Where does the virtual world end and the real world begin?

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Massively posted an interesting story last week about people in EVE Online’s volunteer program misusing privileged information. In this case it was connected with getting information (such as IP addresses) about the other volunteers, but it does point to one of the big issues with any kind of volunteer service in MMOs.

Games have often used volunteers as extra unpaid GMs, or to help coordinate other players, to mentor newbies or write newbie guides, or help support the community in other ways. These volunteers are drawn from the player base. So in a game like EVE, what’s to stop a player from using their volunteer powers to help their own character or faction in game?

In some ways it’s smart metagaming to grab as much power and knowledge as possible for yourself in any way possible, including by schmoozing people via out of game channels, buying gold, volunteering to GM for personal in game gains, etc. If volunteers were elected, you could imagine a player organising a huge election campaign with the hidden intent of supporting their own faction after the election. Just like real life, really. And just like in real life, unchecked metagaming leads to corruption in the game world.

But metagaming also leads to a huge increase in immersion. It may not be a good influence on either the game or the player base but it really does benefit players who get into their characters, even outside the game. EVE flaunts the fact that players have the freedom to join enemy corps with the intent to betray them. Is that metagaming? Well, if you lie to your corps mates on a regular basis then you’re probably playing a different game than they are. A con game, in fact. (From watching Hustle, I now know that this is known as playing the inside man in a long con – who said TV never teaches you anything useful? ). Is EVE supposed to be a game about con artists? Well, it is now.

Allowing, or even encouraging, some metagaming is a dangerous road to walk. Some people will always take it too far. If the worst that happens is one player stealing another guild’s bank or getting a list of volunteer IPs, then you have dodged the bullet. Wait till people start committing RL crimes due to unrestrained metagaming, or harrassment, or being driven to distress or even suicide. We’re at the thin end of the wedge, and I am concerned about how having increased social networking and increased continuous access to MMOs is going to affect metagaming in future.

We need solid anti-corruption rules, proper complaint channels, and watchdogs both in game and out to keep players in line. For their own sakes.

The Problem with Volunteers

It is always tempting to volunteers to use their additional powers to help themselves, even if they do it unintentionally. I remember back in DaoC, there was a volunteer network who assisted GMs. If you just happened to have one of those volunteers in your guild, you never had to wait long for a GM to come assist when you hit a raid bug. The volunteers (and we all knew their characters even though it was supposed to be secret) had the equivalent to a GM hotline.

When I was running a MUSH, all the staff were volunteers and many were drawn from the player base. One of their roles was to arbitrate disputes between players – it was hard for some people to be fair when their friends were involved, or even their own characters. We needed to think up rules to stop that and allow other players to ask for a different judge, without compromising the in game identity of our judges because they wanted to play also.

We took the blunt instrument approach. Initially, no players were also allowed to be judges, we had to recruit our staff from other MUSHes. It actually worked well, but if you don’t let staff play at all then they lose a lot of insight into what’s actually going on in game. Instead they just hear it from the whiniest players. So we relented and let them have player characters, but limited their power. So the most powerful and influential characters never would be staff alts. It helped and people were mostly happy.

You can still never entirely prevent people from wanting to help their friends or other people from abusing their knowledge of who the staff alts are in game. And that was more of an issue in a MUSH because the player base wasn’t that huge. In an MMO, you could just restrict a GM from dealing with anything coming from the server on which they played instead.

I’m not entirely sure what sort of policies current MMOs have about how their staff deal with in game issues. I assume they encourage their staff to play for the same reason that we eventually relented on that issue – it’s the best possible way to understand what’s going on in game, plus encourages staff to make the stuff they want to play themselves. But woe betide the game such as EVE that thrives on metagaming when one of the staff wants to play that game also; they have to consciously restrict themselves from doing what a regular player could do or else be open to (totally justified) claims of corruption from the player base.

The sad thing is that volunteers can add so much to a game. They’re already fans. And there is a section of the player base that genuinely enjoys entertaining other players. They’re the people who would be GMs in tabletop games; not quite designers but not quite players either. In MMOs they probably now take the roles of guild leaders or raid leaders, and in that capacity are doing a thankless task without which the games would be far far less fun for everyone else.

And many of those volunteers would be utterly selfless in using extra volunteer powers for good. It’s just safer for everyone if they don’t get the chance.

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12 thoughts on “Where does the virtual world end and the real world begin?

  1. In answer to your title question, it doesn’t. The virtual world is simply a communication layer of the real world. It’s no more fake than a phone line, but because we don’t want it to be real we create our own rule set for keeping it surreal.

    • It used to be so easy. If you weren’t logged in then you weren’t logged in. I think that the actual act of logging in and out does set some boundaries (ie. you’re either in game or not).

      But with smartphones really taking off I can see the virtual world feeling much more the way you describe — always there all of the time, like a different protocol layer.

      From a roleplaying point of view, we used to try to make a distinction between whether people were in character or out of character (and less experienced RPers in MMOs often don’t really get this, I find). I wonder if we’re going to see this being more and more of an issue. My gut feeling is that we will, and metagaming is going to really dig in because players themselves don’t know where the boundaries are any more.

  2. Ultima Online had various kinds of issues with “Seers”, too. The were volunteer GMs with somewhat reduced powers, as abuse of various kind started, their extra abilities got reduced to next to zero till some legal issues totally ended the program (stort version of a long story).

    The alt-metagaming in EVE is huge problem IMO. Alts cause such an incredibly long list of possibilities for betrayal and backstabbing, and I cannot help, tales of guys playing an “alt” for almost a year and then totally betraying their company is nothing else but the ultimate MMO jackassery. I am sure his corpmates congratulate him to his awesome roleplaying “heists”, cough. I do not approve or really understand such behaviour, and I am quite angry about CCP that they always make PR with things like that to demonstrate the incredible possibilities of the EVE Universe.

    Regarding the article, this is not the first time ISD related issues pop up in EVE. Though the article is not clear if real-world data or ingame data or whatever actually was compromised.

  3. So in a game like EVE, what’s to stop a player from using their volunteer powers to help their own character or faction in game?
    For instance, not having volunteer powers in the first place. ISD volunteers submit bug reports and talk on the newbie channels, something that every other player can do as well. They’re only different because their text is shown in a different color. And in the CSM Larkonis case, he was caught quickly by CCP internal affairs monitoring his activities. However, said internal affairs were set up after the T20 incident, where a developer created/modified items for his alliance.

    Though the article is not clear if real-world data or ingame data or whatever actually was compromised.
    CCP Ginger stressed that information stolen came from “areas operated outside of CCP’s infrastructure and is therefore not related to anyone’s EVE player account data. Player billing information, personal information, and character/game information all remain completely secure and unaffected, as well as CCP corporate pathways and e-mail, Tranquility, databases, etc.”

    Yes, it’s pretty unclear. ;-)

    • Fair enough. And I think that CCP is going to be in the forefront of sorting out procedures for dealing with metagaming by both staff and players, because they are kind of in the front line with EVE.

      CCP Ginger is being a little provocative though with that statement. Yes, the player billing information is safe (one would certainly hope newbie helpers wouldn’t have access to that!) but that doesn’t mean that they can’t do anything with the information they had to benefit themselves in some way in game.

      • Most likely that information could be used to weed out spies by cross-referencing players’ personally identifying information with the aliases they’ve used on IRC (Coldfront) or third-party forums (Kugutsumen). Nobody’s Eve account is going to get stolen because of this (unless they were stupid enough to use the same username/password ingame and out of game), but they just might face a welcoming party consisting of their former “allies” when they log in. In that sense, this could be described as meta-metagaming.

  4. Volunteers are a tricky issue. When 3DO ran M59, they had a strict policy that you couldn’t be a volunteer on a server where you had characters. This helped reduce some issues of favoritism since your guild probably wasn’t at risk. But, there had still been some problems. The most famous was before I started working on the game, where a volunteer just snapped and teleported players to the most difficult area in the game, killing most of them instantly.

    When we resurrected M59, we chose not to have a volunteer program. The EA lawsuits were still recent memories. Plus we only had one server to start (adding a 2nd soon after), but it was harder to separate a volunteer from his or her friends, unfortunately.

    I think in any game with direct competition, especially PvP, you’re going to have some issues with volunteers. Even CSRs have been known to go over the line, and they could lose their job. A volunteer who may only be getting a free account is going to have less reason not to be tempted.

    All that said, having passionate volunteers is a great thing. The volunteers on M59 were some of the best aspects of the game from my point of view, and having someone with that much passion actually helping people is a great way to get people enthusiastic about the game.

  5. “Is EVE supposed to be a game about con artists?”

    Yes.

    Many times people have petitioned the GMs over various scams and dirty blows and the GMs always say “it’s a sandbox, working as intended.”

    Bear in mind there is a certain amount of fun in being gamekeeper to these guys poacher. Goonfleet for example have a dedicated counter-intelligence unit that hunt and kick spies out.

    Having said that any Eve player could have told you that giving an Eve player a position of trust as a volunteer would end in tears. I’m surprised at CCP’s naivety. (Unless of course they weren’t naive at all and this whole affair is a kind of harsh tutorial).

    As for real life crimes The Mittani tells a wonderful story of an Eve player flying to Iceland with the intent to cut the power to someone’s house so they could kill his internet spaceship. He didn’t in the end go through with it because they found out that the player was in fact a CCP GM secretly playing an uber character and so were able to sink him by exposing him.

    In the 0,0 metagame technical hacking to get access to enemy corps’ forums is routine and almost certainly illegal.

  6. I was a volunteer Guide and Senior Guide for SOE’s EverQuest for a good number of years. We had strict rules and policies that we had to follow — much stricter than the GM’s who were paid employees. One small infraction and you could be kicked out of the EverQuest Guide Program, while GM’s could get away with all kinds of misconduct including sexual harassment, regular harassment of players and favoritism…you name it. I’m not kidding.

    One interesting observation: most of the volunteer guides were far better educated and had more life experience than most GM’s literally hired from a temp agency in San Diego. We had far more game knowledge about EQ as well but that’s another story.

    I’d have to say that 99.9% of the volunteers were selfless, dedicated, passionate, amazing people who just wanted to give back to the community. We worked very hard answering petitions, filling out bug reports and if we had time…that’s a big if…then we could do a fun live quest/event.

    It irks me just a bit when I hear some people dismiss the concept of volunteers in MMOs as I gave thousands of hours of my free time to the concept and the community.

    The truth is that crooked GM’s and MMO employees have done far more damage then a volunteer with such limited powers could ever do. In the case of EQ, SOE always covered up the misdeeds of their GM’s. How very convenient of them.

    Needless to say, I could write a book on my experiences with the shenanigans at SOE and the guide program.

    Customer service is practically non-existent these days in the MMO world. Volunteers guides would be a great way to let folks really help others.

    Look at Blizzard’s pathetic MVP program on the forums. 11.5 million players and they have maybe a 3-5 MPVs at most? Give me a break.

    • I hear what you’re saying, and I’m not surprised that volunteers might have been smarter and more motivated than paid GMs on a mininum wage (volunteers just don’t fit in the category of ‘you get what you pay for’ because they have different motivations.)

      I’m really not knocking volunteers. We had entire games run by volunteers — coders, writers, storytellers, builders, web admin, player admin, the whole kit and caboodle. But it’s hard to take references from volunteers (in MUSHdom we actually could check up with previous staff on games they had played) and its a hassle to really check what they’re doing.

      So I think it’s sad for the volunteers with the more professional attitudes because running a live game is brilliant fun. I would have loved the chance to have done something like the EQ scheme myself (if I had the time). But from the point of view of people running the game, it’s such a risk and can be really corruptive if it goes wrong — just like you describe with the paid staff. I can see why people find it easier to not bother.

      ps. you really should write that book, you know. MMOs are big enough now that a lot of people would find it fascinating.

      • I do understand why companies are all about mitigating risk and liability these days. Certainly there is some risk when you have volunteers that are off-site and not under any supervision which an employee would be under.

        I didn’t mean to imply you were knocking volunteers and I should have made that much clearer. It’s just that quite often I see people jump on the bandwagon of putting them down without properly evaluating all of the good things they have done.

        I for one am truly grateful that there are people like yourself Spinks that remember volunteers and appreciate all of their efforts. It’s nice to know that there are some of us that have a history of this genre *before* WoW.

        As guides and volunteers we rarely if ever got any thanks for what we did. We could never comment publicly on so-called scandals or volunteer issues because we were guides. So we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.

        I still think there is much to be said for having some component of the player population act as good samaritans assisting players with problems. Why not take advantage of the kind souls in our midst and empower them to help others in a more official way?

        If we can heap reward upon reward on players for killing other players and monsters, why can’t we have MMOs that reward players for acts of charity and kindness?

        What does this say about the MMOs we inhabit when we reward players for murder and mayhem but are afraid to reward players for building community, starting a guild, joining a group, etc.?

  7. In Threshold, we have a very robust group of volunteers called the STEA (Social Tourism and Entertainment Authority). They are both an IC and an OOC organization.

    IC they run events, give out prizes, and do all sorts of things to improve morale within the two kingdoms they do business in.

    OOC they help new players and serve as a liason between the developers and the players.

    We have very rarely had a problem with STEA members abusing their powers. Perhaps this is because they do not have any actual “powers” per se, other than some communication channels an a LOGGED ability to travel between the main two cities.

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