Something new and interesting has been slowly seeping into the culture of WOW, and its effects are pretty intriguing. I speak of the mod GearScore. Basically what this does is give you a number to use to rank how good the equipment of a character is, and it works on anyone you can see including yourself. For example, my main character Redcape has a GearScore of 5420, my max level warlock who has not done much has a score of 3450 and my Level 3 starting character has a GearScore of 0.
Essentially this allows someone to rapidly determine how powerful the equipment of another character is and distill all that information into just one number. This is useful because it can take quite a lot of time to look at another character and inspect all the equipment they have to find out how powerful it is, whether they have the proper enchantments and enhancements on it and such. Getting that information very quickly is good when you want to start a group for something challenging because you can easily glance at their score and know if it is far beyond their capabilities.
It used to be that making these sorts of determinations about another player was really quite difficult. There were no addons to the game that created these sorts of scores and so you would have to check over each person individually to see how equipped they were. When you went into a dungeon with a group there was no way to know exactly how good anyone was aside from simply watching your screen and making some educated guesses. However, when a group went very quickly and efficiently most people would remember it and would try to group withe the same people again. This became a very social dynamic, where maintaining a good reputation was important because the way you got into groups was to have people remember that you were skilled and not a jerk. If you acquired a reputation for being terrible no one would group with you because there was no easy way to actually check.
Fast forward to modern WOW and things have changed. GearScore is a huge change, but damage meters are another. This second type of mod is basically a database of everything that happens during a dungeon clear. When I have this running (and I always do) I can see exactly what abilities someone else is using, how often they get critical strikes, what % of their damage comes from each source and more. Now whenever I consider playing with someone I can instantly tell how good their equipment is and once we begin fighting I can tell right away how good they are and in many cases start giving them advice on how to be better. Being known across the server as an idiot certainly doesn't help any, but the necessity for a good reputation and connections has decreased massively. Advanced diagnostic and statistical tools now allow a modern player to not only improve his own game, but also to rapidly evaluate potential partners for skill and equipment.
Of course, there are big downsides. The most hilarious of which is that GearScore is easy to fool. There are many pieces of gear that are either bad or inappropriate for particular roles that a player can equip to try to fool the mod into overestimating the player's gear. For example, if you are a paladin who specializes in healing people a trinket that makes you stronger isn't any help at all, while a trinket that makes your spells more powerful is. However, GearScore simply does not distinguish between these things and will assign someone with a mismatched, ineffective set of equipment a high score if the equipment is 'powerful' even if it is useless to the player in question. This leads to a couple of amusing situations:
1. Players abuse this loophole to inflate their score. There are many people out there collecting useless (to them) equipment just to fool other people's GearScore ratings. They put on useless gearsets to get into groups and then put on reasonable equipment afterwards. This is almost exactly like lying on your resume in that it can easily get you into jobs you can't handle and will get your ass fired in a hurry if anyone finds out.
2. Players actually look at the scores generated by the mod to make decisions. I hadn't actually seen this in action today until I took a look at a person in my group at the end of a run. He had gear specially designed for resisting frost damage equipped for a normal dungeon clear where there was absolutely no frost damage expected. He had this gear enchanted with extremely expensive enchantments that also didn't remotely match the frost resistance theme of his gear, so at first I could not fathom how this came about. Then the truth hit me: This guy was simply maxing his score. He wasn't trying to be good and he wasn't looking to be powerful. He only wanted to convince the people using GearScore that he had powerful equipment, and actually had no real intention of improving his abilities.
So now we have a situation that large numbers of players are using a particular game modification to make decisions on how to build their groups, which causes many other players to use this mod. These other players end up building their characters to maximize their score instead of their effectiveness, which means that instead of actually improving their ability to beat things they only strive to improve their ability to convince other people that they can beat things. Using this mod to decide how to improve your equipment is better than truly random selection, but loses out to even the most incompetent decision making.
This ends up being something of a tragedy of the commons. If everyone would simply use GearScore as a way to condense information and not worry about maximizing their own return it would end up being a very useful tool and would allow more efficient decisions to be made and more appropriate groups to be formed. Unfortunately there is an incentive for each individual to try to fool GearScore and virtually zero penalty for doing so personally which means that the mod becomes drastically less useful for everyone as people compete with each other. We also end up with people who gear themselves by what a mod says is powerful rather than asking someone or making educated guesses and the overall quality of play drops, if only a little.
A race to the bottom indeed.