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Oct 24, 2003



I decided to comment here because there seem to be very few forum posts over at Skotos in the Articles section.

What are examples of well-accepted MMORPG design rules that are being contradicted by well-established socio-political theories?

Skinnerian theory (behavioral conditioning) and Post-Modernism seem to go hand-in-hand: people become what they are shaped to be. I don't understand Dave's point about this "potential clash" towards the end of the article.

Furthermore, there's a whole field called Evolutionary Psychology, and certainly other fields that could be interpreted as highly ideological ... why would these academic wars be directed towards MMORPG developers instead of those fields?

I don't see why anyone would be up in arms because MMORPG developers "prove" Skinnerian (conditioning) principles in games. There's nothing to prove. It's well-accepted theory that's in every intro psych textbook. If they were mad at that, they would go picket slot machines at casinos.

There will be battles, but they will be between academics from different ideologies in a theoretical yet-to-be-named field. But like most academic ideological debates, these clashes will be so arcane and theoretical that no one else will care about them ...

(It's like Au and Bloom's heated linguistics debate on the existence of the Chinese counterfactual. Very very heated ideological debate ... but only linguists know about it)


Because where the original Science Wars escaped general notice because they involved issues and questions far removed from the awareness of anyone outside of academia, if online games start leading to genuinely new arguments and evidence in the idealogical wars of academia, people will notice (the players, if no-one else). If this is coincident with a larger social/legal/political debate over the worlds in general, then the positions and conclusions will get siezed on by the wider debate (probably without any real understanding, but that's not new either).

Behaviouristic psychology may not be incompatible with post-modernism, and perhaps my own ideology is interfering with my assessment, but I know that as I learn more about how people in groups interact, the dynamics I see do not support it.

If there is anywhere that the question of whether it is possible to build a science of the interactions of culture, environment, and inherent human nature can be settled, it's in online worlds. And a lot of people in academia feel they have a dog in that fight.



But even if a debate ensues, it would center on the human nature issue outside of the MMORPG context rather than on the MMORPG itself. I mean - the gay gene debate doesn't focus on how to dissect cadavers or sequence genes. In the same way, any new theory that's applicable to the world outside of MMORPGs won't deal with how games are designed or who plays them.

The theory, rather than the place where the data was collected, will be the focus of the "war". Because for the theory to be interesting, it has to apply to non-gamers. A theory about how people behave in MMORPGs isn't that interesting because it really doesn't say much about behavior in the real world. But if the theory is applicable to the real world, and studies show that is does, then no one will care that the initial lab setting was an MMORPG.

The other thing is that existing methods of studying the interaction of environment and human nature have far better control than online worlds -> twin studies, longitudinal studies, genetic studies, or even primate studies.


Based on intuition alone, I think Dave is right. I've got nothing to support him with though, because I really have zero knowledge in the history of science in general.

But I wondered how you'd respond to this: Should we really worry over what will happen when the scientists take a serious interest in VWs?

You, Dave, are looking forward to it. Most designers are (if at all). So clearly, no one is going to do anything to STOP it. Why then, should it matter to us if this utopian, idyllic land of happily designing virtual space and smiting various un-complaining denizens as they pay you to do so is going to be the battlefield of science?

It can't, and won't, stop us.


I was torn about where to drop this quickie but I think I will post it here since it has come up in other spots at Terra Nova. I just want to caution against using the term "postmodern" as a kind of catch-all for what the academics are doing. This is actually not directed just at you Dave. I noticed Greg threw out the term in the comments area of the AoIR post as well. I was a little stumped by it then but didn't really pause to follow-up. I know it can be easy to shorthand this way but it's a loaded word (especially depending on the disciplinary bent of the reader) and for many of us is actually probably not a good reflection of the kind of work we do. For example, just because you want to talk about the social construction of tech/identity/etc doesn't mean by default you are pomo (most of the time I find it a little unclear what the writer means when they even use the term). In fact, I'd say some of us see our work as quite politically invested (something usually not associated with the stereotype "postmodern" evokes). I think one of our big challenges is to figure out ways to talk across professions and disciplines. Others might also remember the ways this sometimes failed in the '90s around the old school virtual world scene - I'd hate to see it happen again. With that in mind, I'd definitely love to hear when I use language that triggers issues with those of you who are professional designers, etc. I'm sure it happens but I see venues like this as a great opportunity to work through such language gaps.


Well, we've already heard from academia that it may be a bad idea to allow players to give gifts to other players in an MMORPG. Evidently, the government is going to encroach into our play spaces and ruin our games if we don't cut out this sort of activity. But I have to say that as I read Ted's paper (as thought-provoking and well-written as it was) I got a sense that academia might be beating the government to it. I know that is not the intent at all, but a measure of fun seems to be getting lost somewhere.

On MUD-dev, in an attempt to expand the development palette to include some darker and more serious hues, I've challenged the notion that MMORPGs must be primarily about fun. But here, I'm feeling an overwhelming urge to emphasize how important fun is to games. Fun doesn't seem to fit very well into test tubes. If the next generation of MMORPGs emerges from test tubes, I'm not sure I'm going to want to play them.



Oh, Phin, c'mon! We're academics. It's our job to suck the fun out of anything we study.

No, really, we're just doing something different from the participants. Sex is fun. Studying human sexual behavior isn't (well, for most people). But reports on human sexual behavior are important for various purposes (health policy, social engineering, etc). They're just not very interesting if you are engaged in the activity itself.

So the games are going to continue to be fun, otherwise they won't survive. And our studies of them won't be much fun. But hopefully they will be of value.


The variables that affect human interaction are considerable more complex and extensive than the variables that affect weather modeling. And we have yet to produce an accurate, dependable model of predicting weather beahvior, much less climate. Even though meteorology and climatology are hard sciences, with measureable variables that are based on established principles of physics, no has yet been able to work out a pardigm that efefctively integrates the data into a dependable model.

100,000 individual humans. Drawn from dozens, if not hundreds of distinct cultural, social, economic and linguistic backgrounds. Each individual a unique combination of DNA. Each with a unique set of life experiences.

Put them into an artificial environment and stir vigorously through application of artificial stresses.

You seriously beleive that we are anywhere close to being able to describe what might happen? This is chaos theory writ large. The data gathering end of things has not even well begun yet. It will be years, if not generations, before a sane theory gets formulated that might have a chance of describing what to expect.

Ask any politician. People are unpredictable at best.


Describe? Only vaguely. Observe? With incredible precision and depth. We don't know what to make of what we're seeing, but the answers are there, staring us in the face. This is social science in a goldfish bowl, God's Own petri dish.

One of the keys to it is that most of the differences between those hundred thousand people with their unique personalities, histories, and genes, turn out to be irrelevant. Either they aren't as different as we think, or the compulsive power of the environment is greater than we think, or the interactions of individuals in groups has an internal logic of its own that over-rides these unique qualities. Or all three. Or none of them.

We dont know, which isn't new, we've never known. What's different is that we have the very real possibility of running these questions to ground once and for all. Almost certainly the answers will undermine ideological positions, and when they do, history shows that both the messenger and the medium will be attacked. Read "Defenders of the Truth". Note that the "truth" being defended on both sides was a "higher truth" of ideology, the "truth" of pure scientific inquiry on one side versus the "truth" of not pursuing science that can support unacceptable social agendas. The "truth" of whether or not sociobiology was an accurate or useful theory was not the question at hand in the Science Wars.

All the academic study of virtual worlds has to do to set off a firestorm is reach one demonstrably true conclusion that either undermines or supports the right (or wrong) ideological position, and all hell could break loose. Far out of proportion to the trigger because the tensions are already there, waiting for something to set them off.



The reason why sociobiology touched off a firestorm is because it was a form of biological determinism that was too close to eugenics. The reason I don't think online worlds will touch off the same firestorm is two-fold:

- You can only study environmental effects in online worlds cause you can't control for genetics (or even real gender) and therefore can't infer biological causality. And environmental or even group dynamic effects don't rile people up. The entire field of social psychology is about how people are strongly influenced by their social setting, their peers, or their group interactions in surprisingly similar ways. Or you can hop over to sociology and read stuff like Durkheim's "Suicide". People don't get riled up on that stuff anymore.

- It's the people who are doing genetic engineering etc who will be the target because they are the ones who can bring out theories with inferred biological causality. It's the people doing prenatal testing, gene therapy etc who are far closer to the eugenics firestorm than online worlds will ever be. As long as you have that stuff going on, it will overshadow anything you do in online worlds.


The other thing is the EO Wilson studied insects and animals and derived theories he then applied to human behavior. But in that firestorm, yes the messenger and the theory got shot at, but the medium where he conducted his research wasn't really part of the debate. No one argued about how to study ants or squirrels. That wasn't the focus of that debate at all. And in the same way, theories derived from online worlds, even if they engendered debate, won't then focus their fire on online worlds. They would focus on the theory and the messenger. I don't think the historical analogy with EO Wilson shows what you are trying to argue.


Boy, how many hot-buttons can we hit here before this gets out of hand?

Sociobiology argued that human social patterns were of the same basic nature as those of other animals, that we come into the world with tendencies, "conditional strategies" that had been developed in response to evolutionary pressures, and that not all of us were equipped with the same pallette of strategies, and that the "nature vs. nurture" question was a false dichotomie, in the end it was almost always both.

We're not infinitely plastic, nor are we all pre-destined, but rather a mixture of the two, and the starting position that we are exclusively *either* is no longer defensible.

Anyway, all of that is somewhat besides the point, the question at hand is if this can splash over onto the games themselves. My best reason for saying it can is that as we develop theories of social interaction in online games, they will accumulate ideological baggage.

The seeds of it are already there, in the differing approaches to player empowerment. Raph, based on his ideological viewpoint, tries to empower the players equally, and feels that empowering some players in preference to others is indefensible. I feel that inequality of empowerment is inevitable, and to not use the inherent tendency of the players to organize themselves into cliques, insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots, to shape the result is pointless, and ultimately irresponsible.

As this baggage accumulates, inevitably the day is going to come when an academic looks at a proposed social design and labels it an abomination. And remember, ultimately the greatest source of acrimony in the sociobiology debate was not that it might be true, but that someone might use them as grounds to re-legitimize fascism and it's associated horrors.

What if fascism is *fun*? I am currently creating a game where I hope to have a social organization similar to feudalism, based on the idea that it was a lot of fun, from the viewpoint of the feudal lords. Is it so hard to believe that someday, once we know how, someone might try to make a game with a social order that reproduces fascism? Feudalism is a historic curiousity with little emotive power, but it doesn't have to stop there, and probably won't.



Throwing the "what is fun" into policy discussions, in my view, is the match that may set off the tinderbox. Yes indeed. What if, after all, fascism turns out to be fun? Or, more likely, what if poverty turns out to be an essential element of any fun world? Doesn't that just topple the Enlightenment project?


Phinehas: "But I have to say that as I read Ted's paper (as thought-provoking and well-written as it was) I got a sense that academia might be beating the government to it. I know that is not the intent at all, but a measure of fun seems to be getting lost somewhere."

Ouch! Point taken. When I wrote my first paper, I was swept up in the excitement that a fantasy world could become real. Having thought about it a bit longer, I'm now concerned (as you are) that something precious gets lost when worlds are overrun by serious commentary. If you have more time to waste on this, the paper I'm giving at the NYLS conference tries to deliver some thoughts on the importance of preserving these areas as play spaces.


The political consequences are intriguing, and tinderbox aside (moving away from firestorm), given that the game mechanics of who and what gets rewarded are artifically introduced into the system ... don't we merely show Skinnerian principles rather than anything about actual "human nature"?

Given that water costs more than guns in SWG, can we really draw those real-world conclusions? Afterall, if you know what to reward, you can make anything "fun" (as we've seen in games) ... massacre, torture, arson, feudalism, genocide.

I see the points that are being made, but given that the outcomes of online worlds are so tightly bound by the artificial mechanics of the world ... will the conclusions be generalizable at all?


"given that the outcomes of online worlds are so tightly bound by the artificial mechanics of the world ... will the conclusions be generalizable at all?"

That's a good question. I think generalizability comes from the fact that these are worlds in open competition. We don't really know whether fascism circa 1938 was 'fun' for the average German or Italian. But we do know that if we build that world, and people attend of their free will, that it must have some attraction.

In other words, I think there's some meaning to be found because these are not Skinner boxes in isolation, they compete with one another. And we can trace differences in popularity back to whatever differences there may be in the boxes. I guess if all the Skinner motives were the same in every game, we wouldn't learn much though. Come to think of it - I guess the current games may not be all that different in this sense.


Forgive my ignorance on these matters and the fact that I’m still on catch up, but:

In the Soktos piece Dave wrote:
>But this time is different, what has become obvious common knowledge about social gameplay design is starting to confront, and in some cases to directly contradict, well-established schools of socio-political thought

Could you reference the specific theories and the examples of how they are being contradicted ?

Paul "Phinehas" Schwanz wrote
>Well, we've already heard from academia that it may be a bad idea to allow players to give gifts to other players in an MMORPG.

Could you cite source for this ?

Generally speaking I’m finding it hard to get a grip on this discussion. There are a number of ways to view the nature and change (I say this rather than progress as some schools would deny ‘progress’) of science and the role of things such as technological artefacts and prevailing ideology in that change. What I take to be meant by ‘postmoden’ here would no doubt include the extreme ends of theories of Social Construction of Science, which would post that the idea of an electron is just as ideologically related (in fact dependent) as aspects of, say, sociology. Probably a good touch point text for who things might play out is Kuhn's classic Structure of Scientific Revolutions. From a more philosophical perspective some of the debates can be seen in terms of different metaphysical and epistemological schools i.e. realism vs anti-realism generally.

Bringing this back to MMOs and what they show, I would image that the societies are so self selecting and skewed that few generalizable social policy outcomes could be derived. Maybe Nick could comment on what a homogenous or diverse group we are.



Ted> "If you have more time to waste on this, the paper I'm giving at the NYLS conference tries to deliver some thoughts on the importance of preserving these areas as play spaces."

That's exactly the paper I was talking about. In your attempt to preserve the play spaces, it appears to me that you are moving toward spaces in which I really wouldn't want to play in the first place. For instance, one proposal toward preserving play spaces involves removing the possibility that any player can give a gift to another player in that space. Perhaps this would preserve something, but that something has little to do with my fun. I'm starting to see restrictions on my fun and the government isn't even involved yet.

Do you see what I'm saying?




See the following source.




OK, Paul, I thought you were talking about my earlier piece. Yes, in the paper you reference, I do suggest that limiting item and money charity is oen way to disconnect these worlds from eBay. And I know (hvaing floated this suggestion in a number of forums) that many developers and players view this as a really fun-killing idea. But -

Is it such a big deal? I mean, if you want to help a newbie, just buff him or heal him for awhile. You can't give him gold, but service charity is still an option. And you could allow minor forms of charity - a platinum piece or five in EQ - and still snuff out eBay. eBay runs on gifts of 10,000PP and more. Don;t tell me that banning such huge gifts will make the world substantially less fun.

Second, what if it does? You might have to give up some fun things in order to have any hope of preserving the play space.

Third, the fact that some worlds are roped off as play spaces does not mean that all worlds must be roped off as play spaces. So, maybe charity doesn't happen in Castronova: The ReBirth, but it does happen in Castronova: Armageddon. eBay happens in the latter and not the former. Players can then choose: Do I want charity, twinking, and eBay? Or do I want none of those things? I envision a market that serves everyone's desires.


Ted> "Is it such a big deal?"

I don't suppose it has to be. For me, though, from a fun perspective anyway, it is a bigger deal than the fact that eBay transactions occur, or even that the government may eventually take a greater interest in item valuations and such.

Ted> "Second, what if it does? You might have to give up some fun things in order to have any hope of preserving the play space."

But the fun things *are* the play space. They put the "play" in play spaces as it were. That's sorta my point. It's difficult to see academia as the savior of play spaces when they start taking the fun things out in order to prevent the government from doing the same.

Ted> "Third, the fact that some worlds are roped off as play spaces does not mean that all worlds must be roped off as play spaces."

Agreed. I only wish to point out that when it comes to games, open and closed are much less relevant than fun and not fun. In this instance, I think that closed may be one person's fun and open may be another person's fun. From this perspective, it may be a good idea to prevent gifting on some worlds in order to promote a certain kind of fun at the expense of another kind of fun. But fun needs to be primary, else you are only talking about virtual spaces and not *play* spaces.

I'm trying to say that, if Huizinga's epiphany regarding play spaces was that they must, primarily, be protected from the possibility of moral consequence, he got it wrong. Play must, primarily, be entertaining, else it is not play. Otherwise, you merely have a space that is protected, but it is not a play space.



My problem with the whole discussion is that I don't see any of the imminent threats that Ted and others see.

*Earning* in-game gold pieces is not about to be considered a "realization" event under the tax code. *Selling* for real-world dollars in-game gold pieces is a "realization" event under the tax code.

Acknowledging real-world value of in-game resources does not, without more, impose on the developer the duty to maintain any such value. A fundamental concept of property law is that an owner cannot transfer any greater right than she enjoys. So, it's no great stretch to argue that one player's transfer to another player of any in-game asset comes subject to the EULA and the developer keeping the server up and running. It's silly to argue otherwise.

Could one conceive of a situation where a developer might incur a duty to maintain value? Sure. But it's not going to look anything like the vanilla, current subscription model in which players license their time in the game.

But interration doesn't even solve the problem. Developers would still have to hard-code any restrictions on transfer (how would a developer police/prevent non-sanctioned transfers otherwise?). They can do that now, and we don't need any ad hoc law.

Indeed, wouldn't any "interration" law impose on developers fiduciary duties to customers much in the way that incorporation imposes on directors/officers fiduciary duties to the shareholdes? Bleh. It creates many more problems than it solves.

I think the much more important question is to what extent the law should force developers to internalize the costs associated with enforcement of their EULAs.

I am more troubled that Mythic can threaten legal action against E-Bay in order to have auctions removed (and thereby obtain effectively an equitable remedy) rather than have to police their own EULA (that is, determine who breached the EULA and sue them for damages). If a developer wants to reap the benefits and profits associated with chaining players to a treadmill, then it should have to internalize the consequential costs of keeping the players so chained. The real-world legal system should not be a link in that chain. Rather, it should provide a remedy to the developer against those players who "break" the chain-- if the developer thinks pursuing such remedy is cost-effective.

And this goes to the "seriousness" question, too. The more seriously that society takes these worlds, the more applicable real-world law necessarily will become. Right now, though, I am not sure how "seriously" we take these worlds. Sure, we propose jargon that implies-- but doesn't impart-- importance; and, we assert that real-world laws are insufficient and we must develop new, improved Law. At some point, though, we need to expect to sit at the adult's table. If these communities are important enough that they provide meaningful insights into the larger, "real" world, then the "real" world law is going to stake an interest in the communities. We can't have it both ways.

The greatest virtual world I've ever played in was a little community called El Valle Escondido nestled in the mountains between Taos and Angel Fire, New Mexico. I spent every summer there from about aged 7 to aged 13. No television. No telephone. Riding horses and dirt bikes. Hunting muskrats and skunks with wristrockets. Building treehouses and forts. Finding arrowheads. Helping the "cowboys"-- a family who ranched in the Valley.


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