Whether in our personal lives or as part of the sports we crave, numbers and statistics play a pretty large part in all of our lives: win/loss records, Twitter followers, free-throw percentages, sales quotas, batting averages, credit scores.
And predictably, there they are in videogames: elating us when they’re positive, haunting us when they’re negative, and ever present via menu screens and character profiles.
And they can really bring out the worst in people. Who hasn’t played a game against someone in a sports title like Madden NFL and had them ‘rage dashboard’ when being beaten, exiting out to the console main screen to make the game not count so they don’t have to take a loss?
Online shooters are chock full of statistics for one to determine their own worth, or judge the worth of opponents. Win percentages, shot accuracy, and even (often arbitrary) score awarded for tasks all add up to tell us who we are and give us a means for ranking and evaluating.
But there’s one stat that quite often seems to be so crucial to people that it truly affects how they choose to play the game: kill/death ratio. Usually shortened to K/D, it expresses the number of kills you’ve dished out to the number of times you’ve died, and it’s become a particularly important badge of honor among many.
And maybe we shouldn’t let it be.
For straight up deathmatch situations it’s not that big a deal; the only objective there is to reach a set number of kills before the other team does. If you have more kills than deaths, you helped your team; if you have more deaths than kills, you were a hindrance. But for objective-based games in Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, and similar online shooters, you’ll often see people ignore the objectives and spirit of team play and go for personal glory and beefed-up stats.
When someone starts 8–2, but suddenly finds themselves 9–8 they get defensive in their play style. Or maybe they only entered the mode hearing it’s a good way to ‘go positive’. They ‘camp’ in corners because heaven forbid they should have negative K/D for the match. If they have a poor ratio, when the match ends they might get teased by their opponents or berated by teammates for ‘going negative’.
And they certainly don’t want their own lifetime stats negatively impacted. (After all, if they have a high K/D, Dakota and Madison in 3rd period Algebra will want to go to the big dance with them!) That's why it's a pretty common occurrence for several people to 'dashboard' as a game is ending; they're so protective of their ultimately meaningless statistic that they exit the game and start it up again just so a ratio doesn't drop by 0.01 points.
And in protecting their K/D above all else, they pass on the actual goal of the game mode. They refuse to try to plant that bomb. They hesitate to capture that flag. They forego trying to revive a comrade for fear of dying themselves. They forget they’re part of a team.
I’ll confess myself that I sometimes balk at things when I’m doing badly, and I shouldn’t feel or behave that way. I sunk to around 0.55 overall in the K/D department in Modern Warfare 3 before getting my bearings and am now around 0.84 and climbing every day. But honestly, I shouldn’t care at all. I shouldn’t even look at the ratio, but Infinity Ward shoves it in my face each time I visit the barracks or their ELITE service.
The trend has been to push it front and center. In Modern Warfare 2 you had to go past your profile to the Kills leaderboard to be told your K/D; in Modern Warfare 3 it's right on your profile.
So we can't really take all the blame for caring about K/D. A statistic is being shown to us—often without having to really search for it—and it’s only natural to want to get it higher, especially when there’s a leaderboard ranking us with millions of others. You’d like your credit score to be higher and to have more Twitter followers, wouldn’t you?
Is the solution to not show us our number of kills and deaths, and not show us our ratio? Is blissful ignorance the way to go? Sure, show us how we did in each individual game so we can have a little friendly trash-talk between matches. But maybe not including that information in our overall profiles and not having leaderboards would make objective-based games be about the objective for everybody.
I know I’d go full-on at objectives a heck of a lot more if I didn’t have that virtual albatross weighing me down. I’d love to race around in Kill Confirmed, collecting dog tags and not caring if I go 3–20, being willing to take a certain death as long as I can snag just one more dog tag to help my team.
One major title, Uncharted 3, agrees. Its developer makes a similar argument, and tells you to use a calculator if you want your K/D. Sadly, that makes the stance half-hearted, as the reference to getting a calculator means you must be able to see kills and deaths, and most can get a good idea of their K/D just by eyeballing those two numbers. But it is a good first step in the right direction.
So maybe the next online shooters ought not to include our K/D ratios. I’m certain that the gaming community is going to keep obsessing over them, so maybe game developers will have to save us from ourselves.
Jeff is currently playing Metal Gear Solid HD Collection; follow him on Twitter at JKLugar.