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Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach
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Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach

April 2, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this in-depth article, Fulton discusses why "the online behavior of our customers is dramatically reducing our sales", referencing his social design on Microsoft's Shadowrun to explain how we can dissuade anonymous Internet gamers.

Warning: This article uses language inappropriate for a professional website. Unfortunately, the language used is far less offensive than what is commonly encountered in online gaming.]

Some gamers are fuckwads

Of all the ways I spend my free time, playing games online is the only one I would describe as "frequently barbaric". Insults of all kinds, including racist and homophobic slurs, are commonplace.

The women I know who play online avoid anything that would identify them as female -- including voice communication -- in order to avoid the unwanted, and frequently negative, attention.

And that's just how players are intentionally insulting -- what some people do while playing online can also be aggravating.

Cheating, team-killing, entering a game but not playing, quitting before the game is over, and more, are all relatively common. Common enough that it was deemed worthy of a Penny Arcade comic, speculating about why normal people become fuckwads online.

Image courtesy of Penny Arcade

So what?

Why do I care? Some gamers might be thinking "If he's so thin-skinned that he can't take the online banter, maybe he shouldn’t play online." Unfortunately, many people do just that -- they stop playing online.

Even more gamers go online a few times and then never play again. This isn't just my personal speculation; I have seen convincing data from two different sources that the biggest problem with online gaming is the behavior of others. The biggest problem isn't the cost; it isn't connectivity issues, or even the quality of the games -- it is how people are fuckwads online.

To make this concrete, here's a thought experiment for you: imagine you go to a new restaurant, and decide to try the meatloaf. A big guy at the next table overhears you, looks at you, and yells: "Meatloaf? What kinda newb are you? Hey everybody, this r-tard just ordered the meatloaf!

God, I'm glad you're not at my table." Laughter breaks out at the tables around you, as they crane their heads to look at the newb. The restaurant staff is nowhere to be found, and you're not entirely certain they'd do anything anyway -- you can tell this is normal behavior at this place. How good or cheap would the food have to be to get you to go back there? Who would you bring there? The vast majority of the world population wouldn't go back there, and would warn everyone they knew to avoid it.

So again, why do I care? Because the online behavior of our customers is dramatically reducing our sales, and continues to stunt the growth of our industry. Non-gamers simply don’t love games enough to put up with the crap they get online. The reason they would consider playing online is to have fun with other people -- and right now, playing games online with strangers rarely delivers that for anyone outside the hardcore demographic.

Are these problems even solvable?

Short answer: yes. Social environments and culture can be designed. Just like good game design creates fun gameplay, good social design creates fun social experiences. Unfortunately, online games seem to have allocated very few resources to designing the social environment.

But honestly, I don't believe that resource constraints are the source of the problem -- I think that most people don’t believe that social problems can be solved. A common belief that I’ve heard used as justification for not addressing the social environment of games is that "jerks will be jerks". Essentially, many people believe that:

    1. Behavior is determined by personality, and

    2. You can’t change people’s personality

While I (mostly) agree with the second point, it is moot because the first point has been consistently contradicted by 60 years of social psychological research. Human behavior is complex and determined by many factors.

Personality is certainly one factor, but it is a surprisingly small factor. The largest determinant of behavior is the perceived social environment. This is the good news, because both the social environment and the perception of it can be controlled.

But me just saying that I disagree with a belief isn’t an argument; some proof is in order. Evidence about the effect of the social environment on behavior comes from two main sources: real-world observation and academic studies from social psychology.

(Although perhaps I should add "cartoonists" to those two sources. The Penny Arcade comic showing a normal person becoming a total fuckwad when in multiplayer gaming situation -- anonymous, with an audience -- was pretty accurate, if a bit simplified.)

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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