Games and other online communities are societies, owed a duty of care by their owners

Raph Koster is one of the world's most celebrated game designers, responsible for the design of Ultima Online, CCO of Sony during the Star Wars Galaxies era, and author of the classic Theory of Fun. Ever year, Raph gives a barn-raising/barn-burning speech at the Game Developer's Conference, one of the don't-miss moments of the conference. This year's speech is no exception.

Raph describes this year's speech as "darker" than in previous years, and I don't know if that's the right word -- more like "angry." Koster is angry at the proliferation of abusive behavior in online worlds, especially in the new VR and AR worlds, which are recapitulating every stupid mistake made in share online spaces all the way back to text MUDs.

But the designers of Koster's era had an excuse: they were making mistakes no one had ever made before. The current crop of designers -- all the way up to Marc Zuckerberg, who so disgusted Koster during a job interview that Koster publicly says he never expects to work for Facebook again -- are making mistakes that have been lavishly documented, and the only explanation for making these mistakes again is either cruelty or depraved indifference to cruelty.

Koster says that online worlds are disproportionately used by people who are emotionally vulnerable, as a therapeutic tool. These people are the bread and butter of the games industry, but the industry does nothing to protect them from the bad behavior built into the games they design.

The underlying problem here is that games companies want to act like capricious gods when it suits them, but claim to be powerless in the face of their users' bad conduct when that suits them. It's the World of Democracycraft problem, which I've been discussing with Raph (and writing about) for more than a decade.

Koster isn't just raging here, he's exhorting: he's telling the designers of GDC where to find solutions, how to spot the problems, how to fight the fires before they kindle. It's a wonderful speech. I hope he posts a transcript soon!

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  1. That was good and I'm glad he gave the talk. There was a point near the start where it got a little off-key (are we clear that "virtual" sexual harassment in a sport game is different in kind to virtual murder in a war game?), but I hope people stick with it to the end.

    I thought the point was especially well-made that people gravitate to virtual worlds because they want to be someone different, and that mental health is right spang at the heart of it, even for participants who don't "have mental health problems". That's worth talking about a lot, especially when you recognise that Facebook is a virtual world, albeit one with a dourly single-minded focus on players' offline identities.

    One thing I do wonder is to what extent he's right to say that developers repeating these mistakes are genuinely doing so by accident. I believe that Blizzard genuinely doesn't want WoW to smell like the locker room of a boys' prison; I'm not sure I would assume the same of every Xbox title.

  2. Shuck says:

    I sometimes (often) disagree with Koster about game design, but he's dead on with everything here. He's got a lot of great soundbites, too. (I especially like his bit about fake news as instanced dungeons.) It's amazing how much the games industry reinvents the wheel, because people with experience get forced out (by poor working conditions, etc.) and people who remain don't do their homework. Even the big game companies with smart people who get paid the (relatively) big bucks end up making rookie mistakes that a bit of research would have avoided. And this is true for multi-player games, communities around that, content creation systems, etc. When Valve, for example, added their user-submitted content system to Steam - Greenlight - it was as if no one there had looked at anything similar for obvious pitfalls. So they fell into a lot of pits, and they're going to go through it all again as they're replacing that system with another, poorly conceived one. (To their credit, the actual multiplayer games they make seem to have things figured out a lot more, the betting sites that sprung up around them aside.) And don't get me started on all the multiplayer games that came out of the app gold rush. So many seemed to be deliberately encouraging the creation of the most dysfunctional communities possible.

  3. Games and other online communities are societies

    YES! I am still amazed that so few people acknowledge this, and still try speaking of society as a singular monolithic entity.

    owed a duty of care by their owners

    If your society has owners, you are already fucked, and need to set up another society. What we are seeing here is the end-game of capitalism, where propertarians can indulge their wet dream of one-way societal control.

    What drew many people online was its more egalitarian, distributed nature. That it lacked the exploitation of the lowest-common-denominator encountered in advertising and mass-media. It was precisely the subsequent corporatization/commercialization of online spaces which has resulted in today's "trolls paradise". Centralized ownership of egalitarian spaces is not the solution, it is the problem.

  4. I don't believe that. The 'trolls paradise' was created by the sheer number of people online, period. Youtube comments didn't suddenly become toxic when Google bought them; youtube comments became progressively more toxic as more and more people arrived on the scene to use the service and as it became an invaluable tool. Facebook didn't create or even empower the troll any more than MySpace, Livejournal or even USENET did. The Internet wasn't some magical place that one day became just became much more noticeable that terrible people were there.

    MUDs and USENET newsgroups and even old school BBSes has plenty of the same behaviors...but it was in a marginalized, niche group. It's one thing when the two girls on the MUSH have to put up with scummy comments, but quite another when an online community in the millions does the same to thousands of female players...and that difference is primarily of scale and people documenting it.

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