Let’s think about how society holds people accountable for their actions and why. We’re not going to be able to directly model this in a game, but understanding how morality and social structures maintain themselves in real life can provide us with a basis for the mechanical social structure in a game world.
What (most likely) separates human beings from other animals is that we can calculate consciously the affects our actions will have on others. We can conceive of systems to judge actions on a scale beyond our own self-interest. These conceptions are institutionalized through religion and law. Societies dynamically generate and modify moral codes that their members tacitly understand. When there are enough people in the society, institutions arise to enforce moral codes and perpetuate, beyond the scope of the family, certain moral standards.
Accountability and moral agency are tightly bound. If we can be held accountable for our actions, we have the capacity to make moral decisions and be held to moral standards. We want the morality of actions to make a difference in what a player chooses to do when he interacts with others.
Societies in online games take on much of the morality of the real-world society in which the game is played. The effect of morality is deadened significantly in online games, though, leading to plenty of negative, uncooperative behavior that leads to undue pain and suffering.
Active morality promotes social order and cooperation, which, in general, leads to a much better social experience and a more enjoyable gameplay experience. In order for morality to matter in the game world, though, there needs to be accountability. Actions taken against (or with) other players need to have consequences, positive or negative, in order for the morality of those actions to matter to the player. Consequences cannot be enforced by players without knowledge of the precedent action.
Accountability in MMO dynamic worlds is deadened by several factors. Dynamic world games have to mitigate these factors significantly to make accountability work.
- There’s no way to teach the morals of the game’s society to newbies without them experiencing it. Newbies are given a character that should have a solid understanding of the moral framework, but it’s impossible for the newbie to have that level of understanding.
- There’s no ultimate punishment in the game world because death has little meaning. This has far-reaching consequences and cannot be overlooked.
- The cost of abandoning a character and creating a new one isn’t prohibitive. Griefers only lose time when they are forced to make a new character, and those griefers usually have more free time than those who are being griefed.
- Players don’t play every waking hour, so decisions that may need to be made have to work around when a player is online. The player’s perceptions and actions are limited by how long they spend online—there’s no analog for this in real life.
- Survival is not a motivator for belonging to social groups. I-game groups are much more ephemeral and the bonds between players are much looser because there aren’t many pressing needs, and no need is as pressing as survival.
- Membership churns in social organizations. As a result of weaker bonds between players in social groups, a player can jump from group to group at little penalty.
An accountability framework for a dynamic world needs to have several parts:
- Event capturing and fact collection. The game engine can provide plenty of information about what characters have done. This information can be factually perfect—which is actually better than the general imperfection of information in real life. Collecting data can be difficult in games that have a lot of ambiguous actions available to players, but if players’ actions are relatively well defined, event capturing can lead to a significant increase in accountability.
- Player aggregation and contextualization of information. Trusted players should be able to take the bare-bones fact sheets generated by the game engine and write histories around them that can be read by other players within the game.
- Limited information availability. People don’t immediately know all of one anothers’ deeds and misdeeds. A game shouldn’t model this directly, but some gradual information spread depending on player contact and faction contact is necessary.
- Account-wide activity memory. Because we cannot assume any degree of roleplaying, the moral actor should not be considered the character, but the player. All characters played on the same account should be connected. Activity histories should appear the same for all characters on one account (though there should be some reorganization of the view to allow the activity of the current character to be at the top or highlighted).
- Give in-game social groups facilities for communicating at all times within the game. This means much more than guild chat. Social groups should have message boards accessible from within the game. There should be something like a wiki that the group can put up to hold important data about itself that its members need to know for the social order to be maintained. Organizational tools are crucial for the promotion of moral and cooperative behavior.
- Allow social group membership to have a dramatic effect on how a player plays the game. More than simply giving the player a tag beneath their name and a chat channel, guilds should open up a whole new world of coordinated and uncoordinated group activity. When a player joins a new group, she should notice a difference in the way she plays the game every single time she logs on. In this way, group membership can have significance and membership churn can be reduced. Survival can be replaced with raw utility as a motivator for social behavior.
MMOs should make playing with others as smooth and rewarding as possible. In a game world where players can have significant effects on each others’ gameplay, it’s critical that social groups have the tools to invent and maintain morality frameworks to ease cooperation and promote social stability. Without tools to aid tracking and managing accountability, dynamic worlds will continue to breed a disproportionate number of psychopathic characters—such games will always be alluring but, ultimately, socially unstable, exploitable, and brutish.