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Designer's Notebook: Why 'On-Line Community' is an Oxymoron

December 5, 1997
 

Lately we've been hearing a lot of blather about the on-line community. "On-line community" is the latest hip buzz-phrase, just as the "global village" was a few years ago. We don't hear so much about the global village any more, because although it's possible to visit Japanese or French websites just as easily as American ones, most Americans are still just as unable to read them. Better telecommunication doesn't guarantee better communication.

All the usual cyber-pundits are busily weighing in with the carefully-considered opinion that On-Line Communities Are Going To Be Important. You know who I mean by cyber-pundits, right? Those people with vague titles like "New Media Evangelist" who couldn't engineer their way out of a wet paper bag, but somehow always end up being quoted in the press. Just once, I'd like to hear a cyber-pundit express the opinion that something is going to be Meaningless and Irrelevant. But they never do.

One of the things that everyone seems to agree on is that we want Diversity in our on-line communities. Of course, Diversity has been one of the holy grails of the interactive entertainment business since the year one. "How can we appeal to seniors and mothers and little girls?" we ask ourselves every year at the Computer Game Developers' Conference, wringing our hands. "How can we broaden our market? What kinds of computer games will appeal to everyone, and not just to teenaged boys?" And the architects of so-called on-line communities are asking themselves the same thing. You can almost see the tears welling up in their big brown eyes as they contemplate a glorious future in which the chat rooms and multi-user dungeons are inhabited by senior citizens and mothers and little girls in addition to the usual crowd of teenaged boys.

Personally, I think the idea is a crock. Let's face it, most senior citizens and mothers and little girls wouldn't choose to spend their time in the company of teenaged boys even if you paid them.

Now, you may be wondering why game developers should care, or what this has to do with game design. For developers of the usual one-player game sold at retail, it probably doesn't matter. But most games have a multiplayer mode these days, and for the designers of on-line games, or on-line fantasy environments, it's a major issue. Larger markets mean more money. So in principle, we want to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

But I'm going to take a heretical position. I don't think we should be encouraging diversity -- at least, not now. Here's why:

A community is a group of people who have something in common. In the case of the first human communities, what they had in common was physical proximity, which meant a shared food supply, shared risk of natural disaster, and all the other things that occur when you have a group of people in one place. Later, with the invention of writing and specialized professions, there began to be other communities: the community of scholars, the community of warriors, and so on.

In the early days of consumer telecomputing, the on-line community was easily defined: it meant that subset of computer owners who could afford modems and high monthly fees (GEnie charged as much as $18 an hour during prime time), and who were willing to put up with 300-baud text-based interfaces. In practice, this often meant gainfully-employed men with surplus disposable income. Then came cheaper, faster modems and America On-Line, which democratized the on-line experience. All kinds of people showed up.

Also in the early days, there was the Internet, or as it was known then, the Arpanet. The Arpanet was project of the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a decentralized, fault-resistant computer network. Most of the machines on the Arpanet were at universities with major computer science programs. It was a non-commercial community of scientists, scholars, and engineers. On the whole, this group was intelligent, educated, witty, tolerant, and over 30.

Gradually the Arpanet became more commercial, as more high-tech companies connected up, but the crowd was still the same: well-educated scientists and engineers.

Then America On-Line hooked in.

All hell broke loose. AOL deluged the 'Net with thousands upon thousands of semiliterate, xenophobic, horny, foul-mouthed teenaged boys. AOL's rules prevented them from getting out of hand within AOL itself, but the Internet was another matter -- they couldn't control that. For about two years, flames raged through the newsgroups, and anyone with an @aol.com E-mail address was automatically considered suspect.

The Internet changed dramatically and permanently at that point. No more the ivory-tower Eden. Instead we got an overwhelming tide of pornography, loony religious diatribes, white-power propaganda, and commercial spam. All sense of shared experience and shared values was gone for good.

The Arpanet was a community. The Internet isn't. Simple as that.

Soon afterwards we began to see increasingly unpleasant misbehavior, in forms that had never existed on either AOL or the Arpanet. A law firm repeatedly and unapologetically spammed every single newsgroup with advertising. The Internet Worm was unleashed. A group of people began posting to rec.pets.cats with the express intention of being as rude and upsetting as possible to its regular readers. Software piracy reached epidemic proportions, and newsgroups were set up specifically for exchanging stolen programs.

Right now, we -- most of us -- revel in the 'Net's freedom from government interference. We fought the Communications Decency Act, which was obviously an abomination; we're fighting states' efforts to introduce a "bit tax;" we delight in the government's inability to impose encryption standards on us.

It's a fool's paradise.

The metaphor often used for this situation is the American frontier, the Old West. That's cute, as long as you have John Wayne around to make everything OK by the end of the movie. But in reality, the Old West was not a nice place for people to be. We've romanticized it over the years, but the truth is that the West was initially settled by people who had some reason for wanting to avoid the law. Murder, lynching, robbery, and violent feuds were common. Decent people didn't go there -- they had to be lured there, usually with money and free land.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was ostensibly established to help in the settling of the new, electronic frontier. But the EFF really spends more time fighting the government than it does trying to make the electronic frontier a pleasant place to go. That's not surprising, because most attempts at government legislation of the Internet have been pretty ham-fisted. John Perry Barlow, one of the EFF's founders, wrote a famous article called "Jackboots on the Infobahn," raising the specter of Nazi Germany in response to some of the government's more heavy-handed activities.

I suggest that while we definitely don't want Jackboots on the Infobahn, we could really use some Flatfoots on the Infobeat.

There's an old adage that wherever there are people, there will be policemen. That's regrettable, but it doesn't make the police any less necessary. We need some cops. And like real police, they should come from within our own communities, rather than from the federal government.

Here's the bottom line: an on-line "experience" (game, multi-user dungeon, newsgroup, chat room, mailing list, whatever) is not going to attract a diverse group of people until you make it attractive and pleasant for a diverse group of people. And one of the things that that means is enforced minimum standards of behavior. That's why more people stayed home in Baltimore, Maryland than moved out to Dodge City, Kansas. Because Baltimore's streets were safer and its citizens were nicer. Because Baltimore had a police force. Because it had enforced minimum standards of behavior.

Now, you may ask, what can happen in the on-line world that requires policing? Fraud, libel, and theft of intellectual property are already covered by existing laws. Everything else is just talk, and talk is covered by the First Amendment. What's to police?

Well, of course to start with the First Amendment is not absolute; you can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater, you can't publish plans for an atomic bomb, and you can't racially or sexually harass your co-workers. In addition, the First Amendment only applies to the government. It doesn't say anything about agreements between private parties. If I pay you not to swear at me, and you swear at me anyway, you're guilty of fraud -- the First Amendment doesn't guarantee you the right to say things that you have promised not to say.

We've all heard that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." It's a lie we tell children to thwart their natural and righteous desire to punch anyone who verbally abuses them. The fact is that words can hurt them. The most screwed-up people I know were screwed up by words, not by sticks and stones.

If you want to set up an on-line community you want it to be inhabited by anyone other than electronic outlaws, then you had better guarantee to your citizens that the streets will be safe. That they won't be abused, harassed or threatened -- or that if they are, you will take steps to punish the wrongdoers. A hate-mail campaign can be just as frightening as a cross-burning, and incidentally, sending hate-mail isn't protected by the First Amendment either.

America On-Line handles this with its famous "Terms of Service." Every AOL user agrees to certain minimum standards of behavior within its walls. AOL permits no anonymity; even if other users don't know who you are, the management does, and you must take responsibility for your own account. And AOL even has high-police areas and low-police areas. Some areas are set aside for kids and the rules are especially tight; others are only for adults and the rules are relaxed a bit. AOL has made its own streets safe, by and large, and when you go from AOL to the Internet, they warn you that you're heading into a free-fire zone. It's costly, but it's worth it. They've bought up or driven out all their competitors.

One of the great things about Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is that if you create a chat room, you have the power to kick people out of it when they misbehave. Some might call it tyrannical, but I call it freedom of association. The people you kick out are free to set up their own room with their own rules if they like. On-line, there's no way to tell if someone is black or white or male or female, so the cruder forms of discrimination don't work. But you can tell if someone is obnoxious or abusive. And on IRC, you can do something about it.

Game developers face special challenges with on-line communities. First, role-playing environments blur the rules. In role-playing games, it's often OK to "kill" people. Does that make it OK to "rape" people? To "rob" people"? To "sexually harrass" people? If there are "pretend killings" is there also "pretend race-baiting"? Where do you draw the line?

Second, game environments are competitive environments, especially if it's a zero-sum game (that is, anything I have is something you don't have). But competition isn't good for community feeling -- not if it gets serious. Real communities are generally cooperative, not competitive. You're not going to foster a healthy community if everyone is out to cut the other's throat all the time.

Finally, for game developers and anybody else who wants to make money building on-line environments, there's the problem of responsibility. In the wide-open atmosphere of the newsgroups, nobody charges and nobody's in charge. But if you're selling people an on-line experience, then you have an obligation to make sure it's a pleasant one. Otherwise you're going to have major customer service problems.

You want to create an on-line community? Then make rules and enforce them, firmly and unapologetically. Hire honest cops and let people know they're on the beat. Then you can start looking for diversity, inviting all kinds of people in. But do the work first. Don't expect real diversity until you've done something to nurture and protect it.

Make your community a decent place and decent people will want to come there. Allow it to be a lawless and unpleasant place and only lawless and unpleasant people will come.

Until you do, your on-line community will be an oxymoron -- it won't be a community at all.


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