(This post was originally written for odiousrepeater.wordpress.com, before the launch of Diablo 3. I'm reposting it here because the Auction House that features extensively in the piece has been discontinued by Blizzard quite recently.)
For as long as I’ve been playing video games I’ve had a weird relationship with cheating. While I’ve definitely engaged in the odd entering of Konami codes and admit to having looked up FAQ’s when I’ve felt stuck, there was usually some sort of extenuating circumstance attached to my cheating. Either I’ve had no other choice in directing my own experience, like when I was playing hard-as-hell NES games at age 6 and even the easiest setting turned out to be murder, or when the games were poorly designed and unfair like most point-and-click adventure games (good riddance to that genre, by the way).
What I never quite understood was the kind of matter-of-fact cheating that other kids would engage in. Like when they would get hold of a new game and immediately proceed to try to find out all the cheat codes and exploits, or buy a strategy guide and really do the whole walkthrough thing. They wouldn’t even try the game as it was meant to be played; they would reduce it to a simple software toy. Actually, it wasn’t even that – because you actually PLAY with a toy. Rather, these people would be going through the motions that would be required to beat the game, doing no experimentation of their own and basically reducing the product to a sequence of flashing lights that they simply observed, insofar as the game let them at least. Because obviously, some games would still require a bit of skill even if you were cheating, but even then the die-hard cheaters would find ways around it if there were any, using Game Genies and other such bullshit. Their determination to under no circumstances play games for their own sake, but rather to just see the different screens in the game, still kind of bothers me. Especially since this kind of behaviour hasn’t exactly gotten less common lately. I really don’t get where the fun is in reducing a game to a crappy movie with real-time computer-generated graphics. Strip away the game – the win/loss criteria, and associated challenges – from the product, and what’s left is usually pretty crappy by storytelling media standards.
It would be many years before I finally started to grasp at least some of the psychology of what was going on. And now that I feel like I’m slowly beginning to form my own unified theory of cheating and dishonesty, I can look back at my childhood days and definitely see some pretty clear signs that my 6-to-16-year old self didn’t know enough to understand. Like how the love of video games became something that defined many of us, how we formed “clicks” around it and proudly called ourselves nerds. How playground social dynamics, mostly of the friendly kind, but also including trash talking and even bullying, stemmed from our proficiency at certain games. And how beating more games than the next guy raised the level of respect you had within the nerd hierarchy.
The exact same shit is going on today, as I’m pretty sure nobody has failed to notice. While the old social dynamics associated with identifying oneself as a gamer are no doubt still present, there have been technological advancements in recent years that have made the whole thing more sophisticated. Furthermore, the games industry itself has adjusted to its new-found understanding of what are essentially tribal social dynamics. The playground has taken a backseat to chat rooms and forums, and games themselves have changed to incorporate the kind of mechanics that used to be extrinsic. If you’ve ever played an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game, you know what I’m talking about. It used to be that people knew who was good at the game through word-of-mouth retellings of accomplishments and substantial contributions when faced with group challenges. In modern MMO’s, however, there are gear scores, inspecting of other players “builds”, and achievements. Everything is getting more and more geared towards facilitating the elitism that comes with building a social hierarchy around something.
A word we often use to describe this kind of use of incentives is “socialization”. Basically, it is the introduction of social norms to try to influence player behaviour. Socialization is a powerful tool, as evidenced by the fact that such mechanics are being applied by force even to games that have no multiplayer component. Just look at the Achievements/Trophies mechanic; the adding of abstract, extrinsic goals on top of the intrinsic ones found in the games themselves. These “tokens” that prove that you’ve accomplished something in the game, and the score that goes with them, have been made so important in recent years that they actually help to drive sales of new games. A “meta” layer has been added to the whole thing, and bragging rights that used to have to be taken on faith have now been “gamified” and formalized. You used to have to convince people you were awesome; now you have a receipt connected to your account that lets people know that indeed, you are very awesome.
Microsoft was extremely clever to include (and to force upon publishers) this functionality when they launched their Xbox 360, because as platform holder they get licensing fees from every game that is sold. They don’t need people to simply buy their own games, they are quite happy with people buying any games – and so they created a mechanic for incentivizing sheer quantity of game purchases among consumers. That Sony essentially copied this same system for their PlayStation 3 “Trophy” mechanic shouldn’t surprise anybody.
Platform holders aren’t the only ones hopping into this fight, of course. As mentioned, MMO games have always engaged in socialization, and the ways in which they try to leverage base human tribal instincts is just getting more and more blatant. Blizzard wasn’t happy with just having the softer social incentives that came with having the coolest gear or a load of different max-level characters; they eventually added Achievements of their own to World of Warcraft. Recently, they’ve added cross-game chat, so that players of different Blizzard games can chat across the universes their characters inhabit – so that once you leave the Blizzard “metaverse”, you’ll no longer be able to chat as easily with those same people. And other publishers have followed suit, with their own socialization mechanics, sometimes completely redundant and overlapping with other mechanics that accomplish the exact same things. I actually find it quite strange that I haven’t seen one of those Xzibit comics on the subject yet.
… hold on. Yeah, here we go:
Now, you may ask, what does all of this have to do with cheating? Well, as most people interested in behavioural economics know, cheating is what happens when the social square clashes with the market square. Because the problem with socialization as an incentive for consumer behaviour (i.e. “buying more shit”) is that players interested in winning the social game need to find a way to handle the market side of things as well. For example, if you want to win at the cross-game-achievements game, you need to get your hand on a lot of games. What the people who designed the system want you to do is, of course, to buy a bunch of games as soon as they are released, to increase your Score and thus your social standing within your nerd tribe. However, not many people can afford to do this, and so they find ways around (cheating, if you will) this requirement, like buying games a few months later when they get marked down. Or buying used games. Sometimes people borrow games from friends. And, if they can get away with it, they will pirate games – so long as they don’t risk getting banned from the online service when they get caught, of course.
This is all connected to the business model and quite straightforward. What I’m more interested in, as a designer of games rather than a marketer/business person, is the kind of cheating that doesn’t really relate to the direct, market-driven economics of accomplishments (i.e. paying for the privilege to play a game and gain Achievements/Points), but more to the time/effort/skill requirements involved. And when one starts looking at this stuff, one quickly finds that not all cheating is the same. As it turns out, even though nobody really cares that you’ve bought used games to enlarge your E-penis for less money than the next guy, people really, really care about cheating on time, effort and skill.
Take something like Real Money Trading, or RMT, for instance. RMT is when players pay money – real money – for perks they would have otherwise had to earn by beating certain in-game challenges or by engaging in some sort of time-consuming in-game activity. These challenges were usually included into MMO games that had monthly fees as their business model. The idea was to have players playing for as long as possible, and so the game creators would make it difficult to attain the best perks and items in the game and thus the social recognition that followed. RMT provides a way to circumvent all that, and it is big business. Why spend 100 in-game-hours trying to win the “Sword of a Thousand Truths”, when you can just pay a so-called “Gold Farmer” from China for it? In the case where the game doesn’t allow such trade, there’s usually other things worth buying, including in-game Gold, and the business transaction usually makes loads of sense from an economical point of view. Playing the game “properly” might actually end up costing more money than paying the third party would. Granted, you’re not really playing the game – but in the social context where bragging rights is the whole point of your playing, you weren’t really interested in getting through all the content in the first place. In light of trying to get tribal recognition, and because that tribal recognition usually costs you money and/or effort to attain, the market becomes open to speculation.
Remember, though, we’re not just talking about market transactions. We’re specifically talking about cheating here. And buying in-game Gold or items, or letting some professional gamer power-up your character, is definitely considered cheating by the social norms of the gamer tribe. All the different things one can attain in these socialized games are meant to be connected to some sort of skill and effort, after all, and that is what people respect. The cheaters are cheating their way to that same respect, and they would rather have peer respect that they know they didn’t earn, than the self-respect that comes from having slightly less impressive achievements but that were gained through honest means. That’s the power of socialization. And so, people cheat, quite successfully by the looks of things; most people don’t know a gold buyer or someone who’s bought a max-level character and then pretended it was his/her own, but considering the amount of money that is supposedly circulated on this black market, it is statistically likely for most players of MMO’s to be playing with someone who cheats. Obviously, people are making serious efforts to not get caught cheating in these games (with some even programming their own “bots”; programs that play the game for them – and sometimes even selling them to others with quite a bit of success).
The lying is there to keep the fiction intact; if people fessed up to having cheated their way to all their stuff, their not-so-hard-earned respect would be lost. So we get profit-maximizing behaviour on the market (as little money/effort/time as possible for the biggest possible gain), as well as deceptive behaviour in the social space. This is what happens when social and market norms mix. And we should be damn happy for it. Because if people weren’t cheating we’d be in pretty serious trouble.
It is often stated that virtual worlds are a microcosm of the real world. So let’s take a step back and look at what socialization means in the context of the real world. I’m not an expert on the subject, but the consensus from most research into building successful, safe societies, is that socialization is far more important than sanctions. In other words, if your crime rates are high, it’s likely more a failing of the socialization of your society, rather than prison sentences being too short. For whatever reason, the threat of being ostracized and rejected by other people in society – especially family – is far harsher than any punishment one could suffer at the hands of the government. When Chris Rock pinpoints that one of the issues of the “ghetto” is that one gets more respect coming out of jail than school, he may be funny – but he’s not joking quite as much as you’d think.
Tribal acceptance, and the strife to obtain it, keeps us in line. And when we cheat by indulging in our base, violent, greedy impulses, we almost always make sure that nobody knows about it. Our prisons are packed full of people who claim their innocence with every fibre in their bodies, not because they believe that they’ll be pardoned because of it, but because they at the very least want to retain their social status and acceptance (kind of how I rationalized my own cheating in the first paragraph, only more sinister). Nobody knows a rapist, but I’m pretty sure there are people out there who know those who’ve been convicted of rape.
As the health of a society disintegrates further, people become less and less bothered with cheating. At a halfway-to-hell stage, you’ll find societies where violence and crime may be unacceptable in general, and where you’ll indeed suffer harsh penalties if you’re ever tried and convicted, but where there are so many other monsters around that you won’t really need society’s general acceptance (and usually, police are so swamped/incompetent/corrupt in those societies that the likelihood of getting caught is very low too). That’s where you get roving gangs of thugs, rapists and murderers, who are quite content with having the acceptance of their own in-group and don’t really care about the macro norms of society. They just need someone to greet them with a hug when they get out of prison. I read an article where the reporter had interviewed South African gang rapists about why they engaged in their heinous acts, and they flat-out answered that “doing this strengthens the bonds between the men involved in it”. This is the power of tribalism; it gives us a platform from where we can safely “other” (as a verb) people outside the tribe; objectifying them and visiting the most gruesome horrors upon them, without fear of being shunned from the group.
Finally, at the most bestial extreme of the scale of human evil, we have places like Rwanda and the Congo. I think the fewer mental images I force upon you the better. We all know the kind of monstrosities that have, and are still, going on in these kinds of places. This is what happens when there is neither legal nor social judgement directed at men with guns and machetes. Everyone is fair game, and many actually engage in atrocities of their own, teaming up with other monsters, just to ensure that they are not victimized themselves. At this stage, you can’t even talk about there being “cheating” going on, because the social norms have all but dissolved (a recent report showed that something like 25% of women in the Congo reported sexual violence – from their husbands).
The tastelessness of the analogy is not lost on me, but I think about this kind of stuff a whole lot, which is why I can’t help but make the comparison. Abstraction and analogy are very powerful tools to understand the world around us. And it is because of how people first cheat to varying degrees, and then proceed to cheat all-but-openly and blatantly, before ultimately descending into utter madness, that I am happy that cheating in the true, isolated, hidden sense is still so prevalent in MMO games. Because it means that the social foundations of our virtual societies are sound. Granted, it is to varying degrees, and when the game mechanics so allow them to people will still build little mini-tribes of griefers or pirates or whatever. But even these groups have their own sort of honour-codes that isn’t completely at odds with the rules of the game proper, and purchasing of in-game currency and other RMT practices are generally frowned-upon by everybody.
Interestingly, and perhaps a bit frighteningly, some of the established boundaries and rules established for these kinds of games have been changing a bit recently, and they look to change even more in the future. This is because of the change in business model that we see in many online games. Not able or willing to compete with the likes of WoW for the favour of monthly subscribers, many online games these days employ a micro-transaction-financed free-to-play model. This business model is still in its infancy, but great strides are being made with each new release, and many bold moves are constantly being attempted. The problem with charging for in-game items and currency, however, is that it totally changes the social landscape of things. Suddenly, there are no bragging rights anymore. There is no achievement to be had. Everyone who’s getting anywhere in the game does so by paying for quicker progression, better items, or whatever, and there are very few advantages and very little social recognition to be had from not paying money, in these cases. The whole you-are-awesome-because-of-the-stuff-you’ve-acquired attitude, and the associated cheating, is pretty much non-existent in these games. Maybe that’s why such games are so popular with “casual” gamers, who never would have cared about peer recognition in a computer game anyway. Indeed, the skill-and-effort focus of more traditional games might have put them off from the very beginning, meaning they would never even contemplate paying for the privilege to cut in line in the first place. That actually makes these kinds of micro-transaction games almost feel like a step back, in a (not necessarily negative) sense. Suddenly, people are playing and paying for the intrinsic qualities of the game (lame as they often are), instead of just playing it for bragging rights or achievement points.
Other games straddle the divide a bit, creating a sort of combination between socialization-based incentives and monetization practices. They might make some things available for purchase, while others you have to earn. Sometimes, you have to earn the right to purchase a high-quality item, making it even rarer and increasing the bragging rights attached to it, as well as people’s willingness to pay. New approaches to micro transactions will without a doubt be thought up as we move forward, and hopefully we’ll end up with a wide range of business models that all work. Then we’ll be able to choose the one what best suits the game we want to make.
The biggest cause for concern that I see is the fact that we already know how to make fun games, the kinds of games that people want to create social dynamics in and around. And now that the market is changing, we are forced to not only reconsider our business models, but also reconsider the games we’re so good at creating. Many games are married to the “old” paradigm of selling boxed products and/or having a traditional subscription-based model. And when the higher-ups in a publishing company make a wide-reaching decision about which business model to employ for their games, this has pretty drastic implications for how those games actually play.
I think one of the big ones to watch right now is Blizzard’s Diablo 3, which promises to introduce a player-driven real-money economy. They are, in other words, sanctioning and allowing the same RMT practices that they don’t allow in their other game World of Warcraft. Now, this is not just a question of politics – Diablo 3 no doubt has been designed around the idea from the beginning (it helps that it’s not going to require a subscription fee, so at least that conflict of interest isn’t there). That said, the social dynamics of Diablo 2 very much inspired the design of World of Warcraft. And if, like Blizzard’s web site says “Nearly everything found in the game, including gold, can be exchanged with other players directly or through the auction house system”, then there is a definite risk of taking all the bragging rights out of having the best weapons or armour - which is one big reason the franchise is popular in the first place.
Now Blizzard isn’t stupid and will probably find clever ways to make it all work. For example, just having an item say “bought from…” might do a lot to increase the bragging-rights-gap between people who pay money for stuff and those who earn it for themselves (or indeed trade for it through normal in-game means, a skill in its own right to be sure). But then maybe that will make people less likely to buy stuff, while still pissing off the people who think that items should be earned, not paid for. As Blizzard is looking to make money off the transactions (naturally, there’s a “service fee” that’s collected for every transaction – probably to compensate for all those expensive CPU cycles or something), it may be in their best interest to be very careful with this stuff. But they seem to have no intention of putting safety first. The FAQ asks if there will be any possibility to play on a server where there is no RMT going on (thus raising the social bragging rights for progressing on one of these servers), and the answer is pretty uncompromising: “We want to provide a secure, fun environment for our players to purchase and sell in-game items using gold or real money and have no plans to divide the community.”
Another part of the FAQ says the following: “Acquiring items has always been a core part of the Diablo series' appeal. With the previous Diablo games, many players have shown a great interest in buying, selling, or exchanging items for their characters using real-world currency, turning to potentially unsafe avenues to accomplish this goal” – which is fair enough. They mean to bring the shadow economy to the surface, lower credit card fraud and other such nastiness, and take part in the profits while they are at it. The question will be, however, how the community will react and how the social dynamics will be affected. The fact that players can’t choose to opt out of the whole revamped, anything-goes economy makes Blizzard all-in with their concept. The company seems to think that what they are doing is the equivalent of legalizing victimless crimes such as drug use and prostitution. However, in fundamentally changing not only the business model for the game, but also potentially compromising the social norms associated with it, there’s always the risk that they end up creating the gaming equivalent of Rwanda. And believe me, very few people would live there if they had a choice.