Statistical Heroism

I recently started experimenting with Red Orchestra: Osfront 41-45, a first-person-shooter.  There I wondered anew the old question of the meaning of heroism in online gaming experiences...

Joel Spolsky recently (re-)posted his perspective of software development management.  See  The Command and Control Management Method, The Econ 101 Management Method, and finally The Identity Management Method.  There (Econ 101), he makes the following claim:

Extrinsic motivation is a motivation that comes from outside, like when you’re paid to achieve something specific.

Intrinsic motivation is much stronger than extrinsic motivation. People work much harder at things that they actually want to do.  That’s not very controversial.

But when you offer people money to do things that they wanted to do, anyway, they suffer from something called the Overjustification Effect. “I must be writing bug-free code because I like the money I get for it,” they think, and the extrinsic motivation displaces the intrinsic motivation. Since extrinsic motivation is a much weaker effect, the net result is that you’ve actually reduced their desire to do a good job. When you stop paying the bonus, or when they decide they don’t care that much about the money, they no longer think that they care about bug free code.

Another big problem with Econ 101 management is the tendency for people to find local maxima. They’ll find some way to optimize for the specific thing you’re paying them, without actually achieving the thing you really want.

This may not seem novel, however, it bears mentioning here because of the reflection of ourselves within MMOGs.   The grind may be (or not) praiseworthy, but it is also not hard to see how within the scaffolding of its reward system motivation is extrinsic to the backstory.

To stray a little to reach a greater point, recently via Lambda the Ultimate comes mention of CellML - an XML language

...to store and exchange computer-based mathematical models. CellML allows scientists to share models even if they are using different model-building software. It also enables them to reuse components from one model in another, thus accelerating model building.

Yes, this may seem a bit of modeling arcana relevant mostly to those in the biological sciences.  But the larger point made by these sorts of efforts is in their intent to provide visibility and verifiability (via reuse) of the components of systems.  To do so faciliates the sharing of meaning about that system. It is hard to extract insight into a simulation of the cardiovascular system, say, if you don't know or have much confidence in how the components are defined.

System = inspectable (and interchangable) components = shared meaning.

This is where the mainstream MMOG paradigm, in my opinion, has gone wrong.  To a large extent it has learned the wrong lesson from Computer Games (CG).

By and large the single player CG seems more adept at insisting the player buy into the game world without having to reveal (much less confirm) the behaviors of the components of the system.  In fact, we all understand and accept it is smoke and mirrors - scripted bots and what not.  But because of a magic circle, or at least a circle of some sort, it seems to work often.  Players seem to be more willing to try to believe.  Perhaps they know that to be cynical will diminish the $39.99 investment of software they just made!

The MMOG game world experience, for the most part, is still smoke and mirrors.  It is just that there are a lot of you and it is okay to not buy into anything at all except what you feel like doing -subject to the user agreement, and the constraints of whatever norms you think apply and those imposed by the Law of Code.

In other words, The Horde is (Not) Evil to noone in the same way or even at all.  The lack of a convincing world system beyond an online social one staged against vast (and yes engaging) artwork seems to provide few hooks to intrinsically motivate players in terms of the intended world design   (e.g. Role-Playing versus Meta-Gaming - auction house, griefing etc).

Thus, what places like Azeroth do is to extrinsically reward folks to participate by grinding.  We are paid to kill trolls (in experience points, loot).  Yet, it seems to me that (using Joel's words, above) - (s)ince extrinsic motivation is a much weaker effect... the extrinsic motivation displaces the intrinsic motivation.  Does it follow that the reward diminishes the desire of players to kill trolls for any other purpose but for the reward?

A very long time ago we talked about heroism in virtual worlds (Where are the Heroes).  One conclusion seemed that a world where everyone believes (and expects) they can grind their way into a 'hero' is a poor simulation of a heroic process.  Interestingly, first person shooters seem to be able to provide (IMO) richer 'heroic' moments.  It is just that one needs to endure a longer train of missteps to reach them. [BTW, I apologize for use of quotes and 'simulated' disclaimers around heroism here, but as I explained in The Fallacy of War - I have my reasons].  As I describe somewhere else my recent Red Orchestra Osfront experience:

[Red Orchestra's] ‘resource pool’ model is interesting in that it seemed after a while as if they have designed for a smaller number of real players to effectively play over the course of a battle a larger number of nominal/virtual characters. This then dovetails into that old bane (IMO) of arena FPSing – the subject of casualties and how easy it is to distracted by the constant requirement to spawn.

On the other hand there were a handful of incredible (did I say awesome?) moments in the evening whose pattern would entail unexpectedly surviving a long time holed up in a hedge, running out of ammo as swarms of enemy infantry swirled about, finding a panzerfaust, then an incredible shot at the closing moments – [talk about a] tank boom.

A statistical view towards simulated heroics, perhaps.

The interesting quality about a statistical view towards heroics in online games - for all its other faults in terms of player goals and entertainment - is that it may provide a more intrinsic framework for motivating players to engage the world (in this case PvP).  As Will Rogers once wrote - “we can't all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.”

Perhaps in online spaces we can, but we just have to take turns and endure the long half-hours first for those brief moments.


Comments on Statistical Heroism:

Frans Charming says:

Hmm, very interresting.
This almost asks for a experiment where the gameplay is not killing trolls, but is maybe made harder by the presence of trolls. This might give Heroism a change, because if you do start killing trolls you will be making live easier for others. Might be good if trolls don't drop loot, only praise of your pears will be a reward.

Will you standby and take the long road, or be a hero and clean out the short road for nothing other then helping others?

Posted Aug 12, 2006 4:16:42 PM | link

? says:

Nate,

from what you describe I think that your experience of physical tension (or even endurance?) excitement, anxiety and so forth fits much better into the simulated context provided by the game - physical as well as mental "immersion" is closer to any real life memory of heroism you may have (like helping your best friend to cheat during an important test risking your own good grade in the process).

A similar level of heroism in an MMOG would probably start with risking your level for "something important " (as defined by your group of peers) rather than trying to earn this level... As you say intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals. Yet it is the player who brings these intrinsic motives into the game process together with the all the rest of his/her biography.

Posted Aug 12, 2006 4:26:25 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Might be good if trolls don't drop loot, only praise of your pears will be a reward.

Praise is extrinsic, as well. There can be no reward originating from outside yourself for it to be intrinsic. You can justify it however you like, but the praise of others is as extrinsic as loot or XP.

If you replicate the Overjustification Effect experiment, you'd take away XP gain and loot drops from troll killing. ...and watch everyone go somewhere else.

Posted Aug 12, 2006 4:44:45 PM | link

nate combs says:

?>
heroism you may have (like helping your best friend to cheat during an important test risking your own good grade in the process).
--------

Well. I hardly think helping anyone cheat is an example of heroism.


--------
?>
Yet it is the player who brings these intrinsic motives into the game process together with the all the rest of his/her biography.
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I guess it is open to debate whether such intrinsic motives can be largely cultivated within a game framework given the right set of circumstances. Yet to take an extreme example, I think "orc hatred" is not something one necessarily imports from the external world. On the other hand "doing the right thing" might be - one just needs a world system of sufficient depth to foster an organic sense of right and wrong.

Posted Aug 12, 2006 7:34:37 PM | link

Frans Charming says:

Praise is extrinsic, as well. There can be no reward originating from outside yourself for it to be intrinsic. You can justify it however you like, but the praise of others is as extrinsic as loot or XP.

That's very true, and also a real life pitfall. But that is something hard to avoid in a multi user world. I don't think it has to be completly without extrinisic reward, a better balance is what is needed.

If you replicate the Overjustification Effect experiment, you'd take away XP gain and loot drops from troll killing. ...and watch everyone go somewhere else.
That is only if monster killing is part of the core gameplay. What if the full game can be played without it, and if you, it would only benefit the world or others.

Maybe i'm thinking backwards. We should be thinking of adding Heroic deeds to games that are presently on the market. What could be added to WOW that gave minimal extrinsic worth and maximal intrinsic worth.

Posted Aug 12, 2006 7:56:30 PM | link

Hirebrand says:

Other than an impressive score in EverQuest's /gems, character creation probably has the highest intrinsic worth out of all MMO activities.

Posted Aug 12, 2006 9:06:23 PM | link

? says:

Nate said: "Well. I hardly think helping anyone cheat is an example of heroism."

So we have to find a common understanding of "heroism" first?

Or are you just interested in the various ways to "motivate" or "reward" players so they feel better about their game exoerience and therefore spend more time (and money) playing?

My (offhand) definition of heroism: to decide and act while facing the moral dilemma of choosing between your personal wellbeing and that of one or more other people. To take a risk for somenone else. Fight (and maybe get killed) when you could simply run away and hide. And indeed act against one moral rule (do not cheat) in order to act on another (help your best friend).

Posted Aug 13, 2006 5:33:08 AM | link

Mark Wallace says:

I know I always bring this example up in threads here, but I'd suggest that all the 'heroic' things you find lacking in games like WoW are present in EVE Online. Especially ?'s last definition of heroism -- "to decide and act while facing the moral dilemma of choosing between your personal wellbeing and that of one or more other people. To take a risk for somenone else. Fight (and maybe get killed) when you could simply run away and hide. And indeed act against one moral rule (do not cheat) in order to act on another (help your best friend)" -- this happens in EVE many times every day.

It seems to me that part of the problem is the one-dimensionality of extrinsic motivation. When there's a single vector along which to progress (i.e., level), I'd guess that motivation becomes concentrated there. Allowing intrinsic motivation means allowing for the wide variety of players that are (hopefully) present, which means allowing for a wide variety of choice. But fewer vectors of progression means radically limited choices. Wouldn't this naturally reduce the ability to satisfy whatever one's intrinsic motivation is?

Tying motivation to a pre-arranged storyline would seem to limit its intrinsic aspect in the same way. If a single storyline becomes the vector of progression, you're in the same situation. Only where players can write their own storylines (again, I point to EVE) would they be able to satisfy the variety of their intrinsic motivations in a meaningful way.

Posted Aug 13, 2006 8:51:10 AM | link

nate combs says:

?>
My (offhand) definition of heroism: to decide and act while facing the moral dilemma of choosing between your personal wellbeing and that of one or more other people. To take a risk for somenone else. Fight (and maybe get killed) when you could simply run away and hide. And indeed act against one moral rule (do not cheat) in order to act on another (help your best friend).
--------------

The one piece this is missing is a frame of reference to measure the choices and hence weigh the moral dilemma. This is where the bit about the world model and its buy-in comes in.

Take two extreme examples.

1.) If there were a "cheat" button in WoW such that you could push it and occasionally a reward drops out to you and your best friend. Furthermore, if you push this button, some percentage of the time you "get caught" and thrown into the brig and loose your best gear.

2.) You are caught up in a dire world scenario where there comes a time to make a choice: forge visas and allow your friends and neighbors to escape torture and death in a concentration camp, or follow the safer path and do nothing.

Given these. (1.) I guarantee you will be gamed. Whether to push the button or not will become purely a min-max calculation in the mind of a player (can my friend and I profit more by pushing the button or not). (2.) can only work if you can convince the player that they are in fact making a "moral" choice in the context of the world, otherwise, it will become a variant of (1.) ("the game is to save as many of the good guys and not get caught to get a reward").

One approach to doing a (2.) is to try to force the player to import a frame of reference from the real world and hope it translates. So your scenario of (2.) might be about the Holocaust or Rwanda, e.g.. The other approach is to build these choices into your fictional world. But to make that world elicit those choices from you. To get there, I've argued, one needs to - in an MMOG setting - provide enough visibilty into the components and system of that world for the player to infer the forces at work and arrive at some judgement.

So for example, a hypothetical MMOG containing a splash screen that popped up and asserted "orcs are being unfairly persecuted, you must save orcs" I maintain would be entirely unconvincing despite any extrinsic reward system you can imagine. It may prove to be a fun game - to save orcs - but especially in a multiplayer social game, I imagine few players would put the work into really getting "into the mind" of said asserted orc.

On the other hand, a hypothetical MMOG which allowed you to witness the seasonal invasion of trolls to the destruction of orcs and their villages and the decimation of hunting grounds, might provide sufficient a framework for you to judge for yourself and make a choice...

Posted Aug 13, 2006 11:49:13 AM | link

? says:

Agreed.

Posted Aug 13, 2006 12:01:22 PM | link

nate combs says:

Mark>
Tying motivation to a pre-arranged storyline would seem to limit its intrinsic aspect in the same way. If a single storyline becomes the vector of progression, you're in the same situation. Only where players can write their own storylines (again, I point to EVE) would they be able to satisfy the variety of their intrinsic motivations in a meaningful way.

---------------

I don't think a pre-arranged storyline has to detract from intrinsic motivation. Just that such is less practical in an unbounded multi-player environment. As I suggested in the post, I in fact think CGs have been more successful in intrinsically motivating players than MMOGs. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

1.) CGs can shape their content more effectively into a more convincing storyline, at the cost of limited play;

2.) Multi-player environments tend to be open-ended and in turn relies on reward systems to keep everyone in synch. The downside seems to be a 'lowest common denominator' effect: if everyone else twinks, I twink; if few role-play well (or even at all), I don't bother etc.

Eve provides a better example of where the components of the system don't necessarily have to be mechanical ones - players adopt more active roles in the emergent "storyline." Having said this I think the same principles apply, however. The system the players have created has to be sufficiently deep and transparent to convince you that the drama is real.

In the case of player "components" it would seem to me that the opposing player(s) motivation/intent are important elements you would have to feel like you understand. If pirates turned to good guys (to you), well the storyline perhaps plausibly just changed. Were those pirates you have been fighting for 3 months turned out to be aggressive farmer bots - that might yet be another turn with RW implications. But at some point it can cross a boundary. What if in fact you discovered there were never pirates at all - it was an AI simulation run for your benefit. etc.

Posted Aug 13, 2006 1:20:24 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

"Greater love hath no toon than that he give up his loot for his guildmate..."

Feh.

This reminds me of the joke about the sadist and the masochist walking down the street. The masochist says, "Hit me!" and the sadist says, "No."

One school of psychology/anthropology has it that there *is no heroism* because you don't really do anything you don't want to do; there is essentially no such thing as "extrinsic" motivation. It's all about me. Me me me. Which matters more to me? Money or fame? Fame or sex? Sex or family? Family or duty or honor or country or morality or dogma? In the end, I will do what I wilt. And that shall be the whole of the law.

Companies who replace *complex* intrinsic motivations as described above with *facile* extrinsic motivations deserve what they get. It's not, imho, an issue of internal vs. external motivation, but of complex vs. simple motivation. The reasons why someone does something for "love" (called intrinsic or internal) are usually quite complicated and hard to define. Why do we do stuff for money? 'Cause we need to eat, pay the bills, etc. If all a company does is say, "You do Job X, we pay you Dollar Y," yeah. They'll demotivate someone who formerly did Job X for love. Because simply doing it for money -- as noted above -- is not enough. And here's the thing; most companies don't just exist to make money, either. You need to replace the complex personal intrinsic motivation with complex corporate intrinsic motivation. There are whole schools of HR and management about how you make people understand that what they do is important, fits in with the company goals, links to customer issues, etc.

You don't just write bug-free code to make your paycheck. You do it to create shareholder value. And to make customers happy. And because when you don't, the dudes up in Customer Service get they ass chewed by unhappy customers. If all those (and more) are well and truly internalized as part of your job atmosphere, compensation program, training, etc., you'll internalize the company's motivation.

So... how do you do that in games?

Right now, it doesn't happen. Why? Because in most games, each individual gamer has about as much effect on the "company" as does a squirrel in the middle of the road. You can race to the other side, or get squished... re-rez... and try again.

No matter how good I get at WoW... I will never, ever have an effect on the main storyline. Will I? In that context, there can be ABSOLUTELY NO heroism. Period.

Yeah, I can take a hit for a guildbrother or give up some loot for a friend... but, in the real world, the idea behind heroics is that an act has *meaning.* In current MMOs, meaning is created by the publishers, not the players.

Now... you get the case in worlds like SL where people can really do their own thing... but SL ain't really a game. You really, though, can have true heroism there, though. The kind we see in RL. The quiet kind. Where some guy has spent a long time building a store or a club, only to be surrounded by an entirely different kind of neighborhood. Say he's got an S&M shop. But a bunch of quieter, more mellow folks begin to move in around him. In general, they're not really hip to his kind of business. They're all polite... but the general feel is that he doesn't quite belong. He does more traffic there than any of their single joints. He has every right in the world to be there... asking him to move is out of the question... but he decides to, anyway. Why? Because it's "the right thing to do." He may lose some biz, he may be accused of "giving in to the man," but he decides to do what he thinks is the peaceful, loving thing. That is real herosim. The quiet kind.

In fantasy MMOs, though, until players can control the content, you won't see real heroism. Until I can say, "I will bring down the mountain castle I have spent years creating rather than see it fall to the Horde..." well, there you go.

Posted Aug 13, 2006 5:36:53 PM | link

Hellinar says:

Andy> Until I can say, "I will bring down the mountain castle I have spent years creating rather than see it fall to the Horde..." well, there you go. <

I think Andy has a good point. Maybe there is too little to lose in the modern MMOG for real heroics? Playing the old Adventure game, Angband, felt more heroic to me than WoW ever does. I think because I played in the official "permadeath” mode. One fatal mistake in the dungeon was the end of that character. Which made going deep in the dungeon more of a heroic act than scouting a high level WoW zone.

The popular MMOGs assume that losing, in any permanent sense, is not acceptable. I wonder if there is a tie in to the assumption in modern western armies that soldiers dying is an unacceptable error. This is historically pretty peculiar. Heroism is much easier to achieve in an army where dying for the cause is still an expected, and even highly praised part of the function of a soldier. Knowing your death will activate a Post Combat Operations Error Investigation team isn’t as inspiring.

In the everyday world, I'm all for dying in war being an unacceptable error. But I can't see how you can be a real combat hero in a MMOG unless there is some real chance of losing it all in the attempt to save the day.

Posted Aug 13, 2006 9:50:31 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

The other half of Andy's point is this:

If overjustification replaces intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation, then in order to tap into the intrinsic, you need to simply not provide the extrinsic.

Or, to put it in game terms, don't reward them for anything. You can't control other players rewarding them for what they do, but you can control what you reward them for it. And unless you're trying to shape them, any reward is unnecessary: they will reward themselves.

Then again, overjustification is a real world phenomenon, so players will be carrying it in anyways.

Posted Aug 14, 2006 2:43:44 AM | link

lewy says:

Hellinar wrote:

"I wonder if there is a tie in to the assumption in modern western armies that soldiers dying is an unacceptable error."

I don't think there is any such assumption on the military side. Pretty much it's a given that given conflict there will inevitably be casualties.

I do think there is a tendancy towards that belief among civilians though, so the point isn't moot.

Is "heroism" even possible in a game however? Someone who throws himself on a grenade is giving up his life. Someone who maneuvers his avatar on top of a game grenade, even in the case of permadeath, is sacrificing...what?

Posted Aug 14, 2006 6:21:23 AM | link

Jim Self says:

You guys have hit most of the things that came to me as I was reading down through the comments. I strongly agree with the points that having nothing to lose and having no effect on the world kill the ability for someone to arise as a hero. The latter is the worse of the two, IMHO.

The FPS example is a great one (I just finished playing bf1942, coincidentally). Two relevant characteristics seperate MMOs and FPSs: skill and chance. Most MMOs don't reward or give opportunity for player skill. Thus, your fireball and mine are the same. Not so in a FPS. Chance is also minimal in most MMOs. Sure, there's a range of damage for most attacks, but that is hardly real chance. In a FPS there's always the chance that something is going to go wrong, like an enemy catching you from behind or while reloading, lucky shots, etc.

What's interesting about these two differences is that BOTH of them can lead to heroism in a FPS. A highly skilled player changes the outcome of a game through his own "might", a kind of battle champion. A lucky player can become a hero if he throws that grenede at just the right moment at just the right place...

Also interesting is that FPSs are permadeath. Not permadeath in the sense that if you're shot and killed it's game over for you, but permadeath in the sense that once the match is over there's a winner and a loser and the outcome is set in stone. Rematches don't overwrite a previous loss.

The attainment of hero status isn't always a moral one. It seems, in the examples above, to be linked entirely with a player having the opportunity to create a favorable outcome, in a special way, for high stakes (victory or defeat). It also means that most people aren't going to be a hero all the time, but everyone is (lucky) some of the time.

Posted Aug 14, 2006 7:46:11 AM | link

Erillion says:

If you want to read about heroics (some might say heroic idiocy) in an online game, check out this blog

http://00experiment.blogspot.com/

about a player experiment in EVE.

Have fun

Erillion

Posted Aug 14, 2006 8:48:11 AM | link

Hellinar says:

Lewy> Is "heroism" even possible in a game however? Someone who throws himself on a grenade is giving up his life. Someone who maneuvers his avatar on top of a game grenade, even in the case of permadeath, is sacrificing...what? <

If you are running a “toon” that is just a bag of numbers, not much I’d say. But if you are running a “character” with a significant history that can no longer go forward, you have sacrificed quite a lot. I’d say that character was a genuine hero, the player maybe not so much.

As I think Nate is saying, a real hero risks an intrinsic loss to save the day, not just a reduction in some extrinsic assets. Sacrificing a random a_old_table-001 to squelch the grenade is not a heroic sacrifice. For a collector, sacrificing their most prized eighteen century table would be closer to an heroic act.

It all ties back I think to our long running debate about the meaning of “game” and “play”. If you think “game” means “nothing here is of any consequence”, then I don’t think heroism is ever possible. Once you allow an intrinsic sense of worth to your or your characters actions in game, then heroism does become possible.


Posted Aug 14, 2006 10:15:05 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

It was rare in our old pen-and-paper games for a character to suffer permadeath... but it happened. You roll a couple-a-18's in a row in GURPS... and baaaad things start to happen to even high level characters.

We had a character that one gal had been playing for more than 5 years who stayed behind to provide cover for the team and the NPC we were trying to protect as the main goal of this one adventure. She (the character) stood her ground (very much in character from a roleplay standpoint), taking hit after hit of damage, barely surviving, but making it until the very end... only to blow three saving rolls in a row right near the end that should have been trivial.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

You could have heard a pin drop in that room full of loud, crazy RPers. This was a character we'd all played with for hundreds of hours. Thirty seconds ago she'd been flailing around with a mace and casting "turn undead" spells like a maniac. Three bad rolls of the dice... and she was dead. Really most sincerely dead. And we didn't have anybody on that adventure who could undo that kind of mojo.

The player looked at the miniature that she usually used to rep her character and said, "I'm gonna miss her." There was general nodding all around. And we did miss her... the character. Both on that mission and future ones. And we talk about her to this day. And that act of "bravery."

Something was ventured. Something was lost. That something *could* be lost that is valued... that's one of the things that is often missing from current MMOs, I think.

Is permadeath the flip side of the RMT coin? Some people want it "easier" for the game to be more fun. Some want it harder. Hmmm...

Posted Aug 14, 2006 11:20:26 AM | link

lewy says:

Hellinar wrote:

"If you are running a “toon” that is just a bag of numbers, not much I’d say. But if you are running a “character” with a significant history that can no longer go forward, you have sacrificed quite a lot. I’d say that character was a genuine hero, the player maybe not so much.

"As I think Nate is saying, a real hero risks an intrinsic loss to save the day, not just a reduction in some extrinsic assets. Sacrificing a random a_old_table-001 to squelch the grenade is not a heroic sacrifice. For a collector, sacrificing their most prized eighteen century table would be closer to an heroic act."

But at the end of the day you still get to walk out of your gaming session and go eat french fries. Is that level of sacrifice comparable to any of the individuals who in WWII or Korea rolled on top of a grenade? Also, what's gained by that sacrifice? In an actual war it's actual lives saved, or taken. In a gaming session it's a chalk mark for your team in the wins/losses column.

Games, it seems to me, are not war. It seems to me that as a term "heroism" should be reserved for scenarios where the sacrifice and the associated gains are significant, and I would go so far as to argue that genuine heroism--such as when someone who can't swim jumps into a lake to try and save a drowning victim--is impossible in a gaming context. The stakes simply aren't high enough. Games are only a simulation of war and players are just approximations of soldiers.

Posted Aug 14, 2006 3:39:37 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

I'd encourage anyone who wasn't here then to check out Nate's link to Where are the Heroes? The heroism aspect got a good workout there. (I still like my ideas for promoting heroism: permadeath, mass events, character differentiation, and -- with thanks to Brask Mumei -- a way to track one's reputation/fame among other players.)

This time around, we seem to be considering how game designs actually demotivate heroic play, rather than how to promote it. Personally, I question the assumption that everyone is more motivated intrinsically than extrinsically.

Are some people guided more by a voice within? Sure. There certainly are people who "march to the beat of their own drummer," who, if the world disagrees with them, conclude that the world is simply wrong. These people will probably get more out of a gameplay experience that provides opportunities for them to tell their own (heroic) stories than a game that puts them on rails, telling them what to feel and when to feel it. Very extrinsic behavior-motivation structures feel constricting; they're not fun.

But there are also people (and probably even more of these) who take their cues from the world, who decide what to do based on what the world (as they experience it) says is "good" and "bad" and Right and Wrong. For many people, extrinsic motivation -- doing what others think you should do -- is unquestionably more important than intrinsic motivation -- doing what you want.

One example of this is organized religion. A religion provides external structure in deciding how one should behave. For many people, religious practice may be the most important means by which they live "good" lives instead of sinking into a hedonic lifestyle that hurts themselves and everyone around them. Some other form of extrinsic structure might be equally effective, but what matters isn't the form; it's the function. Some people are simply happier having external guidance that defines Right and Wrong by rewarding some behaviors and penalizing others.

Is the very extrinsic WoW the new opiate of the masses?

How well could a very intrinsic MMOG do in a world populated mostly by people who prefer external rules to internal decision-making?

--Bart

Posted Aug 14, 2006 4:11:29 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

lewy> I would go so far as to argue that genuine heroism--such as when someone who can't swim jumps into a lake to try and save a drowning victim--is impossible in a gaming context.

I'd say that's true for players of a game, but not true for characters inside a role-playing game.

Players can't be heroes in the physical world based on what their characters do in a game world. But a character can be a hero in that game world.

So is vicarious heroism OK? Or does it cheapen the real thing?

--Bart

Posted Aug 14, 2006 4:19:25 PM | link

nate combs says:

It strikes me that one of the points of divergence in the discussion above is whether virtual heroism is about exceptional sacrifice only or whether there too needs to be a moral component, even if weakly - "doing the right thing". Andy talks about silent heroes. Clearly I've implied it, though perhaps I mean it to be at least but no more than doing well by your team (e.g. Red Orchestra OsFront).

This point seems debatable. I think, however, if you believe in the component of "rightness" then it weakens the requirement of persistence and one's ability to change the world. After all, if it becomes my mission to hold that flank and I do so with great ability and grace - well, should it / does it matter it is noted?

This may sound a little glib, however, my first-person shooter game forays have long ago taught me that I'm never good enough or with enough time to develop a real reputation in any of these games - my handle has been pretty forgettable. But does that diminish the experience?

Posted Aug 14, 2006 9:02:09 PM | link

nate combs says:

lewy>
Games, it seems to me, are not war. It seems to me that as a term "heroism" should be reserved for scenarios where the sacrifice and the associated gains are significant

Bart>
is vicarious heroism OK? Or does it cheapen the real thing?
----------------------

I agree with lewy if interpreted narrowly. I said it once before (as I ref'd in post).

Having said this, there is no reason, in my opinion, why vicarious heroism or vicarious anything need be cheapening. As long as one understands the limits of their experience. Some of the old WW2 hollywood films were fabulous, though one would need to understand what they were about.

The quarrel I had in The Fallacy of War post was less about whatever vicarousness players derived from their experience about war as they imagined it than about extending the arguments and logic of a real war to justify actions in a theme park virtual realm.

Posted Aug 14, 2006 9:13:58 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

It should be noted that heroism is a perception by others, not an absolute quantification. You are not The Hero: you are always a hero to others, to some other people. I believe the term for those who match the idea of heroism without being perceived as such are called anti-heroes.

There are two notions of heroism: one is the defender of society, whether it be the geographics, its virtues, or its people. The other is a representation of the best that society can offer. The two are not distinct. Captain America is an example of a strong blur.

So, heroism can occur in any multiplayer game (and theoretically any single-player game with sufficient elements of realism, though I admit it gets a little stretched here).

Posted Aug 14, 2006 10:46:23 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

A hero is someone who has completed their hero's journey. When we talk of people being "heroes" or acting "heroically", what we mean is that they are acting in the way that a hero would act, not that they themselves are heroes. Acting like a hero doesn't make you a hero, any more than acting like an elf makes you an elf.

The undertaking of a hero's journey is driven by a completely intrinsic motivation. You do it because you want to do it; you want to do it because you need to know who you are.

Acts such as self-sacrifice, bravery, the defending of the weak and so on are frequent characteristics exhibited by heroes, and examples of such deeds may often play a large part in an individual's personal journey. On the other hand, for a different person, they may play no part at all.

Heroism not only can occur in (game-like) virtual worlds, it's the very reason people play. Everyone can indeed be a hero. However, they're not heroes until they've finished playing (and started living). Giving them gameplay choices that make them feel as if they're heroes does not make them heroes; they decide when they're heroes all by themselves.

Richard

Posted Aug 15, 2006 3:20:41 AM | link

lewy says:

Bart Stewart wrote:

"So is vicarious heroism OK? Or does it cheapen the real thing?"

When you reference "characters inside a game" you're implicitly suggesting something along the lines of a work of collaborative fiction, e.g. role playing. I don't think it's necessarily any worse for a group of people to write about conflict than it is for one person to do so. The end results will inevitably vary based on the individuals involved.

Regarding Nate Combs' comments about Red Orchestra:

Viewed in the context of role playing, sacrificing yourself to blow up a tank is indeed heroic. First person shooters aren't normally thought of as being a bastion of role playing but if any FPS can come close Red Orchesta has got to be it. In Battlefield 2 when someone on my team throws explosives all over a Humvee and then rams it into a tank I might compliment them with "nice" or "gj". It's the same calculus that countries in extremis engage in during wartime (the kamikaze in WWII for example) but since there's no real significance to the act in game its only worthy of a fleeting compliment.

In that context the term "heroism" is abused much more widely than just the realm of online gaming--the "hero" who scored the winning touchdown, for instance.

In Red Orchestra on the other hand I admit to a couple of uncomfortable moments where I wondered if my game experience was capable of deliving, however diluted, some small taste of the real thing. Play long enough, (and suffer through enough kills where you have no idea who shot you or from where), and inevitably you run into one of those bizarre, miraculous moments like Nate described: your position is overrun and the enemy is streaming all around you, but somehow no one sees you. It's surreal, and the first thing I thought about when it happened to me was how closely it approximated something I had read earlier in one vet's first hand description of fighting in WWII. If a game like RO can communicate how ridiculously easy it so to die in battle without any idea of who shot you or from where, can it similarly impart some sense of what real sacrifice is? Perhaps in the same fashion as a book or movie? It's a fair question.

Also, my subjective experience has been that the player base for RO is a bit more mature than BF2. How many 14 year old's want to play an FPS where you actually have to work the action on your bolt action rifle after each shot?

Posted Aug 15, 2006 3:27:24 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

Culturally, we're awash in overlapping and (sometimes) contradictory ideas of what heroes and heroic behavior is, especially since post-modernism, self-analysis and deconstruction have seeped into every bloody aspect of what we do and how we do it.

In the "very old days," (Greece and before) a hero would never have (as Richard says) "decided" when he/she was a hero "all by themselves." Heroes were heroes because they embodied a particular trait that was deemed heroic, usually accompanied by an heroic flaw, too. Like gods, but with that annoying heel thing or a jealous wife. The whole point of heroism in stories was to point out the specific benefits of particular behaviors, while cautioning against the hubris that goes with a focus on outcomes.

Much of what is passed off now as "heroism" would have counted simply as "virtue" in Greek and Roman folk-sense. The idea of dying for one's country or to save the life of a comrade in battle was, from a poetic and literary standpoint, de rigeur. Perhaps it was just a harsher time...

Speaking of harsh... Since the coming of Christ, we've had a whole dual-modality of heroism that confuses the issue even further. What do you do with enemies in the BC environment? Well, slaying, mostly. There could be some mercy, but mostly it's the driving them before you and hearing the lamentations of their women thing. One of my favorite lines from Beowulf involves praise of B's chief saying, "Though drunk, he slew not hearth-companions." Cool! Good reference for a boss... when he's liquored up, he doesn't kill his buddies! That's the kind of hero-time we're talking about before Christ.

But after? We're called to forgive our enemies. Gulp... Swords into... plowshares? I have to do what with this stone? Put it down? That will make it very hard to throw... See: cognitive dissonance and moral confusion.

As Richard rightly says, the "Hero's Journey" -- as understood in modern, cross-cultural literature and art -- can be just about anything that involves self-discovery, ending with a revelation that transforms a "simple person" into a being capable of then going on to transform others. That, imo, after having studies hero myths across many times and cultures, is the key -- have you changed to the point where you are *capable* of affecting change in your environment; either saving other lives (putting theirs before yours), leading or teaching others, creating art that inspires, etc. For a hero is never completely inward facing.

Now the hero may not get a chance to *do* the stuff he is capable of. He may reach that height and then fall back, be killed, etc. But it is the discovery of potential to create potential that is at the heart of the hero's journey, I think.

Is that possible in a game? I don't see why not. Learning is certainly possible in a game. Emotion is possible. Friendship. Appreciation of beauty. Understanding of "other."

Is it possible in WoW? Not right now...

Oh... and did Richard say, "they're not heroes until they've finished playing (and started living)..."

I didn't realize we were separating "playing" and "living" again... ; )

Posted Aug 15, 2006 8:41:35 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard said, Heroism not only can occur in (game-like) virtual worlds, it's the very reason people play.

I couldn't disagree more. This whole heroes thing, and the accompanying internal/external motivation question Nate raised earlier, has been on my mind for awhile now.

In short, I think the idea of heroes in MMOs is utterly bankrupt. It's a design trope we borrowed incompletely from single-player computer games and from table-top small-group RPGs, and one that works singularly poorly in MMOs. We're still stuck in our own design-grind of trying to force fit this into MMOs after a couple of decades of trying, which strikes me as ludicrous for a bunch of people who are supposed to be creative.

In MMOs as they are now, players are sold the promise of heroism from the start, but it never happens. In a successful MMO, you will never be Neo, never be "the one" who saves the day. You'll never be Hercules, Achilles, Hector, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Captain Kirk, or James Bond. Such a role in anything but name only is antithetical to the form and structure of MMO worlds and gameplay.

This is true for two reasons: first, the classic vision of heroism is based on single-viewpoint fiction and story: plays, books, movies, etc. that all take place from the POV of one individual or an omniscient presence focused on one individual. MMOs are the furthest thing from single-viewpoint and as such require entirely new structural forms. In essence, in an MMO you're competing with thousands of others who also want to "save the day" -- they too were sold the empty promise of heroism in the game. You can't all be the hero if the game is to remain successful (this goes right back to the lessons of Habitat with their first one-winner-only treasure hunt).

Second, MMO worlds remain painfully static. Being a hero means changing something essential in yourself and in the world. Player characters change only in getting better stuff and more hit points, spells, etc., and only along a pre-defined track. In heroic terms, they're empty suits, avatars without souls to change. And the world, if it changes at all, does so only in a cyclic way that borders on imbecilic with resets and respawns being the core dynamic that both designers and players rely on. There is nothing that sucks the meaning out of a difficult act like knowing the Big Bad Guy you just vanquished will be back in exactly the same place and condition for the next "hero" waiting in line behind you. MMOs continue to live with a "Gilligan's Island" sensibility: try as they might, the players will never change anything, and after every scheme or action, the world will soon be right back to the way it started, just in time for their next meaningless caper.

The other related aspect of this discussion had to do with internal vs. external motivations. Without getting into muddled psychological theories, it seems to me the reality of current MMO gameplay (with exceptions for a few games like Eve) is that the player's actions are almost entirely externally driven: the player's internal goals (as relevant to their character) have to do with various forms of advancement (experience points, money, possessions), but how they go about this relies on entirely external motivations. Using WoW as the now canonical (if not complete) example, every time you have your character grab a quest, you're taking on someone else's motivation, someone else's goal, need, or desire. What does my character care whether some mine has been taken over by kobolds? The state of things, or even some putative change in that state, has no relevance to my character. The PCs on their own have no motivations because (as noted above) they really can't change themselves except along a pre-defined "advancement" track, and they can't affect the world in any meaningful, lasting way.

Ultimately, it's clear that the grind -- being in service of one or another externally motivated quest for meaningless and consequence-free ends -- pales for many players. It's no accident that the end-game for WoW is driven by internal motivations ("let's do this raid...") though it still relies on the emptiness of the PC to prop it up ("... so I can complete my epic armor set"). I believe this is why players continually rotate off of MMOs after a year or so; you've seen all the meaningless content, slogged your character through whatever advancement ladder there is, and maybe completed a few supposedly epic/heroic tasks along the way. But in the end it's all ashes: you haven't changed, your character hasn't changed, and the world hasn't changed. There is no heroism here.

The one saving grace for MMOs, and I believe the reason they continue to flourish, is that along the way sometimes they function as a context for finding new friends with shared interests. The well-known phenomenon of players who have long since stopped playing "the game" but who continue to log in and hang out anyway relies on this effect. It is notable to me too that in most MMOs this social network effect is almost completely unsupported (beyond chat and primitive grouping mechanisms), and is entirely separate from, and even antithetical to, the supposedly heroic grind.

IMO, it's time we moved on. I'm not talking about a forced mating of MySpace and MMOs (an idea that has sprung up all over like a weed), but about new forms of gameplay. We need to more fully understand that MMOs are social but they're not primarily about (or supportable by) "making friends." And to understand that if we try very hard we may find significant drama, tension, accomplishment, and other forms of fun emerging in the game, without having to continue using the adolescent fantasy version of heroism as a primary design crutch.

Posted Aug 16, 2006 2:39:41 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Great points, Mike. I love a good constructive rant.

Of course, then I have questions....

1. Do most online gamers want to be the hero? Or is it enough to be a hero?

2. Regarding post-play socializing, back in the pre-launch days of SWG it was thought that characters who ended their lives as Jedi would become "blue glowies." This was consciously suggested as a way for players to continue to be a meaningful part of the game world without actually "playing" it. Didn't happen, unfortunately, but the concept refuses to die.

3. I'd like to see novel forms of online social play being explored as well, but there's no reason to think that the financial success of WoW won't lead to a hundred more "You Can Be The Hero!" MMORPGs. So while it couldn't hurt the evolutionary tree of online interaction tools to add a few new branches, I don't think we can give up on trying to improve the conventional-MMORPG branch, too... or (to really belabor the metaphor) would that just prop up a branch that's already dead and needs to be lopped off ASAP to save the whole tree?

--Bart

Posted Aug 16, 2006 4:16:19 PM | link

lewy says:

Mike Sellers wrote:

"In MMOs as they are now, players are sold the promise of heroism from the start, but it never happens. In a successful MMO, you will never be Neo, never be "the one" who saves the day. You'll never be Hercules, Achilles, Hector, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Captain Kirk, or James Bond. Such a role in anything but name only is antithetical to the form and structure of MMO worlds and gameplay."

I couldn't agree more. A long time ago I suggested that the best route for MMOG design wasn't Lord of the Rings but WWII. The cliche of a small band or heros who saves the world is not only tired but completely unworkable. WWII, on the other hand, is something that involved millions upon millions of people (the kind of scale that MMOG's would like to operate on). It occured on a scale where mere individuals faded into complete anonymity against a sea of humanity. Not one of those individuals was irreplaceable but as individuals they all had interesting stories to tell. Put another way, from a historical viewpoint the story of one person flying to a foreign country, being exposed to a foreign culture, sampling the night life, etc. is insignificant. From the perspective of that specific individual however the whole thing is intrinsically fascinating.

As for the commercial success of WoW the real question for me is whether any its successors in MMOG genre will be anywhere close to being as successful as Blizzard's game. My guess is no, that the genre's tapped out and that for any real growth to occur in the future a new design paradigm will be required.

Posted Aug 16, 2006 5:50:45 PM | link

says:

excellent stuff!

Posted Aug 16, 2006 5:54:16 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Bart, I'd say that in existing MMOs, you're not even a hero. You're a sort of adventurer/mercenary acting either alone or as part of a group, but you're not doing anything transformational, much less heroic (personally or in terms of the world).

No doubt some players do want to be a hero, and that's fine. I just don't think that MMO play is particularly conducive to that, despite what we've all told ourselves for a long time now.

Re: post-play socializing, I have a number of ideas for what to do with players in that state. I'm not going to share them just now though. :)

I have no doubt that WoW is spawning a whole new generation of play-alikes. My favorite question of those demoing MMOs at E3 this year was, "okay but if I'm already playing WoW, why would I switch to this?" No one had good answers (except for the Eve guy who said something like, "why would you be playing WoW?" :) ). Most of the answers were along the lines of "um, because we have better textures..." Right. That's what's going to make your game stand out to millions of people already playing in the dimness of WoW's long shadow.

So while I have no doubt that we're going to see a whole big crop of WoW-alike MMOs, sadly I also expect to see a big crop of limping or failed MMOs in the next year or so. If I'm playing WoW, why would I switch to Vanguard, Warhammer, Conan, DDO, LOTRO, or any of the other high fantasy faux-heroic games? And if I'm not already playing WoW, or if I've had my fill of that sort of game, what would attract me to one of these games instead? (Sure, I know, some folks will play each of those games; others from EQII to Tibia manage to attract new players even now, but mostly not in market-significant numbers). And while I hate to see anyone's hard work circle the drain, I'm also not looking forward to the renewed guilt-by-association that often accompanies such failures as late-comers pile into a niche. "Oh, MMOs aren't so hot after all," the investors will say, with many missing the point that it'll be the play-alikes withering, not all MMOs.

That said, I'm pretty sure there's room for more fantasy and/or "heroic" MMOs in the market -- if not now, then eventually. After all, we still don't have any accurate idea of how large this market is -- only that every time anyone has thought they've seen its limits, they were completely mistaken. But now as at no time in the past we have a dominant market leader that seems to be doing an excellent job of mining this market segment. My point above was that there are many other design directions to take that don't require shoe-horning "heroism" or the like into a game form that doesn't really deliver on that promise in the first place.

Lewy said: Put another way, from a historical viewpoint the story of one person flying to a foreign country, being exposed to a foreign culture, sampling the night life, etc. is insignificant. From the perspective of that specific individual however the whole thing is intrinsically fascinating.

Exactly. This in my mind is one of the prime lessons to learn from the success of The Sims (not TSO). People love their own stories. They will tell stories to themselves that may not have any formal (much less heroic) structure, but which are to them compelling nonetheless. Enabling MMO players to tell such stories in the context of a large dynamic world where they are not the one but are one of many engaged in what is to them an important effort is, I think, a much more fruitful design path to follow for MMOs.

Posted Aug 16, 2006 6:36:36 PM | link

says:

to me it seems as if you are scratching at the already somewhat vague boundary between game and non-game, between faked stakes and real stakes... so maybe the new game design paradigm is simply about real stakes, transformative losses and transformative gains...

now, while gambling seems to be the obvious answer there are loads of different rewards, material and more importantly immaterial one could offer as a prize... or more precisely, the designers or the players could offer as prize to the winner(s)...

the immaterial prize could even be a socially important role or an office (relevant to the "constituency" formed by the players, in theory, a party could choose its politcal candidates from the winners of the game... that's heroic, is it not?... and coming to think of it would that be any different from the present routine ;-?)

with regard to duration i would borrow from sports, one event every two or three days, a big special every weekend...with this type of game, and the right transformational experience on offer, one could bring public life to a stand still - think soccer world cup to the power of ten...

Posted Aug 16, 2006 6:51:51 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

What I *want* from my MMO, and from games, is for them to be an entertainment and art form that educates, amuses and moves me at least as much as other media.

For instance, I remember after playing the original "Sid Meiers" Civilization" for 3 million hours or so, realizing, "It is DAMN hard to win this game using military might alone..." There was some interesting learning in that game about strategy, balance, etc. etc. It put some big thoughts in my head; bigger than some books and movies that I would describe as "good for you." So... Civ 1... art? Hell, yes.

As far as MMOs and heroism goes, then... what can we reasonably *expect* from the form? What do we get from literature, drama, film and song when it comes to how we grow in our appreciation and understanding of heroes, heroism, the heroic path, quest, etc.? Can we expect a game -- a virtual, often highly metaphoric interaction, moderated by a computer-based interface -- between several or many users to *produce* real heroism and heroes, or is the best that we can hope for an *education and understanding* about the subject? In short, can we get heroism or meta-heroism?

People are falling in love in MMOs. People are making friends... and enemies. Countries are making rules and getting scared. What we do in these places feels very, very real. And if we can feel and we can learn, we can learn about how other people feel. And we can grow in that understanding. That, to me, is a major part of the hero's journey.

The "standard" fantasy quest that starts out as a "I'm going to save my daddy's farm," goest on to, "OK...I'm going to find the cure for the blight that's killing all our crops," and then, "I'm going to stop the evil wizard that cast the blight spell," is a metaphor for confronting problems on larger scales. Being unselfish and socially concerned rather than just inward-focused and then family-focused. That's why so many heroes in popular stories begin as immature, pesky, egotistical little sh**ts; to contrast their self-absorption with their eventual realization of responsibility to "other."

It seems to me that an MMO -- beyond a book, film, song or single-player game -- is a place where people could go to experience a metaphor like that first hand. Where their success depends on subsuming their own desires and goals to those of some "greater good." Now, as has been said, you don't get to do that in the old-school, Frodo-esque, metaphoric way of taking on the whole goblin army yourself, because there are 6 million other players who also want the chance to be "heroic."

But if heroism ends up being defined as behavior that builds towards the good of some aggregate group goals... if you never "level up" as an individual player, but only as part of other, larger (increasingly larger?) entities... if you retain your own individual skills, personality, humor, etc., but apply those to common goals in order to attain value and rank... what you end up with is a definition of "hero" that automatically scales with the more people that play.

It's a different metaphor. It's different points. But the overall definition of "hero" would be up to the designers and what they want to teach. In "Dog Eat Dog Online," the above system would not work, eh? But in "The Virtual Peaceable Kingdom," it would.

Posted Aug 16, 2006 11:40:56 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

I skimmed a bit, but I wanted to differentiate "Hero" from "Protagonist". Dramatica defines a Hero to be a protagonist who's also the main character. (It makes more sense if you read their stuff; both of those terms have so much extra meaning stacked it's not funny.)

But other than that, I do agree with the sentiment of what you're saying. Though this has made me think of Mike Rozak's writings about storylines...

Posted Aug 17, 2006 1:20:25 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>I couldn't disagree more.

Oh, I'm sure you'll find after what I'm about to say that you can...

>In short, I think the idea of heroes in MMOs is utterly bankrupt.

This is because you're using a different definition of "hero".

>It's a design trope we borrowed incompletely from single-player computer games and from table-top small-group RPGs, and one that works singularly poorly in MMOs.

Calling them "heroes" in virtual worlds is a comparatively recent development. In the old days, no-one used the word in this sense at all. In MUD, a "hero" was just the name assigned to a low level character (this was in the days when there were so few levels that they could reasonably be given actual names, rather than just numbers). You saw someone called "Pete the hero" and you know they were better than "Joe the swordsman" but not as good as "Jane the superheroine". That's how the term was used - as a mere label. So while I agree with you that the appropriation of the term to apply to generic player characters, as in "you play a hero in the world of Whatever", is an unfortunate development, it's worth pointing out that it's basically the idea of marketing departments, not game designers.

>We're still stuck in our own design-grind of trying to force fit this into MMOs after a couple of decades of trying

This is why I mentioned the historical aspect. We haven't been trying to do this for a couple of decades. Maybe 1 decade, tops.

>In MMOs as they are now, players are sold the promise of heroism from the start, but it never happens.

It does happen. It's just that the kind of heroism we get is not the kind that players think they get. When someone performs a heroic act, that doesn't make them a hero; a heroic act is an act of the kind that a hero might perform, but performing one doesn't make you a hero. When players say they want to be heroes, what they mean is that they want to be treated how a hero would be treated. The thing is, to be a hero you have to do something, and that thing is the completion of a hero's journey.

I'm totally with you in saying that it's pointless trying to persuade players that they are heroes by sticking a label on them saying "you are a hero". That doesn't make them a hero any more than sticking a label on them saying "you are evil" makes them evil. Where we disagree is that I believe that players can genuinely become heroes, if the definition of "hero" uses its original, mythical resonance.

>In a successful MMO, you will never be Neo, never be "the one" who saves the day. You'll never be Hercules, Achilles, Hector, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Captain Kirk, or James Bond.

Of course not. Those characters (and The Matrix, Star Wars and the Iliad exactly follow the hero's journey template, by the way) are there for the reader/viewer to identify with. You watch a protaganist following a hero's journey, and you empathise with them; by seeing what a hero does, and following that hero's journey you gain some insight into your own psyche.

The thing with virtual worlds is that for the first time pretty well ever, ordinary people can themselves experience the journey. You can never be Neo, but you don't want to be Neo, you want to be you. Instead of having to gain occasional glimpses of facets of your self by a patchy, second-person alignment with a fictional character, you can experience it directly. You can become a hero. What you can't become is a stereotype, which is the vision of what it is to be "a hero" that many players (and, sadly, designers) have today.

>first, the classic vision of heroism is based on single-viewpoint fiction and story: plays, books, movies, etc. that all take place from the POV of one individual or an omniscient presence focused on one individual. MMOs are the furthest thing from single-viewpoint and as such require entirely new structural forms.

I don't see what you're arguing here. How can MMOs be the furthest thing from single-viewpoint when each player has precisely one viewpoint? The hero's journey is undertaken by an individual, not an entire game. A society can't undergo a hero's journey, but any member (or indeed all members!) of that society can. When you play a virtual world, you play it single-viewpoint just as in the single-viewpoint fictions you mention. I really don't see how you can say that having multiple players in any way undermines this.

>In essence, in an MMO you're competing with thousands of others who also want to "save the day"

No, they all want to become themselves. That's what the essence of heroism is: self-understanding. This form of heroism you can have.

Now I agree that the kind you're arguing against is ridiculous. You can't have a virtual world in which there are 5,000 Indiana Joneses at varying stages of heroism. If this is what you're railing against, then I'm right behind you! I profoundly disagree that this is the only kind of hero though. What it means to "save the day" is specific to the individual, not to the virtual world. You can save the day in a way that no-one but you considers as saving the day, and be a hero as a result.

>Second, MMO worlds remain painfully static. Being a hero means changing something essential in yourself and in the world.

It certainly means changing it in yourself. In the world, well, it's sufficient but not necessary. You could, for example, change the world by changing the players of the world. However, I agree that a virtual world in which no two shards are the same is better for producing heroes than one in which the only differences line in the players.

>Player characters change only in getting better stuff and more hit points, spells, etc., and only along a pre-defined track. In heroic terms, they're empty suits, avatars without souls to change.

Oddly, I'm just putting the finishing touches to a paper I'm writing on this very subject - the way that for many players the character narrative and the hero's journey have become too disjoint to deliver their promise. Yes, I agree that giving people tracks to run on makes for a playing experience that doesn't fit everyone, and that this is a problem; sadly, new players don't like not having tracks to run on, so there's problem there for developers.

>There is nothing that sucks the meaning out of a difficult act like knowing the Big Bad Guy you just vanquished will be back in exactly the same place and condition for the next "hero" waiting in line behind you.

I footnote this in the paper, after watching some players kill Hogger in WoW while his body was still visible in 2 other places... Other bosses I've seen standing among 5 copies of their own bodies. It doesn't exactly buy into the fiction.

What it does do, though, is show that the fiction is important, otherwise you wouldn't worry about it. It jolts you out of your hero's journey, which is why you pick up on it. If it didn't happen, you wouldn't notice, and you'd continue on your pursuance of your own personal narrative.

>It's no accident that the end-game for WoW is driven by internal motivations ("let's do this raid...") though it still relies on the emptiness of the PC to prop it up ("... so I can complete my epic armor set").

Yes, you're right. The current trend - and it's been this way since about 1990 - is for worlds to have their narrative given as preconstructed chunks provided by the designers. Prior to 1990, the worlds were more sandbox in nature: players created their own (and each other's) goals/quests from much finer-grained possibilities that arose from the interactions of players, objects, NPCs, mobs, physics and random numbers.

>But in the end it's all ashes: you haven't changed, your character hasn't changed, and the world hasn't changed. There is no heroism here.

The main reason for that, I assert, is that you can't win. You never get any recognition that you've finished, and eventually you leave in frustration because no matter what you do, you never finish. If you could finish, that would change matters: you could play without pressure, just for the joy of it. Some players manage this anyway - they finish their hero's journey without an explicit "atonement with the father" (ie, "you win") step, but I'm convinced that more would complete it if they were given formal acceptance that there's nothing more they have to do.

>The well-known phenomenon of players who have long since stopped playing "the game" but who continue to log in and hang out anyway relies on this effect.

It's as a result of their having finished their hero's journey. Those players are heroes. They're not what people might think of as stereotypical heroes, but that's what they are, each and every one of them. Did they save the world? Did they defeat the big bad? Did they take some enormous risk of self-sacrifice? Probably not, but they don't have to: those are just examples that second-person retellings of the hero's journey use in their larger-than-life ways to illustrate that heroes face obstacles and, in their overcoming, learn more about themselves.

It's not a very great selling point to newbies, "become a hero! chat with your friends on the porch!", but that's what, in the end, hero's do.

>we may find significant drama, tension, accomplishment, and other forms of fun emerging in the game, without having to continue using the adolescent fantasy version of heroism as a primary design crutch.

I agree. A superficial vision of heroism is doing none of us any favours. Nevertheless, I will say that there are deeper visions of heroism which are important, and which we ignore at our peril.

Richard

Posted Aug 18, 2006 9:05:59 AM | link

magicback (Frank) says:

It is interesting in that in the development of MMO RPGs we have a content structure, 'the hero's journey', that has been tested by time and myths, yet developers fail to use it more in their games.

Players already go threw their 'lifecycle' with many abandoning their character becaue the developer did not include a 'win' option or even a 'gracious exit' option.

So statistical heroism or accumulation of 'heroics' is all we got.

Sad.

Posted Aug 18, 2006 9:29:18 AM | link

says:

Richard wrote: "Did they save the world? Did they defeat the big bad? Did they take some enormous risk of self-sacrifice? Probably not, but they don't have to: those are just examples that second-person retellings of the hero's journey use in their larger-than-life ways to illustrate that heroes face obstacles and, in their overcoming, learn more about themselves."

Your post is very illuminating, thank you!
The way you separate the hero as "character from popular culture" from the rest is perfectly clear.
Yet to me it seems that you blur the psychological meaning of the word "hero" quite a bit.

In your post I would propose to replace "hero" by "the self" or "any individual's self". "heroism" I would translate into "to become oneself" or "to move closer to being oneself".

This way I at least would be able to reserve the word "hero" to indeed talk about personal sacrifice and the overcoming of deep, existential rather than everyday fears.

Or would you prefer "game hero" v. "real hero"?

Posted Aug 18, 2006 3:04:54 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard, I'm familiar with the hero's journey (quick ref for anyone not familiar with it) but I'm mystified as to where you see it actually occuring in modern MMOGs, or how it even applies in anything other than name (was there a "go kill rats" part of Campbell's outline that I missed?). There is some distant correspondence the HJ in many tabletop RPG and single-player game forms, but these have been diluted completely in MMOs. So I don't see any sense in appealing to the mythical resonant aspect of heroism in MMOG characters; from what I can see, there is no aspect of this available for players.

How can MMOs be the furthest thing from single-viewpoint when each player has precisely one viewpoint? The hero's journey is undertaken by an individual, not an entire game. A society can't undergo a hero's journey, but any member (or indeed all members!) of that society can.

The hero's journey is experienced by the hero and by the reader/viewer from a single POV. But MMOs must be designed to support many POVs at the same time (even if each player sees only one). This is where "heroism" breaks down -- I can't be the only one fulfilling a quest, as that doesn't scale (even if my quest is only one of many different ones that other heroes are on). And if everyone is doing "my" quest, then it's not much of a meaningful, mythic, resonant, heroic quest, is it? ("Excuse me, could you hurry up or could I play through? I'd like to get through the Belly of the Whale by lunch if possible.")

Moreover, if lots of people are doing the same things (supposedly on their own hero's journies) and the consequence of this is that the world has to remain static or spawned-static to let us do our thing, then the crucial aspect of the hero affecting the world is missing. The hero's journey is internal, but not only internal. He or she must master and transform the inner self, but this is demonstrated by working a definitive change on the world. This change never happens in MMOs, and the illusion of such change is almost an insult after a player quickly pierces the illusion of quest-text.

Posted Aug 18, 2006 4:16:16 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Frank> Players already go threw their 'lifecycle' with many abandoning their character becaue the developer did not include a 'win' option or even a 'gracious exit' option. So statistical heroism or accumulation of 'heroics' is all we got.

I've sometimes wondered what would happen if a game told players who roll up a new character that they have a nemesis, and that eventually their character will be permanently defeated (maybe killed, maybe some other kind of defeat) by their nemesis.

Certain knowledge that there will be an end to their character's useful life might spur some players to in-game heroism, and send others into a Kafka-esque pit of existential nihilism.

Either way, wouldn't players learn more about themselves than they do in the current crop of games where nothing is allowed to matter?

--Bart

Posted Aug 18, 2006 4:44:42 PM | link

says:

Bart said: "Either way, wouldn't players learn more about themselves than they do in the current crop of games where nothing is allowed to matter?"

how about this example of "game meets world"?
Does this story matter? And is there heroism one could get out of it?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4folfoxN4PE&eurl=

Posted Aug 18, 2006 6:30:30 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Technically... heroism is possible in any environment, situation, interaction, etc. The internal struggles over some kinds of imposed barriers -- psychological, cultural, emotional, whatever -- can be heroic. External issues of all types can be overcome in any number of settings. You can see a story of a weird, introverted, shy kid who finally gets up the nerve -- despite various problems -- to make a friend or two as a step along the road of his Hero's Journey. In that case, there's no reason that the middle-school cafeteria couldn't be the setting for his journey; or the McDonald's where he works; or an MMO.

The question is, though, are any of these settings more or less ripe for these kinds of experiences? Or are they, frankly, either ironically in opposition to them when compared to some kind of pseudo-heroic drama, or actively in opposition to them in that they reduce the real ability of players to engage in more heroic activities elsewhere. Do we have a case of a unintended or opposite consequences? When we play at being heroes, are we becoming less heroic and decreasing our overall chances to ever be such?

Another way of asking this in a pedantic, parental sort of way is: "Just what are these video games teaching us?"

In the ever-popular "The Horde is Evil" thread, it was often mentioned that Horde players tended to treat each other more "nobly" than Alliance players. Perhaps, it was ventured, that was because players who preferred the Horde tended to enjoy playing the underdog, and that kind of player was more inclined to... er... "not be a dick."

So: unintended consequences -- the characters that look the most heroic attract the players that want to look all shiny with the least amount of work. Since real heroism requires work, the players that like to really dig into a character choose those that take more effort. The system rewards players who need the most real help understanding the heroic impulse with the trappings of heroism, but not real learning. Meanwhile, the players who already have some background in the subject -- as evidenced by their willingness to play an underdog race on most servers -- are forced to be even more heroic; (work together, train noobs, etc.

I don't think this is really true. But it could be. If not in WoW, then in other situations where the dramatic simulation of heroism somehow precludes the real learning of its merrits.

Posted Aug 18, 2006 7:03:29 PM | link

lewy says:

Richard Bartle wrote:

"I agree. A superficial vision of heroism is doing none of us any favours. Nevertheless, I will say that there are deeper visions of heroism which are important, and which we ignore at our peril."

MMOG's as currently constituted are incapable of addressing those "deeper" visions however, and they may always be seriously handicapped compared to their single player cousins. Almost all single player games have a narrative. By comparison that is something which is much more difficult to implement in a multiplayer setting. A narrative must conclude to have impact--only soap operas and comic books go on and on and on. MMOG developers are wedded to the concept of an eternal subscriber base and so MMOG's go on and on and on.

As an aside, my understanding is that there is significant churn in the subscription base of any MMOG and that average subscriptions have a lifespan of less than a year. If that's the case would there really be any harm in servers where Tolkienesque wars between good and evil rage where the war ends in a year or two and the game wraps up?

There are at least two recent examples of outstanding single player games which enact a narrative: "Half-Life 2" and "Shadow of the Colossus". By contrast I can't name one on the multiplayer side.

Posted Aug 19, 2006 4:07:36 AM | link

lewy says:

Andy Havens wrote:

>Another way of asking this in a pedantic, parental sort of way is: "Just what are these video games teaching us?"<

I don't know that MMOG's teach anything right now. But in two recent single player games, "Half-Life 2" and "Shadow of the Colossus", there were moments playing each where I experienced a mingled sensation of horror and pity for the "enemies" I was facing.

Posted Aug 19, 2006 4:10:11 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

I knew we'd get to narrative eventually, as brought up by Lewy. The Hero's Journey is inherently narrative bound: the character is subservient to the events that happen, to the plot. The journey may be unique to any individual hero-in-the-making in its particulars, but in its overall form the form of the narrative is remarkably consistent across many stories.

As I pointed out above, that sort of narrative approach doesn't work in MMO worlds: either the world invests too much narratological structure in an individual (or small group) and thus doesn't scale, or it is forced to reduce the impact of their actions within a distributed structure, and you're left with a static world where no meaning -- and thus no heroism -- is imparted.

For MMOs to move forward outside of the track they've been on from MUDs to WoW (including whatever "traditional" games are yet to be deployed), we need new concepts of narrative that do not rely on authorial control, that support thousands of independent actors in meaningful roles, allow plot to be subsidiary to character, and provide the ability to move beyond pervasive but primitive forms like the putative hero's journey.

Lewy: As an aside, my understanding is that there is significant churn in the subscription base of any MMOG and that average subscriptions have a lifespan of less than a year. If that's the case would there really be any harm in servers where Tolkienesque wars between good and evil rage where the war ends in a year or two and the game wraps up?

The average subscription may last only a year, but there is a significant spread on both ends. By ending the game after a year you reduce the game's income drastically, reducing its chance of being a commercial success (which in turn reduces your chance of being able to make another one).

That said, at least one game, A Tale in the Desert, uses this method in its year-long "tellings" of its story. ATitD is innovative in many ways, and perhaps as a result has never attracted more than a handful of players (by market standards). That seems to work well for eGenesis, but so far built-in obsolescence seems to be too risky a move for other developers.

Posted Aug 19, 2006 10:23:33 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Mike wrote:

...we need new concepts of narrative that do not rely on authorial control, that support thousands of independent actors in meaningful roles, allow plot to be subsidiary to character, and provide the ability to move beyond pervasive but primitive forms like the putative hero's journey.

You don't need a new concept of narrative at all. Meaning (i.e., representation) is always going to be absolutely central to good games, but narrative can't be stretched this far. The fact that meaning is socially constructed in the course of a very messy reality (or a very complex, social game) demands broader thinking about meaning and process.

Posted Aug 19, 2006 11:31:24 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

@Mike and Thomas: I think we're off the track a bit. Maybe not...

As a writer and long-time lit student, I don't have any problem with breaking down character, meaning or narrative into any number of variously small chunks or processes. The size and type of the chunks determines whether you're studying a form or particular genre, comparing pieces across culures or within one culture but across times, or even two pieces by the same writer but in different periods of his/her life. You can break apart a narrative in so many different ways that it starts to get -- after a lifetime of doing so -- somewhat difficult to just enjoy a story for the sake of enjoyment. And impossible to enjoy Star Wars: Episode I... (sorry)

My point being that I don't think it's necessary to re-jigger literature or poetry or rethink the way we understand narrative or the Hero's Journey or come to an entirely new understanding or process of anything. We've got, I believe, all the parts now. We've been deconstructing everything from phonemes to mythos since Ferdinand's assassination, pretty much. Yes, the MMO is a new medium, but I think what we're looking for are, essentially, mechanics for quantifying behaviors and ideas/ideals that are well established.

What we need are better ways to keep score. And somebody to decide what it is that he/she wants to reward.

The history of "heroism" is littered with new types of heroes, eh? From the old "single malt" variety where Hercules and Beowulf went running around on their merry own, smiting stuff with narry a regard for anybody but themselves, to the more "leader-type" hero that had to lead his men "once more into the breech," to a new version that's more about self-sacrifice. We had heroes that had to die to be heroes (Fisher King). We had heroes that had to be in real battles that then transformed into heroes of jousts and then heroes of the gridiron. We now have media-heroes. We have Chris/Ghandi/Mother Theresa heroes. All kinds.

It's just that the bulk of our current fantasy MMO games are, essentially, keeping score as we shadow-clone the exploids Frodo, Aragorn, Gandolf and Gimli. They've done Hero Things. Now, to be a hero, you must, too. That's not *being* a hero; it's saint-by-numbers. Which is fun! Don't get me wrong. I enjoy many aspects of these games.

Even compared to other kinds of gaming, there's a difference. There is a real difference between playing WoW and playing a pen-and-paper RPG. Is there ANY real creativity, for example, involved for the average MMO player? Does it come close to what a player puts into creating and playing a character in a sit-down style game? And (ironic/rhetorical) is it close to what a good GM/DM puts into setting up a game? I'm not saying MMO players don't invest time, effort and a whole-lotta-love into their characters... but is it creative? And on a world scale... I'm not diggin' it.

Here's an "heroic scene" I have in my head. Totally possible in an MMO. No redefinition of narrative necessary, just a different definition of mechanics -- one where I have a stake in something -- property and self...

I play a merchant/craftsman who has risen high enough and made enough money to open my own shop in one of the larger game-cities. I have stocked it with good wares. The game mechanics make these persistent; if I don't want them stolen, I need to hire a guard or lock the place, so I lock the place and have specific hours, or you can shop by appointment. One night I am at home, keeping shop, and I hear a raid. Clearly, some bad-boys from "the other team" are having their merry way with the town guards, and getting the best of it. I put up my locks, set my guard spells, and am pretty sure I can hole up in my store without getting nailed. If I leave (game mechanics, again) my defensive magic will be less effective (the game rewards protecting your own stuff).

I go up to my roof to watch the shenanigans, and a young person of my team flees down the street, the bad guys a couple blocks behind her. She sees that the lights are on in my place and looks up, spying me on the roof, looking down on her.

If I open the door for her, it will break my magic defensive spells, and it will take a few moments to recast them. In that time, my shop will be vulnerable. The raiders could break in and steal/smash materials that I have spent months of game time collecting. But in this game, the mechanics harshly punish character death; the city we are in is a 3rd tier city. Her very presence here signals that she is at least a Level 30 character. If she dies here... she will drop 10 levels of XP.

On the other hand... I have no real motive, from a mechanics standpoing, to save her. I will win no XP, probably no gold, probably no guild-favor, as I can tell from her accoutrement that she is quite a bit lower than me in status.

But if I let her in and I/we are successful in fending off the raiders... or if I die in the attempt, or can bribe them to let us live and she lives... or even if I try and we both die... I have risked something that I value for an intangible, and to benefit something that another values.

Much closer to heroism than killing rats, dying and re-rezzing 45 yards downhill. You just need to keep score differently.

Posted Aug 19, 2006 5:03:45 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Andy, Koster's Law still applies: "The quality of roleplaying is inversely proportional to the number of people playing."

A game like you propose is creatively and technically feasible. It would likely not do well in the market. Whether this matters to someone creating such a game depends on how many millions of dollars they have to burn.

You can't enforce heroism. You can't even script it in a game with multiple independent actors (thus the problem for classical narrative-bound approaches). You can make situations for it as you say, but that guarantees nothing except, if history is any guide, that most of the time most people will choose to save themselves at the expense of heroism -- it's the usual thing, which is what makes heroes so unusual. This means that in a game like you describe you'd have a lot of people looking for "fun" more than heroism, and not finding it. The woman about to be PK'ed or the shop keeper who decides to risk himself can be instantly transformed into disgruntled customers. It sort of breaks the magic to think of them that way, but that's who they'll wake up as in the morning.

This is why I said earlier that heroes and heroism as a basis for motivation in MMOs are done. It was a good, basic place to start, even if it didn't really work as we hoped it might. It took us (as a group of people trying to create something, and as a new industry) the past ten or twenty years to figure this out. I think with WoW we've seen the last hurrah of heroes-as-gameplay in MMOs (everything in that line that comes after will be postscript). We have, I think, finally come to the end of the first generation of MMOs.

Now we need to take the next step. If in a next-generation MMO you're not a hero -- or if you're a hero because you want to be, not because the game tries to lay that out as a predefined path -- then what are you? After a few million people have been level 60 (or other local equivalent) a few times and felt the emptiness of faux-accomplishment along a prescribed path, what comes next? Do we content ourselves with trying the same tricks all over again with a new coat of paint, do we fold up our tents and go home for lack of better ideas, or do we move on, trying some new ways of attracting and holding the interest of thousands or millions of people? Can we give them a long-term immersive, satisfying, meaningful entertainment experience without having to fall back on the tired trope of heroism, or is that the only trick we know?

Posted Aug 19, 2006 8:18:23 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

@Micke: "The quality of roleplaying is inversely proportional to the number of people playing."

I say: crap on that. If that's true, then the best roleplaying is with, what? One person. Bah. Feh. I know that in live, pen-and-paper sessions that I GM'd, there was an upper limit based on how many people fit around my dining room table and based on how long it took to "do the mechanics" of roll/move/figure when we were doing combat stuff. But if you're telling me that the games we played with 8 people were only 1/2 as good as the ones we played with 4? Bah, feh, etc.

I just don't think we're being clever enough be half. The "modern MMO" is barely, what? 3 years old? How long have we all had fast-Internet hook-ups? I love text-based games, and live games, and... and... and... but to say that "heroism" is a tired trope is like saying that "nude girls will lose their appeal at some point" or "big guns aren't fun," or "scary stuff isn't psychologically compelling." What are you going to substitute for "heroism" in roleplaying? Chartered accountancy?

The chance to vicariously experience activities that are hyperbolicly charged with more "oomph" in some way... that's what games are often about. The metaphor. The angle. The curve. I know I'm not a paladin or a wizard or an orc. I'm not a WWI flying ace or a ninja or a vampire. I'm a 40-year-old father and middle-management marketing guy who writes a lot and teaches some and occasionally does something as exciting as bowl and miniature golf on the same weekend. The simulation of interesting/weird/flashy "stuff" in my games is part of the appeal.

Now, where the genre fails (or is starting to, as I think we both agree) is when you put a one-to-one ratio in place, and say, "Andy wants to feel heroic or learn about heroism or experience something of it beyond what is possible in his life. So lets let him stricly mimic the part of a hero, as written in books that he has enjoyed." It's the interactive version of "reading about it." And, I agree with you, it has been done and is near to being done to death.

But that doesn't mean we're done with heroism. If that were the case, we'd have stopped seeing movies and reading books with the same archetypal heroes long ago. In some cases, we have, and what has happened is that we get more complex heroes.

Same holds true for stories. Early sci-fi is really, really (in many cases) flat and bland compared to what is available now. But many of the "root ideas" are still intact. They're just more complex. The "mechanics" have improved.

I believe we can have hugely huge, thousand and million player MMOs where people play intricate parts of weird, fantastic worlds. Where they interact in groups, guilds, parties, gangs, etc. Where they build things, invent, strive, buy, sell, war, talk, create. All without many of the restraints that keep us from behaving [fill in the blank/heroically among others] in real life; because, in RL, we are mortal.

I will never, ever throw a hand-grenade in RL. In a game? No big deal. I will probably never even own my own business, beyond doing some consulting here and there. I'm not that much of a risk taker. But, in parallel to my real life... in a place where I could experience a "what if?" scenario or two or ten...

In that place, why would we leave out heroism? Or friendship? Or good and evil? Or love and hate? Or any of the things we can do in RL?

Posted Aug 19, 2006 10:48:04 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Andy: I'm talking about heroism as it's been tried in MMOs, not in books or movies, or even in tabletop games.

Modern MMOs are 10 years old, not 3. Outside of a few games on the fringes, the primary themes and methods used haven't changed appreciably in that time.

And "Koster's Law" has been acknowledged as the way people act in online games for at least that long. That's the reality we work within.

Posted Aug 20, 2006 12:28:22 AM | link

says:

Andy,

> Early sci-fi is really, really (in many cases) flat and bland compared to what is available now. But many of the "root ideas" are still intact. They're just more complex. The "mechanics" have improved.

You knew that you would ruffle some feathers with this generalization? Romantic writers (starting somwewhere from around E.T.A Hoffmann over to Mary Shelley over to Poe and Stevenson and so on...) and people like maybe Asimov, Lem and P.K. Dick (and some others ...) in view felt the massive impact of "the raw and untamed forces" of technology on their personal lives much clearer than later writers (with no firsthand experience of WWII maybe?) who in my view tend to get confused with all sorts of secondary "high-tech mechanics" (from warp energy to metaverse stuff).

> I believe we can have hugely huge, thousand and million player MMOs where people play intricate parts of weird, fantastic worlds. Where they interact (...) Where they build things, invent, (...) All without many of the restraints that keep us from behaving [fill in the blank/heroically among others] in real life; because, in RL, we are mortal.

Fair enough. But I still believe that you have to replace "being mortal" with something at least similarly meaningful to thrill people ... I believe people have to "risk their place in the world or even the world as such" in order to get the ultimate thrill you seem to allude to.

> (...)I'm not that much of a risk taker. But, in parallel to my real life... in a place where I could experience a "what if?" scenario or two or ten...

The "what if" metaphor is right on! I would propose narrative that outlines scenarios much closer to peoples RL experience - yet scenarios in which the common sense experience is shifted just enough to make them interesting ... (in Thomas-Pyncheon-style maybe)

for example all sorts of stories around alternatives paths of history (the classic "what if Hitler got the bomb first" - a lot of people will play the Nazis, I am sure) ...

stories about "near-future" sci-fi, P.K.Dick's stuff would be a starting point for that...

And what about the idea to give players the opportunity to play socially and politically meaningful scenarios where people face deep moral dilemmata they can actuall relate to firsthand - stuff around the "ticking bomb scenario" and torture, inspired by the "24" ty show ...

If politically or morally charged stuff is too hot for you though, then I dunno (the media reaction to the Columbine game is of course a huge caveat)

Posted Aug 20, 2006 7:23:30 AM | link

lewy says:

Mike Sellers wrote:

"The average subscription may last only a year, but there is a significant spread on both ends. By ending the game after a year you reduce the game's income drastically, reducing its chance of being a commercial success (which in turn reduces your chance of being able to make another one).'

To clarify, I was thinking more along the lines of individual servers wrapping up after a year or two as compared to the entire game, with new servers kicking off every couple of months or so. There are after all plenty of people who are just now giving WoW a shot and it wouldn't make sense for somebody to spend money on a game which is in the 11th month of a planned 12 month lifespan.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 3:03:17 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

I said: Early sci-fi is really, really (in many cases) flat and bland compared to what is available now. But many of the "root ideas" are still intact. They're just more complex. The "mechanics" have improved.

? Said: You knew that you would ruffle some feathers with this generalization? Romantic writers (starting somwewhere from around E.T.A Hoffmann over to Mary Shelley over to Poe and Stevenson and so on...) and people like maybe Asimov, Lem and P.K. Dick (and some others ...) in view felt the massive impact of "the raw and untamed forces" of technology on their personal lives much clearer than later writers...

You are naming the greats among the wash of many, many examples of early, trashy, easily forgotten crud. Poe? Huge, yes, great, fantatastic. HG Wells. Same. Asimov, sure. There will always be superb classics in any genre. But there is also crud. There's crud today. But it's newer, different, more refined crud (usually). People don't make the exact same mistakes.

Maybe it's because you can go back and read the old original mistakes. I don't know. For example, I loved reading almost all of Heinlein's work when I was young. Now? 20-30 years later? I'm not sure if I'm older... or if the work has aged poorly. If much of what he wrote has simply not withstood the test of time, or if I just "grew out of it." Don't get me wrong; some is still brilliant. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" should be required reading. But I don't know that "Stranger in a Strange Land" seems quite so bold and freaky and compelling outside the political and social contexts that it was written in.

I certainly didn't mean that hi-tech lingo-philic sci-fi is what makes for a "good" read. Blech. But as the genre matures, it's easier to see what themes are "sci for the sake of hi-sci-fun-fi" and what themes are really interesting from the point of view of *requiring* a future-forward mind-set. You can have many of the themes in "Frankenstein" in a non-sci-fi genre... but, gawd, it would take a lot longer, eh? As time goes by, we become better (from a craft standpoint) at identifying these "ways" of doing what we want in a genre. That was my point about finding new "mechanics" of heroism, now that we've been in this genre awhile.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 12:22:32 PM | link