Constraining vs Enabling in Video Games

[I wrote this months ago. Posting it now (unfinished) to clear out my backlog – ed]

A little while ago, a bunch of us went to see Nick Yee give a presentation about Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) at PARC. Over a beer afterwards, we discussed one of my favourite MMO topics and were neatly divided down the middle on the subject.

The topic concerns bad behaviour by other players in the game and what the developers should do about it. The bad behaviour in question might be stealing or killing or scamming or any number of other things that would annoy other players. But not cheating. We are all agreed that cheating – causing lag to gain an advantage in the fight, using a bug or exploit to create gold or any number of other ways of gaming the system – sucks.

One side, who happen to play rather a lot of MMOs, said that it is the developer’s responsibility to prevent such bad behaviour. The other side, who don’t play so much any more and includes me, claim that the developers should enable the other players to prevent such behaviour.

Broadly speaking, the first group want to narrow the rules of the game to make bad behaviour impossible. The second group want to expand the rules of the game so the players can create their own systems of justice – their own rules, ther own morality – within the game. Martin Fowler calls these attitudes enabling attitudes and directing attitudes.

The ones who play might claim (and do claim) that they have won the argument by the very fact that they play the games in question – but there is a self-fullfilling prophesy at work. The games are targetted at a particular market and those outside the market simply stop playing.

Published by

Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

12 thoughts on “Constraining vs Enabling in Video Games”

  1. I play MMOs and I think I agree with you. I don’t agree with you on everything MMO (see http://morgane.com/?p=213) but I agree on that one (if I understand it correctly). I would argue though, that our favorite MMO, UO, had its own constraining rules. Not as much as more modern games, but still. So the truth is probably somewhere in between.

    Surprisingly to most, WOW is not that constraining. More than UO for sure, but not that much…I think, though maybe you have some examples in mind that I don’t have.

  2. While I have stated that your idea is a novel one, and one that I experience directly in EVE Online, there are problems with it. The biggest of these problems which most game developers have considered insermountable is if you give the power to the players to police their own community with punishment or reputation systems, it is very hard to design it without any loopholes that give griefers a means to cause even more grief. Say you have a reputation system that allows you to lower reputation of a player and if that reputation gets low enough they will be killed my the local guards. What could go wrong? The griefers make low level characters and combine forces to “flash rep” people while they are in towns causing them to be killed. Ha ha! So what do we do about that? There are plenty of band-aids you can put on that problem but overall it is like fighting a fire in a volcano.

    I also must agree that we have won this argument by our virtue because UO, your favorite game, still runs and you don’t play it. I will put forth a hypothesis that the type of player who plays games that are “high realism, low restriction” usually play them as a flight of fancy, much like they might a single-player game. I would almost say that this is because though the realism is fun, it is too hard to make progression in a game where everything is realistic and therefore exploited for grief. Therefore early on in the game, these simulation-loving players have experienced all of the content they are going to be able to and stop playing.

    You are correct that it is a game that is outside the market because game companies cannot afford to create MMOs that people play for 6 months and quit.

  3. > t is very hard to design it without any loopholes that give griefers a means to cause even more grief

    But when you, as a developer, uncover an opportunity for grief what’s your instinct? Clearly, if it’s a loophole, you close it. But if its a regular part of the game?

    Do you look first for a constraining solution? Or an enabling one?

    Either way, the opportunities for grief are never ending but in the enabling scenario the game gets bigger and bigger.

  4. Well, I played EQ for 7 years. As soon as WoW came out I immediately quit EQ. WoW so far has nearly *no* ways to grief people. I think the worst offenses in the entire game as far as griefing is people who camp graveyards in battlegrounds, and it is not even that hard to work around.

    The difference between our arguments is yours assumes limitless time limitless resources. It is very easy to say “Players can’t move chairs around”. It is very hard to say, “Players can move chairs around. Oh look, people are using chairs to block doorways. Okay, we let players destroy chairs. Oh look, there are no chairs because people keep destroying them, so let’s make them respawn if they are destroyed. Oh look that created a bug in the system with timing threads and when people push a box on the respawn point. Okay that is fixed, now pwoplw are teleporting players into the chair spawn point to kill them. Wow, I wish we could just make chairs not movable because it really adds a very minor flavor to the game that only 5% of the players care about.”

    So the question is, if you made the game you wanted, could you maintain the development requirements to allow players to do things, and would anyone play a game where you are basically spending all your development time adding things into the game that ultimately will be used more to cause grief and exploits than it will be used for immersion?

  5. Further thinking on this.

    In the real world we have a socially enforced behavior system. If you break the law you are usually punished for it. Everyone understands this and their freedom and livelihood depend on them following the rules.

    In a virtual world, it is not nearly that critical. Some people play these games for the SOLE PURPOSE of harassing other people. They don’t care about the game, the immersion, the competition, the exploration, nothing. The only aspect of the game they enjoy is to make other people unhappy and there are no real consequences for it. There is so far no game where the players can keep you from playing. You can *always* start a new account and do it all again. For this reason, there will always be a much bigger hole and a much larger population that will exploit an enabling favored system to do bad things.

    If we are to accept the above as a fact (which I do) I have stated before that I believe it is a lot more work to enable these freedoms in a game combines with the mechanism to prevent people to do bad things with it then it is to just create a game where bad behavior is not possible. It is like putting a warm apple pie on the kitchen table because it looks nice there, but having to keep a person at the table to keep the dog from climbing up and eating the pie instead of just putting the pie where the dog cannot get it. More work, not much gain.

    I understand the viewpoint of your discussion and your desire for such a thing. I just never hear the argument that it would be in any way practical.

  6. Kevin pulled the YAPR card! ZOMG!! LOL

    Aaron has excellent points though. It’s true that I also don’t play UO anymore, but in my defense (dunno if that’s also in Kevin’s defense), UO became stupid when all the restrictions were put in. Not to say that we would still be playing, but..

    I find that wow+pvp gets somewhat close to what I liked about uo. If only I could pk (and be pk’d) by people on my side as well, then the game would be complete.

    Kevin, I remember your being shocked by these two guys pretending to have sex near the inn in britannia, one of them was called Jesus Christ. I know I’m deviating a little bit, but do you think that should be allowed or not so much?

  7. I believe in free speech in the real world – why wouldn’t I believe in it in a virtual world?

    I do believe that what makes a game a game is a boundary though. You can’t pick up the ball in football. You can’t throw pieces at the other player in chess. If the boundary didn’t exist, it would be just real life and that’s no fun.

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