MMOs: impunity and accountability

Victor Stillwater asks whether you really have to be an asshole to act like one in an MMO, or whether there’s  a case to be made for good people roleplaying asshats. Having seen a lot of very good people roleplay some serious bastards over the years, I know the latter is quite possible. I’m just not sure it’s possible in MMOs.

MMOs lack one thing and provide one thing compared to face-to-face roleplaying: accountability and impunity. Those generally show up hand in hand, and the anonymity of the internet — where you will probably never meet or even speak to the people you’re interacting with — makes for almost perfect impunity, which makes for a total lack of accountability.

Not to be a RL-drag or anything, but these are serious issues in the real world too.

If nobody knows who you are, you can’t be held accountable for anything you do. Aside from that, if you don’t really know anyone, you can continue to see the people you’re affecting as just cyphers in a machine, which makes it easier for you to do asshattish things.

Specifically, stealing from other people. There’s the whole emotional distress angle but that’s a different kettle of fish and I’m not touching it today.

But regarding game-stuff being stolen — I’m pretty sure we’re past the “it’s only pixels, stop getting so worked up” argument, although it’s still being trotted out with tedious regularity. If it’s only pixels, why bother mounting such elaborate plans to steal them? Riddle me that, Mr “It’s only a game”!

It is only a game, of course, but I’ve never understood why so many people use that as a synonymous expression for “so you shouldn’t care about what happens in it”. I have fond memories of Monopoly games that occurred over 30 years ago — not of each turn and what we did, but of who played and the fun we had. So yeah, it was only a game, but it was good enough to create permanent pathways in my brain. (Okay, I’m not a neuroscientist. Sue me!) And yes, I do remember what piece I preferred to play.

MMOs add a level of persistence to RL board games, though. While they are only pixels, and while technically they belong to whoever owns the game, we still see our possessions, acquisitions and accomplishments in games as “ours” in a very physical, possession-related sense. So when someone takes them away, they’re not just grabbing the equivalent of a Monopoly house that will be gone in a few hours.

MMOs are open-ended, the game doesn’t end, and so our attachment to the things we collect in them doesn’t either (until we replace them with phatter things, of course). In fact MMOs very, very strongly encourage us to care about them, because the second we start not giving a shit is the second we start jumping off the treadmill and unsubscribing; given the current model offered by so many MMOs, a lack of attachment to our pixelly possessions is the last thing the MMO companies would want. Go peddle your Zen somewhere else!

So yes, we do care about our stuff and we care deeply when it gets ripped off by some jerkwad whose friends then tell us not to care because it’s only a game. And we can’t do shit about it, either. I’m not counting company-based restitution — that kind of stuff is great when you get hacked by a stranger* but it’s not the same when you get conned by someone you thought you knew.

And that’s the problem. You don’t know these people. You only know what they type, and anyone can act nice in text chat. I’m gullible: I tend to believe people aren’t lying to me, even in text chat, and I tend to accept what they tell me about themselves. It’s a pretty simple choice: be paranoid and assume everyone is male, of a certain age, and probably still living with his mum, or not. In most cases what people tell me about themselves doesn’t matter anyway… until they rip off my guild.

People don’t behave that differently on the internet than they do in real life. It’s just easier to get away with stuff when nobody knows you and nobody is going to hold you responsible.

I’m not suggesting games companies start acting like police forces — but I’m not suggesting they not do that either. My belief is that the best policing is the one done by the community itself, since it offers more consistent and generally more positive pressure methods, but again, anonymity is a huge issue. For every method someone comes up with to ensure that a person’s in-game identity is known (or knowable) to all — like single character limits, or account-name use instead of character name use — someone else will come up with a way to get around it.

I will say this, though. You can’t expect a games company to ensure your (stuff’s) safety if you do nothing to ensure it yourself. If you care about your stuff or your guild’s stuff, don’t grant access to it to people you don’t know from Adam Asshat. It takes a huge and dedicated con to spend months getting to the heart of a power structure (and yes, they’re certainly not unheard-of — examples abound in EVE); most cons, however, aim for quick penetration and quick results. A modicum of prudence is basic common sense for anyone who manages common goods in any kind of setting. MMOs are no exception.

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* And no, giving you account information to your brother, brother’s buddy, sister’s BFF’s hamster’s vet and who the hell knows who else is not an exception. Password-cracking hacking is so much less common than password-given or password-phished hacking. Srsly. It’s not rocket science.