Asshats and Social Consequences

Gotta love when small comments start a more serious and (IMHO) interesting discussion in the MMO blog world. TCS Gamer, Se7en Samurai and Virgin Worlds all touched on ass-pects of the “asshat problem” in MMOs. All good stuff and in the best spirit of discussion which is why I read these guys all the time.

I think what started the discussion was a casual brush with the third rail of MMO politics: the console menace (at least for pc-b(i)ased gamers, myself included). Admittedly, I’ve had same sense of dread that MMOs for consoles was the first rider of the apocalypse.

The discussion gave me pause. Why did I have such a visceral reaction to the notion of a console MMO? For me, it ultimately came down to what Darren calls “asshatery” which is not the exclusive province of console gaming. With thoughtful UI development, how different would a console version of a game be from a pc-based game? My conclusion was that absent text chat, probably not so different. Play styles differ (I’m definitely a mouse and keyboard/hotkey touchtyper; our tank is almost solely mouse based), but it would be easy enough to design/redesign. Pop up a numpad in the AH price boxes and I think you’re done.

No, its definitely the fear of asshatery that contributes to my bias. Most multiplayer console games haven’t had the opportunity for the most fundamental characteristic of MMOs: persistency. Without persistency, there is effectively zero disincentive for asshatery. There are simply no persistent social consequences. Be bad, get kicked, relog with a new name, full reset. No consequences.

It’s the potential to bring that play style into MMOs that gives me the agita. In the real world, even if we self-police, individuals have the ability not only to merely avoid positively reinforcing behavior viewed as inappropriate, but also to negatively reinforce bad behavior. And if it rises to some level, then we call in the a RL GM like the cops or the courts for violations of our social ToS. Not so for MMOs.

In smaller MMO communities, self-policing and generally a broader awareness of a smaller player base has actually allowed players or guilds to develop a reputation among the player community on that server. It doesn’t live anywhere except in the impressions each other participant takes away from playing or observing another player or guild. And yes, there are certain bad boy extroverts that none of us would ever bother grouping with because their undesirable behavior is so readily apparent. Nonetheless, they persist and yes, have the capacity to piss us off merely by acting like jerks even if we don’t choose to interact with them.

BUT, I wonder, as the player base expands as it inevitably will, is it time to add social consequences to game mechanics. Would it be desirable or is it necessary to add something like this to an MMO? What would it look like?

Aspects of this are already in most games in the form of faction or reputation. Gaining or losing faction with an NPC group can increase or decrease the price of vendor goods and repairs and even ultimately make them hostile to you. Likewise, there is the player-based ignore list. How could something similar work among the player community?

One idea that comes to mind is the equivalent of eBay’s feedback system: after some player-player event, the other player may rate the experience, positive, neutral or negative. Over time, those ratings aggregate to a repuation rank. I wonder if something similar could be implemented in an MMO?

Gamers being gamers, of course, such a system would have to be designed so it couldn’t be gamed (a la honor farming). Perhaps a player would get the right to leave feedback on another player if they had been grouped together for some period of time or experience gained. Maybe outside of a group, general conduct could only be commented on once per hour or some similar limit.

The notion would be that a reputation score would persist and have real consequences (npc hostility, favorable/disfavorable vendor or trainer prices, etc.). In a large community, it would be easy to look to group with folks only with positive rep, etc. There would be tangible effects, good and bad, for a having a good or bad reputation.

Finally, I think a persistent reputation would have to have some degree of cap and decay. A reputation system shouldn’t allow players to “bank” good feedback in order to engage in no consequence bad acts, so there should be no incentive for “grinding” good rep beyond the cap. But, a player’s reputation would also be a constant work in progress. It should improve if they improve their conduct (and encourage them to do so) and degrade if it worsens. If its not permanent, it affords the opportunity for change and to remain current and meaningful to the rest of the community. It also probably softens what may inevitably be the occasional vindictive bad.

I’m not generally in favor of something mechanical that has to act as a substitute for players actually acting reasonably mature and respectfully toward each other, but one of the lessons of WoW’s success is that even if the asshats are only a very small percentage of the playerbase, a small percentage of 8.5 million is a very large number and that significantly increases the likelihood that ordinary players will run into several if not many asshats in a typical session. I fear the problem will only increase as the player base expands beyond the historic pc-based community and into the console market adding more millions to the MMO community.

Life is short, I pay for a game, I don’t want to have to shut off trade or general (or never visit heavily populated areas or weed out my ignore list to only include those I want to ignore the most) and I don’t want to have to ask Blizzard or SoE or Turbine to act on what are probably “social infractions” rather than ToS violations. Hopefully, they have better things to do like make the game better.

Time for social feedback mechanics?

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