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Apr 07, 2004

Comments

1.

Personally, I am wary of Borders and Bryan's basic assumption of:

"MMORPGs will evolve into immersive worlds with elaborate civic structures—Online Societies."

My take: not all MMORPGs, not now, and not by accident.

I'm inclined to believe that it won't happen in any substantive way unless it is part of someone's game design. Either someone explicitly designs a game that incorporates structures and roles for players to participate in civic structures, or someone designs a game where it can emerge: i.e. a game that has a built-in mechanism to reflect society inputs (ala a modern LambdaMOO). I imagine problems with both.

The quintessential best example of where folks evolved their own rulesets was AD&D ("Dungeons and Dragons"). Their the rules had to be "living" - requiring constant interpretation, embellishment and negotation with a GM (person) who was responding to pressures from a player community. The problem with AD&D as an exemplar for MMORPGs is that these were small groups (easy to reach consensus) and there was a real-world dimension (ultimately had to get along).

As for software MMORPGs: outside of a BOF crowd role-playing on the side in some game, it seems to me that spontaneous civic structures arising in games is unlikely unless it were designed in and is tethered to some part of the player play calculus (otherwise, from theory of fun it will fall victim to [Players]... [who] always fights to optimize, assembly-line, simplify, maximize ROI).

Case: I once played an MMOG for over a year (which then failed). From retrospect it had some profound game design issues (27/7 players and what they can misbehave in a real persistent world) that the small player community tried to address via "councils" and "voting and policing" of in-game play conduct (e.g. "shouldn't attack players possessions when they were off-line" etc). Attempts failed because there was always some constituency which never saw that it was in their game-play interest to participate. And unlike real-life, players in games don't often feel the need to compromise especially when their idea of fun is at stake.

2.

Nathan>> "not all MMORPGs, not now, and not by accident."

I agree - they need to acknowledge a distinction between the different types of VW's they are lumping into the generic "MMORPG" group. Some, like Second Life, are designed as virtual communities and already are beginning to show signs of developing their own civic structure. Others are designed primarily as games and while they do indeed posess a community, but that community is only a small subset of a much larger already established community. All online gamers belong to this larger virtual community (or mob) whose virtual world is the internet. This mob has it's own social groups (ie guilds or clans) and it's own leaders. While a lot of guilds exist only in one game and a great many for only a short period of time, there area a good number that exist between games and even between genre's... though the leaders of the guilds remain the same despite the game being played.

The trick with VW community's and "civic structure" is that to have a civic structure implies one has to have power over others. In a virtual environment the only power a leader has over another person is whatever power that person allows them (which in a round about way is no power at all). Even game companies themselves have only the limited power of kicking that specific player profile out of the game... which is only a minor punishment since getting back in is only a matter of obtaining a new license key (which, after a certain point in the games existance, is pretty cheap).

The real social experiemnt here isn't to watch how communites form in an alien environment - but to see how stable communities can be where laws cannot be enforced.

3.

Every day I see communities that have been voluntarily formed enforce laws that they have voluntarily created. In a truly social game this is easily done and doesn't require game design to empower users beyond being able to help and associate with whomever they choose.

Interesting to note: in an environment where participation in organized social structures is strictly voluntary, when it comes to enforcing rules that the community has passed voluntarily for the sole purpose of their own enjoyment, 90% of the talk will be from 10% of the people who do nothing but complain about how they're being oppressed. There's a life lesson there.

I also like to observe whether players will adopt democratic, monocratic, etc. models of government, how effective each is, and how they change over time. So far in my experience, most people initially favor a very socialistic structure. The true powers of the world will be monarchys/oligarchys (usually with natural, charismatic leaders rather than elected ones), while republics tend to be the most stable in the long run. Pure democracy is always fun to watch die, given the complicating factor (as previously pointed out by Nathan) that no one feels much need to compromise on their fun.

4.

Source>"MMORPGs will evolve into immersive worlds with elaborate civic structures—Online Societies."

Nate>Either someone explicitly designs a game that incorporates structures and roles for players to participate in civic structures, or someone designs a game where it can emerge

I think the tricky point here is what you put inside or outside the "elaborate civic structures" box. There seems to be a presumption that the authors are talking about LambdaMOO formalized government -- and maybe they are -- there is very little in the way of clear practical application in the article. But was LambdaMOO a real government or a simulation of government?

Suppose you put 500 real people in a real auditorium. Does that create a civic structure? I take it the answer is no if they are all watching a large television screen. But what if they are dancing, or playing Eric Zimmerman's massively multiplayer Rocks, Paper, Scissors game? In other words, at what point do we describe communicative social structures, sets of norms, and implicit or explicit rule systems as "civic"?

My feeling is that it must have something to do with the value we attach to the context. I think the current objection is that the context of social interactions in MMORPGs is a game. But increasingly, we're seeing commerce, user creativity, and education trickle into and out of the MMO gamespace.

When VW spaces and avatars are perceived as being culturally productive in ways that matter to those who are not participating in them (like the Internet matters today to society), I think that's when we'll start calling the structures we see in VW societies "civic."

5.

Great find, Greg. I spent some time with this, and some reactions -

Life is full of strange coincidences. In my first academic appointment, it was a department where people talked about this stuff a lot. If you'd told me then that everything being talked about there would reappear a decade later in a discussion about videogames, and that I'd actually be involved in it, I'd never have believed it.

Well such is the state of affairs, and here we are: What's the connection between MMORPGs and Rawls/Hobbes/Hayek etc?

First, everyone should be aware that the analytical lens taken by Borders and Bryan is a contested one within political theory. Not all political theorists would agree that the new societies in cyberspace are somehow naturally amenable to a contractarian political economy. People are people, whether in cyberspace or not. Since less than a majority of political theorists feel that contractarian theories really elucidate ordinary societies, we shouldn't automatically go along with the authors' application of these contested ideas to MMORPGs.

The very idea of individual rationality as a primary behavioral category has never been fully accepted, and is under assault from places that used to be indifferent to it (neuroscience, for example).

So, while I love the fact that Borders and Bryan argue that political analytics do apply in VWs, it bugs me that they chose one particular analytical method to apply, indeed one that I'm having more problems with as the years go by.

The level of the paper was also disappointing; too abstract. The policy advice - "Defer to efficiency " - struck me as kind of impossible and unhelpful at the same time.

And then their first paragraph asserts that MMORPGs 'will evolve' into real societies with real politics. Seems bizarre that writers who lay so much emphasis on emergence would not recognize that any collection of 150,000 interacting people already does have real society and real politics. Why 'will evolve' instead of 'have evolved'? What exactly is going to happen in UO (or did happen from 2001 to now) to mark a transition from 'no society' to 'society'?

Anyway, my overall reaction is that its quite a leap to say that a certain branch of political economy should be applied to MMORPGs, when very few people agree that these tools should be applied to Earth polities. The authors didn't make a good case that MMORPGs are somehow naturally Hayekian in a way that Earth societies are not. It would have been more interesting if they had come up with different rulesets and outcome measures that could establish whether a Hayekian or, say, Foucaultian approach to social design produces better societies.

Basically, they found a new kind of liquid container and spent the whole paper talking about what a great beer mug it will be, overlooking the fact that lots of people don't like beer, and that perhaps the thing is a really a water sprinkler and not a mug at all.

6.

TC> "Seems bizarre that writers who lay so much emphasis on emergence would not recognize that any collection of 150,000 interacting people already does have real society and real politics."

Yes -- that's what I was trying to get at in the last post (I think we were writing long comments at the same time). I'm afraid they might have thought that a "civic society" would finally emerge when the trolls and elves create a bi-partite legislature and start voting on bills about mithril mining.

>The level of the paper was also disappointing; too abstract.

I agree with that too -- kind of like a table top with no legs to ground it. A very nice table top, though, very pretty if you're really into Hayek and efficiency, but not the kind I'd want to take the effort to build the legs onto.

7.

Not that it is a workable idea, but still an interesting hypothetical: what if there was a VW where players were required to log a certain number of hours per week, or have their account terminated. Even with a lowish quota like 5-10 hours, might that alone foster a sense of civil obligation (of the more explicitly structured variety)--not least because players were guaranteed that all other players had a similarly vested interest in gameplay? A civil-interest n00b filter of sorts, it would imply that social obligation doesn't have to lead to 'compromise' in the pejorative sense.

greglas: When VW spaces and avatars are perceived as being culturally productive in ways that matter to those who are not participating in them (like the Internet matters today to society), I think that's when we'll start calling the structures we see in VW societies "civic."

I'd say that people who don't use the Internet perceive it as having value because of business use--not because they've heard of couples meeting online. Money, not culture, is valued from that perspective. "Civic", just like "immersive", is inherently a local valuation--grandpa's recognition isn't necessary for grandson to participate in an elaborate and stable social structure. Grandpa probably doesn't recognize the value of grandson's RL social mannerisms either, but the value is real to those inside it. Grandpa might even write a paper talking about what amazing things will happen in those newfangled MMOGs, and not realize it's already happened and left him behind.

8.

Greg> very pretty if you're really into Hayek and efficiency, but not the kind I'd want to take the effort to build the legs onto.

Early on they talk about simulationist possibilities, but they don't carry through to the idea that we can build a number of tables, some with this top and some with a different top, to see which one we like. There isn't even a 'for example' in front of the top they build; they just act like this is how one would naturally approach things.

I guess my question to you and Dan is - within legal scholarship, is it natural to conceive of law-giving institutions as having this contractarian basis? I also saw similarities between their proposals and the grief-as-crime idea. Made me wonder where you guys were coming from (if anywhere - I know that not all work [certainly not mine] proceeds form some higher philosophical assumptions). Just a query: is all [respectable] legal scholarship derived from Hobbes and Locke?

9.

greg>>Suppose you put 500 real people in a real auditorium. Does that create a civic structure?

There's a big difference between that and online civic structure. You don't sinmply have 500 people in a room... you have 500 people in a room but the only contact they have is being able to talk to each other. They (for the most part) don't know each other and are able to enter and leave the room at any time without anythign that happens in the room affecting the rest of their lives.

In this situation some people still become leaders (just as happens in the real world) but the anonimity and lack of any actual consequences remove the natural human inhibitions that form real world societies.

How many more people in the real world would be criminals if the police had no power but to put your name on a "blacklist" and all it took to remove yourself from the list was to change your name? (ie create a new character as most griefers don't use their main character for griefing purposes)

10.


And unlike real-life, players... don't often feel the need to compromise especially when their idea of fun is at stake.

A point raised in May 2003 Stanford Business on virtual teams (Teams That Span Time Zones Face New Work Rules) seems analogous/relevant:

"virtual teams have a much more difficult time distinguishing the conflict of ideas in their virtual environment from the conflict of personal relationships."

The antidote? Trust. The more team members trust each other, the less likely they are to mistake the battle of the idea for the battle of the ego.

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