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!