, and if critique is answered in a new version on the game.
The use of forums on the Internet experienced a tremendous growth the last couple of years. The developers of the games already incorporated this feature on both sites. Next to the official forums, most fansites also use forums to communicate with gamers. Subject on these forums vary from chatter, to discussions about certain aspects of the game, or political discussions. I'll come back on forums in the third section discussing the use of power to moderate a forum.
In both games the players start to engage in clans, a team of gamers which regularly plays other teams. Ruud describes more of this in his article. () These clans usually create their own clanpage, similar to the fansites and with the same features I discussed earlier.
The final option to contribute to the creating of the community is the possibility to set up a game server. A server brings the players together so that they can play a game. AA:O and Counterstrike both work in this way. The difference between the two is the way these servers are provided. The American Army hosts free public servers for every player to join. In addition players can rent a private server, open to the players the renter wants to allow. A player also can use his own computer as a server, but this is not easy to set up and not encouraged by the developers team. () It is also possible to set up an own local server to practice with your clan at a LAN-party, but your 'honor' scores there won't be transferred to the total score on the official site.
For Counterstrike there are no such servers. Players always have to set up their own servers as described in the last option with AA:O. A disadvantage is that Counterstrike doesn't save scores in a central database, but the community developed a server modification that uploads this data to a special website. Nowadays most servers use this modification. As the game grew so popular, lots of game sites provided server space for Counterstrike. In the third part I'll discuss more about adjusting rules on servers.

Part two: Improving the community
The main characteristic of FPS is that they are mainly used in multiplayer games over a LAN or the Internet. This fact limits the abilities of a player to modify the game to his wants because the other gamers he's playing against need to have the same modifications in order to play a fair game, or even work. Nevertheless there remain a lot of options to 'tweak' for the gamer, as we will see in this part.
Because of the use of the Internet developers constantly improve their games and distribute updates (or patched) through the Internet. In the case of AA:O these updates are developed by a team of army officials and hired game developers. In the case of Counterstrike these updates were provided by voluntarily developers joined in a team, but as Counterstrike is a modification of Half-life, the producers of Half-life also release updates of the game. Because of the popularity of Counterstrike, a retail version is designed which features Half-Life and the latest Counterstrike mod.
Next to these 'official' updates the Counterstrike-community constantly develops mods, hacks and scripts. We can divide this category in two parts. The first part contains modifications to improve the gameplay of the game. These modifications need to be installed on the server hosting a game and the players on that server need to have this modification installed as well. An example of this is a new kind of weapon added to the game. The other use of mods, hacks and scripts is cheating. Gamers use this type of modification to get an advantage on other gamers, for example being able to see through walls, fly or use more ammunition. The servers constantly improve in order to keep these cheaters from their server, but they cannot be banned for all the servers or the whole game. (Cs-hacked.com)
AA:O, controlling almost every server, is merciless on cheaters. If a cheater is detected he will be put in a virtual jail every time he loads AA:O, he will be unable to play the game.

Screenshop of the map "Bombs over Baghdad" (enlarge)
Screenshot of the spray with the collapsed WTC (enlarge)

Counterstrike has more options to contribute to the game community. There is an option for players to develop their own maps and missions and share them with other gamers. If new maps are appreciated by the other players they can be incorporated in a new release of the game. In order to be available for players, the server and the players all need a copy of this map. The community is very inventive, examples of maps include freeing hostages inside of a Boeing-747-plane, protecting a scud missile in Baghdad from American troops and robbing a money transport in the red light district of Amsterdam.
(More examples of maps can be found at CScentral.com (). These maps always contain a certain mission, packed in a story. The developers of AA:O themselves create and release maps, but they leave no option for their players to construct their own.
As a last option the players can 'spray', this use is borrowed from graffiti artists. A player can 'spray' a certain picture on a wall while playing the game, for every other player to see. () Usually these sprays are a way for the player to indicate that he is part of a particular clan. But these sprays can also be used to cast a political message. An example is a spray displaying the destructed WTC after 9/11.

Part three: Controlling the community
In this part I'll discuss some options players have to change certain aspect of the community without radically changing it.
The fun of every game is of course controlling your own character, choosing your own way to go. Both games obviously allow a gamer to do this, however in AA:O a team leader (the player with the most honour-points) has more options in communicating with other players, he can order his troops, but they are in no way obligated to follow his orders. Although in the Rules of Engagement (ROE) player are encouraged to follow orders. () In both games both teams have to work together to reach their objective, so in Counterstrike usually there are leading and following gamers formed automatically, probably on basis of experience.
A big difference between the two games is the option to choose on which side you want to play. In Counterstrike players can choose if they want to be a terrorist or a counter terrorist, each side has four avatars to choose from. In AA:O a player cannot choose his side, as he is always a member of the American Army. But still there are two teams combating each other. The developers of AA:O found a trick. Team A sees themselves as Americans and sees the opposing team (Team B) as the enemy (OPFOR, or Opposotion Forces), Team B however will see themselves as American and they will see their opposing team (i.e. Team A) as the enemy.
More power is given to the people that control a server. In Counterstrike a server can be modified to the needs of the players. Different options include enabling Friendly Fire, setting the amount of ammunition or weapons, even closing servers to certain persons, or creating a private personal server. In AA:O these settings can only be changed if a player runs its own server. These options have to be coded by hand in the server settings, () where the community of Counterstrike developed handy programs to do this work. Remember that a personal AA:O server can't upload official statistics to the official AA:O statistics-server. The settings on an official AA:O server can't be changed. A rented AA:O server offers limited options to control a server (), such as the amount of Friendly Fire that is allowed before a player gets kicked out of the server, the amount of honour a player needs to enter the server. Still all servers of America's Army always have to right to interrupt the server when a user doesn't comply with their ROE.
Chatting during the game is heavily monitored by the game engine in OO:A, profane language is instantly blocked, Counterstrike servers don't have this kind of limitations. (Sean wrote more about this subject )
The forums that the official sites of both Counterstrike and AA:O use are subjected to the normal standards on forums on the Internet, this means no flaming or abusing the forums is allowed. Both official forums are not explicitly moderated, but we can still see some differences. The only place on the official forum of Counterstrike where rules are shown is when you decide to become a member of the forums. In order to post a message you don't have to be a member, you can post anonymous. The forums of AA:O bring up much more rules for the users to stick to. Before one can post he has to comply with a large set of rules in order to become a member. () Anonymous posting is not allowed. Next to the official forums a lot of fan pages have their own forums, subjected to their own rules and moderated by themselves.

As this analysis became quite elaborate, I'll discuss the most important differences in empowerment in AA:O and Counterstrike.
Part one discussed the creation of the community. Here I remarked the construction of fansites, supported by both games as well as the forming of clans. In creating a personal server we can see some differences. AA:O keeps it in his own hands by offering free and rental servers. Counterstrike only works with personal servers with empowerment for the administrator of the server
Part two discussed the improving of the community. I discovered some differences here. Patches (or updates) are provided in both games, AA:O let them develop by a team of Army officials and hired game experts. In the case of Counterstrike these patched are developed by a team of volunteers, all contributing their share. Counterstrike has then far more option for contribution than AA:O, gamers/developers can contribute modifications and maps, if the community likes them they can be incorporated into the next patch. Finally Counterstrike players can spray a chosen image on the walls in maps, with different purposes.
Part three discussed the controlling of the community. The main difference we encountered here was the fact that AA:O players can't choose a side, they're always with the American Army. Counterstrike players can choose if they want to play terrorists or counter terrorists. In AA:O more value is given to commanding lower troops, an experienced player has more options than a less experienced player. In Counterstrike every player is equal in the beginning, but these different levels will come automatically.
An administrator for a Counterstrike server has more options to tweak his own server, were an administrator for an America's Army server has less options to change to the rules on his server and the ways to make these changes are not quite easy.
Finally there is a difference in the way the official forums are moderated. The official Counterstrike forum doesn't set many restrictions for users, as long as posts are not harassing. On the official America's Army forums all users need to register in order to post, forcing them to comply with the strict forum rules.

Let us first bring back the main question in this article: In what way do different structures of power emerge from the games AA:O and Counterstrike, and what consequences do they have while playing the game or engaging in the communities?
After analysing both communities on three levels we can clearly see that there is a difference in power structure. Throughout the whole analysis individual players of Counterstrike have more possibilities to engage in constructing, refining and controlling the community. On the other side, AA:O players don't have much to decide about how they want the game to be, or contribute to the creation of the community.
Around the year 2000 Counterstrike was the first realistic FPS, later more game developers followed this trail as they saw the popularity of Counterstrike and its community. As we see this analysis we can conclude that AA:O copied a lot of the principles of Counterstrike except one part, they strongly restricted the empowerment of the individual user in participating in the community.

© 2003
Sean Storey, Justin Beck, Ruud Oud, Jeroen Steeman
Utrecht University