« The Absence of History in Synthetic Worlds | Main | Economic Models »

Oct 13, 2003


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Maslow Short-Circuited:



"Maslow's two basal sets of needs are physiological needs (eating, sleeping) and safety needs. Only after those base needs are met are we motivated to try to address our higher needs, e.g., love and belonging, esteem, and the ever-popular "Self-Actualization...."

I have real issues with this guy. Self-Actualization as a concept gives me a severe gastro-intestinal distress and an almost unsurmountable desire to ....never mind.

Survive long enough to reproduce effectively. That's the basic game plan. So that list of Maslow's is incomplete at best. Rather than a neat little static pyramid, I would rank human needs in the form of at least two parallel tracks, intertwinging around each other like snakes, each constantly pushing for primacy.

We desire security, so that we can be sure we have enough of the necessities of life to continue survival. We also desire some excitement. This provides survival value by keeping us from getting soft. I would certainly equate the need to explore and understand new things as being just as powerful as the desire for security. If this were not so, no would ever take the risk of exploring.

Exploring new relationships and new cultural contacts in a virtual world can be just as rewarding as doing it offline. This provides real world benefit by providing new information. I have met many people online from different countries that I probably would never have known otherwise. This widens our safety net, but it also strengthens us by forcing us to expand our world view.

We desire companionship because "Bare is back without brother behind it" etc. Friends and comrades provide a safety net. But we also want to stand out, because we can have better odds of attracting a superior breeding partner if we seem exceptional. We desire to explore, because with a new generation comes the need for more room. We defend what we have, to ensure an adequate supply for our current needs.

These twin drives provide the energy that keeps any human society in motion. Emotional needs are based on the basic game plan. Impulses that serve to promote survival and sucessful reproduction are the ones that stick around.

Real world needs can be achieved through virtual worlds, if you regard them as simply a medium whereby strangers can meet and get to know each other. From such beginnings can come friendship, mating, business ties, political arrangements, cross-cultural education, and other real world advantages.

Self-Actualization. Oh my. "Be all you can be". Nice. But how, pray tell, are you supposed to be able to tell when you have reached that point? How about instead simply spending your life in a constant effort to become more than you are? It is not the finish line that matters, it is the race. Else, the Marathon would be 5 feet long. We remember that old Greek guy not because he ran yelling thru town and dropped dead. We remember him because of the miles he ran to get there.

Same for any other aspect of human striving. "Violence, anarchy, warfare, and destruction are all great fun to have with your pals in Norrath -- God forbid that anyone try to turn them into a blueprint for real society, though...."

Why are they fun? Because we are competitive predators. Born that way. We like to fight and kill things. Doing it in a virtual world, like any other artificial sporting event, provides a relief valve to let off those feelings without escalating into real world violence (except in those areas where Lineage is popular apparently).

Whatever form you make a virtual world, you are going to be faced with the reality of what people are. Aggresive, highly competitive territorial predators with a strong sense of loyalty to their own in-group.

Your limits are defined by the material you have to work with. People are even more restrictive than technological limts sometimes.

I have no idea why I came out with that. It is late after a hard day. Feel free to flame.


Very interesting discussion.
Some years ago, I noticed a sudden surge of players complaining on the UO boards. They were complaining about not getting new content in a timely manner; My initial reaction was curiosity. Why were they suddenly very vocal about not receiving something they had never had before on any sort of regular basis?

Reflecting on what was going on I could see that for the first few years of UO there was no "content" to the game. There were no quests, no big-bosses, and no clear-cut goals. The Virtual World was so incredibly harsh that the goal was that of basic survival. I was painfully aware of this as soon as I went into the gameworld for the first time... As time wore on (and people left in droves) the game changed to have areas where your basic needs for safety were a given - you no longer needed to trod in the unsafe anarchy. As that happened players who lived in these new areas were instantly bumped up a notch in the ladder of needs and were free to position themselves wherever their real selves would drive them once past the need for basic survival... So here comes "content" to keep these players "content" and provide a framework which helps fulfill their needs.


I'm not really sure I understood the OP.

Is Maslow's heirarchy supposedly short-circuited for the (human) player or is this about the lack of Maslow's Needs as pertains to avatars, i.e. the need to find food, the need to sleep/rest, the need for water, the need for shelter? (All but one of which exist in many MMOGs, or at least did in many of the 1st/2nd generation, assuming EQ/DAoC/AC are 2nd gen, UO is borderline, and things like M59 and the Realm are first gen. )

If you mean Maslow is short-circuited for the Player, I can't possibly agree with that. MMOGs are entertainment, thus not one of Maslow's Needs, but a Desire.

If you mean Maslow is s-ced for the Avatar, I don't really think you can attempt to map something like Maslow to fictional characters, especially not game characters.
TV/Movie/Book/Theatre characters are rarely shown dealing with the search for food/shelter/water/rest in any remotely important way. It's usually assumed that fictional characters eat, sleep, drink, defacate, etc., but not really necessary to the story.

I think MMOGs give the Needs more time than other forms of popular entertainment with many games requiring, albeit automated, eating and drinking of food and water, nearly all require resting of some sort, some require shelter to be acquired(inns, bedrolls) as a prerequisite to resting. Waste-handling is the only function that is almost completely omitted from all forms of pop entertainment, potty humour notwithstanding.

So, I guess I get back to "I don't think I really understand the OP," in that I didn't get a firm sense of how Maslow's Heirarchy is theoretically short-circuited by MMOGs/VWs.


B Smith: Yes, I'm not totally on board with Maslow either, but I think the pyramid is an interesting construct so I'm just using it as a disussion point. (I'm kind of a post-modernist at heart, so I'm dubious that Maslow "discovered" something by making the pyramid -- I'm more inclined to think he wrote a story about motivation that is appealing to people.)

DS & DL: I was being laconic, as usual. The point of the post, for me, was a kind of oblique critique of the Avatar Rights thread, and the "just a game" meme we're dealing with. The social relationships in VWs, the social esteem obtained in VWs, and many of the other aspects of VWs are significantly "real" -- as in RL real -- and this is evidenced by the trade in virtual artifacts, the formation of long-term RL relationship out of VW relationships, etc.

The death, hunger, war, etc., in VWs, however, are not real -- they are entertainment. Real world governments would never (well, should never) try to emulate the societies formed in VWs, because in VWs people are motivated to seek out the dangers they are motivated to avoid IRL. However, the social software aspects and motivation in VWs are real, and we would anticipate that they would take shapes similar to what we find IRL, and might yield some interesting data that would be helpful to those interested in governance. (And TL's Everquest Sopranos paper provides some evidence of this.)

So when I say that "Virtual worlds short-circuit Maslow" -- I guess I mean that the social orders that emerge in VWs are going to be very different that those IRL, because the motivations fueling them, and the social structures that emerge from those motivations, are all going to skip past the lower two levels of Maslow's pyramid, which are essentially about entertainment in the context of VWs.


I'm surprised at the acceptance of the claim that VW lack the "food & shelter" needs. I would think most players identify a certain subsistance level living that they need to achieve in order to progress to the entertainment aspect of VWs. In fact, this is likely the very reason why we have out-of-game markets.

Common "food"s of VW are Gold and Skills/Levels. The first is pretty straightforward - you don't have to look far to find someone working the game rather than playing it to pay for their adventures.

Consider a character in Ultima Online. If they are a naked newbie, the player is going to be driven by the most elementary needs: Equipment and Skills. The equipment isn't a one time thing, either. Most UO players (at least in pre-Trammal) would have a full suit of backup armour in the bank. This is a constant underlying need which I think preempts "Security". Danger is not a concern until one has something one fears losing.

Starwars Galaxies has raised the role of Credit to that of Food. To do ANYTHING costs credits. It is a constant drain on your character. Own a house, and bleed credits. Fly between planets, bleed credits. Again, sufficient credits are needed before the typist can concentrate on more esoteric goals.

The other dimmension of Needs is "Experience" or "Skills". This is the typist demanding that the first thing they do is raise their skills as much as they can. During the Power Hour of Ultima Online when skills rose faster, one often met people who wouldn't stop to talk because the need for skills had trumped that of socialization.

The interesting thing about all this is that these needs are not required. The characters won't die in any of the big MMORPG if you don't satisfy them - for life only $x a month is needed. They also get stronger the longer the typist is in the world. Newbie typists are willing to go without credits and skills, experienced typists hunger for them and refuse to play until they are achieved. That is why I'd place them at the level of Food, for anyone studying solely within the VW, it would certainly appear that these are the penultimate needs that trump lesser concerns such as social advancement.

As for safety - that is a no brainer. It is abundantly evident that the players strive after safety. Players only "appreciate" war in VWs when the war preserves their safety. Indeed, I would think it also clear that people "appreciate" war in the real world when they feel their safety is assured.

If there is a hierarchy of needs, (which I don't fully hold with, as it seems a rather linear analysis of human behaviour) all levels still exist in VWs. A VW that doesn't preserve the typists desires for substinance living will lead to the typist spending inordinate time trying to maintain said living. A VW that doesn't preserve the typists sense of safety will have players that concentrate on maintaining their safety.

- Brask Mumei


My background is in "nongame" virtual worlds and currently, I'm working on a very nongame support community. As a model, I've used Maslow's Hierarchy for years so you can bet I don't agree that it's been short circuited for VWs or MMOGs.

On the base "physiological" level, participants in any online community need a stable client/server/connection and a persist ant identity to inhabit. Make either of those unavailable or unstable and the online space will not be inhabited much like arid desserts are not city centers. VWs are taking note of this - There has been preserving beta identities, items and accounts through DB changes and it seems to be the intended strategy to build a user base.

On the Safety and Security level, account security is the parallel with physical safety. Threaten that or even raise the specter of it with rumor of people's account's being hacked. In my experience, the response of people is very similar to an offline physical threat. Maslow also placed economic security in this level and the easy parallel is to the cost of an account/membership/therebucks. When the prices threaten to rise, the response is that of a community under hardship and attack (especially if the perception is that it is an unfair decision made by the host). I've lived through price changes and while our staff may have thought, "it's just business" that is most definitely not the reaction we got from our customers which ranged from anger to depression and grief at leaving the VW.

Personally, I use the first two levels to drive home the importance of stable, secure code and thought out mode of identity when I have been given the responsibility of fostering social relationships online. Without paying heed to accessibility, identity and security of the individual, it's a risky venture to try building a virtual world with the intent that it will last.

A final note is that I don't treat the hierarchy as a strictly linear progression. Some people move quickly to different levels of need. But, however they got to that set of new needs, they will drop down as soon as the previous set are threatened. A guild leader planning for a group event will quickly drop into pure survival mode if his account is hacked or your hosting service goes belly up. Until that basic need is met (again), that person will be distracted from fulfilling "higher" needs.


I'm afraid I must be either being too obscure or too obvious here -- maybe both. My attempted (albeit simple) point was that the typist sitting at the keyboard will never fear for his/her bodily safety when controlling an avatar in a virtual world. Surely the typist is concerned about the represented bodily safety of the avatar representation within the game context. The typist is also concerned about the needs of account integrity and account security. But these are (at best) property concerns, I submit, not what Maslow was talking about when he talked about the physiological and safety needs of persons as base motivators.

However, the typist may feel *real*, not represented, belonging and group membership as a result of interactions with others in virtual worlds as social software. This is evidenced by RL relationships formed out of (and bleeding into) virtual worlds. Therefore, the dynamics that lead to certain structures of government in real life may be unlikely to be replicated in virtual environments where the typists don't have the same base motivators -- hence democracy in virtual world may not look much like RL democracy. In essence, this is a rephrasing of the "it's just a game" argument in Maslow's terms.

What is interesting, though, is that Maslow's upper level motivators should map well from real life to virtual life. So to the extent RL governance is a result of higher level motivations (to the exclusion of base concerns such as mutual aid and protection from bodily harm) analogous social structures should emerge in virtual worlds.

Scott -- I think the hacking/security point is interesting. Digital existence does depend upon functioning circuitry.

This all reminds me of that Dennis Danvers book, Circuit of Heaven.



This may be a bit off-topic, but I am wondering if a certain level of Maslow progression isn't a prerequisite to fully participating in a VW.

I am sure this happens in other VWs as well as in other industries, but we have had a few people in the There forums claim that they would face serious consequences in RL if we didn't lower our prices on a few virtual items.

One lady claimed that she couldn't afford to buy school clothes for her 2 kids (in RL) as well as her 150 club-mates (in VW), and therefore she should receive a discount on virtual items. At first I thought she was joking, but a few members called her on it and she defend the statement.

Another lady, claimed that There should lower our prices because too many people might max out their credit cards and 'not be able to pay their rent' if we didn't. If I remember correctly this turned out to be a 20+ post thread.

While these are obviously extreme cases, it was interesting to me that people would think that RL consequences might be legitimate argument for negotiating prices in a virtual world.


"My attempted (albeit simple) point was that the typist sitting at the keyboard will never fear for his/her bodily safety when controlling an avatar in a virtual world."

We are not talking about high level cognitive processes when we look at the "Food/Shelter" level of needs. We are talking about base, gut, reactions. I would note that while the typist has no rational reason to fear their bodily safety, if you put their avatar in a position of virtual danger they will exhibit many of the physiological reactions that would suggest that their subconcious feels that they are threatened.

Just as the VW relationships are "real" as they are between different real people, the demand for safety of the virtual avatar is "real" as it triggers real emotions.

We should keep in mind that what is important for changing peoples actions isn't the threat to safety, but the _perceived_ threat to safety. There is no reason to discount threats to avatar safety as being irrelevant to the needs hieararchy on the grounds they are not real threats - one would need to argue that the players subconcious does not perceive a threat. And as said subconcious ACTS threatened, I'd suspect that would be hard to do.

- Brask Mumei


Bruce -- that's *very* interesting. I guess I should have supposed that sort of thing was happening, but somehow I wasn't thinking about it. Sherry Turkle and Julian (and a bunch of others) have talked about the consequences of over-investment in VWs at the expense of RL, and we all know the EverCrack stories... I'm afraid I can't suggest an answer from an economic perspective, though. Whatever prices you set, you'll still have people who max out their credit cards on virtual stuff and want you to lower the prices again. Very disturbing.

Brask -- that's a palpable hit too. First person shooters, for instance, do trigger physiological reactions, don't they? I think the subconscious Pavlovian response to game environments is something we can and should distinguish from rational decisions based on real stimuli. But you're right -- there is some degree of blur there...


Greg, thanks for the book link - I haven't read it yet.

I suspect there are greater influences on government formation than Maslow - specifically the focus and use of resources in a particular VW. What resources are scarce and who can control the resources. For example, in AlphaWorld, symmetric coordinates and view were scarce and I believe a zoning committee developed. I was surprised seeing the First Bank Of There and Therebux - initially, but Therebuck are scarce (they require effort to obtain) so it will be interesting to see how these groups develop and wield their influence. At one point, The Palace developed what could be best described as a nepotistic autocracy as some of their Wizards were basically unchecked by anyone higher (the scarcity being access to the server and power over one's avatar/name choice which could be suppressed via scripts).

Or have I misunderstood your view of governance? This is going to send me back to my Marvin Harris book that describes the transformation of tribal societies into states (Cannibals and Kings) which hasn't happened in VWs yet.


"My attempted (albeit simple) point was that the typist sitting at the keyboard will never fear for his/her bodily safety when controlling an avatar in a virtual world."

I have to agree with Brask on his point about having the same physiological reaction weather in a VW or not. While I can't see myself having a rush of adrenaline in There, the tales of adrenaline rushes when surprised by an adversary on UO, EVE, etc, are not fiction, they are my personal experience too. I have a heart rate monitor I use while working out and ran a few informal tests some time back. It was able to tell me exactly how much time I played and how much time I went beyond the thresholds I had set. The physical reaction was certainly there.


Our pricing models are pretty simple; estimate where supply and demand curves cross, adjust up/down to encourage over-use or under-use, then adjust again based on community feedback/backlash.


Scott -- I agree that the role of code (e.g., the way code enables governance, reflects values, and creates power) plays a *huge* role in governance of online gamespaces. It's a much bigger consideration than what I'm thinking about with Maslow, i.e., player investment and motivation to shape social structures within the gamespace.

Brask -- I agree, and that's why I have that new update about "presence." But I think maybe we need to talk about Pavlov a little, that other guy from the Psych 101 pantheon.

Bruce -- Right. I think I misread your comment about how it was "interesting" that people were trying to leverage RL consequences into price negotiations for virtual goods as a suggestion that you might think there *should* be some weight. Obviously you don't, and I think that's the right answer.


Abe Maslow was not a NY Lawyer. He was
a Ph.D. psychologist. He *did* start
law school, however, but one day walked
out, leaving his books behind after a
discussion of "spite fences." He thought
man was better than that.


Sam, thanks -- I misread that bio I linked to. I will amend the post to delete the reference to the legal training which Abe Maslow rose above. :-)

The comments to this entry are closed.