[MUD-Dev] RE: Some essays I've written lately
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The above paragraph comes from an unpublished interview I gave many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
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
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.
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.
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