I hate people who pass cards under the table, or who move your chess pieces
while you've gone to the bathroom, or who steal your Monopoly money while
you're getting a drink. I think they're scum.
I hate online cheaters, too. I hate people who hack their files or use
line sniffers to give themselves an unfair advantage over other, less
technically skilled, players. People who exploit weaknesses in a game's
security to beat other people. Some people who wouldn't dream of moving
an opponent's chess pieces think nothing of hacking a computer to cheat
opponents they can't see.
And in particular I hate people who get their kicks out of spoiling a
game for others. People whose sole reason for playing a game is to make
other people miserable. In the online role-playing world, they're called
Several columns ago I talked about online outlawry, and I advocated putting
some flatfoots on the infobeat. The term "online community," I said, is
an oxymoron. A community has to have enforced minimum standards of behavior
- in other words, a system of justice - or it won't be a community. Yes,
it's expensive. It's expensive in the real world, too. That's the price
we pay for safety and peace of mind.
This time I want to talk not about chat rooms, electronic extensions of
real life, but about online, role-playing games: fantasy lives.
Now most role-playing games are set in a world that's pretty dangerous.
There's a lot of weaponry, and fighting, and gaining of experience points,
and all that D&D-esque stuff. And that's what a lot of people want
to do: go on heroic (or sometimes unheroic) quests and kill monsters and
get treasure. But the problem with most of these environments is that
they're a free-for-all. It goes all the way back to the earliest days
, on the GEnie network. Anybody can do anything to anybody
else. There are no rules. The world becomes hyper-violent. And this naturally
leads to player-killers who gain money and experience for their characters
by picking on novices, people new to the game.
A while ago I got so sick of hearing about these creeps that I started
to have a fantasy about how to stop it. Right now, the problem is being
handled by vigilante justice -- groups of people who learn about someone
killing off inexperienced players, and go trash the perpetrator. And I
thought about what fun it would be to do the same thing all by myself
-- to build up a character to the point that he was effectively invincible,
and then use him to wreak righteous vengeance on evildoers in the name
of the downtrodden. A sort of Superman, if you will, except that I thought
of him more as Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites.
I would name him TheLordThyGod, or maybe YHWH - the Tetragrammaton. If
I was running him, God wouldn't talk much. Maybe all he would ever say
is "mene mene tekel u-pharsin" (Daniel 5:26 - look it up). Or maybe he
would only quote from the Ten Commandments, right before he smote you
down. "Thou shalt not steal." Whack!
The word would get around. If a guy calling himself God just showed up
at unexpected times, kicked the hell out of some wrongdoer without saying
a word, and then vanished, you can bet the bulletin boards and chat rooms
would be full of the news. They would wonder if God were being run by
the system implementors, and if he could see them at times when they thought
they were alone. People might start worrying that God would show up and
implement swift justice. They might think twice about their behavior.
In other words, it was your basic adolescent revenge fantasy. A sort of
It wouldn't really work, though. For one thing, all the psychos would
start gunning for you. Since a non-insider can't actually create an invincible
player, chances are that eventually God would get killed. If that happened,
he would lose his credibility and all his value as a deterrent.
However, I have thought of a couple of other possible solutions. Here
No Friendly Fire
A lot of computer games that implement combat make life easier for the
player by ignoring the problem of friendly fire. As any experienced soldier
will tell you, it's a huge problem. As many as 50% of the U.S. casualties
during the Gulf War may have been from friendly fire. Computer games,
and especially video games, simplify the equation by making it impossible
to shoot your own people, period.
We could do that for on-line games as well. Unfortunately, it would reduce
the roleplay value of the game too much. Online games depend for a lot
of their interest on the interactions between the players, and some of
those may, and perhaps should, be confrontational.
The Justice Field
There's a wonderful and funny British science fiction comedy series called
. In the show, a motley group of ne'er-do-well adventurers
are trying to find their way home after 3 million years of suspended animation
in deep space. In one episode, they come across a space-going prison where
a "justice field" has been implemented. Inside the field, the consequences
of anything you try to do to someone else happens to you instead. If you
hit someone, you, not they, feel the blow. If you stab them, you suddenly
have a knife wound, and so on.
We could implement such a thing in the on-line world quite easily. If
you attack someone, your own, not their, hit points are deducted. It would
quickly put a stop to attacks on fellow human beings. Attacking someone
else would accomplish nothing but suicide. The problem with this idea
is that it's just a more drastic variant of "no friendly fire." It works,
but it eliminates a lot of roleplaying. Or we could formally enforce the
Golden Rule: however many hit points of damage you do, you take the same
amount yourself. This doesn't work, however, since it still enables big
strong characters to prey on weak ones with proportionately much less
damage to themselves. Besides, healing is so easy in most RPGs that they
could easily heal themselves back up.
I was talking the problem over with a friend at work, and we realized
that there's a better way: implement God, not as an individual, but in
the system software. But not the God of the Israelites. I think what's
needed here is the approach of the medieval Catholic Church. But before
we get to that, let's talk about balance.
All games depend on balance. If a game is perfectly balanced, no one can
ever win it. If it's very finely balanced, it can go on for a long time.
This is what happens in the kids' card game War. Each side gets half the
deck, with the cards chosen at random; you shuffle your half, then each
deal a card face up one at a time. Whoever has the highest takes both
cards. The game is over when one side has all the cards. If the deck was
reasonably well shuffled to begin with, a game of War can last for hours.
On the other hand, if a game gets unbalanced too quickly, people don't
enjoy it because it's over too soon. What people want is for a game to
become unbalanced gradually, and that there should be opportunities, either
through luck or skill, for the balance to swing back the other way. That's
works. Everyone starts out even, but over time, the
rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The rent inflation in Monopoly
guarantees that eventually, luck isn't enough to restore the balance,
and eventually you lose. (The Free Parking rule some people play by adds
an extra measure of luck to redistribute cash.) Chess and checkers work
the same way. You can win even if you're down a few pieces, but the more
pieces you get behind, the more difficult it becomes.
But on-line environments aren't supposed to be zero-sum games, and they're
not supposed to come to an end like Monopoly
or chess. Also, since
people can join the game at any time, the players aren't all equal. At
any given point, there are a large number of old-timers who have great
advantages over the newcomers. If they're in direct competition, the newcomers
will lose every time.
In short, on-line environments lack normal game balance.
something to discourage old-timers from beating up on newcomers, and encourage
them to pick on someone their own size.
I said in my earlier column that on-line communities fail because they
lack shared values. I think that's true in online roleplaying games, too
- and especially if they're for-profit, "come one, come all" games with
no selectivity about who gets to play. But on-line, there's a way to create,
and most importantly, enforce shared values. You tell your players:
God exists, and He sees all.
God hates sin, and punishes it reliably.
Then you go on to define sin. Since I'm chiefly concerned with player-killers
I'll define sin as attacking other players without their consent. (We'll
get to why they might consent later on.)
What you want as a punishment for sin is something quite drastic and difficult
to repair. I think if a player attacks someone without her consent, the
system software should damage his basic characteristics -- his speed,
strength, dexterity and so on. And it should start taking away his special
skills, and perhaps his money and prized possessions as well. This should
happen not just after the fight is over, but immediately, at each hit.
In other words, when a player commits the sin of violence, God makes him
poor, weak and sickly.
Most of these things have nice parallels in the real world. By taking
away his speed, the evildoer becomes lame. By taking away his dexterity,
he develops palsy. You can make him mute, by limiting his ability to send
messages to other players, or deaf, by limiting his ability to receive
them. You could even give him an unsightly disease by distorting his graphics.
Naturally self-defense is permissible. The person who strikes the first
blow is flagged as the aggressor. The defender can respond with impunity.
You may wish to place limits on this -- if the aggressor withdraws or
sues for peace, the battle is considered over and the defender no longer
has carte blanche.
This also raises the question of what happens if a third party steps in
to defend someone. You don't want such a noble soul being flagged as an
aggressor just because she stepped in to help. To solve this, once someone
is marked as an aggressor, it's open season on him - anyone can attack
him with impunity until he withdraws or ceases fire.
Another important principle is that the punishment should be proportionate
to the relative strengths of the people involved. The punishment for a
player who attacks a novice should be much greater than the punishment
a player who attacks an experienced warrior. You can compute this by the
ratio of their hit points, or experience points, or character levels.
Some people might try to get around that system by forming gangs. The
gang members would take turns attacking, thus diluting the punishment
by distributing it among several people. The solution to this is to add
the strengths of all the gang members (defined as all the people attacking
within a specific space of time) together in calculating the strength
ratio of attackers to defender, as described above, and apply the resulting
punishment to all of them equally. Thus if five people of more or less
equal strength attack one person, the ratio is five times higher and the
punishment five times as severe - for all of them.
There should be other weighting factors as well. A well-armed character
attacking a poorly-armed one (in most of these games no one is ever completely
unarmed) should receive an extra measure of punishment. Likewise, attacking
a player whose hit points are below their maximum should be grounds for
extra punishment - it's the equivalent of assaulting an injured person.
But every element of a game needs a balance - especially in a non-zero-sum
game like an on-line environment. This is where the medieval Church comes
in. Simply put, it should be possible to repent and be absolved of your
sin. The way to get your strength, dexterity, etc. back would be to make
confession to some (automated) priest, who would then assign you a noble
quest to demonstrate your repentance. You must undertake the quest alone
and, more importantly, while still in your weakened state. If you succeed,
then you regain some of your lost attributes. However, the value of doing
this should drop each time you do it. You cannot go on killing people
and then expect to return to God's good graces by making confession and
repentance each time. The quests get harder and the benefits smaller.
If you persist in returning to your evil ways, you will be excommunicated
and the priest will no longer receive you.
(One reason the priests should be automated rather than human is that
they are incorruptible. The selling of indulgences is an aspect of medieval
Christianity that it would be preferable not to simulate.)
Finally, we come to the issue of consensual combat -- ie. duels. To permit
affairs of honor, dueling should be a special mode of combat which permits
fighting without any repercussions. However, duels have their own rules.
First, the parties must be equally armed - the arms can be automatically
supplied by the system, then taken away again after it is over. In traditional
dueling, the challenged party has the choice of weapons. Second, no one
else is permitted to interfere. This can be done by the simple expedient
of maintaining an exclusionary zone around duelling fighters that no one
else can enter, or perhaps requiring duels to take place in an arena.
Finally, duels must have a mutually agreed-upon termination. There can,
of course, be duels to the death, but they need not go that far. Duels
could also end when one party has lost half her hit points. In traditional
pistol duels, each party was supplied with a single-shot weapon; as soon
as both shots were fired, regardless of outcome, the duel was over.
Dueling in an arena could easily be turned into gladiatorial games, with
a crowd and wagering, if you wanted to go that route. Another variant
of the duel that takes place over a longer period of time and in a less
formal manner is the feud. In this case, the two people or groups of people
mutually agree that the other is fair game, and there are no rules about
where or with what weapons.
I should point out that this is getting rather far afield from the usual
godly notions of decent behavior. The Church tried to ban dueling, and
did ban gladiatorial contests… but so long as it is fully consensual,
it seems harmless and fun in the fantasy context.
Of course, none of this does anything to solve the problem of bad verbal
behavior - race-baiting, ham-fisted propositions, and so on - so the need
for flatfoots on the infobeat remains. And I know some people will object
that they want the freedom to respond to on-line insults with on-line
violence, without interference from any system-software God. But I think
they're missing the point. If the objective is to create a space where
violence is frowned upon and has negative consequences for the perpetrator,
then this provides a mechanism to do it - without the expense of juries,
trials, and all the other impedimenta of the real-life judiciary.
* In the course of this column - written on Easter Sunday, no less - I
say a few things that might be seen as disrespectful by practicing Christians.
Let me make it clear that I have no intention of denigrating anyone's
religion. What I am doing is using medieval Christian notions of sin,
retribution, and absolution as a metaphor to show how morality can be
introduced into on-line environments.