Monday, September 22, 2008

Virtual Morality

I’ve played a lot of games for a lot of years and recently I discovered that I have a whole set of ethics around gameplay. Besides the obvious “no cheating” standards I realized there are many more ethical considerations. As I thought about it more I began to see a recent evolution in these ethics. I am sure one could probably do a great deal of research in to the area of simulated morality. These are just some of my thoughts.

With the creation of MMORPG’s has come the creation of “guilds” or team vs. team play. Fighting other players is as old as DOOM, but the advancements made in the last couple of years have been significant. In DOOM (and most first person shooters), there is very little personal loss (if any) to character death. At most you lose some play time as you wait to re-spawn. But old school MUD players will remember how character death often meant complete loss of all your cherished items and some if not all your wealth. Ultima Online was one of the first graphical MMORPG’s to continue this as a concept. But this type of cut-throat ethic only appealed to a small market. This in itself could be examined in more detail, but as UO was interested in more subscribers and more revenue it experimented with ways to alter the player vs player game. And thus an era of game ethics and player psychology has been born.

Each and every MMO game developer has now had to consider what morality it will enforce and what animosity it will foster. WoW has created the two sides with limited areas of allowed PvP and even goes farther by allowing players to choose completely non-pvp (called Player vs Environment PvE) servers to play on. Other MMO’s have chosen to allow only special zones where combat is essentially free-for-all. Few graphical MMO’s adhere to the draconian “lose it all” style, but some come pretty close. EVE Online losses are limited to only the ship the players happen to be in. Ships are very specialized and most pilots have dozens of ships so even this loss is far from “total”.

What is more interesting is the self imposed ethics of players. Despite all these options and all the tweaks developers make to encourage/discourage certain behaviour, the openness of RPG allows players to decide for themselves what actions to take. You can even include some external game activities in this set of simulated morals. Some games allow for the trade of in game currency for additional play time (e.g. EVE Online). Players are allowed to buy game codes good for 60 days and sell them in game for ISK. While completely allowed by the game developers, many player see it as “cheating” and will not. Many players, even when playing games with strong PvP elements, refuse to engage—struggling through PvP as an extra obstacle in what is for them a largely PvE game. Entire guilds/groups are organized around common game play ethics. Few disputes can shatter the members of a guild than a sudden radical shift in game ethics.

I can see how these concepts can branch out to creating whole new fields in predictable psychology. Game developers will need to be keenly aware of what their target market desires in terms of game morality while at the same time allowing for players to break the morality. We get to see first hand fledgling gods of creation introduce evil in to the virtual world.
What are your game ethics?

Game On!

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