Books, culture, fishing, and other games

February 06, 2004

Thoughts on Why I Game

I got an email from Faceankh, a friend and neighbor in A Tale in the Desert, when I was playing that. Then Hellinar, another key player in our core group of Traders Bank of Egypt, which created and launched the Trade Note, the "TN," there, turned up at Terra Nova discussing that episode in a comment on economic systems. I started replying to each, then decided I'd just blog on it and crosslink and all that. (For the record, I was Narafeti there) So...

I'm still very into SWG, though, I admit, it's mostly because I am very into a certain young lady there. That's the set of blogs I haven't written. I want to talk about how re-entering the very social side of MMPOGs has been from the perspective of someone who has been there and done that and is very jaded, and is very much a loner... or thought he was. Hey, playing a lesbian entertainer, and then falling for one of the players behind one of the entertainer's "girlfriends," and outting myself as a guy, and having the girlfriend not care one bit that the player is male, not female, and having her still want to be with me all the time IC and OOC online is pretty interesting. At least to me. The whole gender scrambling issue is very hard to wrap my arms around (though fun). It's not a new thing for me. My first experience of genderbending in role play goes back more than a decade. Then it was a whim. Now it is a deliberate choice. I am against same-sex marriage, yet I am effectively role playing it (effectively because I refuse to call it "marriage"), it's very educational, and I wonder about the ethics and morality of role-playing something I consider to be immoral and all the issues that arise around it. There's also the whole question of whom to tell when that the player behind this (if I do say so myself) gorgeous and chic and accomplished and... you get the idea... female entertainer is an almost old guy who isn't in it to break anyone's heart or play with their emotions, but who is very interested in all the issues surrounding role-playing annonymously a character that is very much different from himself.

I still think ATITD is a really important game, however. Hellinar's post on the TN and the concept we honed of using a commodities basket to back the notes we issued, and the response that got from another commentor in the same thread, all serve to remind me how much that whole system engaged me and made me really think about the issues of creating a viable currency. A lot of our deliberations should still be accessible on the associated message boards. What was doubly cool for me is the way it crosspolitated with my work in security and privacy. The core issues are the same: how to establish, deserve and maintain trust.

But I don't like ATITD as much as I could because I don't think it offers enough variety of activity. I love the economic model. But there needs to be more sense of conflict (not with players, that's there), more struggle against the environment. Basically, I miss having hunting with its attendant risks as an alternate activity when I'm tired of the crafting/economic end. I may spent 20% of my time "hunting" in SWG, but that 20% is very important to me. It's the catharsis. It's also an important part of the crafting and merchanting that I do there, which gives it more purpose than just killing things for the sheer release of the explosions. The fishing in ATITD is no analog. The fishing in SWG is very much like that in ATITD. Both are interesting for a while, then they are tedious (SWG's is far more tedious). Fishing in both is a more random resource gathering activity than mining or farming. It doesn't have the zing or bang that hunting does.

ATITD also enforces a level of socialness that I don't like. What I mean is, I don't llike being forced to socialize. I want to socialize on my own terms, not because the game requires that I do so to progress. I see socializing and progress as separate things in a game world. And I want them to be that way. It's okay if socializing, or not socializing, may bestow some marginal benefit on certain activities, like in the big hunts or group on group activities, but I don't like being compelled to socialize to attain a goal that is not intuitively connected to social activities. ATITD does enforce this at times. For the truly social player this is no issue because they are already in a posture where it means no change to their play routine. SWG has some activities that require social behavior, but they are all at least loosely logically tied to what is intuitively expected. As a crafter I need to acquire certain components from other crafts, or I am a supply to other crafts (as my tailor is to armorers and architects). To a degree the requirement can be gotten around by acquiring factory schematics instead of the actual components. Getting those requires minimal social contact, but does require some. All of that is fine. Being forced to gang up to accomplish the monthly act missions is fine too, especially since no one has to do those missions to progress from a character development standpoint. As long as I can accomplish what I want in the way of character development without having to get the help of a group, even if it's quite a lot harder solo, I am fine. ATITD precludes soloist from accomplishing some things, ever. For example, to pass certain tests you must be married. While I got around that by having two accounts, I don't like that sort of enforced social side to the game.

And puzzles are not my thing, nor is zero-sum gaming, both of which play a major part in ATITD. I love figuring things out, but I love figuring out systems, not puzzles. Puzzles a logical toys, usually, not logical systems. They don't do anything, they are just there to be "solved." I want to feel I gained something more than a checkmark in a little box when I figure out a system. I then want to use the knowledge I gained to be more efficient and productive.

But lots of people love puzzles, and most people simply do not have the loner tendencies that I do have, so to them these problems I have with ATITD may be features.

A lot of people are still touting the "the game ends when X happens" nature of ATITD as new and unique. It isn't. That is cool within the specific context, that of creating a utopia, but it isn't new by a decade or more, even in multiplayer online gaming. What I continue to find most interesting, and most important, about ATITD is the internal government and economic systems. The latter especially. It isn't that there is no currency, that the game is purely barter based (until players create a means to change that), it's that it allows for a path to real currency, but it does not do any of the work (beyond some accounting and object creation abilities) of actually creating that currency. The logical, trust and market basis of the currency is entirely dependent on the actions of the players. In other words the system deliberately creates a vacuum and gives the players the chance to fill that vacuum as they see fit. There is no real steering. There were many competing ideas of how a workable currency, one not subject to rampant deflation or inflation, could be created. There were many discussions of how to create value in currency. More accurately, there were discussions on how to shift the perception of value from the actual good to the abstract symbol of value. Any player participating, or even follwing, the discussion had to expand their awareness of money as more than bits of metal and scraps of paper into a real system that is dynamic and robust and yet potentially very fragile.

And it spotlighted the whole issue of how you can trust in an environment where no one knows anyone. Oh, my character may know your character, in a sense, but the players behind those characters are generally anonymous and unknowable. Only a fool trusts blindly, so how does one establish trust in that environment? We did, and we do, every day we play these games, yet we don't think about it much. Sometimes it is based on getting to know the player behind the character, but as often it is not. There are many characters in SWG that I trust. This is based on a gradually increasing set of shared experiences and exchanges. In the end trust is based on trusting successfully. And those who do trust successfully are almost always also worthy of trust.

Then there is the issue of meta trust versus direct trust. By meta trust I mean the trust that the player behind the character will have the character act in a way consistent with that character's motivations and character, not necessarily those of the player behind that character. Thus my character can trust that BobTheSlick will try to scam her, while knowing the player (in this hypothetical case) is entirely trustworthly in person from some other out-of-band contact. (And then finding a way to separate my character's anger at being scammed from my own feelings towards the player of BobTheSlick.)

Without intending to I've just listed a lot of reasons why I play these games. I can still call them games, but I don't really feel that that are games while I play them. They are windows into different aspects of reality. Peering into reality (even from reality) from different angles lets us discover things that were either lost in or hidden by the clutter of our normal view. Looking at systems, whether economic, legal, ethical or moral, from a new viewpoint and in a new sandbox can lead to revelations. Will this lead to new systems that operate better than current real-world systems? We can dream. It's unlikely though. What happens all the time, however, is some of us, those that care to observe, question and learn, gain more understanding of how real-world system work and don't work as we see other people play with those systems in new situations where the penalties of failure are not so devastating.

To really learn one's own first language, the "birth language," there is nothing better than to learn a second language, and a third, and so on. Each additional language helps us see new things about our first language we would never otherwise discover because it's just the way things are. It helps us recapture that unquestioningly questioning attitude of childhood on which so much of our learning is based. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Adults very rarely ask those questions. Some things are the givens of our "knowledge," and as a result we learn nothing from them. Placing outselves somehow into that state where no question is silly is a large part of re-examinine what's wrong with what we think we know. These games can serve that function. If we allow them to.

Posted by dan at February 6, 2004 02:13 PM | TrackBack
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