One concept I’ve seen misunderstood by many players in both competitive game scenes and casual game scenes is the concept of what counts as a Player versus Player (PvP) action. Most players tend to understand this concept as something direct. Common examples of this include being able to steal from other players, duel them, or even kill them. But there are a lot of actions that, I argue, are heavy-handed PvP actions that most players don’t recognize as such. Now the point of this discussion is not to make a judgement call on whether or not these kinds of PvP are acceptable. Rather, it is to bring their existence to light, so that game creators and players alike can recognize them, discuss them, and if necessary, mitigate them.
Sidenote: While the common vocabulary for this is Player versus Player, it is more appropriate in many games to describe the actions as Character versus Character, or CvC, instead of PvP. For the sake of consistency I'm going to continue to use PvP.
The easiest example of this is social PvP. Instead of damaging a player via mechanics, such as causing damaging or stealing gold, they instead damage their reputation. It is rare for a game to not highly value a player’s reputation. Even in short board games or other one-off style games, a player’s reputation can be crucial in clinching victory.
In board games like Battlestar Galatica and other hidden identity games, a player’s reputation is vital. If they are one of the “good guy” style players, they need to ensure their reputation is intact to prevent them from being mistakenly hindered or even killed by misled teammates. If they are one of the “bad guy” style players, a positive reputation is required to hide their nefarious actions long enough to claim victory.
This effect is even more dramatic in long-running games, whether virtual (such as MMOs like World of Warcraft) or physical (such as LARPs like NERO). Having a strong positive reputation means that a player will get more frequent and generous dealings, will be included in more lucrative encounters, and less likely to be thrown on to the chopping block when a group of players needs a sacrifice.
Now that we’ve established the value of reputation to a player in these games, let’s look at ways that other players attack reputation. The most obvious is open vilification (whether true or not), through verbal and written word. This is a popular technique, especially with players that are particularly charismatic, popular, or both.
But there are subtler techniques, too. Small scale gossip is the classic example, as gamers are notorious for loving gossip and talking about other players.
A particularly devious method can be employed by leaders (or other characters that have some group selection mechanic). When a player has the ability to control who is included in the “in” group, this player can subtly bias other players towards or against particular players.
For example, let’s say that one player is an adventure leader, and frequently is given the capability of picking an adventuring crew. By carefully selecting crew members that player wants to bond with, they can effectively commit social PvP against the players they choose to exclude. These excluded players will be increasingly seen as “outsiders” by the players that are consistently picked to go on adventures. Players will generally prefer reliable choices, and that means continuing to work with players they have already worked with in the past.
Sidenote: Sometimes this form of PvP (and others) is committed accidentally or unintentionally. In the adventure leader, for example, the player may be forced to exclude some players, and even doing their best may not be able to be truly fair. On the flip side, cunning players will hide behind this shield, claiming their intentions were innocent when they were not.
Economic PvP is simply hurting a player’s resources, rather than the player themselves. This one is more subtle than social PvP in many ways, but in some games much more widespread. Theft technically qualifies as economic PvP, but for this article we’re examining the subtler forms of PvP.
One such technique is undercutting. Undercutting is the act of selling goods at a cheaper price than another player. Much like in the real world, this forces the victim to either drop their prices (thus decreasing their income) or lose business (also decreasing their income). In many games that have automated stores like auction houses, this can even be done anonymously. Even in games that display character names in auction houses, a savvy player can often hide their real name by using an alt.
Undercutting is just one technique of a more general concept – taking business away from a player. Another common way of doing this is for a higher positive-reputation player to enter the same business. Even with the same or higher prices, the better-liked player may take away business from the lesser-liked player.
Another way is through the collection of exclusive resources. This can be seen clearly in deck-building games with unique cards accessible via a common pool. When one player purchases a card, that card is gone forever, effectively preventing other players from purchasing it. This is, effectively, a form of PvP, as by purchasing that card, a player is making other players’ decks weaker. In draft-style games, such as some Magic: The Gathering tournaments, this technique is more commonly referred to as “hate-drafting”. A player will sometimes take a card that is powerful for an opponent, but weak for themselves, simply to deny their opponent the powerful card.
Probably the least obvious form of PvP is Labor PvP. Labor PvP is the act of doing work, and, in doing so, taking away this potential work from another player. This has some overlap with economic PvP, so instead we will discuss the non-overlap.
In many persistent games, virtual or physical, there will be events that are first come, first serve. In LARPing, these are often referred to as modules, or mods for short. Often, these mods can be run once (or perhaps a small, but limited number of times), and then are unavailable. When you have this style of mechanic, a player is forced to commit labor PvP against other players whenever they do a mod. By doing this mod, they prevent other players from ever claiming the rewards.
This can also be seen in any game where players have direct interaction with staff that are running the game, and staff time provides a benefit to a player. Since staff time is limited, players that demand more staff attention and time get more of this benefit and deny this benefit to other players.
Now of course, labor PvP is generally-speaking less direct, and often incidental. But it is still actions taken by a player that cause damage to other players.
In summary, there are a lot more types of PvP than players tend to recognize. The point here is not to cast a judgement on them, or any players that either intentionally or unintentionally engage in these forms of PvP. Rather, I seek to make it clear that these actions are a kind of PvP, and to pretend otherwise is ignorant. Now that these kinds of actions have been established as PvP, we can discuss their merits, and encourage or mitigate them as desired.