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Chapter 15. Glory and Shame: Powerful Psychology in Multiplayer Online Games

Chapter 15. Glory and Shame: Powerful Psychology in Multiplayer Online Games

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anonymity into pseudonymity; I want my alter-ego to be persistent and known because I care about the people I'm playing with, and I want

them to care about me. The only entertainment medium that offers a true sense of belonging is online gaming, and it's a powerful lure.

Online games build relationships among players through conflict. It is the managed conflict of the online game that accelerates the

development of bonds among total strangers. These bonds are real because the way we react to stress is like a fingerprint: it

demonstrates who we are at our core.

The problem is that games designed by developers who are unaware of the medium's strengths and underlying mechanics often

unwittingly create emotionally charged possibilities of glory and shame in a game world. As long as the conflict is too strong and the

emotions too extreme, online gaming will remain esoteric at best. It all springs from the same misguided notion: that online is just a feature.

Quite the contrary; online is a medium apart from all others, that fortunately or unfortunately has been initially expressed in the milieu of

computer gaming. This can be seen if you contrast the two as in Table 15.1.

Table 15.1. Contrasts: Single-Player Versus Multiplayer

The fortunate aspect of online entertainment's current alignment with computer gaming is that computer games are interactive. The

unfortunate aspect is that computer gaming, like static media, such as motion pictures and television, feels the burden to deliver a story.

The chief purpose of storytelling is to elicit emotion, which the players in a good online game will do on their own and feel more intimately

because they are there. The virtual nature of game worlds be damned: The human heart cannot distinguish between emotions felt in a

virtual setting from a physical one. So powerful are glory and shame that they have bound cultures together for centuries, motivated

countless people to risk their lives, and driven countless others to end theirs. Thus, while this provides an emotional depth to true online

gaming, it must be employed with thought and care, if employed at all.

Let's explore how glory and shame work in online gaming, note their consequences, and show how they influence the underlying

community culture a game creates. Glory and shame also offer a clue to why multiplayer gaming has yet to achieve a prominent place

among entertainment media.

[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

Buzzword Snow

Industry buzzwords such as "massively multiplayer," "persistent universe," "investment in character," "game community," and the like

only hint at their meaning. They cover the medium's landscape like soft snow, providing comfort to the ignorant and obfuscation to the

keen. To a larger audience, games either make no sense or seem a strangely unnatural activity for people to engage in unless they're

suffering severe deficiencies in their lives.

The fact is that most people see games played on a computer or console as pretty much the same thing: video games. Gaming, prior to

computers, has always provided a low-risk way of interacting with people and getting to know them. Add an electronic device, and you've

cleaved a chasm. There's more to it, of course. Regular folk, after all, don't go home each night with thoughts of slaughtering boss

monsters or bombing Berlin.

[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

A Unique Audience

Today's online gamers have fought past common misconceptions. Many of you may question just how real or powerful the audienc e

influence is in multiplayer online gaming. Most online games today have no persistence or scale to them at all—they are but a series of

evanescent encounters among total strangers on a variety of hosts scattered across the world, from which no record is written. Although

the power of audience influence is present in these games, and many of the principles I will discuss apply to them, the focus of this

paper is on what people refer to today as, for the lack of a better word, massively multiplayer (MMP) games. It is this segment of the

online multiplayer medium that has the potential to attract a broad enough cross-section of people in the future to make it a major

entertainment medium one day.

Certainly, many of you are thinking, however, that even the large-scale, PW multiplayer games don't have an audience influence over

players that comes remotely close to the effect of real-life, face-to-face people in the same room with you. People don't actually see one

another. People don't actually know one another. Most don't live anywhere near one another. What force can any audience in the virtual

world of cyberspace truly exert on people?

[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

A Unique Medium

The power of this audience, as well as the reason it's unique, comes from the most important difference between multiplayer games

and all other forms of entertainment: The audience is the medium. This is because the audience in multiplayer games is unlike an

audience in any other form of entertainment: Participant and audience are one. As a player, you are, at once, participant and spectator,

beholder and creator of the game environment. In this there are no analogies, nothing to compare, other than that experience that

people who do not understand claim the online gamer is lacking: a life.

In short, fully realized, online gaming is a narrative told by the audience. Because the multiplayer game contains the force and influence

that groups of people bring to real life, but does so in an imaginative setting that real life too often either lacks or dares not attempt,

multiplayer gaming can have a social impact on people more powerful than real life can provide. Thus, the influence of the online game

audience, without anyone physically being in the room with you when you play, can rival or exceed its real-life counterpart. While there

are plenty of games that have no audiences, have no audience/player/entertainer boundaries, none has the ability to so consume and

involve its participants, as everyone who has been involved with this medium for many years has seen, often much to their amazement.

But the medium is primitive. Unlike any other product offered for sale, MMP games are not welcoming—often quite the opposite. The y

require action and learning on your part before anyone will pay attention to you, and rarely is it obvious what a new player is supposed

to do next. Thus, the first experience most new online gamers experience is humiliation and shame.

[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

The Power of Shame

Shame is so

powerful an emotion that entire societies have been held together by it. Many still are today, Japan being a splendid

example. Echoes of shame's once prime importance in our society exist in a variety of figures of speech: "Shameless. Have you no

shame? You should be ashamed of yourself." Japanese warriors, when shamed, would beg not just for death, but for the right to kill

themselves in rather horrible ways. Although people no longer plead for the "privilege" of killing themselves and thereby mitigating their

shame, every person reading this has wished, at one time or another, that the ground would mercifully swallow him or her up after an

embarrassing situation. No matter the words we choose to describe it, no matter what we actually do in response to it, shame has the

power to make us wish we were dead. There is no more powerful emotion.

Furthermore, shame is an emotion that most game developers today have no idea they've tapped. Lots of folks in the industry wonder

why the market for multiplayer games has grown so slowly. Others bemoan the so-called lack of an economic model for them. People

dwell on learning curves, barriers to entry, interface design, and compelling content. What they fail to understand is that the principle

reason more people aren't playing hosted persistent online games tonight is due to shame—the experience of it, or the fear of it. Name

me a single MMP online game that does not absolutely require that every new player undergo a period of embarrassment or humiliation.

Yes, learning any new game requires that you do badly before you can do better, but multiplayer has an audience—an audience, as

noted previously, unique in all of entertainment—generally forcing you not just to do badly at first, but to do badly in front of people.

Embarrassment, even on a very slight level, is completely unheard of in all other entertainment media, all of which are hell-bent to make

you feel good about yourself,

now .

[ Team LiB

[ Team LiB ]

The Problem with Glory

Okay, you know

that shame is bad, but there are other emotions multiplayer gaming can tap that are quite positive—the opposite

emotion of shame: glory. And shame can feed glory; the greater the shame, the greater the feeling of glory. What did Conan say when

asked what's good in life?

But there are plenty of opportunities for glory, or at least opportunities to reward players and make them feel good about themselves,

that don't require that other players be humiliated. What then is the problem with glory? Ask yourself this question: What is the problem

with money? Stressing glory—even when it comes without shaming others—emphasizes achievement in the game developer's system

over development of your belonging to the community of the game world. Although we may think we're after recognized achievement in a

multiplayer game—and, the more competitive people would argue, in most life activities—the sustaining motive, the reason we keep

coming back after we know what we're doing, is due to our development in the social fabric of the game's community. This distinction can

be confusing, and I will try to clear it up some. I'll start with the most recognized forms of today's true online games, how they handle

issues of achievement versus development, and by extension how gracefully they manage matters of glory and shame.

[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

Pure Meritocracy: The Ultimate Glory Game

In the MMP realm,

this sort of game is best represented by the multiplayer air combat simulation (sim). This can also apply to some

degree to the first-person shooter, but I will restrict my comments to the air combat sim, as it has a long, established history. These

games demand skills that are rare in human beings—skills that you're expected to master to become a force in the community. Earning

respect here is not like religion; you can't get there through devotion alone. If you can't think in terms of 3D geometry and interpolate

multiple vectors in your head, then you'll never achieve star status here. It doesn't matter how many hours you play. There is no

cumulative character scheme. You cannot earn extra hit points for your fighter aircraft. Put another way, achievement and development

are very closely coupled.

Glory and shame here are unambiguous. The two major examples of this genre broadcast notice of your demise, when you perish, to

everyone in the game world at that time. One goes so far as to broadcast the game names of both the victor and the vanquished. Not

surprisingly, both games have an unspoken ethic that approves of, encourages in fact, attacks with words as well as war planes. Finally,

both player communities prefer to resolve major disputes through duels. If they could issue dueling challenges by slapping each other

with gloves, they would. Yes, most of the players of these games are guys.

That said,

both have developed communities that have, over time, matured to include members that aren't hot-shot fighter pilots. This

is, in part, due to the spiritual influence of the underlying subject matter of these games—aviation in an important and actual war that is

still in living memory. The point is that the ultimate depth and eventual development of elders, as opposed to just killers, in these

communities was not a direct product of the design of these games originally.

Is this genre successful? Although it was the very model of online gaming with graphics, rather than text, for nearly 15 years, the online

air combat sim is fading away, and no wonder. Did it represent a worthy model of multiplayer game design? Yes, if you'd prefer a small

but dedicated customer base. Ninety percent of the people who try these games don't hang around. Quite simply the glory and shame

levels are so high—in particular the shame level for every new player, the pure humiliation each must endure—that there will only be a

mass market for this sort of game when society as a whole gives over to the worship of


[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

Cumulative Character Games: The Devoted All Go to Heaven

Best represented

by the fantasy role-playing (FRP) adventure genre, in these games you can get there through devotion alone.

Nobody, regardless of native skill, intellect, reasoning ability, or reflexes, can be anything more than meat in these games until they've

put in time acquiring attributes and qualities bestowed by the game. Being smart can help you become a force to be reckoned with faster,

but you have to pay your dues.

Although at first these may seem purely achievement-oriented games, probably because you usually spend your first few hundred hours

acquiring skills and game goods, they do evolve into development games. Players either acquire so much stuff that it loses its meaning

and utility, or they carve out a niche for themselves, deciding, in effect, to leave the rat race behind them. In either case, players will

eventually develop beyond, or in spite of, the reliance of these games on game-created goodies to drive their game mechanics. Although

most examples of the genre are established in early medieval settings, online FRP design is dominated not by the pre-Christian

mythology of swords and sorcery, but by pure, raw, unseasoned capitalism. You are who you are because of what you have, what

you've acquired, and what you can afford to buy.

But, like the occasional over-wealthy soul, player communities move from achievement to development when they learn there's more to

life than money, and you're not something special because you have more of it. Just like the meritocracy-based game, cumulative

character games over the years develop rich and warm societies that value their members and bring out the best in them. And just like

the meritocracy game, they do so for reasons that seldom have anything to do with the intended design of their


[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

Achievement Versus Development

That's enough abstract and semi-concrete examples. What, once and for all, is the difference between achievement and development

in multiplayer game design, and what does any of this have to do with glory and shame? Achievement is all about meeting the

challenges posed by game design. Development is your growth in the society of the game world. Achievement in a competitive

environment where hundreds or thousands are striving for a sharply defined set of goals is glory for the winners, shame for the losers

and also-rans.

Development comes not from your ability to achieve game goals, but rather from the ability of the game, intended or not, to reveal who

you are. This is how people can come to believe they know—really know—people they've played an online game with. This is where the

lasting bonds among online gamers come from. This is the reason why the emergence of online gaming as a major entertainment

medium is inevitable. As game designers, however, it is our preoccupation with the achievement side of the games we make—and their

side-effects of glory and shame that we, with little thought, unleash upon our customers—that retard this medium's emergence.

[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

Summary: Development over Achievement

The day we become conscious of the power of our medium and of the power our design decisions have over it is the day when online

gaming leaves its Keystone Cops, silent movie era. Here are a few suggestions that can help you get there:

Don't build a pyramid— If your game mechanic can only be mastered by a rarified slice of humanity, then you will have the

harsh, rough, chest-beating culture of the meritocracy game. It may evolve into something better, but no thanks to you.

People tend to think that these games have the testosterone-poisoned cultures they do simply because they usually involve

combat. This is simply not true. Look at Tribes and its ability to employ a variety of contributions from people in a combat

setting. Imagine the culture it would create if it became an MMP offering. Instead of a pyramid, build a game structure like a

collapsible camping cup—many interlocking layers, nearly equal in size, needing each other to work.

Shelter your young— Perhaps the most powerful development tool the multiplayer game has is rites of passage, yet only

rarely does this medium employ them. Don't tack on training to your game. Make raising your players part of the game. One

major difference between shame in multiplayer games and in real life is that, in the former, it can happen inexplicably and

without warning. This, more than any other single factor, drives promising new players away from multiplayer


Don't be afraid of alienating the hard-core gamer— Online gaming is a social activity; standalone gaming is not—it's just

that simple. Thus, you can eliminate the solo player role entirely and be pleased that you've turned the lone wolves away.

Just make sure you design your grouping schemes in a manner that feels natural to players and not forced on them. The

tagline of one of the remarkable failures in the online medium was: "The Game That Plays You." People don't want to be


Devise a game design where achievement allows and encourages many different sorts of people to make

themselves useful in many different ways— Do that, without falling back to the database-driven, cumulative character

scheme, and player and community development will follow. Do that and you'll conquer the world.

[ Team LiB ]

[ Team LiB ]

Chapter 16. Case Study: Online Game Lifecycles

by Jessica Mulligan and Bridgette Patrovsky


Achieving Mass Market Status

The Current Top Four MMOGs Worldwide as of December 2002


The lifecycle of a successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) is virtually unlimited. Good

examples of this phenomenon are games still generating revenue over a decade after being released, including MUD II

by MUSE, Ltd. (16 years),Gemstone III by Simutronics (14 years), andAir Warrior by Kesmai Corporation (14 years,

until closed down by EA in 2001).

Examples of current popular MMORPGs with "legs" would be EverQuest (EQ) by Sony Online Entertainment (3+

years, released March 1999), Ultima Online (UO) by EA (over 5+ years, released September 1997), andAsheron's Call

(AC) by Microsoft Gaming Zone (over 3+ years, released October 1999).

Of the four MMORPGs discussed in this article, the important point to note is that all four have been in a constant state

of growth since release to the public. That means each has more subscribers each month and year than previously.

[ Team LiB ]

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Chapter 15. Glory and Shame: Powerful Psychology in Multiplayer Online Games

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