Gaming Ethics: Can it ever be fun to do things that aren’t fun?

Towards the end of last year, I read several carefully argued (or passionately argued) blog posts about the ethics of daily quests.  In particular:

Doone had concerns about ethics of game design. He starts by discussing dailies but he has wider concerns.

We’ve got a lot of unethical game design going on. It’s bad. It’s contributing to bad ideas and promoting unhealthy communities of gamers. It’s making otherwise immoral acts normative and therefore acceptable to gamers.

If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.

Saxsy has a strong rebuttal to this, and particularly the idea that ‘psychological manipulation’ is always unethical. (I think she’s wrong btw to keep accusing Doone of White Knight Syndrome, that actually wasn’t something I read in his argument.)

I seriously doubt Blizzard is putting non-fun things in the game for the purpose of getting people to continue to play the game. ((…)) Having people do not fun things make them less likely to continue giving Blizzard their money. It isn’t evil. It’s just stupid.

So, I have a few points to make here. This post isn’t really an essay with an argument and conclusions, more some thoughts on the topic.

I don’t think it has to be unethical per se to create fun games that people like to play and will want to pay for, or to recognise that some people enjoy having organised habits. Or even that many MMO players enjoy the process of grinding towards progress or an achievement.  I also think Blizzard cops a lot of bad press in the blogosphere for this, where actually they seem (via designer blogposts) aware of players’ wellbeing and try to design away from things that would harm it.

I also think that the best defence against accusations of unethical design are to be really up front with how this behavioural stuff works, and empower players to make informed decisions about how often they want to play and to set their own boundaries. This is social worker-y language, but you get the jist.  Have fun, but it’s down to you to take care of yourself. Don’t say ‘I was forced to play,’ because no one stopped you logging off when you’d had enough and it makes you sound a) whiny and b) unable to manage your own time.

But some people are genuinely vulnerable – in the same way that some people are vulnerable to online gambling (which is also a form of gaming that makes heavy use of behavioural mechanisms to keep people playing and coming back.) It likely is unethical to encourage them to play MMOs, but it’s not really clear what devs can do about that, or is it? Maybe mechanisms that do encourage players to take regular breaks are more ethical, it’s food for thought at any rate.

Ethics and Behavioural Psychology

I’m not saying behaviouralism is ethically dubious, but every famous psychology experiment I can think of in that field has been criticised for being unethical. At the same time, it spawned a raft of techniques that have given real help and real hope to many people with depression, helped people to make positive changes in their lives, and in other ways helped to make people happier and healthier. It is a powerful tool, and one which has been widely co opted.

Fact is, there are lots of organisations in this world that use behavioural psychology to try to influence people’s behaviour and opinions. Pretty much all marketing and advertising, for example. Psychological torture. Also many activist campaigns, and lots of educational initiatives. There is a big overlap between gaming and learning, which Raph Koster theorises about in A Theory of Fun (his idea is that games are fun because learning things is fun, basically.)

I think that the ethical side arises from questions this raises about free will. Is it possible to make someone do something that isn’t in their best interests without holding a gun to their head? Do we assume people aren’t able to decide what their best interests are if they’re subject to psychological manipulation? Can building these types of habits into games make them more fun for players? These are big questions. But the cat is out of the bag now.

We do know that traditional MMOs use a lot of operant conditioning. It’s all about the tasks and the rewards. And what players actually do in these games has been very dependent on this balance. Or in other words, when you log into your MMO of choice, how do you decide what you are going to do that session? A lot of the time, it will be based on some goal or reward.

Goals are used in other games too, it’s just that the relationship between grind and reward is very up front in MMOs. I also note that players will also often learn things that the designers never intended – such as being wildly elitist in PUGs. There’s no option for players not to learn something from their games and online communities, as a human being this is how your brain works … always learning. It’s just a question of how much of that learning should be designed, and whether its ok for there to be commercial elements present.

Some history of daily quests

Any old dinos who remember when daily quests were first introduced to WoW may also remembered that the player base welcomed them fervently. This was during TBC, with the Isle of Quel’Danas. They were welcomed, in part, because they were felt to be more ethical and less demanding than previous rep grinds.

It used to be the case that rep grinds were based on killing mobs and repeatable quests. So if you were hardcore, you went off and camped in the appropriate place for ages and kept at it until you were done. The daily quests offered a natural break; once you had done your dailies, that was it for the day.

Now later on, the whole idea of daily tasks was completely co-opted by social/ facebook games as a way to encourage players to keep coming back. I’m sure that was part of the idea behind daily quests too, but mostly it was to find a way to give players longer term goals which they didn’t immediately burn out on. And lets also remember that this was a time when players liked to feel attached to their MMO of choice, so having reasons to keep coming back could have made the game more fun. Many players still do. And also, the sense of working at the game to earn an achievement or reward may be behaviouralism in action, but it can also be fun. Players were doing this anyway before daily quests.

Ted A gives an example:

Between the lore, and the gear rewards, these dailies have not felt like a grind. I’ve wanted to do them and as a bonus I’ve kept playing my main and thoroughly enjoying the class.

 

Being open about the design

I find that the more unethical side to this type of design is where it’s not clear what the player is being manipulated to do, or where it’s made deliberately difficult for players to set upper bounds on either their play time or spending. F2P games with complex payment models can edge close to this.

The other questionable thing to me is about design by metric, especially where game designers assume that if a lot of players do something, that means they liked that content. I understand why you’d assume that — after all, why would so many people do it if they didn’t like it. But then I remember spending a weekend in PvP during TBC to get decent weapons for my Fury Warrior and I did not like it AT ALL. I did it. For the rewards. But I had a big grudge on Blizzard for years afterwards.

So my view: it’s all good, as long as it’s clear up front what you need to do to get your reward so you can make an informed choice. I also like games that offer clear breaks to players; dailies actually do this. I really get tired of people complaining that they were forced to do XYZ in a game when they clearly weren’t – if you do feel forced, it’s a wake up call to step back and look at the psychological manipulation.

[Links] Gaming ethics, Trolling trolls troll each other, and flimsy excuses to post a cute red panda picture

redpanda

via ogwen@Flickr

It seems that Mists of Pandaria is off to a generally well received start, aside from people who are finding the reputations/dailies heavy going when they just want to get into the raids, and apparently the review scores on Metacritic. My hope for the next expansion is that it features another race/zone/mechanic which gives all the gaming blogs excuses to post cute animal pictures. Blizzard, if you’re listening, how about sentient sea otters?

It is becoming clearer that Blizzard have taken the whole concept of ‘story’ on board and are planning to railroad everyone through the MoP storyline, whether they like it or not. Initial patch notes for 5.1 (on the test realm) include insights into the progression of the faction war, and Wrathion’s legendary questline. (Surely nothing can go wrong with us PCs following the instructions of a black dragon.) I’m not sure if this is more linear than SWTOR’s take on story but since it updates the entire continent on every patch, it might be. I think it sounds kind of cool because it is so different, but I’m also glad to be playing other more classic MMOs like GW2 (I know, sounds odd to call it more classic, but there you go) for my ‘wander around under your own steam’ fix.

I went to the Eurogamer Expo at the end of September, an event which seems to get larger and better organised every year. Although first impressions were that every new game coming out was a shooter, I think this was biased by the fact they just seem louder and to take up more floorspace and screens than the other genres. In fact, this year is shaping up to be a gaming classic, with new games coming out in just about every genre … except MMOs. At first glance, Assassin’s Creed 3 particularly caught my eye, because it’s gorgeous. I was reminded of Uncharted 2. I’ve also heard good things about Borderlands 2 (which has made very strong sales) and XCOM, and FIFA 13 (a genre which regularly sells strongly over here) sold millions in it’s first week. The UK figures show it selling a million copies here in the first week, a feat which only FPS games have previously done (MW2, MW3, CODBLOPS).

Why does that matter? It shows the industry (and the audience) is opening up a bit from the FPS domination of the last few years, IMO.

The game which most caught my eye as being different was The Unfinished Swan where you are exploring a blank white area with only a paint gun to help you discover the world. The graphics are stunning, check out the video. And it’s going to be launched in Europe on 24th Oct this year.

In other news, more senior staff have left Bioware, Black Prophecy closes down, Pirates 101 enters Head Start, and Zynga shares continue to plummet.

LOTRO ‘s next expansion “Riders of Rohan” is due to release next week (15th Oct), and the next upcoming SWTOR patch is going to give players the ability to acquire an HK-51 assassination droid of their own.

Gaming Ethics

At the GDC (Games Developers Conference) there seems to have been more interest in ethics in gaming.  Gamasutra cover the panel on ethics in game design via some choice quotes, which is perhaps not the best way to accurately sum up a panel. Nik Davidson (Amazon) in particular makes some strong points, though.

We’re saying our market is suckers — we’re going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!”

It might be cynical to wonder if Zynga’s public failures have now meant it’s OK to discuss the ethics of F2P, whereas before it was more likely to be seen as the saviour of the industry and any criticism from industry insiders meant that they wanted to see fellow devs lose their jobs (or something). But players and gaming bloggers have been wondering about the ethics of F2P for some time, so none of this will come as a surprise.

That isn’t to say it cannot ever be ethical (or at least as ethical as any other way to sell a game, particularly an ongoing persistent world type game), it’s just increasingly difficult for anyone to think of successful examples of F2P games (either ethical or not) that have stood the test of time.

Another Gamasutra post has a video of a talk from the EU GDC touches on the monetisation of Chinese F2P MMOs. Tami Baribeau sums it up neatly in a blog post. If this is the future, then it doesn’t sound very pleasant. But the basics are LOTS of leaderboards, huge launches, lots of game launches, masses of events, embracing “pay to win”, and poor retention.

Psigoda mentions that what the Chinese browser game designers get excited about is creating epic “monetization pits” where players can spend thousands of dollars without finishing the game or reaching max level.  We simply don’t think that way here in the U.S., and I honestly don’t think our gamer market is ready for games with that design.  ((…)) We still tend to feel that we need to have a compelling and fun game design that supports  great monetization rather than the opposite.

Imagine.

Trolls and Anonymity

One of the ‘big’ stories on the internet this week is about the ‘outing’ (or doxxing) of a sleazy reddit superuser by a reporter from Gawker. This has opened up a whole slew of discussions about anonymity and freedom of speech. I maintain that the only smart forums to hang out on are moderated ones and that if your argument for free speech means you regularly end up defending people who post pictures of underage girls that were taken without their consent then maybe you need to revise your argument because these people are utter creeps and have abused their anonymity for too long already. Perhaps the answer is to let the trolls out each other, but that kind of mob rule isn’t really any better.

Meanwhile, it has made me think hard about why we just accept that some parts of the internet (including gaming parts, that relate to my hobby!) are misogynistic cesspits and that ‘freedom of speech’ means we should just live with the net being so unfriendly to women. I don’t buy it. What I think is that it’s not an accident that many of the early power users were dodgy porn mongers (remember ‘the internet is for porn’?), and they deliberately used their status in online communities to shape what was seen as normal and accepted in those communities, AND to shape the online debate about freedom of speech and anonymity. And yes, they did tend to hate and objectify women. (This is not a screed against porn, but there is a certain type of user.)

Reddit is such a mixed bag, including some of the dodgiest cesspits on the internet as well as some of the best examples of online collaboration. But if they cannot delete their own trolls (and in fact let some of them become admins) then they’re not ready for a wider audience. It’s interesting also to note that Reddit founders originally welcomed the trolls and their sleazy porno subreddits because they helped build the site up. It reminds me strongly of Zynga’s reputation for doing all manner of dodgy ethical deals when they were building up their business.

Clearly profit trumps business ethics and any manager worth his salt will happily toss the privacy of a few underage girls under the bus if it brings them a few power users and their hordes of sleazy hangers on. If the net communities cannot manage their own trash then don’t be surprised if the much vaunted freedoms of speech do eventually come under threat. Ultimately, it’s down to all of us who use these communities to speak up against the trolls, even when it involves pissing off power users and their fans.

More links: GW2 and more

As people get to max level in GW2, I am reading more complaints about the max level content. It isn’t really correct to refer to this as endgame, because you can do what you like in GW2. But there is a theme to these comments.

Zubon discusses the Ruined City of Arah.

It is probably the worst instance I have ever run, second only to the collective, multi-hour pain of the City of Heroes Shadow Shard task forces that spanned entire zones.

Entombed writes at Divinity’s Reach about annoyances and other bothers with GW2. This is an exploration of the various ‘endgame’ options at the moment, and discussion of why none of them really works.

And the personal story.  Oh the personal story.  Something that was ultimately just empty promises.  Will NPC’s actually care about you now if you re-enter your personal instance?  We were promised this repeatedly leading up to launch.  I can walk into my instance and see nothing of value and certainly no NPCs that I remember or that remember me.  Will my choices matter?  No.

Dusty Monk discusses some of the strong and weak parts of GW2, a game he still loves playing. And he also takes issue with the personal story.

I’m at level 72 or so in my personal story, and am quite honestly completely uninterested in finishing it.

Azuriel also finds his enthusiasm ebbing, although disagrees with Zubon about the worst dungeon.

… dungeons were the one bright spot when it came to enjoying playing my character, even if the specific dungeons I have played thus far have been fairly bad; Caudecus’s Manor in particular is the worst designed dungeon in any MMO I have ever played.

Since my Mesmer just hit 65 with lots of pauses to go play Pandaria, I haven’t touched on many of these issues myself. Although the one instance we did wasn’t really all that fun. However, maybe that turns out for the best, because Arenanet has lots of new content planned and a Halloween event, so not being burned out on the ‘endgame’ might be a good thing. It may be that GW2 simply isn’t a game that suits the grind-100-hrs-for-a-1%-bonus hardcore as well as it suits the more relaxed player, but that doesn’t really excuse Arenanet for messing up the last story boss in the game or making the dungeons an exercise in tedium.

But I enjoy my time in the game a lot, even more so with friends around.

In other news:

Shintar finds that hunting datacrons in SWTOR can be really fun with friends.

I’ve experienced strangers being willing to jump through various hoops purely to show someone a datacron as well. There is clearly a certain appeal to the feeling that you’re sharing “secret” knowledge with someone, even if you’ve got nothing tangible to gain from the experience yourself. Being on the receiving end of this kind of sharing isn’t half bad either, as it makes you perceive other players as helpful and promotes community.

Beruthiel ponders what makes healing fun in MMOs.

Tipa posts about her experiences with Pirates 101, a game I’m looking forwards to trying when it’s out of head start.

There has been some discussion on blogs about the notion of a ‘three month MMO’ and whether the phenomenon of a rush of players to new games and then numbers dropping massively after 1-3 months is down to the game design or changes in player expectations. Liore is squarely in the latter camp, and argues that it’s all down to the player.

The dream of Elite Online is not dead, Chris Roberts (designer of Wing Commander) is crowd funding a new space combat MMO called Star Citizen.

Redbeard ponders how playing a rogue in WoW makes him act like all the rogues he used to hate.

I can’t count the number of times I’d been ganked by a Rogue while in that BG, swearing that if I ever decided to start a Rogue I’d never do any of this stuff.  And yet there I was, roaming around in the rez zone, waiting for toons to respawn so I could gank them before they could buff themselves.

Oestrus writes about her decision to stop playing as a hardcore raider in WoW.

Chris at Game by Night is surprised at how outraged PvE players get if they feel they have to do PvP to get gear for raids.

Is it so terrible that there could be more raiders and more PvPers to fill out your teams? Give me one good reason why. And please make sure it’s not related to your ego. Thanks.

Grumpy Elf explains why he thinks the best time to raid in random LFR raid groups in WoW is on the first few days that they are released. He clearly didn’t experience my group (but somehow we did make it through, an indication of the lack of difficulty I think Smile ).

Ethics and the Morality Wheel. Why choices create characters.

One of the appealing factors of MMOs for a lot of players is that you can create your own character.  But what does that really mean?

The standard setup is you can design what they look like, pick a gender, maybe race and age if the character generator allows it, and give them a name. In a sandbox game you can then decide some goals for that character (and show that they are the goals by going off and actually doing it.) In a themepark game your goals are more restricted but you can still say “this will be my PvP alt”, or “this is the alt I’ll level with my bf/gf.”  If you are a RPer (or just like writing backgrounds) then you might also give your character an in game back history. Some games or addons let you share that with other players.

Hopefully the game intro  will then give you some setting framework to hang your character on. In WoW you will start in your racial starting area and pick up extra information about your character’s home culture as you go, for example.

Maybe you’ll pick out a personality or character for your new creation as you go along. (The default in games is the chaotic greedy alignment who doesn’t like taking orders but goes along with whatever gives the best rewards. Sometimes you’ll get the lawful lazy alignment,  where your character follows orders and doesn’t think about it much.)

So what difference does a mechanic like the morality wheel in Bioware games make to that?

A very different type of chargen (character generation) was in Ultima 4 where… you were asked to answer some ethical multi-choice questions in a gypsy’s caravan. The answers affected your starting class, and in the rest of the game you were vaguely encouraged to be virtuous by the game mechanics. It was interesting and different at the time, and felt as though you were really generating a personality … or at least a few traits.

agent1

It’s a feature in Bioware games in particular that you will be making a lot of semi-ethical conversation choices as you play through the game. So in a way, you can keep defining or redefining your character’s personality as bit as you go along. I was trying to decide this week why that felt effective to me. So here’s one particular example where I made a choice in a conversation in SWTOR, and although it made no difference at all to the plot, I felt strongly afterwards that my character had become more real to me. Or at least, I knew how to keep ‘playing’ him in conversations if I wanted to keep that character trait.

This character is my agent, he’s pretty dark side which means ruthless, unforgiving, kills at the drop of a hat, all that regular nasty stuff. I usually pick dark side options in conversations. Well, almost always. So the occasions when I don’t are quite memorable to me because I had to stop and think about it.

In this example, I’d been sent off to kill someone. They weren’t especially nice and probably had it coming. But I knew a bit about their history and I’d felt a) I could see why they’d ended up that way and felt a bit sorry for them, because it was a fairly traumatic  upbringing b) the person who was telling me to kill them was way worse, by an order of magnitude.

So during the conversation, at one point, I warned the NPC that their life was in danger and they should get out of dodge. They ignored the warning so I went ahead and fought/ killed them as per orders. I had decided though when I took that light side choice that if they decided to listen and did leave, I’d have let them go.

So here’s what I am wondering. Why is it that a gameplay option that made zero difference to the story (like I say, the NPC paid no attention and I had to kill them anyway) made ME feel different about my character? Like, suddenly I saw him as someone who was a brutal, efficient operative, but not completely heartless or unsympathetic any more. More of a hard man doing a hard job (which is still not a morally strong position) than the total emotionless psycho that he’d seemed up to that point. I’d let the gameworld affect me and my decision making rather than just going along with the ‘yeah, he’ll be pure darkside’ script I’d started with.

Later I added a moral rule that despite being ruthless and all that, he’d probably not kill someone who was injured and alone but would (grudgingly) provide some medical attention instead. That was because he was a healer. Not a nice person still, but there’s an instinct not to hit someone when they’re down if there’s a choice. Again, there was at least one instance where I spoke to someone who was injured, gave them some painkillers, but they died anyway. Didn’t affect the plot; DID affect how I thought about my character.

Ethical Rules in Action

So one of the features of the decision wheel is that you’re encouraged to make ethical decisions all the time, all the way through the levelling stories. But what does that really mean?

Ethics is all about how people decide what they’re going to do in any situation. If a situation demands “what should I do/ say next?” then that’s an ethical decision. One of the ways we make this easier for ourselves (so as to avoid having major moral dilemmas every time we leave the house) is to figure out some basic personal ethical rules that are going to form our own morality.

These might include rules such as:

  • I will not lie.
  • I will be punctual.
  • I will be nice to strangers.

Religions have a lot to say on the subject of ethical rules and will doubtless have some to suggest too (ie. love your neighbour as yourself, judge not lest ye be judged, don’t gossip  – that’s a Jewish one, believe it or not.)

You could get more complex (and most people do) and say:

  • I will not lie, except to prevent harm.
  • I will not lie, unless someone really close asks me to.
  • etc

Professions and organisations often have ethical codes too, to define how they want members to behave.

  • A doctor should act in the best interests of the patient.
  • The customer is always right.

So really, in a Bioware-type game, you’re being given the opportunity to define a code of ethics for your new character, and see how it plays out in the game. You could instead pick random options, or define a code that involves, “Always pick the top left option” or “Always pick the option that my current companion will like” which is going to end up with a character that feels unpredictable or who always is swayed by the people they are with. And that’s a choice too.

There is a lot more to ethics than this. You can decide “I want my character to act like a good person would act’” (virtue ethics), or “I want my character to do whatever gives the best outcome” (consequentialism), or “I want my character to do the right thing whatever the cost” (deontological ethics), or even “I’d do what a good person in this society would do” (pragmatic ethics.)

That’s one way to build a character in a morality type conversation game. There are also others by which you decide “my character is mostly going to do the right thing, but there are exceptions and these are them.”

Anyhow, here are some ethical rulesets I’ve either designed or worked out in play for my SWTOR characters so far. One of the things I enjoy about the morality wheel is that it does allow you to figure out your character in play.

  • My Bounty Hunter is mostly about getting the job done and having some fun. She’s even quite chilled out and humane. But she has a very short temper and itchy trigger finger so if someone pisses her off during a conversation, they may well get shot in the head. (I decided to be light side, but take every conversation option that involved ((shoot him/her))).
  • My Agent is a stone cold bastard, but he’s loyal to the empire and not as heartless as some of the people he works with. He will hesitate before killing people who are in front of him and obviously vulnerable – which is a weakness in an agent, probably.
  • My Sith Warrior is powerful and chafes against being ordered around,  more of a force of nature than a force of evil. She trended light side initially as a way of acting up against her masters, but sank into it deeper because it’s often quite effective, sets people off balance,  and is a sign of how independent she can be. (She’s not ‘good’ so much as likes to assert her own personality – but I think probably has become a better person than she’d think.)

I don’t know if I think they have more personality to me than my WoW Warrior, but I know that her persona is mostly internalised. With these characters, you actually get to act it out.

Does ‘news’ about bugs mess with our gaming?

Quick post: In today’s SWTOR patch, a bug has been fixed in which one of the social emotes messed with combat.

Yes, it’s bad and needed to be fixed quickly, which is happening. But what intrigues me is how many news sites (like Massively, RPS etc) posted up about this bug as part of their news cycle yesterday.  As a player, I would usually assume the polite thing to do is quietly inform the devs about any bugs, and not tell absolutely everyone else on the planet first so that they can mess with the game too. I’m not sure how that exactly would apply to news sites, but it felt odd to me reading stories that seem designed to encourage players to use exploits in a recently released game.

Do you feel it’s legitimate news, or are there ethical issues around publicising bugs in multi-player games?

Should game companies have a duty of care?

I have talked over the last few weeks about the challenges of playing more casually, or adjusting to having less time available when you want to play with people who can put in a lot more time to a game. But one notion that hasn’t been challenged is that  dedicated players want to spend more time in  games, the only reason that they don’t is  real life issues.

The entire point of these games is to progress your character. The only way to do this is by spending time on it. Even if you are happy with the progress of your main character, you can progress your account by levelling alts to give more options, more tradeskills, and so on. Or progress your in-game social network by spending time with people. Plus people always want to spend more time on their hobbies and less on work/ study/ chores, it’s human nature.

Maybe it is part of the drift towards more casual friendly gaming, but MMO devs have been toying with encouraging people to play less for years. For example: rested xp bonuses, easy cash/ consumable supplies from daily quests, limited boss attempts or long respawn times. But at the same time, the whole game design points people in the opposite direction. And being able to keep busy is one of the factors that keeps people in the game in the first place.

This just leaves a lot of open questions:

  • What’s so bad about playing a lot, assuming you have the time?

From the dev point of view, there are lots of practical reasons for encouraging people to play less. They’ll consume content more slowly. The gap between most progressed and least progressed will get smaller, making it easier for them to play together. Less likely to screw up their real lives to an extent which means they can’t play any more. Less need to design time sinks. Less use of game network resources. Takes people longer to burn out.

Obviously if you are charging by the hour, then it’s better for people to play more. But in any other case, the only reason to encourage heavy play is because of the stronger community base which will be built. (You will get a more tight knit community if people spend more time together.)

So there’s really nothing bad about playing a lot, and it’s great for the in game community. Just it means that content is consumed more quickly, devs might need to put in more time sinks, and it may be harder to play with more casual players if the progression difference is too great.

  • Is there any real way to encourage MMO players to play less?

Sure. Release dull, buggy content, have dreadful PR, provide an awful service, etc. Or just have less progression – players will probably leave when they’re finished and there’s no progression left, but they will play less.

Otherwise, given a game that people like, there is no way to stop the hardcore from pouring more hours into their hobby.

The debacle with the ICC limited attempts is a good example of how hardcore gamers found inventive ways around the time limiters. Originally, raiders in Icecrown had a limited number of attempts per week on the end of wing bosses (I think it was about 15 attempts on Arthas?). The idea was that after you had wiped that many times, you could not try again until the next week. Ultra hardcore guilds got their members to roll up alts which duplicated their mains, they geared these alts up by raiding, and ran extra raids so that they had more chances to learn the boss fight. (I’m sure this wasn’t common – but lots of hardcore players ran multiple raids on different alts to have more chances to learn the encounters.)

  • Should devs force people to play less?

As stated above, there are lots of reasons for devs to want people playing less. But having the opportunity to throw in lots of hours for tiny advantages is one of the appeals of the genre for a lot of players. Having a game that you can play 24/7 is another. Even though a lot of people do damage their studies/ jobs/ relationships/ etc through playing too much.

  • How about not encouraging people to gamble with real money?

When talking about a duty of care, how about F2P games which obfuscate their charging schemes to get people to spend more money? Or effectively endorse gambling? (Note: gambling has a wide definition, which could extend to online collectible card games).

I’d like to think that my favourite games were not actively encouraging people to get involved in pyramid schemes, ruin their lives, gamble crazily, and otherwise do things which aren’t good for them. But you have to at some point assume that people are big enough to make their own decisions. And be quick to nail those games which do indulge in shady practices that drift afoul of the law.

I’m not even sure how to conclude here. AAA MMOs as we know them are on a downward spiral, but it isn’t because people play too much. Farmville and other facebook type games have similar issues – the more you play, the better you get. It’s inherent with a permanent world that’s all about progression.

All we can really hope for is more models for allowing people to easily play with each other, whilst still putting in as many hours as they want on their own main character. Which, funnily enough, is something that Farmville et al do very well indeed.

And as for ruining their lives in other ways — the legal base isn’t yet caught up with what is going on online. Certainly people need to take responsibility for their own choices, but games are manipulative of human behaviour, and sometimes the lines will not be clear cut. All we can do is speak up when we think anyone has crossed the line.