Gaming Net Culture Social Software

On things that aren't fun, and fun that is bad…

Last Friday – around ten in the evening – Pentheus, my main character in World of Warcraft, hit level sixty. Thinking back, I’m now not entirely sure where he was when this happened, although I believe it was in the wastes of Silithus. I waited until I’d got to the Altar of Storms to start my quests for my Dreadsteed before I took the above picture.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about the whole thing. It was – frankly – sort of an anti-climax. Nothing happened, I just remained being level sixty. There was no sense of a threshold being reached. My character – the same character I’ve been playing on and off since November – was just slightly more powerful than he was before. And a whole range of long extended new quests wandered off before him. There would be no new spells, no new pets, no real development – except in sets of armour and property. Each quest, each raid will now be longer and more involved than they were before – a dungeon taking two or three evenings to explore properly and requiring a group of people to play with that I’ve struggled to collect along the way. The whole game now feels very laborious and slow – the simple pleasures of earlier in the game, where you were picking up new abilities and developing quickly have just disappeared, to be replaced with something more drudgelike, robotic and … as the people in game describe it … grinding.

Now the interesting thing about this is you’d think that was a very good reason to stop playing the game immediately – but somehow no. My relationship with World of Warcraft is a lot more complicated than that – so complicated that it’s forced me to reconsider a lot of my assumptions about gaming. These assumptions have been further challenged by reading Raph Koster’s book and weblog, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. The two experiences – reading and playing – have not pushed in the same direction however – they’ve not led me to the same conclusions – and this has resulted in me spending a lot of time wondering about the relationship between entertainment and productivity, fun and work, drudgery and compulsion. I’ve started wondering whether a game could still be considered good if you want to play it a lot but at the same time resent the time that it takes from you. What if you find it boring but still somehow can’t put it down. Can you love and hate a game at the same time and still call it ‘fun’? Can a game be a narcotic, or a guilty secret or an addiction? Can it be a fruitless activity without value that still feels good

Raph’s book includes a really interesting analysis on what games are, and what fun is and is not which is far too long to quote in full here, but which includes this summary:

Games aren’t stories. Games aren’t about beauty or delight. Games aren’t about jockeying for social status. They stand, in their own right, as something incredibly valuable. Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter.

This sort of fascinates me because it contains a weird twist of logic – that fun is learning without pressure, and that therefore games matter – presumably because learning is de facto a good thing. But what if you’re learning a system or a landscape with no transferable value – what if a specific game presents you with a structure designed to purely generate the sensation of perpetual fun by short-circuiting the learning impulse and misdirecting it into valueless territories? There would be a memetic advantage in being a game that could be intoxicating in that way without requiring that people learn skills that were transferable elsewhere. For a start, real-world skills are harder to develop and perhaps less short-term satisfying. Secondly, a process that teaches you real-world skills would result in you evolving and changing. A game that could short-circuit your learning instinct wouldn’t have to do that. There would be no reason for you to leave.

There’s another quote in Raph’s book which is about what happens when you get older and why people stop playing games. He says, “We don’t actually put away the notion of ‘having fun’ as far as I can tell. We migrate it into other contexts. Many claim that work is fun, for example (me included). Just getting together with friends can be enough to give us the little burst of endophins we crave.”

I think this is really interesting, because it hits on a few more weird contradictions – working can be a learning exercise, it’s true, but there’s normally some risk involved. if you do bad things in a job, you can be fired. There are consequences. So that seems rather at odds with his earlier sense of fun. And a work environment has no formal ruleset, has no structure that you’d recognise as game-like. And of course it can have real-world rewards. If work can be fun, then I’d argue that’s not because it’s like games – an environment in which you can learnwithout risk, but precisely because it’s not like games, the productive element generates a satisfaction that is totally missing in World of Warcraft. The creative and generative element is also absent. Perhaps the reason we think of games as a childish activity is because play in our youth is supposed to inform work in our adulthood. Perhaps then, a game that feeds on our desire to learn and our childlike instincts but cannot give us the satisfactions of creation or real dangers, is a con, a short-cut, a parasite. Perhaps adult gaming is nothing more than an opiate, designed to provide satisfactions and a sense of development or progress that the real world is unable to provide for most people, or that people are too nervous to fight for.

Apparently you can get a character on World of Warcraft to level sixty in about three months of consistent after-work play. Personally, my experience has taken me three times that length of time, and has been squeezed around long hours on work projects and more travelling than I’ve ever done before. Given that it hasn’t massively compromised these parts of my life, I’m guessing that the level of compulsion I’ve felt to play has not been massively excessive – but it’s still felt like a time sink that somehow claims me for my out of work creative time. That really worries me.

Let me put it this way – while I feel no massive compromise to my life is occurring now, while my relationship with the game is merely grudging at the moment, I can imagine coming to hate the game and yet still wanting to play it. Is that an extraordinary statement? Is that a piece of self-insight there, or is it something about the game? I can’t tell where the fault lies if there is a fault? Can you build something that is too addictive simply in the way it presents challenges and rewards, to the extent that it becomes psychologically addictive. Can something with no pharmaceutical components be a drug? Or is this simply a matter of self-discipline and self-control? How tempting does an alternative world filled with mechanisms for alleviating status anxiety have to be before the space between fun and craving gets crossed? Is television any different? Am I just coming to some weird form of Protestant neurosis in my mid-thirties?

One of my older posts is currently full of people talking about their problems with World of Warcraft in particular – wives saying that her husband ignores his children to play, men who say they would rather play WOW than have sex with their wives, teenagers who say that they’re failing school so they can play, and it’s led me to this weird point. Are they all making excuses? Is the game a scapegoat? Are they weak-willed and to be pitied? Or are we as a culture starting to construct toys that are too effective and end up hurting people? I know it sounds alarmist, but I really want people’s opinions. What do you think?

Gaming Humour

Twelve steps to give up World of Warcraft?

Spotted in Wired Magazine and consequently making me laugh – represented in part here because it was neat (and directing your attention in particular to the bottom and third books from the bottom on the left). In addition recommending that you go and check out the full artifact from the future over on Wired’s site:

I’m going to get me a copy of the twelve-step guide to quitting World of Warcraft, and while I may pass on Mr Denton’s definitive history of weblogs, I’ll definitely pause briefly to see if I made the index.

Gaming Social Software Technology

Self-reflexive rulesets in online communities…

It’s Tuesday morning and I’ve been in Seattle since Sunday evening at this year’s Microsoft Social Computing Symposium and frankly, I’m completely braindead through jetlag. I’m barely hanging on to intellectual coherence by my fingernails. Sunday evening I got about three hours sleep in total, last night a roughly similar amount. The quality of the event has been pretty high so far though, and I’ve met some fascinating people but I’m really not firing on all cylinders. Ross Mayfield’s taken a few chunks of notes, and most interestingly I’ve met some people with a similar interest to me in reflexive political models in online communities, including one guy who wants to build something very similar to the place I want Barbelith to become -online in an MMORPG. I finally got around to post up some of my earliest ideas around this subject on the Barbelith wiki a year or two back under the Tripolitica heading, but basically it goes a bit like this:

Imagine a set of messageboards, each with their own clear identity and each with a functioning moderation system based around a pre-existing political structure – one Monarchic, one Parliamentary Democracy and one Distributed Anarchy. Each of these political structures has been generated from one abstracted ruleset, and each component of that ruleset can be – in principle – turned on or off at will by the community concerned. Moreover, the rules are self-reflexive – ie. the community can also create structures to govern how those rules are changed. In other words, members of those communities can choose to shift to a different political model, or can develop their own by incremental improvements of changes to sections of the ruleset to allow moderators or administrators or normal users to create the ‘laws’ that govern how they inter-relate.

This self-reflexive component would operate with a bill-like structure – ie. an individual would be able to propose a new rule or a change to an existing rule that then may or may not require some form of wider ratification before it becomes ‘real’ and starts empowering or constraining the citizenry of that board.

When a new user joins the community, s/he is presented the current political structure of each one and from that point chooses a board to be affiliated with. S/he is then part of the population of that community and can rise up through the ranks (if there are ranks) and participate in the functioning of that political community. This goes right down to the creation of different parts of that commnuity, how the various parts of the community inter-relate with one another and who can post what and when.

Each community will have its own strengths and weaknesses – some will no doubt go horribly politically wrong and have power seized by mad administrators, but hopefully others will find their own kind of political equilibrium after a while – and maybe that political equilibrium could be a good model that could be genericised and used as a more common and rigid platform for new online communities that aren’t interested in the emerging rule-set component. That is to say, maybe we can evole a better system for handling debate, discussion and power relationships in messageboards and other online community spaces and games. Of course, for that to happen, the ruleset has to be sufficiently politically abstractable that new arrangements could emerge that didn’t initially occur to us during the creation of the ruleset and the reflexive process has to be comprehendible to real users.

Some sample bills:

  • Anna proposes a bill:

    Junior members to not be able to create threads

  • Bill proposes a bill:

    Administrators to not be able to change user roles.

  • Charles proposes a bill:

    Junior members to be able to create posts. Action will require ten ratifications from Moderators, Administrators, Normal Members. One disagreement can veto.

  • David proposes a bill:

    Moderators to be able to edit abstracts. Action will require three ratifications from Moderators or Administrators. Three disagreements will veto.

  • Edgar proposes a bill:

    The User Responsible to be able to change their own display name. Action will require no ratifications.

  • Fiona proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to be able to Unblock Users. Action will require 60% assent from Normal Users polled over 24 hours.

  • Gavin proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to not be able to propose bills. Action will require a 51% decision of all users polled over a 6 hour period.

I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts around this stuff.

Gaming Net Culture

On wanting to stop wanting 'World of Warcraft'…

There’s a command in World of Warcraft that tells you exactly how long you’ve played with your active character and how long you’ve been playing at your current level. All you have to do is type /played into your chat prompt to find this information out. If you’re a regular player of the game, I think you should go and do that now. Don’t worry. We’ll wait. It’s sort of important.

I’ve had World of Warcraft for almost exactly six months now, which – coincidentally – is pretty much exactly how long I’ve been working at Yahoo. I bought the game in my week between jobs, while I was supposed to be recovering from the BBC and thinking around my personal projects. Buying WoW pretty much killed off that idea straight away. I think on one day I played from around nine am until three the following morning. The week evaporated in moments.

So I typed in /played over the weekend and I got back the figure of fifteen days and four hours for my main character – another nine hours for my second. Fifteen days solidly. That’s three hundred and seventy three hours of immersion in Nordrassil when I could have been doing something else, something more useful.

Let me give you some context there. Imagine playing WoW was my second job, which is how it has felt at times. Thinking in terms of eight hour days and five day work weeks, I’ve played the game for roughly two and a half months. And that’s on top of the day job. It’s no wonder that the weblog has slipped. More alarming still is that even though I’ve played it for that length of time, I’m still only level 51.

The question then, is how to stop. And not how to stop in the simple, “I’ve got a problem” kind of way. Let’s be clear – my day job has not suffered, my relationships are just as screwed up as they normally are, but no worse. But I’m starting to resent playing as much as I’m keen to get up to level sixty. I regularly get this sense of time passing just a little too fast, and even though I know that the time I spend playing WoW is not time that would immediately translatable into rebuilding Barbelith or learning how to develop in Rails, I’m increasingly aware that I want to stop wanting to play, even if I am prepared to let that process of detachment be a gradual one associated with some sense of completion.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the option to ‘just stop’ isn’t interesting or practical. I have this idea for a way to bring in some kind of honest scrutiny from outside about the time I spend playing WoW. It’s pretty simple, and also pretty cool. World of Warcraft has a set of APIs and can have mods developed for it using a language called Lua. There are a great many of these mods – mostly concerned with giving people better access to spells or dealing with the Auction Houses, but the ones I’m most interested in are the ones that fuel sites like Thottbot that capture information about what you’re doing in game and dump them to a central server – almost like a gaming version of – creating aggregate value out of the smallest of engagements. The aspect I’m most interested in is the fact that they can communicate outside the game to servers in the real world. Which makes me wonder why there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of weblog integration or posting mods.

What I want is a badge of some kind I can put on my site that exposes to the world how long I’ve been playing, and how long recently. I think maybe by putting this in public I can start to adjust my own perceptions of what is an appropriate amount of time to waste in this manner. Just a little badge – a strip or a button that I can deposit on the page that means I get occasional raised eyebrows and comments on IM or when I’m down the pub. Anything really that exposes me to the judgement of the masses. Does anyone know of such a plug-in? If I (grudgingly and a long time after the fad died) invoked the Lazyweb – could anyone write one?

(The thing that this whole experience has driven home to me is the difference between illusory value – fighting for artificial scarcity – and actual utility. I wouldn’t be feeling in the slightest bit ashamed of the way I played in game if I knew that one of the reasons I was doing it was the repopulation of the Amazon rainforests, or to help improve – or even perform – cancer screenings. It’s the sense of enjoyable work and creativity with no intellectual or physical byproduct either than a slight headache. There’s something fascinatingly wrong with that.)

Gaming Life

The end is in sight…

I’m coming to the end of my month in the US and to be honest I’m absolutely bloody exhausted. I only have one major US leg to go and then Dear God I’ll be done and I can sleep in my own bed and spend a weekend alone and play a lot of World of Warcraft and speak to absolutely no one. This has been a pretty astonishing trip in many ways – I feel like I’ve learned a lot and experienced more and have reconnected with my larger community – but it’ll be nice to have a break from working out travel logistics and hotels every twenty-four hours. Speaking of which, I still haven’t actually booked the bloody flight from San Franciso to New York, and I have nowhere to stay there yet. Very bad! Too much to do! Concentrate Tom, concentrate!

On this illustration, knocked up on the train back from work this evening (by way of an attempt to get my brain to unclench), I would be currently just trying to work out flight number six for Friday, and worrying about getting to the airport in time for flight seven (Sunday morning). Fried!

Gaming Net Culture

An update from Nordrassil…

The weirdest thing about my weblog is that I rarely write about what I’m doing at work, and normally write about the stuff that’s going on in the wider web and that I’m up to in my spare time. Except that at the moment I’m pretty much only doing three things – trying to catch up on my e-mail and get organised for a long upcoming business trip, getting my head around Yahoo! and playing World of Warcraft. So I was thinking maybe I should be telling you what I’ve been up to in-game… I can’t imagine that would be an enormously fascinating read, but it does occupy a fair amount of my spare time. Maybe it’s not such a great idea…

Well, just in case you care – this is Pentheus (Level 43, Human Warlock), who is currently down in Stanglethorn Vale (Nordrassil shard) dealing with pirates and trying to get crystals out of Basilisk corpses. He’s recently managed to become an Artisan Cook and Enchanter, and has secured a flaming Felsteed as a mount. He’s now trying to get enough stuff together to improve his tailoring skill and has his heart set on a Soul Shard bag. He currently looks like a bit of an idiot, but the hat’s got a certain amount of dirty power to it, so what can you do.

Meanwhile, Andromache (my Level 8, Human Priest) is roaming around the icy wastelands around Ironforge, looking for herbs and trying to avoid getting stomped on by wolves. She’s spent much of her time so far sitting in Stormwind by the Auction House waiting for materials sent in by the internal mail from Pentheus to trade, but has recently decided to strike out on her own. Good on you, girl!

Both are members of the understated guild known as The Union, should you care even the slighest bit. Please feel free to say hello if you’re roaming around and happen to stumble upon one of them roaming around the place. In the meantime, I’m afraid the weblog will continue to suffer being the unfortunate third in my life to my two main masters – work and killing stuff for swag. I wish I could post automatic monthly progress reports to my site from the game. That would rock. Also my monthly favourite songs from Then I’d barely have to write anything at all…

Conference Notes Gaming Technology

Supernova '05: Byron Reeves on MMORPGs…

It’s difficult to articulate how busy I’ve been since Supernova – what with servers falling over and jet-lag and work and general calamities. All of which probably explains why I’m still writing up Supernova notes almost two weeks after the events themselves. And I’m afraid, having lost an extremely detailed draft of several sessions yesterday because of a problem with my lovely Powerbook, I’m going to have to start being a little more concise about the whole thing.

Which is a shame because the presentation I want to talk about now – by Bryon Reeves on MMORPGs and the nature of ‘fun’ – was one of the two or three major highlights of the conference for me. In my last draft of this piece (unfortunately lost) I wrote in quite a lot of detail about the experience of attending conferences and how little time it takes to become (over-) familiar with the major issues of the day. But occasionally, you can get something really special and unexpected emerging – when you can gain greater insight from someone from a parallel discipline applying their techniques to your problems.

So Reeves stands up and details an experiment. Two groups of people are individually placed into some kind of brain/CAT-scan kind of device that measures electrical activity in different parts of the brain. They are presented with a game with no win-state – two circles on a screen, one of which is controlled by our subject. One group of subjects are told that the other circle is controlled by another individual, the other group are told that it’s automatic – computer-controlled. In fact, the circle will move in exactly the same way for both groups of people.

But the mental activity is completely different. The group that believes the circle on the other side to be a distinct social actor have considerable activity in the parts of their brains that handle social interaction. What does this demonstrate? Reeves says that it proves that MMORPGs are not places which can be understood merely via human/computer interaction, but require approaches that understand that the computer is mediating between social actors.

Now this blew me away, I’m afraid. It blew me away because – although it proved something that should have been obvious – it also got me thinking in all kinds of new directions around solipsism and artificial intelligence and stuff. Like for example, the significance of what you believe is going on in how you interpret (which makes me curious about how well we’ll interact with apparently sentient actors that we still know are computer-generated), and it made me think about how you might conjure up an alternative version of the Turing test to assess exactly how unlike human beings an artificial intelligence is. (In a nutshell – one implication of that particular experiment is that human beings couldn’t tell the difference between human and computer agency when their interactions were so heavily truncated. So maybe you could create a whole set of environments where the ability of other human agents to interact was heavily restricted and run them against bots interacting in the same space. By quantifying the levels of interaction you could – presumably – create some form of multi-axial scale for the assessment of intelligences…)

The specifics aside, the reason I was blown away by this talk was that it made me think not only about massively multi-player games and ways of employing interesting interfaces – it employed the study of MMORPGs in a way that gives you more perspective on people themselves. And – quite personally – it coincidentally managed to touch on a lot of the subjects I was really interested in during my incomplete doctoral work in a completely different area – tracing patterns of pleasure and identification in ancient and modern drama…

Reeve’s next point: People who were able to choose their own avatar in first or third-person games experienced more arousal / fun than those who had them randomly assigned. Which triggers all kinds of questions for me – how are the people using these avatars? Are they fantasy figures? Do they tend to resemble the person who chooses them? Do they resemble their real-life heroes? Are they idealised versions of a person’s self-image or aspirations? Are they vehicles for the expressions of different paths or parts or attitudes of an individual? What does it mean to play an evil character? And what about playing cross-gendered or animalistic characters?

And this in turn makes me think about role-playing, cosplay, sexual game-playing, furries, transvesticism and a whole variety of other areas where an individual’s identity is up for examination or articulation or expression. Which in turn leads you into other areas that are harder to study – reactions to novels, and characters in novels (for example). Is there a function of books that makes it easier to ‘choose your own avatar’ than a film? What kind of brain reactions do people get when they’re watching a film or reading a book and relating to characters than they do when they’re playing a game? In this space, the game could be an easily mutable and adaptable key for unlocking a whole range of experiences around identification, fantasy and role-playing. Awesome stuff.

The position of the camera (1st person vs. 3rd person) creates significant differents in arousal – with third person generating the greatest amounts. Reeves’ comments around this one were particularly encompassing and interesting – suggesting that being able to move our own personal ‘camera’ away from our bodies would have been a great evolutionary response (although difficult to accomplish), that in third-person perspective being able to see people around and behind your avatar generated accelerations in heart-rate. My own personal reaction was that perhaps the third-person view better resembled our own hypothesised continual sense of our environment, but I didn’t have the opportunity to ask about this.

The richness of the media – and the quality of the imagery – has significant effects on the brain, with more vibrant imagery resulting in greater ‘mirroring’ in the brain. This one interested me because – again – of the opposition to the sensations and experiences of reading books. Which things are being stimulated differently, and why, between those two media?

Narrative context has a significant effect on how much pleasure / arousal people get out of their games – it’s definitely arousing to shoot people in a game, but it’s far more arousing to be in a game where you know the background, the narrative – where you know why you’re shooting them. I tend to think this is probably a pretty universal sentiment – most human thought tends towards the narrativistic – with causality and the hypothesisation of motives and narrative arcs making it possible to impose some form of meaning onto the world.

A whole range of simple statements that between them conjure up a lot about gaming, but also lead you in all kinds of exciting directions when you’re thinking about people in general – and the nature of what it is to be human. All fascinating stuff.

The second half of Reeve’s paper looked at some conditions that made a particular thing ‘gamelike’ and how you could harness the enthusiasm that people had for games in other contexts. He cited the following qualities/attitudes in gamers which you could attempt to meet in worklike environments (his comment – “don’t underestimate fun – engagement has a demonstrable ROI”:

  • ‘Failure doesn’t hurt’
  • ‘Risk is part of the game’
  • ‘Feedback is immediate’
  • ‘I’m used to being the star’
  • ‘Trial and error is the best plan”
  • ‘There’s always an answer’
  • ‘I can figure it out’
  • ‘Competition is fun (and familiar)’
  • ‘I make bonds beyond my near-group’

I think my favourite example he cited was really near the end – and was concerned with embedding real work into games. He talked about how in Star Wars Galaxies, characters have to get jobs to earn money that they can then spend. And to get jobs they have to develop skills. So they embedded real-world work into the mechanisms that allow you to develop your skills. They placed images from cancer screens into the games – some with cancerous cells visible, and some without. To develop to another level in the game you had to start determining the difference between these scans. And it turns out, where a normal doctor is around 60% accurate in spotting cancer in one of these screens, you can get the same quality of answer – the same level of scrutiny – by simply exposing the same image to thirty normal game-players aspiring to the Doctor in-game skillset. There’s an enormous amount of possibilities there in brute-forcing a lot of work that requires human judgement but can be learned by pattern.

Fascintating stuff – and a great talk… My full notes are here: supernova_reeves.txt

Gaming Social Software

Political economies in self-moderating communities…

Derek Powazek wrote an interesting piece last year about rating-based moderation systems: Gaming the system: How moderation tools can backfire. One of the most important lessons in online community management is that top-down management is seldom particularly successful in forcing people to act in a certain way. Certainly if the image of the community that the administrators wish to enforce is radically different from what the community itself wants, then the site is more likely to rip itself apart than to fall in line. Online communities are not made social by the presence of these administrators and nor is the quality of their social interaction defined by that administrator. Groups of people self-organise, self-maintain and even – to an extent – self-moderate. An administrators job is to (more or less intrusively or architecturally) facilitate the creation or the maintenance of these self-organising aspects and to build a community space that suits them.

Moderation systems that are based upon ratings schemes are radical attempts to help people self-organise by choosing people and content worth reading and by ostracising bad users. The most well-known sites of this kind are Slashdot and Kuro5hin. But Derek’s piece reminds us that even these attempts to replicate concepts of reputation and rating online can have problems:

Still, it’s important to remember this essential truth: Any complicated moderation system that makes its algorithms public is eventually going to fall victim to gaming. So my advice is, if you’re going to use a community moderation system, make it as invisible as possible. No karma numbers, no contests, no bribes. Rely on social capital and quality content to get your community talking, and develop a system that helps you moderate without a lot of fanfare. The bottom line is, if you take away the scores, it’s hard to play the game.

I think Derek’s position on this is fundamentally correct – albeit a little strongly worded. I suppose my biggest problem is trying to work out to what extent gaming the system is an abuse of or a fundamental aspect of real-world analogies to these moderation schemes. Perhaps the problem is not that the social structures built within the game are too complex and take away from normal human interaction, but that they’re simply not gameable enough. The online political economy of a site like Slashdot seems to me to have some clear analogies with the problems of inflation in the virtual economies of MMORPGs. It could take many years for the UI and the ‘market’ to come together in gameably useful ways…