I’m now doing much online catching up after a long trip, and Richard Bartle’s entry Fire in Their Bellies is the first place I landed. It's a nice provocation, and echoes some thoughts I had just before I took off about recent experiences playing games with my 3-year old, as well as my own frustrations with the current state of things in MMOGs.
I was especially struck by two things while playing with my daughter. She has really enjoyed the MMOG Toontown (and is frighteningly able to play unaided, stopped only when she absolutely has to read something in order to proceed) but recently asked me why we always have to go back and forth between all the stores carrying things for their owners whenever we get a "task". (Toontown is about as afflicted with the disease of FedEx quests as any MMOG I’ve ever seen.) “Why don’t they just do it themselves,” she asked. (She was especially annoyed when we helped to save one store from the bad guys and the store owner then acted like it had never happened when he assigned us a FedEx quest.) This is part of the general restiveness she is feeling with the repetition of the game. She would much rather create a new character, buy pets and decorate the character’s house than destroy twenty of the same kind of enemy in order to earn the ability to carry five more weapons. She loves seeing new content—when we recently went to the headquarters of the game’s bad guys, she was fascinated. But when we were gated out of one area of the new content because we hadn’t leveled up enough, she immediately said, “Let’s quit, Daddy. This is boring.” (No, I wasn’t prompting her! I promise!)
On the other hand, we’ve also been playing a lot of Monster Rancher 3 on the PS2 (it’s a variation on Pokemon). Aconsha, the monster she’s had since she was 2, finally died of old age. I was in the next room, but came running when I heard a horrible wail and tremendous sobbing. (She grasped right away what had happened when suddenly her monster was flying up towards the stars and a big heart in the sky.) After reassuring her, I reverted the game to the last save point and now the monster is alive again—he just can’t do anything that makes time move forward in his save slot. This really interested her—it’s a two-for-one deal, where she learns a bit about the emotional experience of death (her goldfish dying didn’t have the same effect) but also gets to learn about the tricks that games (or “ergodic literature” more broadly, to use Espen Aarseth’s term) allow you to play with temporality and narrative. It also suddenly freed her to want new monsters but only on other save games—something that previously she hadn’t wanted to do. I thought this whole experience powerfully demonstrated the unique cultural and psychological capacity of videogames in general and the potentials for emotional and imaginative investment that they still hold.
Richard Bartle is right that many games presently don’t come anywhere near that potential, or at least that the MMOG “virtual world”, which ought to be the most potent and capacious kind of computer-mediated play, doesn’t. Toontown is typical, and my daughter’s boredom is an emperor’s new clothes kind of moment. I have no good justification or explanation to offer her for why it is the way it is. It doesn’t even have the fig-leaf organicism that the repetition in gameplay in a game like Monster Rancher 3 has. You have to feed your monster once a month, just like you have to feed yourself every day—but even in the tedium of everyday life, we don’t typically get reduced to mere deliverymen, let alone in cultural contexts that are supposed to be full of adventure and imagination.
I think Richard is wrong to imagine that the imaginative needs or visions of designers, their need for creative control, is what is preventing MMOGs from allowing freedom of play. In fact, the current crop of MMOGs, mostly more restrictive than the first generation in many respects, is actually far less visionary and imaginative in story-telling and world-creation terms, as some commenters in the thread inspired by Richard’s entry observe.
For example, Asheron's Call 1 was a Bartle-type explorer's dream, allowing for free movement over a vast and interesting space--and it was so *because* there was a developer invested in the act of world-creation. Compare it with the off-the-shelf fantasy tropes of Shadowbane or Horizon or AC2, or the poor implementation of the beloved milieu of Star Wars in SWG and you see the (unfavorable) difference.
Developer investment in storytelling or imaginative vision or world-creation is orthagonal to freedom of play: it’s an interesting issue in its own right, but it has little to do with the restriction of player options and capacities.
One major thing that is causing increasting restriction of the freedom of play is the game-mechanical need of developers to make sure that what players do, they do predictably. Not so the story turns out right, but so the all-important (cursedly important) levelling mechanism and treadmill can be properly calibrated. So essentially developers are constantly trying to make players *into* programmable agents, to reduce their humanity down to a primitive AI. Contemporary MMOGs are the Turing Test in reverse, an attempt to engineer human players into dumb software.
The other important force driving developers to constrain what players can do in MMOGs is a historical arc that I think also affected the world of virtual communities. The initial generation of people to go online were incubated in BBSes and MUDs, moved into Usenet and the very early Web, and essentially experienced what we have now come to regard as the characteristic structures of virtual community formation and relation for the first time, de novo. I joined LambdaMOO about two days after reading Julian Dibbel's article in the Village Voice, for example, and was there through all sorts of political hysteria with the toading system, petitions and the like. I was having similar experiences elsewhere in text-based virtual communities and Usenet groups around the same time.
And one day, I just kind of burned out on it all after being fascinated by it for a great long time.
There came a day where I just didn't want other people to have freedom if it meant they were going to annoy me, spam me, troll me--I wanted selectivity, I wanted gated communities, I wanted restrictions on participants. The technology of online communities--including virtual worlds--allowed a single malevolent person to grossly magnify their social impact of their malevolence in ways that are only possible in the real world with automatic weapons or explosives. All it takes in a good, productive asynchronous conversation in the online public sphere to destroy that conversation is one persistent troll, unless all the participants have strong filtering tools or extremely disciplined determination to respond only to signal and ignore noise. All it takes in a virtual world to ruin the fun of others is a technically or socially imaginative griefer.
Do you learn interesting lessons about yourself and society when you’re in a virtual environment with no rules and no restrictions? Absolutely. Do you need to learn those lessons over and over and over again? No, and in particular, not in virtual worlds where developers must—even in the least restrictive old-style MUD—make certain kinds of prior decisions about what defines the “human nature” of avatars. If the only thing you can do to affect the virtual world in terms of your avatar’s capacities is to kill NPCs, creatues and other players, you’re going to find yourself killing players eventually. Just because that’s what you can do. If talking, socializing, inventing, and so on, make no persistent difference to a virtual world, then they’re not part of gameplay, they’re not part of the virtual world—they’re real-world referents that travel alongside and parallel to the action of the virtual world, not of the virtual world itself.
However, gated communities and heavily restricted virtual worlds grow tedious after a time: they’re monocultures, ticky-tacky boxes all in a row. It's why I came back out from the gated communities into the world of blogs. It's why I'm feeling just as cranky as Richard is about MMOGs.
Nothing online can ever be made impervious to griefing or trolling or whatever forms of disruptive play and action we can imagine. When outrageous forms of griefing are made impossible by the rules, then modest forms of griefing come to seem outrageous. Players in City of Heroes recently got the ability to toggle a no-teleport setting so that griefers could not involuntarily drop them into pitched battles—a minor nuisance by the standards of old-style Ultima Online murder and robbery, but one which had come to seem like a violation because so much of the rest of the gameplay is instanced and controlled.
The difficult question is this: do virtual worlds (and virtual communities) now have more controls, gates, filters, rules, because a single generation’s unique and unreproducible historical experience has become an inflexible structural precedent that defines all future online sociality, that is the ur-culture that gets reproduced as ritual and expectation, or because the first generation of players and talkers online discovered some universal and general truths about how modern human beings will behave socially when they’re given the technological capacities to do so? If we were to start from scratch, to get the fire in the belly that Richard seeks, liberate the players in virtual worlds, would we find that a generation that has grown up with videogames as a basic part of their cultural world create very different forms and norms of gameplay sociality than their predecessors? Have they acculturated to the structures and “common sense” of a world they never made? Or are we struggling with deeper fundamentals of modern human nature? In many ways, what is at stake in Richard’s comments is not virtual worlds, but the same deeply traversed terrain that always comes up when in modernity talk about freedom, society and individuality, and our answers to the question of “Why can’t players be more free in virtual worlds” are likely to echo the kinds of things each of us might say about freedom more generally. The more conscious we are of the feedback loop between our general political and social philosophies, our design precepts in virtual worlds, and our desires as players, the more generative our vision of the desired future is likely to be.