Columns, Opinion

Gaming the System: The ‘boosting’ industry is booming — is that good?

In December 2018, the South Korean government announced that the providing of “boosting” in competitive video games would now be punishable by law, with perpetrators required to pay a fine of 20 million won — approximately 18,000 U.S. dollars — or serve two years in prison.

Even to someone who doesn’t know what boosting is, this penalty likely seems extreme — how could anything done in a video game warrant such a steep penalty?

For those who aren’t aware, boosting is a practice in which someone pays a more skilled player to play on their account in a video game, thereby increasing their in-game rank to a higher level than they have achieved on their own.

Yvonne Tang / DFP Staff

I am inclined to agree the punishment is too harsh. Sending people to prison for providing boosting services is incredibly cruel and punitive, and adding a legal provision against the practice is just another example of a government acting in the interest of large corporations.

This is because boosting has various negative impacts on a game that developers and the broader esports industry would suffer from — mostly because at some point, the original owner of the account returns to the game after the boosting is finished and plays in an unearned higher skill tier. These include hindering the game’s ability to accurately determine other players’ ranks, giving professionals lower-quality practice, damaging the integrity of tournaments, and so on.

Yet, despite all its damaging effects, the boosting industry is doing quite well. It is not only the province of failed gaming professionals or slightly above-average players either — pro players in several esports have received disciplinary action of some kind for boosting in their past.

To me, one of the most striking cases is the action taken against professional South Korean player Su-min “Sado” Kim after he was hired by my home esports team, Philadelphia Fusion, to play in the Overwatch League. He was suspended for 30 days due to his involvement in account boosting and was ineligible to play for the first 30 games of a 40-game season as a result. The team made an interesting decision to release a video sympathizing with him, discussing how he sought boosting as a way to make money off of his skill for his family.

Certainly, not every booster is doing so to provide for themselves and others. But I would be willing to guess the extra pay — and pay for playing video games at that — is still an incredibly enticing prospect.

The position boosters are placed in reflects broader social structures. In my experience, the capitalist culture we live in makes it such that we more or less fail to see the value in fun for its own sake.

To be sure, video games are not the only way to achieve this fun, and are not healthy or worthwhile to play in excess. But I still think they should be a well-respected leisure activity.

However, when relatives or other adults would ask me why I played video games as a child, I could feel the judgment weigh on me for spending my free time on them instead of a different pursuit, whether a more ‘respectable’ hobby like a sport or something career or education-related, even though I was already doing both.

Therefore I would guess that another appeal of boosting is that it disposes of the guilt — whether internal or imposed by other people — surrounding spending your time on an “unproductive’ exercise. Another thing that seems drilled into us is to get on your hustle and ‘chase a bag’ — that no time spent making money is time wasted. If all the time spent improving at a video game allowed you to be paid to boost other people’s accounts, then it was no longer wasted at all.

In my opinion, competitive video games are indeed quite similar to a discipline like a sport or a musical instrument precisely because their ranked systems allow us to quantify our skill. There is something noble and enjoyable about dedicating yourself to improvement in a context that assigns skill a number, but also allows us to challenge ourselves and think critically about our own mistakes to get better and reach a level of competency that we are proud of.

Boosting is all in all a bad thing, but can we really blame individuals for offering the service and then wanting to buy it? Wanting to be paid for one’s video game skill is created by the world around us, with its constant pressure to be productive and make money.

Likewise, video games and the communities around them have turned rank into a social currency measuring the worth of one’s opinions, and provided excessive in-game rewards for reaching a high rank — the latter of which has been proven to coincide with boosting. The prevalence of boosting as a practice, then, demonstrates the need for us to reclaim fun and self-betterment for its own sake — not for rewards — in politics and subculture alike.

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