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.

12 thoughts on “MMOs: impunity and accountability

  1. “MMOs lack one thing and provide one thing compared to face-to-face roleplaying: accountability and impunity.”

    This statement sounds like people wouldn’t be jerk in face-to-face roleplaying… which isn’t the case at all. In fact, I’ve heard of it happen plenty of times, usually because the player is roleplaying a jerk 🙂 Being a jerk or a dick in a roleplay sense can actually be very fun.

    Part of the issue is that the sense of RP is lost in most modern MMORPGs and people consider these games to be extensions of their lives rather than harmless escapism. Most of the asshole activites which go in EVE are all actually done as part of the game, for in-game reasons, not just to grief people.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the response to actions should be porportional to the intent of the player. Hacking someone’s account and stealing their gold to sell to Gold Farmers is totally different from infiltrating a corportation and guild and destroying them from the inside 🙂

    1. I thought the stuff I said beforehand would make it clear I wasn’t talking about IC stuff — “Having seen a lot of very good people roleplay some serious bastards over the years.” I most certainly am not equating IC-jerkness with RL-jerkness.

      However, most people *don’t* roleplay in MMOs, and many more people use the “Oh, I was an asshole to you because I was in character!” card a few too many times to be believable, too.

  2. “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.”

    You probably didn’t know this about me, but I was an underwear model for years. It was always a bit strange to see my rock hard 6 pack abs on a massive billboard somewhere, but I did kind of get used to it.


    1. Why, Mr. Beckham, I never pegged you for an MMO player! Must give you something to do why Posh is getting her next makeover sorted.

  3. This entry is much better written than my original morality-content/context business. LOL.

    One thing I will echo is the lack of personal accountability in the real world. 🙁

  4. Great Post Ysh.

    I am also one of those gullible people that just tends to believe what you tell me of yourself unless/until proven otherwise. Then again, I am generally honest in real life as well as game life, so I assume others will be too. That doesn’t mean I am easily duped, it just means I am more surprised when I figure out someone’s trying to dupe me.

    I hate, hate, hate the “it’s only a game” crap when it’s spewed in channels. Yes, it’s only a game…a persistent game in which we form real bonds with our character, real bonds with our guildmates, and often REAL LIFE relationships with the people we game with. I would expect a huge percentage of people that play mmos have had their game impact their offline life. The “it’s just a game” nonsense is a way people justify acting differently in the game than they do in real life, whether that’s being an asshole, representing your real world self as something you are not, or a multitude of other reasons.

    I’ve felt really old lately. Has it always been like this? I remember a time in mmos when a person could ask a question in chat and that question would usually be answered politely and people would genuinely care about helping people when they could. Now it seems that if someone were to muster up the courage to actually ASK for help, they have to put up with 50 smart ass responses/put downs/rants on how they are playing the game wrong before someone might be kind enoucg to respond with useful information. When I ventured outside of EQ2 to Aion, it was 1000x worse.

    Maybe I am just wearing rose colored glasses?

    I want to shake my cane and yell “You damn kids get outta my mmo”, but I know the sad fact is that most of the people that get satisfaction out of belittling their neighbor are probably nearer to my age and are just reliving their adolescence. Still, YOU DAMN KIDS GET OUT OF MY MMO.

    Sorry Ysh, this turned into whole post in itself instead of a comment.

  5. I hate the word “gullible”. It really only applies AFTER you’ve been lied to. You can’t really BE gullible, you can only “have been” gullible. And it’s what people who can’t trust, call people who do trust, and (rarely) get taken.

    Being trusting as your default is an excellent quality. But so is a healthy skepticism and having at least half an eye out for crapola.

    If in hindsight you trusted too easily, or ignored obvious signs, then you learn from it and are hopefully wiser because of it.

    I am an otherwise sane professional adult who plays WoW. I got hacked. It may be “just a game”, but it was disturbingly violating. I cried. The thought of some loser moving my main around and getting my account banned by doing God-knows-what made me sick.

    That little guy carries a huge history of perserverence, learning, winning, losing, meeting people, teaching people and on and on. Years of effort. It wasn’t the pixels I lost, but that certainly was irritating. It was in some tiny way that someone hijacked an alternate identity that I was quite close to.

    Sure, it’s just a game. But how would someone like it if I broke into their house when they weren’t there and pilfered all their games, sold what I could and left a mess on the floor? It’s just games, after all.

  6. This is one of the reasons why, though it still makes me fret a little, I like Cryptic’s inclusion of and use of account handles alongside character names. If I come across someone who fails at RPGing (and thats what you are playing, no matter what you *want* the game to be), I can block them, not only in that incarnation, but in any incarnation in any game.

    The bottom line is that people will do what they want to do. So long as game designers only allow these people to be accused, judged, and sentenced by the company and its employeers, it will be up to *them* to make sure that situations whereby those people can negatively impact others are controlled.

    I said in my own blog before I firmly believe in coming down like the Wrath of God on people who grief, and I stand by that still.

    As for the “I’m playing an a-hole” card, people should remember that roleplaying is a group enterprise whose goal is not to fool other players by your actions, but to involve them in them. In other words, you can’t RP an a-hole unless someone agrees to RP the victim of the a-hole…

  7. I’m going to start selling insurance for in game items… (I hope Blizzard doesn’t start doing that).

  8. Interesting point. One of my favorite characters in a PnP RPG was Lawful Evil, playing with a (mostly) Good party. He was a devious and frankly horrible person but helped them out most of the time because it was in his own best interest to do so; when his interests didn’t align with theirs, he’d mostly sit out or occasionally undermine the rest of the party’s efforts, always in pursuit of his very specific goals. His perfidy was limited by a geas that required him to always speak the truth, although he frequently committed sins of omission, leading people to think he meant something other than what he literally said. This worked quite well in a PnP game because of the heavy focus on narrative and the wide-open agency that players enjoyed, but because both of these are lacking in an MMO, I’d never consider playing a character like this in an MMO, at least not the types we have now. I cannot help but think that where my Lawful Evil character spiced up that campaign, he’d be incredibly frustrating in an MMO, where people would assume I was just a selfish asshole.

    I think the biggest problems in manifesting a character like this in an MMO, from a design perspective, are the lack of world persistence (i.e. the ability to make changes to the world itself and have your actions remembered) and the lack of agency (i.e. the power to do things in the world besides kill monsters). Combined, these two missing factors mean a) you can’t really do much to be mean except in what appears to be an OOC manner; i.e. other players will think it’s you, and not your character, who’s the jerk, and b) there’s no accountability within the world for your actions, only through the social networks of players.

  9. Superb article! We need more articles that examine the community side of MMOs like this 🙂

    People who claim they are RPing “evil” characters in order to justify evil acts are liars. I just don’t buy this explanation and I’ve been hearing for over 10 years now. I was a Senior Guide for EverQuest for a good number of years and I constantly heard this excuse from players as their defense for committing evil deeds against other players.

    Your point about having MMO companies police these sorts of things is well taken. We need better customer service and GMs that are more proactive and we need harsher punishments. I do agree that the best form of policing is done by the community itself *but* players need the tools to be able to police their own community.

    The biggest problem with the Internet and of course Internet multi-player games is anonymity. People will always be tempted to be jerks if they can get away with it and not have to be accountable to anyone. This is why MMO companies have to work much harder to ban and suspend players that break the rules and ruin the enjoyment of the majority of law-abiding players.

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