[MUD-Dev] RE: Some essays I've written lately
Fri May 8 11:55:49 New Zealand Standard Time 1998
So Let's Get Practical...
"Killers may have a right to play the game their own way. They don't
have a right to inflict their way of playing to the other groups." -
from a posting by Loic Talecaster late last night
"Look dude,, dieing and parting with your stuff sux,, but it's part of
the game, live with it.. role play it." - a reply to Loic by
"If you don't want to get killed, stay in town." - a lot of posts this
Lynx hmms... So you're saying you want to randomly kill people?
Arion says "yes! randomly but with the same chances of dying!"
Ack says "we want to be the few... the proud... the outlaws!"
Lynx should note you are probably despised by a great many people,
which is hardly helpful.
Ack says "that is the best part about it!!!"
Arion says "that's the way we like it!"
Lynx points out some people have ideas of fun that other people do not
agree with, and these people do not have to put up with it.
Arion says "then let them stay in the havens that are usually there...
[safe] rooms, the town square..."
- from "The Black Rose Incident", which occurred on Islandia 8 years
--- As one would expect, the last two essays have generated an amazing
amount of discussion and controversy in the Ultima Online community.
There have been numerous interpretations of what I said, of course;
some feel I am acting as apologist for the playerkillers, others feel
that their positions have been vindicated, etc. Just to state it
clearly: there are too many serial killers in the world of Ultima
Online and they need to learn to get along with the rest of the
populace--but we don't want to exterminate them completely anymore
than we want to make rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, and sharks
extinct, because they fill a valuable role in the virtual ecology.
So let's turn to the problems of actually shaping a virtual society.
There are a couple of key issues here that present really important
The more things change, the more they stay the same...! Those quotes
above, some freshly minted and the other hoary with age, help
demonstrate that the issue of playerkilling, of policing the virtual
world, is an old one, and that it is more a matter of the
psychological approach the player takes to the game than anything
else. One thing that is hard to come to grips with in that realization
is that it means that playerkilling does not require a combat system.
The problems that players wrestle with in dealing with harassment are
exactly the same; the difference is the means of exercising power that
is used by the aggressor. Consider the following quote from a post
made late last night on the UOVault by Loic Telecaster:
[Yesterday's essay] says that without killers, virtual worlds
stagnate. But there is an entire class of virtual worlds, MOOs
mostly, that don't even implement a combat system, and they thrive.
Thus how can it be said that Killers are "necessary"?
Those of you who read the additional links supplied yesterday know
that the Julian Dibbell article on "A Rape in Cyberspace" in fact took
place on a MOO. The "kill" command was never typed; nobody entered
combat mode. Yet it was every bit as traumatic as a repeat
playerkilling is to people today in UO. When the issue boils down to
the exercise of power, any tools will do. Failing combat, they will
use words. Failing words, they will follow you around and interfere in
your actions... and maybe, just maybe, if you supply a method for them
to get into a political structure within the virtual world itself,
they will play politics instead of killing, since politics is after
all the ultimate human expression of the desire to exercise power over
others. (No offense to the politicians!)
So one key problem to surmount is the fact that changing the medium of
attacks will not prevent attacks from occurring. You'll find the
Killer on IRC, on a web board, in chat rooms, in Ultima Online, and in
muds everywhere--pk switch or no pk switch.
There are other thorny issues to wrestle with. A common call is for
community policing--this is a position that I myself have often
advocated. But it must be admitted that a virtual community is sorely
lacking in one critical concept to be able to effectively police:
identity. On the Net, what identity there is is very fluid. Whereas if
you identify a criminal in real life, you can jail him, in cyberspace
he effectively can become someone else entirely, leaving you holding
an empty shell in your jail cell. A mule. A dummy character. An
And that's assuming you can catch him--for how do you know who he is?
One's anonymity in cyberspace, as we discussed yesterday, is a great
empowerment. It's also a great problem for those who wish to track the
behavior of repeat playerkillers.
Ultima Online originally was designed for full-bore community
policing. We made safe towns, and originally supplied no other tools
whatsoever. But those who sought to police accurately pointed out that
since they could not track those who did evil deeds, the server code
would have to. Hence the notoriety system. And now we are moving to a
more precise and specialized system, because notoriety's key flaw was
that it measured different types of behavior on the same scale, which
rendered it highly problematic as a method of identifying criminals.
The reputation system purposely tracks only one type of behavior for
the purposes of flagging someone as "red," because that way it can
serve as a more accurate tool for curbing that one type of behavior.
Will it curb all methods of "attack"? No, because it is a specialized
The idea of behavior tracking systems is not new. We of course have
the concept of criminal records in the real world. On the EBay auction
website, users of the site can award "stars" to other users, and you
can get a sense of how trustworthy a person is before engaging in
commerce with them. In many muds, people are flagged permanently as
"thief" or "murderer" after one instance of thievery or murder.
The key issue behind having such systems is of course, who judges, and
who punishes. The quote above from the "Black Rose Incident" is often
used as an example of why consensus government fails in virtual
settings, and a major reason why it fails is because the social mores
of the playerbase are being dictated (or attempted to be dictated) by
the game administration, rather than by the playerbase. All forms of
compromise suggested by the admins in the incident fail to satisfy
both parties, because they are not solutions offered by the parties. A
similar dilemma arose in the incident described by Dibbell: in the
end, the populace of the game felt themselves powerless, organized a
government, and it meant nothing: the final action taken had to be
taken by a "god."
It is no accident that in virtual communities, admins are often titled
gods, wizards, and immortals.
This is of course an essentially paternalistic structure. One has to
ask the very tough question: can an online community ever truly flower
if it always has to run to Dad to deal with problems? The reason this
is a critical question is because the presence of an all-powerful
being is not a philosophical question in a virtual setting. In final
analysis, it's the guy with the ability to flip the power switch on
the server. In the case of the virtual rape on LambdaMOO that Dibbell
described, the head admin came back and adbicated his powers to the
Now, there's clearly a whole can of worms there regarding religion in
a virtual setting that I am not going to open! However, the
implications in terms of the development of online governments are
very interesting and very important. Our challenge is that in UO, we
have established what is to my knowledge the virtual setting with the
largest scope of possible player actions and activities yet given to
people without godlike powers. (On many MOOs and the like, the common
player has godlike powers as a matter of course, which is a different
big can of worms...!) With UO we--no, more precisely, you, the players
of UO, have a unique chance to actually make a virtual world that
sustains a virtual government that matters. No mean feat.
I say "that matters," because in the end the head admin at LambdaMOO
had to take his powers back, and it is back to Dad as usual there.
Just as we in Ultima Online had to retreat from the original design of
full-bore player policing and add back in greater game admin
involvement. But our intent is still clear: this is going to be your
world. So if the tools do not suffice to handle the problems of
anonymity, lack of accountability, binding to identity, and non-conbat
means of attack, we need you to tell us what tools will. Because while
we may have built the world, we don't want to be your parents anymore
than we want to tell you what Virtues you must follow. That is a
matter for your conscience and your free will, which try as we might,
we could not take away even if we wanted to. So I look forward to
fruitful discussion on the boards of things like townstones, locally
defined "laws," methods of supporting player militias and towns in
code, etc. It may take a while to come to fruition, but come it will,
because despite what some may say, we, the developers are not saying
"you're on your own." We're saying that maybe you might want to take
off the training wheels someday, because bikes with training wheels
get to ride on much more interesting terrain.
And after that, maybe we can see about changing that "just because we
built the world" thing too. :)
The full log of the Black Rose Incident makes for great ancillary
Elizabeth Reid's master's thesis on Cultural Formations in
Text-Based Virtual Realities is fairly academic,
but fascinating reading. Highly recommended. A sample quote that seems
relevant to today's discussion:
Cyberspace--the realm of electronic impulses and of high-speed
data highways....--may be a technological artifact, but virtual
reality is a construct within the mind of a human being... Virtual
worlds exist not in the technology used to represent them, nor
purely in the mind of the user... The illusion of reality lies not
in the machinery itself, but in in the users' willingness to treat the
manifestations of their imaginings as if they were real.
In other words, maybe--for those who said on Usenet yesterday
that UO isn't a community--clap if you believein fairies. If you
believe in them, they will be real. And if you see a community there
in UO--well, then, thereis one. But if you refuse to believe, well,
you'll never get to see the magic. Which would be a real pity. Of
course, you should read Bob Hanson's excellent and detailed Reputation
System FAQ, which is our latestmethod trying to empower player
policing of their environment. Remember that head admin at LambdaMOO?
His name is Pavel Curtis, and he has also written on the subjectof
virtual communities. An interesting, off-the-beaten-path essay to read
is his take on transforming a MOOinto a virtual professional
community. You may want to seek out his work. A good introductory
essay is SocialPhenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities.
I have received MANY wonderful letters since starting this regular
essays column. But yesterday's letter from Postman77 of the Anti-PK
Unified Council was one of those letters that makes your life's work
all worthwhile. Thank you for your eloquence, Postman77. It made our
MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.
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