How Do You Detect an Alpha Player?

Previously, we have discussed the notion of the Alpha Player in this article on The Alpha Player “Problem”:

Have you ever played a co-operative game in which one player takes over, telling everyone else what to do? That player makes other people feel unimportant as he co-opts (pun intended) the game. This is the Alpha Player Problem: someone who simply takes over the co-operative game and makes it less fun for everyone.

Today we look at the idea of the Alpha Player from a more objective point of view: How do we know we have an Alpha Player in our midst? 

As we discuss Alpha Players, we also need nomenclature to refer to the other players playing with the Alpha Player: Beta Player(s) seems be the natural term.  

We’ll take a little tour through some video game literature first.

What Makes a Toxic Environment?

What makes an online video game into a toxic environment? There is an article this year in IEEE Spectrum (see link here) heralding a result published this year in the IEEE Transactions on Games called “Bad Vibrations”: Sensing Toxicity From In-Game Audio Features. See a link to the paper here. There are a number of related papers cited in the Bibliography for more information.

The Idea

The idea of the article is interesting: by monitoring online chat forums of video games (Overwatch in particular) in real-time, the researchers hope to spot “toxic” interactions. The idea of “toxic” is, of course, open to interpretation, but there is a more formal definition comes from the this paper:

N. A. Beres, J. Frommel, E. Reid, R. L. Mandryk, and M. Klarkowski,
“Don’t you know that you’re toxic: Normalization of toxicity in online
gaming,” in Proceedings of CHI ’21. ACM, 2021.

Generally, “toxic” means negative social interactions tending to alienate. To research the topic, the researchers apply a variety of AI, statistical, and machine learning techniques to data they collected. Interestingly, the very notion of what makes an interaction toxic is very subjective. According to Frommel:

“Differentiating what individuals perceive as toxic or not is a big challenge in this context when players accept such toxic language as the norm in their communities or use language that others may consider as toxic without malice within their friend group. Furthermore, these norms differ among various gaming communities”.

The paper discusses some of the criteria they used, both negatively and positively correlating toxicity.

Image 11-25-22 at 8.19 AM

The paper notes highest metrics of toxicity (see table above) are negate and differ categories, which as summarized from the paper:

Words within the differ and negate categories had some of the strongest positive associations with toxicity. This could be because words of differentiation and negations are used more frequently in argumentative contexts or confrontations.

In the other direction:

Similarly, toxicity had a negative association with the tentative words (tentat category), which might be used in more careful and considerate communication that avoids confrontation, and less in toxic communications

The paper talks about approaches, tentative conclusions, and further directions for research in this area.  It’s quite interesting. 

Toxicity and the Alpha Player

The “Bad Vibrations” paper got us thinking more about the Alpha Player in board games. There are a number of questions that the toxicity discussion brings up with respect to the Alpha Player Syndrome:

  1. Can we Identify the Alpha Player from Externals only?
  2. Is Alpha Player Syndrome a type of toxicity? Or is it something else?
  3. Can we apply some of the techniques of the “Bad Vibrations” paper to find Alpha Player Syndrome?
  4. How do the in-person Alpha Players relate to the online Alpha Players?

Audio Externals

The first question that came to mind when I was reading the “Bad Vibrations” paper: Can we detect an Alpha Player using only “external” information?  If we are involved in a game with an Alpha Player, we typically know it because of how the game flows: our agency is taken away from us by the Alpha Player.  (In this situation, we are looking mostly at in-person games).

But, could someone looking in on a game externally notice the presence of an Alpha Player?  “Externals” in this context means simple objective criteria that can be understand without having to understand the conversation(s).  For example, some audio externals might be: word choice, the timings, periods of silence, the tone, the volume of the conversations.  Some visual externals might be mouth twitching, shaking, eyebrow movement.  If we look only at the externals, can we detect the presence of an Alpha Player?

What are some audio externals that might indicate the presence of an Alpha Player?

  1. Short, curt, word choice.  My experience has been that a game with Alpha Player(s), other players typically keep responses short and curt so as to not engage the Alpha Player.

    Some counterexamples might be: (a) teaching or (b) quiet players.  For (a) one player may be teaching trying to get a lot information across, thus most responses would be short.   However, a good teacher would tend to engage and encourage questions.  Perhaps short, curt word choice would simply be the example of a bad teacher.  For (b) a group of people may simply be contemplative: they  are quiet and thinking and prefer short, curt interactions.

  2. Disparate Time Talk. If one player talks quite a bit and the others don’t, does that indicate the Alpha Player?

    Again, the teaching scenario might be the counterexample to this.   Also, some cooperative games have the notion of first player or captain, and the captain tends to talk.  If we can note that the person talking tends to rotate as the game plays, that would suggest there’s no Alpha Player.  If  however, the same person talked through the whole game, that might be an Alpha Player.  Or just someone who likes to talk.

  3. Volume.  How loud are conversations?  If you can isolate all the verbal responses of the players, does the volume tell a story about the Alpha Player?
  4. The word OKAY.  How does someone say OKAY?  An engaged player might use a happy O-K.  A frustrated player might have a O-K like Eeyore (minor third between O and K).  A very short K might be indicative of frustration.  A thinking OKAY might be an elongated  OKAAAAY.  The same grumpy OKAY would be OKAAAAY (but with grumbling underpinning the AAAAY).   Again, a short curt OK might also be to try to disengage from the Alpha Player.
    It would be interesting to see how the word OKAY is spoken correlates to the presence of an Alpha Player.  I suspect a strong correlation.
  5. Word choice: much like the negate and differ categories from the “Bad Vibrations” paper, certain types of words or phrases, might  indicate the Alpha Player presence. 
    On the Beta Players side, I suspect phrase like “Can I go please?” would indicate someone’s frustration.  “I got  it” or “whatever” might indicate someone is trying to assert their own independence, but it might depend on how it’s said.
    On the Alpha Players side, “If you do this…” might be a phrase coming from the Alpha Player, or “we’re going to lose unless…” or “just do this…”.   I suspect assertions of the game state or suggestions all coming from one player might suggest an Alpha Player.
  6. Tone: Can we detect a condescending tone from an Alpha Player? Can we detect frustration in Beta Players?

There are certainly many other criteria we might discover.  What have we missed? None of these by themselves would indicate the presence of an Alpha Player.  For example, many of our examples detect frustration. Perhaps a game is just hard and everyone is just struggling to learn the rules: they are frustrated with the game in general.  But if a singular player tends to stand out in our external detections as different, perhaps there is concern they are the Alpha Player?


Subversive Toxicity and The Alpha Player

Does the  Alpha Player produce a type of toxicity or is it something different?  Taken the extreme, I think an overbearing Alpha Player is absolutely toxic and would show all the signs of toxicity.   My experience with Alpha Players is much more subtle though:  many games with an Alpha Player just feel bad without showing all the signs of toxicity.  I think a better term might be subversive toxicity.  

Consider the bad experiences of a game with an Alpha Player: they cause issues that tend to subvert the cooperative game genre:

  1. Cooperative Game Detachment. Many people don’t like cooperative games because they have only played cooperative games with an Alpha Player: they think all cooperative games have the Alpha Player Problem and refuse to play them. “I hate cooperative games! They always have some jerk who wants to run everything!”
  2. Specific Game Detachment: A particular game may be marred because of an Alpha Player.  “I love Pandemic, but I can’t play Clone Wars Pandemic because I had such a bad play!”
  3. Specific Person Detachment.  A person you may like, but who tends to Alpha Player, may cause you to never want to play games with the person. “I don’t ever want to play with them again!”

This is subversive toxicity because the cooperative game with an Alpha Player breaks people apart rather than bringing them together.  Arguably, the entire purpose of cooperative games is to bring people together.  If an Alpha Player causes future negative repercussions for others, that subverts the entire purpose of cooperative games.  


My own inclination is to look into this Alpha Player Syndrome with in-person games.  Online games are a different creatures (see next section). I think some of the ideas of the “Bad Vibrations” paper are applicable here, but they are much harder to measure with significant data without recording gaming sessions and doing complicated post analysis.  The online games are easier to measure because all the data is in the chat and available to download from online: it’s easy to analyze that.  

An ideal experiment would be to set-up recordings (with everyone’s permission of course) at a Convention: record cooperative game sessions, and ask people (both the participants and people watching) in a questionnaire if they thought there was an Alpha Player in the game.  I think to “mask” the objective, this question might be hidden in longer questionnaire (so as not to bias the findings: “Hey! They are looking for the Alpha Player!”).

Once we had the recordings of the gaming sessions, we could transcribe and get the audio externals.  There might be some visual externals as well, depending on how it was recorded.  With the transcriptions, we might be able to apply some of the techniques of the “Bad Vibrations” paper.

In-Person vs Online Alpha Players

There are a lot of places online to play cooperative games: Board Game Arena, Tabletop Simulator, and Tabletopia to name a few.  It would interesting to try these same experiments online. It has been my experience that we don’t use the online chat with those systems, but rather play over Discord or Zoom.  Depending on how you look at it, I would expect either dramatically more or dramatically fewer instances of Alpha Players.

  1. Play with Friends.  If I am going out of my way to organize an online game, I won’t tend to invite people who I don’t want to play with.  I won’t invite Alpha Players: I suspect far fewer Alpha Players.
  2. Playing with Strangers: The computer interaction tends to dehumanize people, so it’s easier to tend towards an Alpha Player.  I expect far more Alpha Players.

Of course, online sessions would be much easier to record and transcribe.


What makes an Alpha Player different from a Beta Player?  And why do we dislike the Alpha Player?  Fundamentally, the Alpha Player takes away our agency in a  cooperative game.  Detecting loss of agency is quite difficult from an experimental point of view, but we presented  some thoughts on some external ways to detect the Alpha Player.  Did we miss anything?

Although the immediate frustrations of a game with an Alpha Player are annoying, the subversive toxicity is much worse: it can turn people people away from a specific game, from cooperative games altogether, or (worse) from other people. In a future article here at Co-op Gestalt, we hope to come up with ways to curb, mitigate or even cure (?) Alpha Player Syndrome: this is much harder topic than just measuring the presence of an Alpha Player.


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