Playing by the rules won’t make you friends online

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Loyola media professor, David Myers, discovers that role playing won’t make you any friends online in City of Heroes.

Professor David Myers took it upon himself to run a social experiment over several years in City of Heroes to discover and document what would happen if he literally played by the rules as the designers had intended and not by the taboos accepted amongst its player population. Twixt, his heroic avatar in the game, had by the time he had decided to embark on this quest, been a well established character.

See, David Myers actually plays video games and is one of the first university-level professors to take a serious look at them from an academic perspective. That’s right, he plays and condenses what he learns into papers that are read and evaluated by peers on a scholastic level. Instead of simply nodding at a piece of negativity that we might hear on Xbox Live, people like Myers are trying to find out just why that is the case and how games have affected us on the social level among other things.

As much as your opinion or mine are treated as nothing to be surprised about when we use the mute button on Live, lending a kind of scholarly legitimacy to this is something of a vindication. The proof has always been out there, but to see it being taken as seriously as this is an encouraging, if not surprising, indication that our favorite pasttime is maturing in other ways outside of the ESRB label.

And, as you can already guess, it’s not pretty.

Myers had decided to go all in as a hero and document what happened next. That meant teleporting villainous players into the sights of robot firing squads and watching them quickly die. This is all completely within the rules, too, as set down by the designers of the game. Villains and Heroes should be at each others’ throats…at least that was what was supposed to happen.

Instead, what Myers discovered was that both sides would commiserate as opposed to fight and occasionally cooperate to take down particular mobs. Together. As in Lex Luthor and Superman working towards a common good with no ulterior motives whatsoever. Not quite what the rules had set out to encourage, but socially among the players, it was an accepted norm.

In playing through my own share of MMOs, I’ve noticed that on many of those that do not offer explicit PvP (player vs. player) combat, there’s always a sense of camaraderie among characters that normally shouldn’t hang out together. Dwarves and elves, Alliance and Horde, machine agents and awakened humans, dogs and cats living together…I think we can all agree that other “real world” considerations usually precedence over the so-called ‘rules’ of any particular game.

But I’ve also seen in other games how rampant PvP can turn particularly powerful characters into remote controlled bottom feeders by camping newbie towns.

It’s not all heartache and hate, however. In a case of where user driven conflict actually works, EVE Online’s storied history of corporate betrayals, bank heists in the billions, and galactic war are all the more impressive considering that each of these were not scripted in by the designers but by those like you or me. That corporate insider that had just betrayed one of the largest, and oldest, alliances of players in the game to SomethingAwful’s Goonswarm? Completely by the rules. If you want the details, Goonswarm spymaster, The Mittani, lays it all out. You can bet that not a lot of people were very happy about this, either. But that’s how the game is played.

The Goonswarm did exactly what the rules of the game had demanded in much the same way that Myers’ Twixt had done within CoH…they both simply played the game, for good or ill, and went in knowing that is what they were allowed to do by the rules without regard to what was socially acceptable. In Goonswarm’s case, and as their reputation is known by, they weren’t concerned so much about creating an empire as it was in simply going out and having a good time as a group. And if it meant that one of their biggest enemies had to go down as a result, then it was going to be as fun as they could make it. And they did it as a team which is more than I could say for what had happened with Twixt.

Even the early FPS titles would have their own share of self-obsessed pranksters who would practice their anti-social tricks before graduating into the more sophisticated toolsets offered by MMORPGs. Allied soldiers storming the beaches in RTCW (Return to Castle Wolfenstein) might find themselves turned into chargrilled chumps thanks to friendly fire from a flamethrower. On servers that turned off friendly fire to avoid such “accidents”, griefers (as such players would be called) would find new ways to mess with the game…such as blocking doorways.

I remember one session when, on the German side, everyone was gathered together waiting for the Allies until we saw the chat messages of what was going on. The other side was actually asking for our help in getting them out because a player was blocking the exit from their spawn. We obliged with a panzerfaust to the bunker, but the griefer would always return. Interestingly, gaining control of another spawn point would mean more than a tactical necessity by the other side because of this.

When Twixt crossed those invisible boundaries and violated the unspoken code of cooperation within City of Heroes and began role playing, he soon became an outcast…even from his own clan who had subsequently kicked him. He was soon regarded as someone that was ‘spoiling the game’, almost putting him in the same category as that guy that blocked in his own team in RTCW.

Before you start thinking that these are kids behind the keyboard with anger issues (or adults with the mental capacity of twelve year olds), Myers discovered that the demographics for the game aren’t consistent with what people might think of rage quitters (people that quit because they are so angry at a game that they just leave…in a rage) as unemployed, pizza eaters dwelling in a dingy apartment block somewhere.

From Myers’ research, most of those that played City of Heroes were employed, technically savvy, mature young adults with only a tiny percentage (2%) unemployed. He even mentions that the skills learned within an MMO such as CoH could be parlayed into, say, the same drive that creates corporate CEOs. But stick them behind a monitor and give them the anonymity of the internet, and he discovered that labels hardly matter.

Death threats, insults, and his fellow heroes simply standing by while villains ganged up on him to drive Twixt from the game were only a few of the things that he had discovered. Playing by the rules of the game were apparently not as important as in playing by the social rules of its players. Quoting from his paper which you can download at this link from the original article:

“Eventually, because of the recalcitrance of Twixt’s opponents, it became increasingly difficult to interpret embedded player social rules, orders, and behaviors within RV as anything other than a means of repressing individual play and players such as Twixt. From Twixt’s point of view, playing by the rules of the game, winning the RV zone competitions, only increased the obstacles he faced and the insults he received. In fact, after Twixt had become sufficiently well known, the consensual goal within RV was, for extended periods of play, simply to “kill” Twixt.”

RV stands for “Recluse’s Victory”, the highest level of the four PvP (player vs. player) zones within the game.

It wasn’t all negative, however, and there were a few people that did consider Twixt’s play within the context of the game in a positive light, but the overwhelming negativity that ‘playing by the rules’ had engendered was surprising even to Myers. It’s an interesting read.

As games become more complex and as virtual social tools become more ubiquitous, it will become more interesting to review just how this all had come about…and where the burdens of reality and the unfettered joys of virtual escapism, along with in how we treat each other online, will take us next.

At least there’s always mute.