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

J C Lawrence claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Wed May 13 12:33:41 New Zealand Standard Time 1998

On Fri, 8 May 1998 11:21:49 -0500 
Koster, Raph<rkoster at origin.ea.com> wrote:

> By Monday, the latter URL will probably be essay4.shtml instead, and
> a new fifth essay will be at the URL I gave.

I'll beat you to the punch on that one then:


May 11th, 1998

The Man Behind the Curtain

  Most of our citizens actually lay eyes on their officeholders and
the hopefuls thereto about as often as they see circus elephants and
with the same lack of intimate contact. A man behind the footlights on
a platform is a little bit unreal; he might as well be a movie.

  But the people... are still interested... to have one show up at the
front door is as delightful a novelty to most of them as would be a
chance to ride that circus elephant. That unreality, the candidate on
the platform, on the billboard, or in the newspaper, suddenly becomes
warmly human and a little more than life size.

  In addition to being a novelty... [it] is a flattering
compliment... the idea will be kicking around in the back of [the
voter's] mind. "Here is a man who really seems interested in us
ordinary citizens..."

Ask any old Usenet hand: things have gotten worse. There's more
people. And they are ruder. They are cruder. They flame more. The
signal-to-noise level has been falling for years now. And it's all
your fault.

"Yours," that is, assuming that (as is statistically likely), you're
not one of the old Usenet hands yourself. Chances are you aren't--the
explosive growth of the Internet has meant a shattering of the old
sense of community that used to exist. Once upon a time, the Internet
was the playground of the few who had the technological savvy to reach
it, the fortune to be somewhere that offered access, and the knowledge
of its mere existence. In other words, an audience that was extremely
selective: generally highly educated, and working in either academic
or high tech fields.

These days of course, these folks are feeling very much pushed out of
their old playground. Now that the cat is out of the bag, the Internet
is forever changed. Many of them are looking forward to Internet 2 as
a salvation, but the fact is that the sense of small, insular,
familiar community that those people knew is forever gone, simply
because people will know about Internet 2. Cyberspace is no longer a
well-kept secret. And that means really fundamental changes in how the
Internet community evolves.

Back when Robert Heinlein wrote today's opening quotation in Take Back
Your Government!, his manual on practical politicking, he probably had
no idea that someday they would be quoted in a discussion of virtual
communities. On the other hand, he probably would have been tickled to
see the book used thus. Old hands in cyberspace have been quoting
Heinlein for a long time; his libertarian politics found a friendly
reception among the well-read science-fiction readers who populated
the early Internet, and it's not uncommon to see quotations from his
writings as Unix messages of the day or the like.

The thing that led to the frustration many old-time Net hands had with
the arrival of the mass-market Internet is exactly what Heinlein is
describing: the personal touch. In general, human beings tend to react
better to personal contact than to impersonal interactions. We'd
rather talk to a real person over the phone than to a machine. We'd
rather get a personal letter than a form letter, and failing that,
we'd prefer a form letter that at least pretended to know who we
are. And when we are not known, we are psychologically disinhibited,
and act out more freely. To maintain tight community, everyone must be

This, of course, flies in the face of the inevitable anonymity that
the Internet provides.  Distrust is therefore rampant. And it creates
a real problem for the administrators of a virtual community as well,
because they are in a position worse than "might as well be a movie,"
as Heinlein puts it. You see, they are supernaturally powerful. And if
there's something that we tend to fear and distrust more than someone
we don't know, it's someone we don't know who has power over us.

This dilemma isn't going to go away ever; when it boils right down to
it, we're always going to have someone out there who has the power to
turn our virtual world (which we may well have come to value deeply)
off. And that's assuming that no in-game administration is
required. But of course, it is.

But it does mean that the in-game admin faces a bizarre problem. He is
exercising power that the ordinary virtual citizen cannot. And he is
looked to in many ways to provide a certain atmosphere and level of
civility in the environment. Yet the fact remains that no matter how
scrupulously honest he is, no matter how just he shows himself to be,
no matter how committed to the welfare of the virtual space he may
prove himself, people will hate his guts. They will mistrust him
precisely because he has power, and they can never know him. There
will be false accusations galore, many insinuations of nefarious
motives, and former friends will turn against him. It may be that the
old saying about power and absolute power is just too ingrained in the
psyche of most people; whatever the reasons, there has never been an
online game whose admins could say with a straight face that all their
players really trusted them (and by the way, it gets worse once you
take money!).

There isn't very much that can be done about this, particularly as
your virtual world grows. Many a mud has found that the feelings of
intimacy and of trust faded as the playerbase grew, just as those
early Netters found their once-civil newsgroups devolving into endless
flamewars. But it does mean that admins must at some point relinquish
the role that they once held among the playerbase. When the game is
small, they are able to talk one-on-one, soothe hurt feelings, resolve
problems using personal judgement, and adjudicate delicate issues such
as one player's accusation of cheating against another.  But as all
large companies know, as government knows, and as online worlds are
coming to learn: the bigger you get, the harder it is to know your
audience that well, and the less trust they will give you. And the
problem becomes exponentially worse over time. The only solution is to
not put your admins in the position of judging unverifiable facts, or
else they will abdicate all pretense of fairness. They will, in fact,
be acting unfairly, because there is no way of knowing the

What does this have to do with practical matters? Well, let us
consider this list of possible actions that a Killer might take
against another player in UO if it had no combat system at all, or did
not allow player versus player combat.

They could kill the victim's pet. They could kill the victim's
intended target mere seconds before the victim gets to. They could
steal all the loot off of the corpse of the victim's target before the
victim gets to. They could release a tame dragon near the victim. They
could stand in front of the victim's desired destination, blocking
access.  They could do all of this without even saying a word, so that
the issue of verbal harassment never arises.

You see, it is axiomatic that as your virtual world becomes more
malleable and more versatile, that players will find more and more
ways to, well, screw each other over.  What's more, there are
thousands of them for every one of you. You will not be able to keep
up with their ingenuity. (A designer should never underestimate the
amazing ability of players to come up with new means to do each other
harm). UO happens to have features that because of their newness and
uniqueness, open up more ways for players to do harm to one another
via indirect means. And as virtual worlds develop, matters will only
grow worse--consider the day when you get the ability to dig trenches

In a world without any playerkilling, you as the victim actually have
no recourse whatsoever except an admin. Who is someone you don't
trust, cannot know if you made up the situation (consider how most of
the above actions are extremely difficult to detect via automated
means), and who is going to have to take one person's word over the

This is not a situation in which admins are likely to become more
trusted. And it effectively renders admins useless as judges of human
behavior as the game grows.

Growth is never an easy thing to cope with. And the new breed of
virtual spaces are facing issues with scale that are new, and often
new solutions are required. In yesterday's essay I spoke of the
traditional administrative model for a virtual space as essentially
peternalistic; this isn't meant to serve as an insult against those
who inhabit the space, but rather to describe a system whereby groups
are essentially governed via the charismatic personal contact of an
authority figure. Just as in the real world, this system falls apart
once larger bodies of people need to be governed or administered or
taken care of. There is a reason why we evolved away from a tribal
structure in the real world as our cultures grew; the same will--and
must, really--happen in virtual spaces like Ultima Online.

At the last player lunch, a fellow told me that he was fascinated by
how UO had recapitulated European history from 800AD to 1200AD in six
months of existence. He commented on the parallels between marauding
bandit gangs, the enclaves of feudal systems building secure spaces
and leaving the wilderness to the less civilized people, the eventual
overcrowding as villages covered the available building space. He also
shrewdly guessed the character of our next set of changes based on
historical precedent: house ownership and limits.

We, as humans, have been here before, over and over and over
again. Just as the Internet grew and Usenet habitues no longer knew
every poster; just as tribal leadership gave way to more organized and
(yes) less personal forms of government; and just as Heinlein's book
on politics is now sadly dated (when was the last time a precinct
worker rang your doorbell?), virtual worlds are now getting large
enough that older solutions to administration no longer function. The
importance of personal contact has not diminished in the least; but
the difficulty of providing it has grown, and will continue to do so.
Many of the choices made in UO regarding playerkilling toggles, safe
worlds, and the like were made in light of this fact.

This doesn't mean, of course, that players cannot start ringing
doorbells themselves. As the overall administration grows more
distant, the local one becomes more important. And, in many ways, more
powerful, as it understands its local circumstances and may obtain the
power to modify its local laws. This was the point of Heinlein's
book--that politics that matter are actually at the local level, and
this is where you can make a difference. You do not expect your
nation's leader to fix your streets or solve the local bank
robbery--that is what the City Council is for. And in UO we are
embarking on the experiment of exactly that: providing local
empowerment to the playerbase. Perhaps Enshu Ponfar's City of Yew does
not see itself as a symptom of the sweep of history--but by these
lights, it is.

In the end, it boils down to the fact that the best government is the
one that you can trust, which will be the one you know personally: the
people close to you in your virtual community, who are held
accountable precisely because of community ties. Your best government
is going to be each other, because the man behind the curtain isn't
going to know you any more than you know him. Consider what Heinlein

  An adult is a person who no longer depends on his parents. By the
same token a person who refers to or thinks of the government as
"They" is not yet grown up...  

  There is more cynicism in this country than there are things to be
cynical about. The debunking exceeds the phoniness. There is more
skepticism than mendacity... [The skeptics] are around us, busy
belittling and sneering and grinning at every effort to make of this
country what it can be. What it will be.  

  For you there is the joy of being in the know, of understanding the
political life of your country, the greater joy of striving for the
things you believe in, and the greatest joy of all, the joy of public
service freely given... there are no words with which to describe nor
any way to convince you of its superiority to other joys; it is
possible only to assure you that it is so.

There have been many skeptics on Usenet about these essays; Heinlein
also says, "Don't argue with a hard case." But for those now posting
about townstone systems and methods for player militias to jail
offenders and the like--hang in there. If we keep recapitulating
European history at this rate, we'll be at the Magna Charta soon--and
won't that be interesting!

In the meantime, consider a quotation by a different author,
Heinlein's longtime colleague in science-fiction, Isaac Asimov. It may
as well apply to playerkillers, who are as we've discussed those who
"don't get it," those who fail to see it as Real. "Violence is the
last refuge of the incompetent." And who else are playerkillers but
those who are socially incompetent in this new virtual community?

-Designer Dragon 

J C Lawrence                               Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor)                               Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------(*)                     Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honourary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...

MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.

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