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.