'A Journalistic Bent' is a regular column in which our roving reporter takes a hard look at all the issues of gaming, games development, and the games themselves. This week's column looks at cruelty, specifically related to a massive in-game scam in MMO Eve Online.
Confidence and Cruelty
This week, Eve Online has seen the biggest in-game 'legal' scam of any single MMO. The fall of the Eve Investment Bank is a classic pyramid scheme fraud playing out as such scams have done dozens of times in the real world. Investors raved about the returns, but were actually just being paid off with the cash invested by newer waves of investors. The apparent loss for the scammed gamers (and gain for the perpetrator) is 700 billion isk, which comes to around $180,000 of real cash at current Ebay virtual currency prices.
Not that 'Dentara Rast,' the player-character behind the scam, could actually transfer that amount of money, of course. Not only do developer's CCP make things hard for currency sellers, but it's also a matter of supply and demand: is there really that much money out there in players' pockets?
The more interesting issue, however, is one that I've touched on elsewhere: the implications this has for the concept of cruelty in a game environment. For the most part it is very difficult for players to be genuinely, and justifiably, cruel in a video game, at least where real people are concerned. Eve is one of the few games that allows vindictive activities to take place, and it does so by having a complex market that allows significant transactions between players. (It also makes combat expensive and dangerous, with large losses incurred by the players, but that's a side issue.)
Tricked Out To The Max?
The Eve Investment Bank was a confidence trick, and one that worked brilliantly within the ultra-capitalist milieu of the game world itself. Amazingly, it crippled a few players, wiping out weeks, perhaps months, of gaming. Senior producer Nathan Richardsson was insistent that CCP would do nothing to regulate these kinds of interactions between players, despite the personal value placed on their loss by the time they took making the virtual money, and the fiscal value derived from Ebaying currencies. This kind of behavior, CCP believe, is what online gaming is all about. It also demonstrates, in Richardsson's opinion, just how thin the line between the 'real' and virtual worlds really are.
Furthermore, it's just another part of the game, no matter the enormity of its impact on the players: "Does the scale of the scam have any bearing on it?" asks Richardsson. "No. Well, lets enjoy the thought for a while. Where should we put the barrier between legal and illegal scams? When is a corp [guild - Ed] theft hurting enough that it's a breach of the EULA? Is it when it's more than 50 million? That can hurt a new player, but is a drop in the water for a big corporation. If you scam a new player, would it then be a breach, but if it was a corporation it wouldn't be? It's not only unenforceable, you simply can't put a line which can't be crossed."
And on the Eve forums there are gasps of horror, admissions of huge loss and demands for compensation. Others still have elected to quit the game entirely, saying that if this kind of thing can't be regulated that they can't be expected to keep playing.
What they're missing, of course, is that Dentara was just playing the role of the villain. And he did it brilliantly. He was right to do it.
Discussions about the implications of this kind of activity caused an outbreak of anecdotal discussions about cruelty between myself and other gaming colleagues. People retold anecdotes about toying with players or vastly inferior skills, or of selling items of no worth in MMOs to players with little or no experience. "This +2 can opener will really help you make the money…"
This discussion quickly arrived at the recent disruption of an online funeral in World Of Warcraft. A player who had died in real life was remembered in an online funeral (of which there have been scores across the years) and it was held in an area of contested territory by alliance players. A local horde guild saw it as their duty to play the bad guys, disrupt proceedings and slaughter everyone present.
Many people were horrified; again because of the way this activity said something about the 'leakiness' between game and real worlds. Someone had actually died, but did that mean the (nominally evil) horde had to respect the in-game ceremony? Did they have any real life social responsibilities incurred by this situation? We concluded that it did not. In fact, there was a certain amount of credit due to the horde players for keeping things in perspective. It is a game. And they were the bad guys. If games can't be outright escapism, then what value does this medium really have?
Eventually the conversation swung back round to Eve (as it tends to when I've been allowed to hold forth on MMOs) and I mentioned the extreme efforts I've recently being going to in my attempts to catch and kill a chain of cash-grinders. These chaps sit in quiet systems, killing NPCs and collecting cash. They do it for twelve hours a day, never leave and always log off if they're threatened. They are, of course, valid targets for us as players. They're not allied with my guys, and they're in 'our' patch of space. As a result I've invested days in developing plans to take them down.
But who are they? Why do they need all that money? Surely they are just farming 'gold' and not really playing the game at all… So why go after them if they're not really part of the genuine gaming fraternity? Well, because they're there. But also because we want to beat them down. Right now they're able to do what they want to do, and it's my job, as another player, to stop them. Because of the gold farming? No, because I want to be the bad guy.
"But what if he's depending on that money," says my drinking buddy. "What if this guy is a gold farmer for whom a couple of dollars an hour is better than whatever other crappy job he might land. What happens if you destroy his ships? Will his boss sack him?"
I realised that this is a genuine possibility. "That somehow makes the idea of catching him even more interesting," I say. "It makes it more exciting, even if I never know who he really is."
"You're a bad man," says my friend.
Am I? Or am I just looking at games they way they are meant to be played? Surely they were built for someone to win, and feel the gratification of winning, no matter the emergent social phenomena that have arisen and intoxicated journalists, academics, players and gold farmers alike. People can expect all kinds of things from MMOs, but they can't expect to stop us being cruel.
[Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]