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GLS 5.0 Day One: Guilds & Guilt

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Looking back across talks at GLS 5.0, on academic guild management and ethics (designed and emergent) in our interactive media.

The first session I attended at GLS was a ‘fireside chat’, lead by members of the Terror Nova guild in World of Warcraft. In a discussion moderated primarily by Thomas Malaby (of the namesake blog to which this guild is loosely affiliated), the group spoke about their experiences running a unique guild, in which only academics may seek membership but not one person may research the guild itself.

As a member of a guild which hopes to stake some academic ground myself, I found this to be a pretty enlightening example. One big question hanging over our own guild’s officership is that of governance, and it was interesting to hear of this example in which a ‘council of elders’, primarily tenured professors, would steer the course rather than having established hierarchies. The trick here was that most members of the guild knew each other from conferences or within their own universities – how does an academic guild manage such an open structure when there is quite clearly a divide between graduate student players and the tenured faculty staff? The group seemed not to reach any firm conclusions. Really, I believe that there would always be a degree of social hierarchy, even if it’s not an administrative one. Students would generally be unwilling to really lead their own professors, while the reverse may come somewhat naturally. I hope to come back to this idea once our own project guild kicks off, looking at how it can apply within a work environment of directors and designers.

Try as they might to avoid researching this strictly play-only space, few members could help but look at their lives outside the guild and see about applying some ludic metaphors. For example, one ‘guildie’ remarked that while sacrifice of their material goods at the guild vault came naturally to them within the game, it actually led to a degree of social sacrifice in their workplace, and an understanding that reviewing papers and the like worked out a similar goal for similar rewards. There was also some talk of ‘gaming the system’ in their own faculties, arranging conference ‘raid groups’ of tank, healer and DPS or finding interesting new ways to ‘ninja loot’.

The second session we attended was a series of micro-presentations, with a central topic of Ethical Choices & Transgression in Games. The star presentation for me was Manveer Heir‘s talk on Designing Ethical Dilemmas. Speaking directly from a games design background, he laid out exciting reasons why and how games can be made to offer meaningful ethical choices in order to lend the medium greater impact and interest.

He suggested that the two motivations games really pander two are fear and aggression (to which I would perhaps add greed, thinking along the lines of WoW professions, Katamari Damacy, etc.), but that a game which encourages a deeper emotional investment of its players may be capable of a much broader spectrum. So too would having permanence in the design. As well as encouraging a player to become more emotionally involved in the game (something we now seem to be getting the hang of, as games linger about this uncanny valley with expanded storylines and so on), the idea of choices having permanent consequence would seem to a good bet for our allowing games to express ethics. Sure, I can unlock the ‘bad ending’ by killing this NPC, but what impact does my choice really have when, at the click of a few buttons, I can reload an earlier save point and let him live? There was a phrase which Heir used when describing the combination of game mechanics and emotional investment – “ludonarrative discourse”. I plan to look into this in greater detail later.

Citing a fascinating example in Star Wars, he remarked that if gameplay mechanics made it much harder for a neutral player to become Jedi than turn to the dark side, deep questions could be asked of its plot and narrative, as well as of the mechanical choices the player would be expected to make. This pure narrative is what grants the medium its best chance of ethical choice, and actually gives us an exciting view of the grey areas in that world, instead of focusing on pure black and white, Jedi vs. Sith, good vs. evil fare.

An intriguing new angle was taken in a presentation which followed Manveer Heir’s, entitled Following Basic Directions in the Land of Destructible Delights. In this talk, based on a study which was also presented at last year’s GLS conference, we were introduced to research on user interaction, or more specifically reaction to games like Grand Theft Auto III. Using experiments as simple as asking players to drive from one town to the next, or put out fires using anonymous versions of GTA, the study was finding that bluntly, “given a frustrating task, players are more likely to go nuts”. Once the goal of driving to the next town was achieved, or the player realised the futility of trying to successfuly save lives rather than crushing them under the fire engine’s wheels, they took little more than a minute to go off the rails and mow pedestrians down en masse. The conclusion these researchers came to was that ethics were being informed by the players’ specific investment in the game. Were they told a tale of deaths by arson or given a chaacter story arc to wrap around their journey around San Andreas, might they have been less willing go leap ‘off the rails’? This strikes me as a powerful but subtle means of guiding the gameplay.

Erin Hoffman’s presentation, on why Happiness is Mandatory in worlds such as GoPets, dealt more with emerging ethics surrounding an online community. She started first by defining two key terms – “online world” as a far better description of virtual worlds, and “ethics” as mutual social contracts. She basically outlined how the GoPets community was spawning fascinating new phenomena, such as in the way a negligent pet owner would be lynched by the forum members. Although it was in later presentations that we would be given a more detailed view of such emergent justice systems and cultures, hers made for a good introduction. Key to these phenomena was what she called “incentivised gameplay”. As a result of these rewards for certain social actions within the game (even if it has no relevance to actual progress), she found that players were becoming more highly-strung. Think of those GoPets owners who punish lax owners, or the ‘min/max’ players in World of Warcraft who will happily call out a warrior for using the ‘wrong’ item for their talent specification.

Finally, there was one big point from this presentation which really got me to thinking about emergent social behaviour. It was a citation from Erin Hoffman during the Q&A segment, of work by Bill Foulton into this field. He appears to be suggesting that massively multiplayer online games are, in fact, not ready yet for the ‘massively social’ aspect of their genre. His work appeas to pin such an allegation on the fact that players and users are meeting far too many different people for too short amounts of time. The bustling hordes in Orgrimmar and the influx of shoppers at ETD in Second Life are breeding anonymity, which I would suggest could only be remedied in neighbourhoods, or other enclosed social environments like schools and offices.

There are some questions which were left unanswered, and I wonder if I might try to encourage some discussion here, if anyone’s interested. First of all, in response to Manveer Heir’s presentation and in ignorance of technical restraints here, will games even sell if we know certain actions will last indelibly, or will that change actually encourage more sales? I think that may really be the only obstacle to this movement which, I’m sure, can only help to mature the medium. My second question is, should designers take more or less responsibility for those communities which branch from their products? Blizzard Entertainment was one example give during the post-presentations discussion, with recent news suggesting some ignorance of certain ‘hate’ guilds, but a form hand played when a player was found to be using a bugged, God-mode weapon.