By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Ninth inning. Two outs. Two runners in scoring position.
Your team is up by one, so it all comes down to this last batter. Get him out, and the game is yours.
He swings and hits. Good contact, but it’s headed straight for right field. Should be an easy out.
But then you notice that the right fielder isn’t there. Well, he’s there, but his head is in the clouds. He stands idly by, gazing at the sky, as the ball lands a few feet away.
By the time he comes to his senses, the damage is done. Two runners are in and the game is lost.
Your team has just been AFK’d.
AFK, if you aren’t down with the internet slang, stands for “away from keyboard”, and it’s used to describe a user (in a chat room, video game, or other online environment) who is absent.
Sometimes, going AFK isn’t a problem, such as when somebody leaves their computer for a few minutes in the middle of an online discussion in order to let their dog out.
Other times, such as in the middle of team-based video game, going AFK for just a few seconds can spell just as much doom for your teammates as the poor, absent-minded right fielder.
Back in August, I shared a few lessons about teaching and learning that I have learned from playing an online game called Vainglory. Since that post, I’ve continued to play the game (though with markedly less frequency since the start of another semester), and the game continues to teach me more about pedagogy than I imagine the developers, Super Evil Megacorp, ever intended.
Sorry, SEMC, you’ll never achieve global domination if you keep doing so much good for the world.
In Vainglory, three types of players stand out
I’ve already mentioned the first type: the AFK.
In Vainglory, two teams of three players compete to destroy the enemy’s base. With only three players to a team, you can imagine how difficult it is to win if one of your teammates is missing. When a teammate goes AFK and doesn’t return, it’s an almost guaranteed defeat for your team. In my Vainglory career, I’ve only ever managed to pull off three wins when I’ve been down a teammate.
AFKs are annoying, but you can’t get too angry with them, because life happens. A typical game of Vainglory takes about thirty minutes, so if someone’s baby wakes up in that time, or if their internet crashes, it’s easy to cut them some slack. Annoying, but forgivable.
The second type of player that stands out, however, is nearly unforgivable: the troll.
A troll is someone who uses the anonymity and distance provided by the internet in order to cause trouble that they might otherwise avoid. Internet trolling is somewhat analogous to road rage. Very rarely do pedestrians hurl insults, harsh gestures, and harsher words when they bump into each other at the cross walk. But as soon as a driver has the perceived safety and distance provided by a windshield, the gloves are off.
In Vainglory, a troll is a player who strives to make his teammates miserable. Sometimes a player might start the game with the distinct intention of trolling (just for the lulz). Other times, a player enters the game intent on playing for real, but gets provoked into trolling because the match is going poorly. Whatever its cause, the effect of trolling is the same: reduced morale for the rest of the team.
While an AFK turns a fair match into a challenging hurdle to be overcome, a troll turns a game into a 30 minute nightmare, simply because you know their intentions are bad.
And that brings us to the third kind of player who stands out, but in this case, for the better: the carry.
As in, “That guy really carried his team.”
Watch as TheOne carries his team to victory.
Now, in strict MOBA language, the carry is the player who is built to dish out a lot of damage. But the term also gets used conversationally to refer to a player who leads the team to victory–sometimes with massive offensive output, but also often with good strategy, mechanics, or leadership.
AFKs, trolls, and carries in real life
If I haven’t lost you yet, allow me to bring this all back to education.
You see, AFKs, trolls, and carries exist everywhere–not just in video games and not just on the internet.
At a little league game, the AFKs are the absent-minded outfielders, the trolls are the players who give up and sulk as soon as they fall behind, and the carries are the ones who give it their all and capitalize on every opportunity to lead the team to victory.
A school has AFKs, trolls, and carries as well. Sometimes they’re found in the classroom. Sometimes their found at the water cooler.
In the most literal sense, a student who is regularly absent is an AFK. But plenty of students show up to every class, sit their butts in the seat, and immediately allow their minds to go AFK.
Some students aren’t content with spacing out, and they might decide to troll your class instead of just going AFK. In the classroom, a troll finds ways to distract other students, such as by promoting side talk or streaming videos on YouTube.
And, of course, every teacher loves the carries–the students who always raise their hand, the students who keep their group on-task, the students who organize the impromptu study sessions before the midterm.
Teachers, too, can go AFK. They too can troll a classroom, department, or institution.
The AFK teacher is the one who shows up bodily to class every day but leave his heart at home.
The trolling teacher is the one who spends more time complaining at the water cooler about what her students are doing wrong than brainstorming ways to overcome the challenges.
And, lest I come off as sounding too preachy, I’ll readily admit that at varying times in my teaching career, I have been both an AFK and a troll.
Teachers, too, can carry
In this series of videos, Shin demonstrates his strategy for solo queuing in Vainglory (Solo queuing refers to the process of playing with randomly assigned players rather than queuing with a team that you know). Solo queue is notorious for trolls and AFKs because of the complete anonymity afforded to players selected randomly from all over the world.
One thing I noticed, however, is that Shin’s solo queue stream is exceptionally lacking in AFKs and trolls. They pop up from time to time–but not as often as I experience, and not as much as other solo queuers report. And, of course, the only common variable in these 16+ hours of gameplay was Shin. Something he was doing was preventing trolls and AFKs from rearing their unwelcome heads.
If you haven’t surmised it yet, Shin was the carry. He was the player who, in one way or another, was consistently leading his team to victory.
You see, more often than not, a player goes AFK because their team is losing and they decide they’ve got better things to do than play a losing game for another twenty minutes. And, more often than not, players decide to troll when they are losing because they think their teammates are to blame and need to be punished somehow (a la, road rage).
But players don’t quit when they’re ahead. They don’t fight with the team if they’re having winning.
Teachers, too, can carry a classroom to mitigate the presence of AFK and trolling students.
Teachers, too, can carry a department to keep the trolls away from the water cooler.
Always think about what you can be doing for your team
ShinKaigan streams because he wants the Vainglory community to get better at the game. His 16+ hour playlist on YouTube taught me a lot about the strategy, the mechanics, and the metagame of Vainglory. But, most importantly, Shin taught me the importance of being a team player–a skill that transfers far beyond the Halcyon Fold.
One piece of advice that he repeats again and again, in so many words, is to focus on the things that are in your control and ignore the things that are not–always think about what you can be doing for your team. If your teammate doesn’t understand how the game works, don’t get upset because there is nothing you can do to teach them otherwise (Vainglory has no in-game chat system). Instead, think of the actions that you can take to make up for what is lacking in the other guy’s strategy.
The same principle can be applied in the classroom.
A teacher can carry the class to success by cutting off the AFKs and the trolls before they start. Instead of complaining “Why is that student so disengaged?”, a teacher can start every class by thinking “What can I do engage my students?”
Speaking from personal experience, I used to have a ton of problems with students paying more attention to their smart phones than to me. I even had the occasional high-school level behavior management issue.
The more I have moved from lecture to active learning strategies, the less of these problems I’ve had. The more I have tried to make my classes more about mastering a skill than getting a grade, the more students have come to value our time together. I’m happy to say that for the past four semesters or so, I have had zero classroom management issues.
AFKs and trolls will show up everywhere
In the dugout, in the classroom, at the water cooler, on the road, and in the Fold.
And there are two ways you can react to them.
You could take offense, get angry, complain, sulk, drag your feet, and otherwise feed the trolls and AFKs in ways that only make things worse.
Or, you could carry the team. You could ignore the things that are out of your control and focus on what you can control.
You could make up for what is lacking in your classroom, your department, or your institution.
So, sorry once again, Super Evil Megacorp. I know you’re working on the whole global domination thing. But you’ve really gotta stop inspiring so much good in the world if your scheme is ever gonna come to fruition.