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Sep 13, 2008



I guess that games largely reflect the dreams and fantasies of the cultures that produce them -

So a "typical Scandinavian" game would not be one about sharing wealth through heavy taxes, but rather about fighting for survival in a harsh and uncaring world (Conan).

We could say the entire grinding phenomenon is reflective of a capitalistic world system, but maybe it has more to do with the games companies wishing to keep the players stuck for as long as possible ?


Virtual worlds are the means by which their designers articulate themselves. Like all artists, they're making statements and working through internal conflicts through their creations. Thus, virtual worlds can't help but reflect the views and concerns of their designers. This is so obvious to me that it's pretty well axiomatic. Whether this means they embody an ideology depends on what you mean by "ideology".

MUD1 was all about freedom. The goal was the freedom to be and become yourself, which was mirrored by the freedom of the game design. It was very open-ended, with no character classes or formal quests - and it was that way deliberately. Roy and I wanted people to be able to free people from the constraints of their real-life situation so they could become who they really were. It would have made no sense whatsoever to put unnecessary artificial constraints in the game world - we'd just have replaced one rigid framework with another.

Was this ideological? Well yes, of course it was! Back then, the people who were attracted to and could succeed at programming all had a particular world view that gave rise to the "hacker culture". Programming offered freedom and creativity, and if you had neither yourself then you wouldn't make it as a programmer. I didn't sign up to the hacker culture, it was just how I thought (and still do think) anyway: freedom to do leads to freedom to be. In MUD1, I strove to give people the chance to do this in a place where those who chose to abuse this freedom couldn't do a great deal of damage.

Today's virtual worlds are no different. Sure, there are the paint-by-numbers MMOs which feel mechanical and soulless, but even they are rippling the views of earlier designers forwards. The ones that do have a strong vision behind them are clearly expressing what their designers wanted to say.

Example 1: suppose you didn't know where Second Life was developed. If you had to choose one city on the whole planet that was most closely aligned with its politics, where would you pick? Or, put another way, it's not just a happy coincidence that it came out of San Francisco. Likewise, it's not entirely pure luck that Austin has become the primary MMO development centre of the USA.

Example 2: Warhammer Age of Reckoning has two factions competing in a perpetual struggle that neither can ever win. So has World of Warcraft (which owes much to Warhammer for its lore), but WAR isn't ripping off WoW here. Before designing WAR, Mark Jacobs designed DAoC, which introduced the RvR concept to MMOs; RvR is an established part of his oevre. Imperator, which he was working on immediately prior to WAR, did not have RvR: players were all on one side (the Romans) and the enemy (the Mayans) were computer-controlled. The fact that Imperator was dropped when the RvR-friendly Warhammer licence became available would seem to suggest that one of the things Mark wants to say concerns what RvR expresses. Two sides, locked in an eternal struggle, with transient gains and losses but an underlying futility: neither side will ever win, and ultimately things don't change. Now irrespective of what you read into that, ultimately it's there because Mark Jacobs wanted it there. If you regard it as political (a comment on the domestic politics of the USA, say), then it's an ideological statement. Whether this was a deliberate or emergent expression of Mark's views, well, you'd have to ask him.

If people have ideologies, then the virtual worlds they create will have them, too. Art is politics.



Richard said it all, really -- he's absolutely right. And no conspiracy theory nuttiness necessary.

As for Second Life as an example, I thought I would mention for those interested that my book about Linden Lab follows through extensively on the idea that SL reflects the time and place in which it was made (i.e., turn of the milenium SF), especially politically. Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life is in press with Cornell U Press and should be out in early 2009.

Also, for those interested in the political dimensions of computer progamming in general (often in the context of the denial of its politics), Chris Kelty and Gabriella Coleman are anthropologists who do fantastic work on the subject.


Given that WAR is a game about inevitable and justified war between races, where the chief good guys are identifiably German, and the bad guys some kind of fevered dream of anarcho-communism, it's probably not a good thing to enquire too closely into it's ideology...


About eve online: doesn't the fact that, in the pure free market economy, the most efficient alliance/corp are the most 'dirigist' (?) one just state that the most efficient capitalistic economy are the least democratic one (or at least that the two are uncorrelated)? Which is what china, russia and all tend to prove...


Richard, would you consider virtual worlds to be just one of many "art forms" used for expression? Music or graphical art for example. Or would you limit this notion to constructs - such as decorating or building a house, or planting a garden for example.


Tim>would you consider virtual worlds to be just one of many "art forms" used for expression

Yes, they are just one of many art forms. They've got so big these days that, like film direction, they involve the art of many people in their creation. The overall keeper of the vision (usually the lead designer) is the person for whom the virtual world itself is the art, though.

I wouldn't say that only activities that involve construction are art. Even entirely abstract things such as mathematical proofs can be art.



Richard is largely correct here.

The gameworld itself is not a clean slate, but supposing for a moment that it were, politics is injected in a few different ways, sometimes innocuously.

First, as Richard notes, the developers can create a world that rewards certain kinds of actions and punishes others, either explicitly or implicitly. I recall that most 1990's japanese RPG's had a clear reward structure: do nice things, all the time. Talk to the widow. Help the people on the side of the road. Save the puppy. Side quests invariable involved coming to the aid of the helpless and these quests usually resulted in the player getting the coolest toys. Part of this was probably just spare writing--most of the story work was in the main plot and side-quests were filler. As such, there wasn't much reward in fleshing them out. Part of it stemmed from the nature of the game. Unlike a "real" RPG (DnD and friends), the Final Fantasy style games were just character adventures. The nature of the hero was determined before the player stepped up. But even given those explanation, the actions taken by the player were still very much influenced by the game maker.

The reasoning for that decision can be applied (I think) to the various decisions by WoW, EQ, and WAR developers to cast their MMO's in a vast race war (that's what it really is). I don't think that it is so much representative of an underlying ideology (nativist, etc) as much as it is a trope of the genre.

It is probably a lot more obvious in cases where the game maker has to design a system for multiple actors. Making that system involves many of the same choices and tradeoffs that constructing a real society would. How is trade managed? How is communication handled? What sort of actions are permissive?

The trade bit was always interesting to me with regard to Star Wars Galaxies. Ralph can correct me, because I haven't played it in a long time (and I never played the EQ expansion that had the bazaar in it), but as I recall there was an online clearinghouse for goods (much like the AH in WoW). This clearinghouse had access points at most major towns and goods could be purchased on it, up to a certain credit limit. Above that credit limit and the user had to deal directly with the seller, either via a kiosk at their shop or via email. I always felt that this restriction on trade was deliberate (it occurs to me now that it could have been because of a technical limitation). It seems like sony wanted players to interact and so could force them to do so by making high value transactions occur in a more one-to-one arrangement. This comes at an obvious efficiency cost to both the buyer and the seller as well as people who would otherwise have purchased an item but didn't because it wasn't listed on the exchange. in other words, this developer decision had a deadweight loss. In terms of left-right politics, this is pretty mundane, but it is important to me because it appears to have been made deliberately (and accords well with much of the rest of the "community building" actions in SWG) and so we can analyze it properly.

The other end that ideology can be injected is from the playerbase. I've seen more usernames and guild postings relating to John Galt than anywhere else on the internet (save slashdot). Part of this has to do with the slight age and gender bias in players (I find that 19 year old males are particularly fond of Rand, insofar as she rationalizes their inflated sense of self importance for them), but that is probably minimal. A much more meaningful test of the insertion of ideology is in the guild world. Players make meaningful debate and undertake meaningful actions vis deserts almost every day. Sometimes those decisions are represented in conflicting ways: users sometimes justify collective rewards in terms of individual merit and vice versa.


The developers' choices of what to implement and what not to implement have a major effect on the political character of the game.

For example:

Second Life: The software provides a mechanism for players to sell their creations to one another. When the "no transfer" bit is set on an item you've bought, you can't resell it. (So much for the right of first sale...) The software is clearly intended to support a particular economic model of content creation.

Ultima Online: The economy is a major feature of the game: some players scavenge raw materials which others fabricate into manufactured items.

In turn, these design choices attract players who want to p;lay that kind of game. So, for example, I think that Second Life players may not typical of MMO players in general.


@SusanC, I feel the need to point out that your comments regarding Second Life alter the verbiage of the one check-box that you mention and completely omit the two other check-boxes that are part of the same permissions system. While this may just be an omission in the interest of space, the conclusions that you draw seem quite the opposite of the conclusions the system in its entirety would seem to suggest.

The permissions system consists of three check boxes, each of which affirms rights to the next owner when selected. The three check boxes grant the next user the right to modify, copy, and transfer respectively. At least one of these options must be checked if you wish to put the item up for sale. To deny someone the right to resell a product, you must grant them the right to copy and/or modify the object. I'm no lawyer, but this system seems to affirm the doctrine of first sale, not negate it.

I also have a hard time believing that a company with an Open Source client would have a political axe to grind regarding the First-sale doctrine, but I must admit that this point is pure conjecture.


An alternative solution would be to run a community management programme during the closed beta accepting only a specific political group. As we are all aware, the beta plays a vital role in the community management and general ethics of the later game. This is why the developers try to pick, more or less, representative individuals to establish a world's culture. The rest will of course follow.

In theory, this could work for establishing a specific political favourism among the community members as the world grows larger. In the end, most people tend to believe, or get convinced to believe, by the opinion of the majority in their specific milieu. That is: if you live in a small town where everybody in your neighbourhood and your office believes that imperialism is the way to go, chances are you'll end up sharing their opinion. It’s a simple matter of collective intelligence producing a larger number of arguments pro specific ideologies than you can ever produce against. While you will still have some people standing their ground, most will follow the current.

Virtual worlds are a habitat. You average MMO-player spends a good deal of his spare time in-game, resulting in the imminent exposure to the beliefs and ideological standings of the community. Build a popular VW with a community propagating a certain political structure and you might well end up getting a solid number of recruits.


"What would it look like?"

It would look like a pure democracy where players cast votes to drive future game development.

Gone would be the days of tyrannical control by game developers. The players, whose effort and money keep the game vibrant, would determine its fate.

A real democracy in a virtual world. That's what it would look like.


thoreau>It would look like a pure democracy where players cast votes to drive future game development.

Who decides what people get to vote on? What happens when votes are passed to implement contradictory things? What happens when organised groups of griefers manage to pass a vote that mandates a change to the vote-counting code? And where's the coherent, artistic vision in all this?



"Who decides what people get to vote on?"

Whoever has the power to do so, which would mean, most conventionally, whoever has the loot.

"What happens when votes are passed to implement contradictory things?"

Voting rules are treated the same way as game rules: ignored. "Contradictions" arise only when loot-kingdoms are in conflict. Resolution comes only through the annihilation of one or more loot-kingdoms. These annihilations are not votable issues.

"What happens when organised groups of griefers manage to pass a vote that mandates a change to the vote-counting code?"

Irrelevant. If there is no ability to enforce code, then there is no need to change code. The mob will fly over the top of code, unerringly guided by loot.

"And where's the coherent, artistic vision in all this?"

In the natural inclination of social play. In society, power, and annihilation. And, of course, in loot.


@dmyers: Right, because material capital is the only form of power :/. Wow, even for someone like me, ready to recognize the role of power in social processes, your comments are stunningly reductionist.

In any event, we already know some lessons from at least one case where there was an attempt at pure democracy in a virtual world. The relevant lesson for this discussion is that it showed how attempts at "pure democracy" in virtual worlds founder on the social distinction of access and expertise (how some participants can tinker under the hood and know how, and others cannot and do not). That's power, for sure, but it ain't loot.

@Richard: I'm with you most of the way, here, and in general I think it's useful to view virtual worlds as art forms, but I don't think it's useful to work from the premise that they must have an *artist* (or even *artists*) with a coherent artistic vision (although, again, the distinction between those with skills/access and those without is extremely important). After all, you can certainly have other ways in which virtual worlds get formed (LambdaMOO is, again, a good example).



If you read deeper into the background for WAR, it will be clear that there are more nuances.

The "germans" are not good as such, mostly they are portrayed as imperialistic. There are many nations, identifiably Spanish, French, British, eh, and elvish/dwarfish/etc. The entire setup is a warped version of the middle ages, where all superstition is for real and war is permanent.

And I think only an American would interpret the grotesque forces of chaos as "communistic" :)


Back in the eighties , as a teenager I used to love reading Judge Dredd comic books. Actually, I still do. The comics would often feature letters written to the comic authors asking about Dredds world, or about comics, or whatever.

Regularly however some kid would write in saying "The judges are so cool. I wish I lived in Megacity 1!" and the artists would usually reply something like "Oh god no. Judge dredd is a fascist, and life in Megacity 1 would be intollerable.".

And its true, it'd be a terrible world to live in, and its values a morally bankrupt authoritarian validation of the elite. A right wing wet dream.

But it would be *fun* to be Judge dredd. Cruising around blasting 'perps', and being a big time badass with a badge and a motor bike.

Taking ideology from entertainment can be dangerous.


ofcourse they do: a game design is a work of art thus conveying a message, and a social game will always convey a social message.

for a basic example i often think the design goal of a balanced game with minimal player skills represent a wish for equality, placing characters in socialist molds.

further, the development of games over time can show the holes and interesting questions where each ideology raises - for example:
- EVE's introduction of binding contracts strengthens the belief in contractism, that a libertarian society requires to have a fundamental level of honesty & responsibility for one's actions in order to function.
- the themepark model's as a whole (de?)evolution's into instanced shows that the illusion by which we are each protagonists on equal terms can not be protected within the same shared world, because as long as the game doesn't offer substantial looses no action can be heroic in the first place.

ofcourse this is all what i interpret, because like every work of art it conveys its message differently to different people:

some might say that RvR perpetual wars without resolve conveys a pacifist message, while others might say that it conveys that conflict is it's own reward.

this has nothing to do whether the designers are originals or whether they did market research to copy their game designs off the best current trends: whether you came up with the message yourself or copied it from another, the message is still there.



Ideology in MMO is quite difficult to define as it is a mix of political representation (kingdom, anarchy, etc.) + game goals and rules + practices instituted by players.
According to Max Weber analysis, it is more important to define how we are related to objects or system than to define the object or the system. Insofar, the representation we've got of our position in the system of power makes sense, more than object or system structure. Moreover Marx (and Althusser) definition of ideology deals with representation of the domination more than a system of domination: how the people define himself as an ideological subject in a political system is the key. Then, ideology is linked to subjectivity issues (Deleuze and Guattari) as it could produce new types of relation of power (Foucault). Then, each videogame is a micro-topic of power and is ruled by micro-politics.

So, when I started my PhD I tried to analyze videogames ideology, focusing on in-game legitimization of power, and how players are encouraged to use different socio-political resources. This focus on the individual is quite interesting because contrary to real world, individual will impact on political system. Depending on the game environment and universe, ideology will differ. For example, as a heroic-fantasy hero you will restore a peaceful feudal state or parliamentary monarchy, a kind of pre-democratic states. In a contemporary universe you will fight against terrorist or aliens in order to preserve democracy.

From this first approach, it’s obvious that there are multiple ideologies in one game, the one sustained by the enemies (the political order they try to institute), the one you defend (the king you serve, the State you defend as a marine, etc.), but for me it appears that the most interesting part is how player action is legitimated. This part is important because it will define your relation to a particular socio-political order, a way to access to its domination, way which can differ from the goal. To be brief, you can restore a communist world with neo-liberal justification. This articulation between three ideological systems in competition produces a multi-level ideology. According to that there are a lot of libertarian or minarchist (cf Rawls) justification system in order to preserve or institute a democratic system. (I’ve got an article in French on political videogames that represents this relation between ideologies)

Then, the use of violence issue is central, because it is both linked to State’s representation and function. For Weber or Norbert Elias, monopoly of legitimate use of violence is the modern State specificity and goal (it comes from pacification process in order to promote economy and exchange). I’ve got another article about it in French unfortunately ^^. But I plan to translate it.

Then, after focusing on in-game ideologies, because the ideology is both a system of representation and action, I wondered if interaction should be ideological, as according to Guattari new technology produces new subjectivity, so new relation to the social and normative order. Then it appears that the code is not the law (contrary to Lessig), but is more like the physico-chemical matrix defining both the world and the human. The main difficulty in programming is to simulate the complexity of social world, because you can’t code everything, especially what is irrational or unknown. What appears here is that, code produce a rationalisation of humanity conception. (I would not develop here on semantic issues: language vs. code, poetry vs. tekné, etc.). What happens is that coded identity, even if player invest their avatar, produce a very interesting relationship to virtual worlds. I mean that in some ways it is close to Wiener cybernetics’ dream of human without body, a spirit in a theoretical world, a totally communication-oriented mind (with the game system, with others).
But the more fascinating thing for me is how people can modulate this technical determinism by inventing new uses, new practices, and moreover new goals. MUD experience is As Richard said a freedom ideal because it was not a object-oriented space. Graphical rhetoric in MMO do not produce a limitation of the imagination, but limits the expression of this imagination, s manipulating sign is less powerful than coding (or painting) these signs. Player is more a disk-jokey than a musician, and more a musician than a compositor.

Then, are videogames a kind of cognitive capitalism? If they are, there political organisation should differ from previous form of industrial worlds.

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