Behind the Mask: The art of costume contests

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|01.06.11

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Behind the Mask: The art of costume contests
Costume contests are just part of the culture of Champions Online. When a game has huge potential for character customization, celebrating that aspect seems like a natural conclusion. Costume contests also provide an interesting method of wealth distribution; rich players tend to hold costume contests that anyone, even low-level heroes, can win. It's truly a level playing field.

The real problem: Is it really? I've judged numerous costume contests, and they all end up with the same problems. Hivemind voting and kingmaking are real problems when it comes to fair treatment of potential candidates. Also, friendships between judges or contestants can create a sort of community bias that keeps a deserving hero from winning.

I'm definitely not going to talk about costume design, but I can discuss how to create a judging and voting system that lends to fairer selection of winners. In the end, costume judging is subjective, but these methods avoid some of the big pitfalls in costume voting.

Minimize judge communication

Probably the most difficult situation comes when one judge says, "I like this person's costume." This may be fine when nothing is on the line, but when you have a panel of judges, influencing them to think your way is bad. Costume contests have judges precisely because they are a group of varied opinions. If judges communicate too much about what they like, bias and favoritism hits fast.

In general, reducing the volume of your judge chat reduces favoritism. In fact, voting methods that completely remove it are ideal. This way, judges can't be influenced by the opinions of other judges and can pick the choices that stand out best in their own minds.

I prefer to have no "private judge chat" such as team chat or a chat channel at all. This way, any judge chatter has to be visible to the people being voted on, which reduces the desire to talk about judging subjects.

Introduce private voting

Kingmaking is a huge problem for costume contests. When I am in a costume contest that does not use private voting (most of them, sadly), I play kingmaker if given half a chance. Kingmaking is a term used in multiplayer free-for-all games such as Risk. It refers to a player stuck in a losing situation who has the ability to cripple another player at the expense of all of his or her win potential.

The idea behind kingmaking in a costume contest is that the person you want to win has no chance, and someone whose costume you don't like is winning the contest. If you choose to vote last, you can sabotage someone else's win to give someone you like more a guaranteed spot. This is preferable to throwing away your votes on someone you like, but who otherwise won't get any votes.

Obviously, this situation is incredibly bad for people who deserve to win. The way to remove it is to have someone honest (ideally the person funding the contest) function as a vote keeper. Everyone sends his vote to that person, who then tallies up the votes. This will result in more "honest" votes, since people don't know whom others are voting for. Ideally, this person casts his or her votes first, so that he or she cannot be a kingmaker.

Private voting also helps because each judge does not know what his or her colleagues are voting on. This virtually eliminates bandwagon voting based on favoritism. If a judge doesn't like another judge, he or she may not want to agree with that person. However, if the judges know only that The Power Princess got some votes but not who voted for her, it reduces the potential for favoritism.

Use multiple voting rounds

The problem with blind voting is that people will predictably vote all over the place, especially at the beginning of the contest. This is a good thing! The best way to handle it is to use it as an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

At the beginning of your costume contest, give your judges a few votes (2-4, depending on the number of judges), and have every hero who receives votes progress to a second round, regardless of how many votes are cast for him. This will eliminate the lion's share of entrants right away, which will let people leave early and keep them from wasting their time. Obviously a lot of people will stay to see the winners, and that's fine, but it keeps you from wasting a lot of people's time if they don't want to stay.

Next, hold another voting round and eliminate all but the top five or so, giving your judges the same number of votes or slightly smaller. If you have a lot of ties, just eliminate the bottom few until you have your finalists. Obviously if someone wins by a landslide victory, you can end the contest right there, too.

After the first round of voting, you can actually run the voting any way you want. You can choose to reduce the number of judge votes (say, from 3 to 2 or something) and run the second round the same as the first; eliminating only the people who get no votes.

Running too many rounds is dangerous, though. The person tallying votes knows what everyone else likes and thus becomes a kingmaker in her own right. This can be solved by just not giving the votekeeper any votes herself, but I personally would not like to have zero say in the winner of my own costume contest. Some kingmaking will inevitably be unavoidable in this situation, but it is much better than the open discussion voting situations.

So a quick summary for everyone:
  • Reduce or eliminate private judge chatting, especially about voting (random banter is fine)
  • Use hidden voting to eliminate kingmaking and bandwagon potential
  • Have multiple voting rounds to reduce vote randomness
If you follow these basic steps, your costume contest will run a lot more smoothly; more importantly, it will be a lot more fair. It's so easy for favoritism to creep into costume voting that it's almost imperceptible. Don't let this happen to you. Host the most fair contests possible, so I can win them!

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
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