Anyone who has played an MMO or participated in any online forum or service knows that anonymity creates problems -- and large groupings of people invites those with psychological issues to act them out on the larger populace. A group of MMO community managers and psychologists from the University of Texas came together at GDC Austin to examine common scenarios -- and take a peek into why these problems persist, and maybe come up with new ways to solve them.
The panel was comprised of moderator Sean Dahlberg from BioWare Austin, Troy Hewitt of Flying Lab Software, Meghan Rodberg of Turbine, and Dr. Sam Gosling and Dr. James Pennebaker, of the University of Texas.
Though both of the psychologists admitted that they are not personally gamers, they clearly find the subject of MMO audiences fascinating -- and not in a clinical way. They showed empathy for the issues, but worried that some of the tactics commonly undertaken by the community mangers are "just attending to the symptoms," in the words of Dr. Gosling.
Munchausen by Internet
Though not called out by name, the issue of Munchausen by Internet
was the first tackled. This scenario is one where a community member (in or out of an MMO) fakes an illness or even a death -- of themselves or a loved one. Though it seems an obvious cry for attention, the doctors were hesitant to even label it that simplistically, with Dr. Gosling commenting, "The truth is, we don't really know."
Hewitt says that "This is one of the most disturbing situations to deal with." Though he cautions that "You are going to deal with folks who are ill or really do pass... there are folks who will for their own reasons fake their own death." These players will pose as a family member and announce the player's death, or enact a fake, chronic illness (without faking their death.) Though its sounds strange and unique, Hewitt warns, "All of us as community managers have dealt with these issues in the past."
Rodberg says, "It's a plea for attention, these are people who are not getting enough attention from the community so they'll invent reasons... [illness or death is] a very compelling one." But beware: "It can cause a lot of fallout and drama when it comes out." Dahlberg pointed to scenarios where griefers interrupted a legitimate memorial service in World of Warcraft, and members of the 4chan forum disrupted the MySpace memorial to a child who killed himself -- just for entertainment -- as reasons to keep these incidents private. "They don't see other people as people... and they have a lack of empathy."
Hewitt discussed the struggle to be sensitive to profound, real world problems while being aware that things not be what they seem. "You want to be empathetic... but unfortunately on that wide of a stage, and given that folks can be duping you, you've got to deal with that issue privately." On that note, "We won't recognize when folks have passed... we'll share privately our concerns and well-wishes [but] publically we choose not to recognize those things." On prior projects, players had requested in-game memorials to the dead -- and stunned the team (and other players) when the "dead" returned to life.
Dr. Pennebaker notes, "You can make things worse as the person overseeing the system... that's one thing I am interested in, is how you can increase the odds that people will behave well." When it comes to school tragedy, "It's well known now in school systems that if a kid commits suicide, you don't make a big deal about it... the bigger deal you make of it, the more likely someone else will make a suicide attempt." A similar psychology could drive these issues.
Hewitt did note that it is imperative to notify local authorities in the case of a suicide threat by a user -- with the help of that person's billing information as identification for the authorities.
When asked if this was an outgrowth of the role playing engendered by fantasy MMOs, Hewitt disagreed, saying, "It's different to tell a story with a tragic end... and perpetrate a fraud." The clear difference is that a role playing scenario is about a character; the sickness scenario is about the player himself, as a person.
Of course, griefing -- or intentionally disrupting and degrading another user's gameplay experience -- is a major problem in MMOs. Rodberg notes that "griefing and harassment covers a wide span... [From the game and its forums] it can sometimes spread out into people's personal space, like MySpace or Facebook... even go so far as real life, although that's rare."
According to Rodberg, there are four primary impetuses that drive griefing: for the humor, the attention, the rise out of the victim, and those who join into a group griefing session -- what she called the "playground mentality".
Two interesting points of consensus formed among the community managers: one, is that the griefing victim can be as much of a problem as the griefer, and that often those who claim to have been harassed can in fact be the perpetrators -- in that case, both Rodberg and Hewitt recommend verifying the chat logs. Anybody who went through elementary school can probably understand both of these scenarios.
To illustrate these points, Rodberg says, "Once a community member has shown that they can get their buttons pushed" they become a frequent victim. Echoing that, Hewitt says, "Often times you find that the person who is being griefed is really creating a circumstance where they're inviting that behavior" by being "dramatic" or "histrionic". According to Hewitt, "these people can be harder to reach" than the griefers. "It's a challenge to define who is causing the problem... but how do you say 'Calm down and don't react in this way?'"
While Rodberg recommend the ignore feature in games as a matter of course, Dr. Gosling was somewhat dismissive of this. "I believe it's quite a superficial response... I understand that on a day to day basis that's what you need to do, but ultimately you need a structural solution to this." He says that behavior like this is "a combination of who we are and environmental circumstances." Dr. Pennebaker compares it to schoolyard bullying and notes that "if you do a study of junior high schools... some have remarkably high levels of bullying and some have low... it's not the people, it's the circumstances... I bet for anything if you study the games, some have more and some have less."
Rodberg maintains that griefing is a bigger problem in PVP (player vs. player) games than PVE (player vs. environment, or cooperative) games, with Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online
as an example. But Dahlgren thinks PVE games invite griefing because while the user base of PVP is more homogenous and naturally competitive, PVE games have a broader audience and this spread of personalities is more likely to "butt heads". Rodberg says that what constitutes griefing may change depending on whether the game is PVP or PVE -- verbal harassment "will fly" on a PVP server.
The psychologists offered two interesting insights. Dr. Pennebaker notes that in a game scenario, "It's possible that in the PVP environment, that bullying is a successful strategy for winning." Dr. Gosling, meanwhile, says "these are common issues" and recommends talking to a psychologist or someone else who deals with another type of large group scenario for tactics on how to deal with the situation.
The Mob Mentality
The final scenario discussed was the chaos and panic of the mob mentality -- with all of the community managers agreeing that this gets particularly virulent around patch time, as gamers flood the forums to complain about the changes being made to the game. Dalhberg put it this way: "The developers don't understand... doomsday, sky is falling!"
He also notes that when it comes to forum posts, "People write huge dissertations but they usually only have one point in there... the rest is bile." When dealing with this scenario, "You have to paint the big picture" against their limited point of view. "Talk to them as people, most people just want to be heard." Rodberg advises, "Keep it to a discussion and not a lynching." Hewitt suggests his strategy: "Divide and conquer -- behind the scenes. Find the rabble rousers... just send them a [private] note" and listen to their thoughts. Dr. Gosling notes, "We know, in terms of justice... people are much happier with the outcome, regardless of the outcome, if they feel the procedure is fair."
One community manager in the audience noted that, eventually, you have to say "no" to the players, and move forward -- as long as you have a fair and consistent policy about entertaining their complaints, the community will come to understand that and accept it. Hewitt agrees, saying "I think it's important to really clarify [the boundaries]." When it comes to major controversies, Rodberg advises to "create one thread and keep all of the discussion to that thread and if it pops up elsewhere, lock them."
In all interactions, according to Dr. Pennebaker, "Just from the psychology side, this whole issue of anonymity is central. The more anonymous people can be, the worse they'll act." Rodberg says that while "some community managers only go by a pseudonym... we give our real names also... when people address us privately they use our real names... I think that using our real names makes us more approachable and less easy to abuse."
Several audience members brought up the issue of sexual harassment in MMO spaces. When asked to pick a simple answer, Dr. Gosling deferred, saying, "I don't know what it is but I suspect it is many things... you have real worlds and made up worlds... in all cases, real psychology... is influenced by the physical constraints we're used to having." Drop those constraints -- as in an MMO, when you can be whoever you want -- and behavior changes.
Dr. Pennebaker called for "more research" on the part of developers. "I would guess that some games have more sexist behavior than others..." Referring to the stereotype of the antisocial gamer who doesn't know how to behave, Pennebaker notes that it can't account for all behavior. "Yes, a lot of gamers are social nerds, but a lot of social nerds are very polite... some social feature of the game is allowing it or encouraging it in some bizarre way."
The discussion ended with the panel examining an eBay-style user rating system, which would allow players to rate each other in terms of their behavior. While Dahlberg noted that it might just invite a new type of griefing, where players game the system to build their reputations, Rodberg notes that they have been testing this system for over a year on Lord of the Rings Online
and plan to roll it live in the future. One key lesson: "You are going to have to have a minimum threshold of positive before you can start giving negative [ratings]... if you don't do that, people are going to have to start out griefing." Hewitt says "You'll see the industry moving more towards systems like that... I truly believe that it's really the direction we should head."
Dr. Gosling notes the tough balance that community managers have to face in their work -- a common source of burnout, according to Rodberg. In the real world, people have split into different roles, but Dr. Gosling notes that community managers "are being the police, the therapists, the legal system, the arbitrators." He urges the industry to take advice from outside disciplines, such as psychologists, and even consider specialization in different aspects of community management. "There is a world which has these real problems you're addressing... to what extent do we use these techniques from the real world... and to what extent is [gaming] unique?"