Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 13, 2003

Intro to MPOG Concepts

I admit to a severely obsessive temperment when it comes to games. I'm not addictive, quite, because my interest is more in the system, rather than the operation of that system. This does not mean that I do not play (study!) the one I am playing (when I am playing) to a degree that an independent observer would term an addiction. But addictions are a compulsion that doesn't just go away. Addictions take real effort, and even pain, to overcome. I play intensively for a time (which varies, but seems to be shortening), then I suddenly find myself not wanting to log in any more. So I move on to another, or go back to reading or writing obsessively for a while.

One of the reasons I find multiplayer online games (MPOGs) so interesting is the way in which they model societies. They offer sandboxes of a sort, in which experiments can be conducted. These experiments can be governmental, economic, social, and more.

Poking around in the blogosphere last night I stumbled over some academic papers on the virtual worlds of MPOGs. I choose not to distinguish those classified as "massively" because that changes the scale, but not often the scope.

A common criticism of these "imaginary" worlds is that they are not real. Philisophers have a lot of material in which to delve here. Economists have already weighed in. The economies in these virtual worlds are becoming accepted as real economies. More on this later.

One significant difference between these worlds and the "real world" is the ease with which a player can shift identity. This tends to relax the stigma to antisocial behavior at the player level. This leads to behaviors termed 'greifing' by the community, that is, antisocial behavior for the purpose of disruptiong the experience of others. Of course, this is always to some degree subjective. I may complain I am being griefed while my alleged griefer might claim he is simply exercising his licit right to play the bad guy in a role-playing game. A few articles have appeared on this topic, and a lot of heated words in the various online media have been flung. It's an area where carefully stated and enforced rules of acceptable conduct offers the best hope. How the companies who play "god" to these worlds accomplish this can make or break their commercial viability.

In talking about these worlds, however, it's important to distinguish between the "character," or perhaps more properly now, the "avatar," and the player himself. The former term, "character," dates back to the pencil & paper role-playing games; the latter, "avatar," was probably popularized by Ultima Online, though the Ultima single-player computer games had used it for a decade or so before that. In those the player's character was the avatar of the virtues, or became that, over the course of the game. Another term commonly used is 'toon,' presumably short for 'cartoon.' This might have originated with the Korean MPOGs where anime-like cartoon art is common (and often very aesthetically pleasing).

There might be real social pressure on an avatar to be social, to confirm to norms of behavior. This pressure is often overcome by players by creating alter-egos that are their "dark side." This allows players to easily participate in society using their "good" avatar, while at the same time being able to operate outside society if they chose to play their "dark side" avatar. That is rather more difficult to accomplish in the "real world," though many criminals operate in analogous fashion employing "masks," or in some cases actual second identities (as do spies.)

The motivations for the dark side avatars are many. Some are actually designed to contribute to the overall experience of others by creating an anti-social force against which the society can struggle. They tend to be the smallest segment, though. Others are part of metagaming schemes.

When we talk of the metagame, we refer to playing the play of the game. This means using extra-game world means to influence the world inside the game. A common and accepted example is the use of instant message systems, message boards, and web sites to communicate inworld information via outworld channels. A very strict system would seek to limit or curtail this, but that is impossible outside a controlled environment (which the internet assuredly is not).

Another common, but less accepted, metagame tactic is to have "mule" avatars. Games often impose limits on how many items an avatar can hold or store. So players (myself not excepted) often create characters solely to hold more items that we would prefer not to dispose of. Those interested in preserving some sort of fiction, preserving the integrity of the virtual world, will treat these as individuals, not objects. They assume the roles of homebound relatives or other rather fixed residents.

A generally unaccepted metagaming tactic is to attack the integrity of the virtual world with extraworld technical techniques. These can include social engineering to gain advantages from those who operate the game, hacking the game client to gain more (and more timely) information than the game design makes available, or attacking the security of other players' accounts to attempt to steal either the account or the inworld possessions of that account's avatars.

The inworld economies allow for the typical range of illicit business practices. These should be dealt with inside the world, but they often explode outward to, at least, the extragame communications channels. Beyond those, however, there are also extraworld scams, or hybrids. The extraworld scams fairly clearly fall into the domain of real world law enforcement, though that remains a new area for law. The hybrids are very interesting as they involve blending, somehow, two worlds and their value and ethical systems. And example of these a transaction involving the exchange real world dollars for the inworld cuurency in which one party reneges and retains possessions of the other party's goods.

What has brought the metagame to the fore is this "universalization" (versus globalization, since more than one world is involved) of the inworld economies. If you do a search on eBay, you will find thousands of listings of "virtual" properties for auction for real world currency. Those quotes are meant to show that the term virtual has fallen into question. In a sense currency itself is a virtual marker for labor, or other real goods. But we also routinely exchange one currency, one virtual marker, for another currency. In this sense it can be argued that there is no difference between a currency market and these auctions on eBay. Economists are beginning to make these arguments. Most of the papers I stumbled over pertained to this area.

There are reports in the news of very large numbers of what Korea considers to be computer crimes involving these transactions. One such crime involves goods valued at over one million dollars. The actual trading on eBay is proceeding at a pace of around $500,000 per month for all the games being tracked by one economist.

I want to write iat more depth about a lot of the topics I just touched on above in the future. I'll cite my sources then. I'm no trained philosopher, nor economist or social scientist. I have a long history in games, and degrees in English Lit. Yes, these games also deserve to be explored as a new medium of "literature" in the very loose sense. In fact, many of the earliest games in the genre were text based.

I intended this to be a sort of introduction to the topic, or at least a definition of my terms and the concepts to any who may share an interest in the topic.

Posted by dan at August 13, 2003 06:04 PM