Pharaoh's Expectations

I've been following an interesting discussion around A Tale in the Desert. Andrew Tepper, aka Pharaoh, commented on the first use of the legal powers of that game's citizens to have another player banned, by wondering why the relatively expansive political power that the developer-sovereign of the game cedes to the players hasn't been used more often and more pervasively.

Tepper writes, "I fully expected this unique form of in-game democracy that we use, to breed an ever-growing, increasingly intrusive government, just as real-world democracy often does. In fact, one big advantage I saw to Tellings was the chance to undo the implosion that I thought was inevitable. The culture that evolved in ATITD was just the opposite, and I still don't have a good explanation. The force of law has always been applied with the lightest touch. And it's not just in law that Egypt has been cautious...In three years we've elected about 20 Demi-Pharaohs, players with the power to permanently exile up to 7 of their countrymen. And in three years, that power has never been used..."

I don't think I'm nearly as surprised as Tepper seems to be. Partly because I think his expectation here invokes a common form of cyberlibertarian narrative about contemporary American politics that is at the least an over-simplified hypothesis about the development of post-1945 liberal democracies, that refers implicitly to some kind of universal tendency of individuals to surrender freedom to authority. 

Partly because, as some players have also observed, the size of the playerbase of A Tale in the Desert promotes a more trusting and close-knit community (an issue Raph Koster has been writing about lately). Partly also, as some ATITD players have noted, there's a selection filter here, that ATITD is a boutique product far less likely to attract the kinds of griefers and antisocial players who players in other synthetic worlds might desperately wish to control or expel, and far more likely to attract people with a lively interest in participating in the political affairs of their synthetic world.

It's also a question of time, however. Not a surprise that a historian would insist that this is a question of history and accumulation, I suppose, but this is where I think most synthetic world developers and even some scholars of synthetic worlds remain remarkably ahistorical or presentist in their expectations about how worlds will develop or their explanations of why worlds develop as they do. It's not that these explanations are insensate to the history of a particular world, but that they don't take contingency seriously in relation to that history. Instead, they look for structural or consistent explanations of historical structures, and think that a particular structure of game design or mechanics will reliably produce those structures in future iterations of similar designs.

I certainly agree that many existing synthetic worlds, including ATITD, have deep drivers and attractors embedded both in their designs and in the pre-existing social and cognitive predispositions of the players drawn to them, that re-running the game again from scratch would lead to convergent evolution of the gameworld in many respects.

But not everything. Here I'll crib from Gould's A Wonderful Life, as I'm often wont to do, with a healthy nod to ideas about emergence and the concept of path-dependence.

If the governance capacities ceded to players in ATITD have been used lightly in the gameworld's first two iterations, that might simply be because no one ever tried to use them otherwise. That sounds intuitive and obvious, but a major divergent branch in the political or social history of a virtual world or community is always one impulsive moment away, one possible event from happening, one serendipitious (or tragic) heartbeat distant from the world that comes into being.

I think the broader history of virtual communities (and the real-world) is a pretty good demonstration of that. Julian Dibbell's justifiably famous account of LambdaMOO is a good example. You might think that it was inevitable that once certain governance capacities were ceded to the inhabitants of that community by Pavel Curtis, what followed was inevitable, but I think that would be profoundly wrong. Even Mr. Bungle did not make the shape of politics and governance that came into being after his actions inevitable by his actions: for a considerable time, the community hung in an indeterminate space where many political roads and structures were conceivable. The institutions which the community created afterwards created new tools which defined and expanded the capacities of intrusive power, but their use was occasioned also by the history of prior conflict, prior action, of the contingent manifestation of particular individuals into that social space, and then of the accumulation of many contingent actions which became a kind of emergent structure of political life that no one could then undo or act outside of.

So maybe version 3 of A Tale in the Desert will be the one where a player--perhaps just for the experimental hell of it--tries to persistently and influentially act more napoleonically, or methodically explores their antisocial capacities the way that a LambdaMOO player named "Sunny" did once upon a time. That fork in the road is always there, just never taken up until the day that it is. The only problem, of course, is that once you step down some paths, you can't ever back up to the crossroads.


Comments on Pharaoh's Expectations:

Steve says:

I played ATITD during the first telling, and I recall reading the game forums' discussions of the lawmaking process, discussions of potential or passed laws, and I participated rigorously in the in-game voting.

One thing that I noticed was that lawmakers generally tried very hard to word their laws so that they would do what was intended and nothing else. I also noticed that people taking part in the process were very cautious of slippery slopes.

Unfortunately, it's been over a year now since I've played, so I don't remember any specific examples of what I'm talking about.

IIRC though, we did ban a player (or a character, rather) through the lawmaking process. So in Tale I at least, players didn't have to wait for a demi-pharoah to get elected in order to toss out griefers.

Posted Feb 7, 2006 12:03:49 PM | link

Chip Hinshaw says:

Sometimes I think if ATITD were set in a medieval world it would be the only game I ever needed. The Egyptian lore just doesn't appeal to me that much. In any case, I would have to agree that a big reason for the "light touch" of the law is exactly as Timothy notes: there's niche appeal that tends to attract "better behaved" players. In my two tours of ATITD I never stayed long (a few weeks the first time around, a couple weeks the second time), but I was around long enough that had it been most other MMOs I would have encountered some grief-play or at least minor conflict. In ATITD I encountered nothing but nice, helpful players who were very easy to get on with. Not to say that there might not have been some problem players, and perhaps even a proportionate number relative to what you find in any MMO, but it sure seemed a kinder, gentler VW.

Posted Feb 7, 2006 12:05:43 PM | link

Nyght says:

People tend to under rate the social dynamics in ATITD believing that it is largely a crafting and trading game.

But the core of the competitive and cooperative game play is social networking. If anything, this self selects the player base to those good at social networking to a much higher degree then any other MMORPG that I have experianced, which is many of them.

This strong social element is what works to quickly isolate antisocial behaviors. This often happens during the tutorial phase of the game for a new player, through comments posted about them in the game wide chat guilds and long before the new player is aware that comments about them are even being made.

It is a small community in Egypt and there is an almost zero chance that antisocial behaviors won't be reported to the larger community.

Nyght - AKA DisShovel

Posted Feb 7, 2006 12:19:55 PM | link

Naomi Clark says:

I think what Steve is mentioning was actually the first player-orchestrated banning in ATITD, and happened in the days before there was a Demi-Pharaoh system, but very shortly after the ability for players to make laws was introduced. There was in fact a griefer around abusing some of the more open-ended features of the game (concerning building placement, if I'm not remembering wrong) and he was basically kicked out. It was never clear whether this person was a provocateur (more likely in ATITD than in other games, for reasons mentioned above) or actually a grief player. Similar things have happened to guilds in ATITD (someone joins, gains some trust, then destroys a bunch of stuff they have access to, in order to "send a message") and during my play there throughout the alpha and beta it seemed to me that players were much more likely to take such offenses in stride as "roleplaying challenges" or something like that -- because part of the challenge of ATITD is presented as overcoming social obstacles, and players are in theory given the tools they need to confront these obstacles, namely laws. So instead of constantly crying for a higher authority to step in from outside the world and slap the ban stick around, the (admittedly more mature) player base attempts to figure out its own problems.

The small size of the community definitely has something to do with it, though, and it would be interesting to know if ATITD's servers in Europe have had different patterns in law-enforcement as they were reported to in the shape of cities and the processes of industrial production. ATITD in the US felt to me like there was a strong libertarian bent, but the community was small enough that one influential guild was able to push the economy of the beta very strongly in a rather socialist direction (trying to ensure that all goods were publicly accessible in some fashion and not monopolized). Those methods also supported individual "homesteading," which was perhaps a key to success.

Posted Feb 7, 2006 12:22:02 PM | link

Duncan says:

The other side of it may be that the size of the community prevents overtly hostile actions from being profitable. When you have a much more direct line of control from population to electorate, the elected must act in the general interests or recieve the consequences. There are simply more direct checks and balances. As the system becomes larger and more abstracted from the populous, the checks and balances become less effective. People have less interest and influence.

When things are small (and game communities are small in comparison to countries), single users have to do much less to have their voices heard. If someone abuses power, they will recieve swifter justice. It is simply not within their interests to do that.

Posted Feb 7, 2006 12:53:40 PM | link

Amber Night says:

ATITD has a couple things going for it: a relatively small player base, and an emphasis on discovery and creation instead of kill and loot. It stands to reason (I believe) that players attracted to this style of play will most likely be skewed towards less aggressiveand therefore less disruptive styles of play. I think it also stands to reason that the player given such solemn power is more likely to use it responsibly. I doubt very much that a system like this would work in any of the big titles.

Amber

Posted Feb 7, 2006 2:05:41 PM | link

Rich A says:

I think that Timothy Burke provides some good food for thought, with his questions about the role of contingency and history in an online community. As one who has played in ATITD 2, but not ATITD 1, I have often pondered whether there was something inevitable about the particular player culture and power structure that exists in the game, or whether it might have all turned out differently. It is a player culture that I find personally less than optimal, because it is rather oligarchic, discouraging of newcomers who don't play a certain way, and generally rather self-satisfied. I suspect, though, that it's now too late to change that player culture, unless there were to be a great influx of new players or a determined revolution, or something like that. The same core player base, and guilds, carry on from Telling to Telling.

The specific matter of the Demi-Pharoah ban of another player, and its use or non-use, needs to be explained a little more, though, to make sense of it.

Mr. Tepper is a little like a US high school principal, who is overseeing a student government. He wants the players to feel like they have a government, but simultaneously wants to make sure they only have carefully limited formal powers.

The players are given a metagame power, the ability to kick another player out of the game, or at least to permanently destroy another player's character (which exactly it is, is a little unclear, based on the game staff's official statements). This is an extraordinary power, perhaps the most awesome they have.

The power can be exercised in two ways, that I am aware of. A petition can be introduced by any character to ban another character, and after it passes various hurdles, including getting a certain percentage of the vote in the next election, it can become a law, and carried out. The game staff have various abilities to intervene in this process, though.

This particular process, is, in my opinion, probably the best reflection of whether a particular player has made himself so unpopular that he deserves to be thrown out of the game. Well, maybe he doesn't deserve to be thrown out, but he is at least extremely unpopular.

The other way that the ban power can be exercised is by a Demi-Pharoah. This version of the ban power is in my opinion kind of weird, and almost seems designed to get ATITD players shouting at one another.

First, the ban power of the Demi-Pharaoh is not granted by the voters, but is granted by the game staff. The voters just get to have a say in the selection of a particular player to have the ban power, and the title.

Second, the Demi-Pharoah's ban power is absolute. The voters apparently cannot vote into existence a law limiting the ban power, nor putting any prerequisites at all on its use. They could, however, punish a "bad" Demi-Pharoah after the fact, by voting in an election to ban him or her.

Under the circumstances, I don't find it odd that the use of the Demi-Pharoah's ban power has been so rare. I strongly suspect that if the ATITD voters had to decide in an election whether to allow the DP ban power to be concentrated in a single person, they would not do so. As it is, they can't prevent the DP ban power from existing, so instead there has been something of a tradition established, that its use should be extraordinary.

The DP ban kind of sticks out like a sore thumb, in a game in which the player base have never even bothered to pass any laws defining griefing behavior, or specifying a player code of conduct.

Instead, ATITD player culture has developed widely held unwritten standards for player behavior, and enforced them in a way that is informal, yet nonetheless rather rigid, so much so that any deviance from the standards will end up costing the deviant (who may just be trying to roleplay, or not be so serious about everything), his or her ability to do the social networking that is at the heart of the game.

Posted Feb 7, 2006 2:33:43 PM | link

Naomi Clark says:

"The other way that the ban power can be exercised is by a Demi-Pharoah. This version of the ban power is in my opinion kind of weird, and almost seems designed to get ATITD players shouting at one another."

In fact, if you look at a number of ATITD design decisions, and Tepper's own writings about why he did this or that, a lot of it seems to relate to "get ATITD players shouting at each other."

One thing that I seem to recall surprised him in beta was the overwhelming willingness of people to cooperate. Which, if you frame it another way, makes sense: like I said above, big parts of the game are about collaboration and assembly-line production and coordinating large efforts. So people who are motivated to achieve and overcome that challenge... cooperate to the extreme. Combine that with the self-selection of people who want to play this kind of game, and you see why the designer might have to artifically introduce more conflict into the system.

Posted Feb 7, 2006 3:50:26 PM | link

Rich A says:

ATITD may be a difficult example, from which to draw conclusions about general principles in online games. It has a rather idiosyncratic and convoluted structure to it (which is one of the things that makes it fun to participate in and observe).

I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the first beta, observing how the player culture first took shape and developed.

It seems to me that Tepper could have built conflict into the game in a more surefire way than he chose to do. Perhaps he wanted to see if conflict would develop if he tried to set particular conditions for it, but not so as to mandate it.

As the game exists, there really isn't any deep conflict built into the game and culture at all. There is one simple story line that the ATITD culture follows in each Telling (at least so far): as a community, build some monuments by the end of the Telling. A player who chooses to actively resist that collective project has no real means to do so. If he finds the means to do so, somehow, he will certainly be thrown out of the game as a griefer, because the core players are quite determined that the project be completed. But that idea about resistance to the monuments is only hypothetical, because in practice I haven't noticed any, or any that would have any real effect.

There is a somewhat hokey fake conflict between Tepper's two characters in the story, Pharoah and the Stranger. Supposedly they are at odds, but it is the Stranger that brings Egypt the Tests, which are individual, competitive challenges, and the Tests end up being instrumental in completing the monuments. So if you think you're resisting the Pharoah by pursuing the Tests, you're mistaken. Again, no real conflict.

Players do compete against one another in the Tests, and they sometimes refer to this as a form of PvP. It is not, however, a deep sort of conflict, i.e. one between rival factions in the game, but is done between individuals and guilds, and the outcomes only further Egypt's progress toward the monuments.

You can always choose to simply ignore the central monument story, even the Tests, and do your own thing. But ATITD actually makes a rather limited sandbox for the determined free spirit.

I think that if Tepper is trying to put a stick in the ant's nest, and shake things up, he has set himself a difficult task. The core player culture has become highly cohesive, and has considerable ability to suppress conflict between its members, or the formation of threatening factional disputes.

Again, how much of this was preordained by the game's design, and the self-selecting nature of its players; and how much was just the result of historical contingency, I don't know.


Posted Feb 7, 2006 6:23:45 PM | link

Arnold Hendrick says:

Timothy Burke is right on in many, many ways.

First, small MMOG environments ARE more closely knit communities whose participants are frequently more invested in the world. Anti-social behaviors are far fewer. This is noticeable even in Sociolotron, a game that would seem to encourage all sorts of amazingly antisocial behavior. When I was running Air Warrior, a game centered around PvP content, the relatively small community developed commonly understood mores that defined unacceptable behavior.

An historian by training myself, I am NOT quick to apply historical paradymes to virtual worlds. There are too many differences between historical reality and contemporary virtual reality. Furthermore, historians are still arguing about interpretations of historical realities, so which paradyme do you want to use?

Posted Feb 7, 2006 9:03:30 PM | link

Hellinar says:

Teppy>The force of law has always been applied with the lightest touch.<

There is a unique factor in lawmaking in Egypt (ATiTD) that I believe contributes to there being so few laws being passed. Teppy requires that all laws can be expressed in code, and enforced by the server. This is a much tougher requirement than familiar everyday law, which is written in English, and interpreted by humans. Human law relies on police turning a blind eye when applying a law would be legal but unjust. The Server shows no such discretion.

Typical lawmaking in Egypt consisted of someone proposing a law that would be acceptable to most people most of the time. The law gains enough support to make it to the vote. Meanwhile people would start pointing out cases where applying the law as it stands would be unjust. Enough people think “Hey, that case could apply to me or my guildmate”, and the law fails to make it to the required majority.

People don’t want laws that are implacably enforced. If they did, we would have cars that auto-ticket you for speeding, or illegal parking, which would be the case in Egypt. I think this factor has a big hand in the low rate of law generation in Egypt.

Rich A> I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the first beta, observing how the player culture first took shape and developed. <

My character, Hellinar, was elected the first Demi-Pharaoh in Egypt in Beta 2. As I recall, he didn’t make any representations about never banning anyone. He was simply elected based on being a widely trusted man in that world. My thinking on the DP position at the time was to use it as a kind of judge position, with exile as the ultimate sanction to enforce less draconian penalties for crimes. But I never got to try out that plan. In the small and cooperative world of Beta 2, there were never any “crimes” worth judging.

I believe the tradition of DP undertaking not to ban people was formed later, in the first DP elections of Tale 1. I’m not sure though, as by that point Hellinar had moved into Banking, and left politics behind

Posted Feb 7, 2006 9:50:15 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Teppy requires that all laws can be expressed in code, and enforced by the server. This is a much tougher requirement than familiar everyday law, which is written in English, and interpreted by humans.

I don't think "tougher" is the proper term to be applied here: it is immensely clarifying (disclaimer: I have not played ATITD) to be able to use computational logic and say, "This is legal. This is not." There is no spirit of the law, when it's done. There are no loopholes. It's equivalent to changing the gravitational constant or the speed of light. It is how it is.

Now, perhaps it's more rigorous, and it's more down-to-earth. Rigorous, in the sense that you have to really think it through and understand it for it to work. Down-to-earth, in the sense you described: hey, this might apply to me. It sounds to me like this is a true working democracy. Except that it doesn't scale.

Posted Feb 8, 2006 1:58:49 AM | link

Pedant says:

An historian by training myself, I am NOT quick to apply historical paradymes to virtual worlds.

That is very wise. Quite paradigmatic.

Posted Feb 8, 2006 5:19:57 AM | link

Rich A says:

Hellinar wrote:

"Teppy requires that all laws can be expressed in code, and enforced by the server. This is a much tougher requirement than familiar everyday law, which is written in English, and interpreted by humans."

Michael Chui wrote:

"I don't think "tougher" is the proper term to be applied here: it is immensely clarifying (disclaimer: I have not played ATITD) to be able to use computational logic and say, "This is legal. This is not." There is no spirit of the law, when it's done. There are no loopholes. It's equivalent to changing the gravitational constant or the speed of light. It is how it is.

"Now, perhaps it's more rigorous, and it's more down-to-earth. Rigorous, in the sense that you have to really think it through and understand it for it to work. Down-to-earth, in the sense you described: hey, this might apply to me. It sounds to me like this is a true working democracy. Except that it doesn't scale."


Interesting. I honestly had not noticed this requirement of Tepper's about laws having to be expressible and enforceable in code, despite my trying to observe ATITD culture for a while.

This, then, would also help explain why nothing remotely resembling a real life legal code has developed in ATITD. Real life legal codes and constitutions need vagueness, to give them flexibility and general scope. The US constitution, for example, is famously vague on all kinds of important matters, and the ambiguity of its clauses has made it possible for it to remain a legal foundation for the nation throughout its history, while enormous changes have occurred in the laws built on top of that foundation.

And real life law enforcement needs the flexibility of human judgment calls and discretion.

Lacking the kind of flexibility offered by human language, as opposed to software code, the players of ATITD have another reason not to try to define a formal code of conduct for players. But an informal code of conduct does exist. It is not accessible for new players, because it is not written down anywhere for them to see. If they cross certain lines drawn by that unwritten code, however, they will be quickly be told of their transgression.

If Tepper intended to inspire a "perfect society" in which all laws would be expressed in code and enforced by server, he failed. You can't fit all the laws that a living society needs into a container that rigid.

The result has not been anarchy, however. The result has been a small player community that has its own unwritten, quite vague, but widely shared sense of permissible and impermissible behavior.

If this were attempted on a larger scale, it would probably fail, i.e. descend into anarchy. But the way things are going in ATITD, there is not much danger of its player population growing by that much.

Posted Feb 8, 2006 10:11:39 AM | link

Hellinar says:

Michael Chui>Now, perhaps it's more rigorous, and it's more down-to-earth. Rigorous, in the sense that you have to really think it through and understand it for it to work. Down-to-earth, in the sense you described: hey, this might apply to me. It sounds to me like this is a true working democracy. Except that it doesn't scale.<

Code in notoriously brittle, in the sense that there are cases that the designers hadn’t thought of that give undesirable results. As I see it, law is a tool for enforcing justice. Simple, hard coded rules can lead to unjust results. It’s the implicit objective of “justice” that makes lawmaking in Egypt so tough. Most of the “laws” passed to date have been more along the lines of feature requests, changes to the behavior of the world that are clearly of benefit to everyone.

Posted Feb 8, 2006 10:13:56 AM | link

Warren Grant says:

I would dearly love to see more MMORPGs willing to let the players define the laws under which their society operates - with consequences for breaking those laws. I had high hopes for the honor system in WOW, but as with the rest of the game the implemented system is uninteresting. I have had high hopes a few times that a developer would give us tools to let players create their social systems and change them.

Yes, this might result in Griefer kingdoms where annoying other players incessently goes unpunished, but it might also result in areas of a VW landscape where the rule of law ensures that anti-social and offensive behaviour sees the offender locked up in a virtual prison for a term as punishment. I think it would be a fascinating exploration of social systems, given the right tools.

I dont hold that much hope though, as MMORPGs seem to be tending towards more simplistic, less challenging (and more profitable) models rather than evolving into something new and innovative :(

Posted Feb 9, 2006 5:31:18 PM | link

Rich A says:

I think ATITD's ongoing experiment in player government sheds some light on how it might or might not be feasible elsewhere.

First, should any game company actually let players decide whether other players get banned from the game? This is some rather tricky territory, since it delegates to players a responsibility that is ultimately on the shoulders of the game company.

Consider the Open Letter thread elsewhere on Terra Nova. Suppose a player government had banned, or threatened to ban, a player for advertising a gay-friendly guild. There are some potential issues of illegal discrimination involved in that, and who do you suppose would be held responsible in court, if it came to it? Ultimately, it would be the game company that cancelled the account, albeit at the behest of the players. I can't see the game company arguing that its TOS, delegating ban authority to players, got it off the hook in such a case.

So if players shouldn't be able to ban other players, then how they are supposed to be able to punish griefers? Here I think you run into a fundamental problem. The players either slap some kind of restrictions on the griefer that substantially interfere with his or her ability to play the game, or they cause the griefer to experience some sort of special game feature, as a "punishment." If it's the former, the players are effectively banning the griefer, though perhaps only temporarily. It it's the latter, then it may actually be more of a reward to the griefer, than a punishment.

So I'd argue that it's very difficult for players to have any formal policing power over one another in an online game.

That doesn't mean that player "government" is useless, though. ATITD shows that player-created "laws" can serve as a great way for players to discuss and decide on feature requests, that they then pass up to the game developers. It's one of ATITD's greatest features.

Posted Feb 9, 2006 8:03:48 PM | link