Social Warfare: Holdfast: Nations at War's struggle with collective action18 Oct 2018 3
Holdfast: Nations at War is a multiplayer game set in the Napoleonic Wars, and it’s all about teamwork. Every player plays a soldier, with classes ranging from your typical line infantry, to more specialized flag-bearers and officers, who provide bonuses to accuracy and reloading to their nearby comrades. On paper, this means that officers should be leading around groups of players in order to maximize their efficiency. In practice, it more often than not ends up being a confusing and disorganized melee, with common sense giving way to chaos. I decided to see if it was possible to lead as an officer, or if all attempts at command were futile.
I began my first match in my experiment as a Prussian officer, and immediately began jogging toward the sound of gunfire in the distance. The first thing I noticed upon stepping into the shiny boots of my avatar is that people in the text chat had, as in all multiplayer games, immediately started slinging slurs faster than you can even attempt to click the “kick vote” button. The second thing I noticed is that my team was already in a decent position. The map we were fighting on had a small, central hill fort, and we had men firing down from the wall at the approaching British.
As I arrived at the fortifications, I said to the players around me, “Let’s get moving on our left, they’re trying to flank us!” No response, except for the soldier next to me who called me something unrepeatable in polite company. Holdfast has a proximity voice-chat system, meaning that when you turn your mic on, the only people who can hear you are nearby. However, as I was reminded quickly by a British man shrieking similar obscenities up the hill at me, the enemy can hear you as well.
After catching a stray musket ball to the face, I returned to the fort, and heard another player trying to convince a small group to peel off to the left to halt the flanking maneuver I had been concerned about one musket ball before. I added my voice to his, and as both of us had the clout that officers carry, we brought a small group down the hill. I was thrilled at this small victory, then promptly bayoneted in a British charge.
In the next battle, both sides were fighting over a capture point in the middle of a river, with no cover except for the banks on either side. The pattern for me quickly became run to the river, yell for the men who were hiding behind trees to move up with me, then run into the river. I hoped that leading by example, combined with my insistent badgering, would be enough to get my allies to follow me to the opposing bank so we would have some breathing room. Sometimes, my plan worked well, and we would establish a formidable foothold on the opposite bank of the river. Most of the time, I was gunned down alone in the river, forced to run back from my team’s spawn and repeat the cycle. I figured that random players didn’t seem to want to follow orders given by others they didn’t know, which is fair considering that anyone who had a mic could bark orders out.
This time, I decided to play as a standard infantryman, to see how the social leadership dynamic worked from the opposite point of view. I quickly noticed that most players tended to simply form up behind cover, and they’d listen to anyone who directed their fire with a mic, but not much more than that. It seems that even in video games, players hold their lives dear enough that they’re not willing to throw it away, even when the order they are given is a sensible one. Unfortunately for my team in this match, some officers actually did manage to get large groups of men to follow them. These officers, of course, had no idea what they were doing, and led their gaggles on long marches through areas with no cover, resulting in a waste of time and manpower for the team.
Annoyed at the lackluster tactics that my former allies had shown, I returned to the familiar role of an officer in the next match, knowing that I could be a better leader. I had forgotten that gathering people to follow you is the difficult part. Upon entering the match as a Prussian officer, I saw two other Prussian officers standing near the spawn and gathering up men, both shouting in poor German accents. “It looks like they’re flanking to our left, we should get going!” I said to the two, relieved to see that coordination was finally winning over chaos. “Nein,” one said, “we must wait for more men!” I watched for 30 seconds as more men certainly lined up behind them, but they didn’t move. Growing exasperated with the delay and seeing our allies in that direction get gunned down by the French horde, I said “Let’s go!” and took off toward the flanking enemy forces. Only 3 of the 20-some men followed me, and we ended up hunkering behind a rock and getting overwhelmed as the rest of our initial group ran in the opposite direction.
Leading strangers in the game is not all herding cats, though. In the same match, a French gaggle of roughly 20 men wedged themselves between a Prussian detachment and 5 men that I was with. Noticing that we had unintentionally flanked the French, I gathered the attention of the nearby soldiers, and we charged into the rear of the enemy, triggering a charge from our allies, and resulting in the complete destruction of the French group. It was immensely satisfying to pull off this feat, and it made the struggle of attempting to lead worth it.
It is difficult to end this article without mentioning specifically the kind of behavior some showed in the game. One of the first things I heard on entering the game for the first time when writing this article was the national anthem of Nazi Germany, and several slurs were hurled in my direction, simply for no other reason than the fact than that I was talking. It was certainly off-putting, but I’ve grown a thicker skin from being exposed to this kind of playerbase before.
However, I feel that the community surrounding more 'hardcore' multiplayer historical wargames, such as Holdfast, Mount & Blade, Rising Storm 2... even Wargame: Red Dragon, etc., is notably toxic enough to be dissuasive to new blood in the community. I can’t imagine many people who are newcomers to wargames will continue their interest after hearing people around them saying that Hitler was right, completely unprompted, or seeing someone in the text chat going out of their way to include every slur imaginable in their message (Apologies for this, I imagine that some of the screenshots likely have these sorts of messages off to the side). There is most certainly an issue with wargames attracting these sorts of toxic players, and it already is damaging to the health of the hobby.
Overall, my attempt to lead in Holdfast ended up going about as one could expect from someone attempting to exert control over others in a game. Some curses were flung at me, some others followed my orders, but I was largely ignored, because the safer option (in their minds at least) is to ignore the guy who is telling them to leave cover and advance. Completely reasonable, but a coordinated team that is willing to work together is far superior to one that doesn’t work together at all.