[MUD-Dev] RE: Some essays I've written lately

Koster Koster
Fri May 8 11:53:08 New Zealand Standard Time 1998

Who Are These People Anyway?

People tend to think that [virtual worlds] alter how people perceive 
one another. That gender and race and handicaps cease to matter. It is 
a noble vision, sure... In truth [they] reveal the self in rather 
disturbing ways. We all construct 'faces' and masks to deal with 
others. Usually in [real life] interpersonal relationships, the masks 
can slip, they evolve and react, and they have body language and cues. 
[In a virtual world], on the Net, whatever--they cannot. And people 
see specifically this: what you choose to represent yourself as, and 
that is more revealing of your true nature than gender, race, age, or 
anything else... it's not a matter of how we hide, it's a matter of 
how we are revealing ourselves.

The above paragraph comes from an unpublished interview I gave many 
years ago now. It came in response to the question, "How do you think 
virtual worlds affect people's perceptions of each other?"

A tangled question. Many seized on the sentence, "Thank heavens for 
playerkillers" in the last essay, and used it as evidence that I, or 
UO, am "on the playerkillers' side." Unfortunately, that's not only 
incorrect, but a reductionist view of a tangled situation. A better 
question to ask is, what exactly is the population of an online world, 
and what social forces drive it?

In discussing the Other yesterday, one word seemed at the center of 
the issue: Power. The conflicts that arise are there precisely because 
competing agendas (and often, as in the case of the playerkillers 
versus the roleplayers , competing play styles) attempt to exercise 
power over one another. I got a letter from Kazola, proprietor of the 
Treetop Keg and Winery on Great Lakes, saying that the tavern is not 
famous for being a target, but for being a roleplay haven first. It 
became a a target because of that fame. Yet I would still argue that 
it had the roleplay fame within a narrower segment of the overall UO 
community than its fame as a "flickering light in the darkness." And 
it is worth examining why exactly this is so. Why did it become a 
target just for being what it is? And why was its struggle so 

Richard Bartle, who along with Roy Trubshaw is generally credited with 
writing the first mud (multi-user dungeon, if you wish to call it 
that, but let's say "virtual online world" instead) wrote an essay 
which among designers of virtual worlds is often considered essential 
reading. In it he classifies players into four types:

 Those who seek to interact with other people, or Socializers   Those 
who seek to dominate other people, or Killers   Those who seek to 
learn and master the mechanics of the world, or Explorers   Those who 
seek to advance within the context of the world, or Achievers

Now, these are simplistic definitions, of course, and there is plenty 
of debate over the exact mix, and whether these are reductions to 
stereotypes, etc. It is interesting to note that "roleplayers" aren't 
even on his list, though they are generally considered to be a major 
force in online gaming--under this system, they are merely a variant 
of socializers, and the line between in-fiction chatting and 
out-of-character chatting is blurred.

The fascinating part of the essay, however, is where Bartle discusses 
the interactions between these groups. Killers are like wolves, in his 
model. And therefore they eat sheep, not other wolves. And the sheep 
are the socializers, with some occasional Achievers for spice. Why? 
Because killers are about the exercise of power, and you do not get 
the satisfaction of exercising power unless the victim complains 
vocally about it. Which socializers will tend to do.

Further, Bartle pointed out that eliminating the killers from the mix 
of the population results in a stagnant society. The socializers 
become cliquish, and without adversity to bring communities together, 
they fragment and eventually go away. Similarly, achievers, who are 
always looking for the biggest and baddest monster to kill, will find 
a world without killers to be lacking in risk and danger, and will 
grow bored and move on.

Yet at the same time, too many killers will quite successfully chase 
away everyone else. And after feeding on themselves for a little 
while, they will move on too. Leaving an empty world. However, since 
killers tend to know the world really well, there are not many ways of 
keeping them in check. From the playerbase, the explorers are the only 
ones with a real chance, because they know the game better than 

Among some virtual world designers, the dichotomy is simpler: you have 
what they term "GoP" players, or goal-oriented players, and you have 
everyone else: the roleplayers, the socializers, etc. And the conflict 
is always between these two types. My own preferred metaphor goes back 
to the work of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who discussed the 
two ways children tend to amuse themselves. One form is the "game," 
where there is a winner and a loser. It is competitive, and may or may 
not involve team play. The other is "play," which is non-competitive. 
It can be as simple as chatting a lot, or it can be building blocks, 
or (as it often is with children) it can be make-believe-- which is 
after all, roleplaying.

You may have recognized yourself in one of these models, and may have 
recognized situations and events from UO as well. Now, many of the 
responses to the first essay on the web boards and the newsgroups 
discussed how idealistic a vision it expressed... and thus viewed the 
second essay as a reversal. Yet really, the dichotomy of game and play 
are two sides of the same coin. One does not tend to exist anywhere 
without the other. Whereas the most idealistic vision of a virtual 
world, the fully community-oriented one, would seem to be composed of 
only "play," in fact it would founder. It's in human nature to need 
both, in one way or another. It's the nature of reality--and therefore 
the nature of virtual reality as well.

>From a strict in-context perspective, the actions of a killer within a 
virtual world can be seen as sociopathic: they do not recognize the 
mores of the society in which they operate. This is not to say that 
they are bad people-- it has been well-established that interactions 
in a virtual setting create a level of psychological disinhibition 
that encourages freer action, less inhibited speech, and perhaps a 
little less thoughtfulness; this is probably largely due to the 
intoxicating sense of anonymity that we feel online. One has to wonder 
what the proper method of controlling people is, when they are 
generally not bad people, but merely "drunk" on the sense of 

Ideally (yeah, back to those pesky ideals), we bring them to an 
awareness of the virtual community they are disrupting, whilst at the 
same time still permitting people to (in final analysis) exercise 
power over one another, because people tend to seek status and power, 
and it's an important mechanic we cannot do without.

To boil all the high-flown stuff above down into simple premises: we 
must have playerkillers in UO, because the world would suffer if we 
did not have them. But they also must be channeled, so that their 
effect is beneficial, and not detrimental. And they have to learn to 
act within the context of the "play" space, and not perceive UO as 
just a "game" space.

In other words, a lot of it is about education. And most roleplayers 
have a story to tell about the time they first introduced someone to 
that form of play, and the way in which the former killer or hack 'n' 
slasher tentatively started trying out new waters, and eventually 
discovered that "hey, this roleplay things isn't all bad!" They may 
not become true roleplayers, but they may also adapt their play style 
to conform more to the virtual context. The mud designer and 
theoretician J C Lawrence terms this "functional roleplay," where 
behavior patterns of those who do not roleplay are conditioned by the 
presence of things like social systems, reputation systems, and other 
"channeling" devices.

It's largely about perspectives. The issue for the killers is whether 
they will gain the wider perspective and cease to be "virtually 
sociopathic." And the issue for the socializers is whether they will 
recognize that the killers are a part of their society too, and not 
always a bad one.

The thorny issues that then remain are the nitty-gritty of virtual 
community building: how do we govern in a world of anonymity? How do 
we police, and who polices, the players or the game administrators? 
What sort of punishment is appropriate for virtual crime? What sort of 
punishment is even possible for virtual crime? The answers to these 
questions that the UO community seeks out will shape UO for years to 
come, because they are questions that we the designers must ask of the 
players--no tool we give to players will work unless players take it 
up. And it could be that not a large enough proportion of players are 
ready or willing to take them up. But with the formation of 
governments and militias, we already see that the UO community is 
"self-aware"--aware of itself as a community, and therefore implicitly 
asking for tools to define its own society.

In the end, being a "killer" or a "roleplayer" is just as much a mask 
as the character one chooses to play online. It reveals something 
about how the player perceives UO, but not necessarily about their 
actual nature. (As a classic example, not all playerkillers are 
13-year old boys, as popular legend would have it. What makes a 
playerkiller is a perspective on on the world, not an age.) As 
designers, our role is to juggle the often conflicting perspectives.

The answer to "who are these people anyway" is better phrased as "who 
am I, in this virtual reality?" And until a player can answer that 
well enough to understand their motivations, they may not even be 
playing the way they really want to. The Greeks put it as gnothi 
seauton--Know Thyself. If you find these simplified classifications of 
player styles to be confining--make your own. UO is both a play space 
and a game space, and that is at the root of all the most wonderful 
things about it, and also at the heart of the most painful issues it 
faces with virtual community, playerkilling, and the like. "Giving up" 
and targeting only half of that equation is not a fruitful approach, 
in the long run. Only education, self-knowledge, and an awareness of 
others is.

And education, self-knowledge, and an awareness of others sounds a lot 
like the process of growing up. Hearkening back to 
yesterday--something is being born. But we do have to teach it how to 
walk. More on that tomorrow.

-Designer Dragon

For further reading, for the interested:

     Richard Bartle's article Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players 
Who Suit Muds
     Julian Dibbell's classic article on a virtual world community 
discovering itself, A Rape in Cyberspace
     A simplistic personality test can maybe help you judge which of 
Bartle's types you fall under

In addition, Kazola mentions that the Treetop Keg and Winery is 
thriving-- congratulations. Another victory against the forces of 
darkness--the darkness of social collapse, that is!

Many many people have asked to reprint the first essay, "A Story About 
a Tree," and just as many have asked if it is a true story. Yes, it is 
a true story. Please do feel free to pass it around to friends, if you 
feel it has touched you.

One last note: some people were troubled by the idea that the concepts 
about the necessity for playerkillers and the like translate back into 
real world society. The answer is, of course, no. The essays are about 
virtual worlds and not about the real one. Often concepts translate in 
one direction, not the other.

MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.

More information about the MUD-Dev mailing list