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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at r1ft.com. The jaded game designer turned corporate lackey. Feedback is always welcome.

Author: Daedren

The Morality of MMO Development

Posted by Daedren Monday April 28 2008 at 8:08AM
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It's easy to get caught up in our passion for escapism and complex massive virtual worlds. Our denizens whisper things like "dynamic content" and "balanced combat systems" with fervor in an attempt to maximize our time spent immersed. Our passion for our genre is almost unmatched in the entertainment industry, as we delve ourself into the latest and greatest that our corporate overlords give us. To us a relaxing day is one spent unbothered and unhindered in our pursuit of losing ourselves in our online digital persona.

Now that I've crossed over from the "gamer" to "gamer who makes games" department - as in, I've been offered to actually work on the development team of an actual MMO - I've had what some might call an "epiphany" and what others might call "drunken stupor". This happens often once you've attained something you've worked hard at - whether it's career success or sleeping with the girl with the nice rack down the hall. This sense of accomplishment (among other things) can lead to a period of enlightenment or higher thinking due to the fact you're no longer worrying about getting there. I'm using my pillow-talk time to ask myself that, all other logistical concerns aside, if it's actually a good thing to be a MMO game developer.

Yes, I've questioned whether it's morally and ethically sound to make these sorts of games. To be clear, I'm not concerned about violence or sexual content or anything Jack Thompson-ish. My main concern here is the addiction and life-sucking factor that MMO's can have on people. And the better my game is, the more people we draw in, and the longer we can keep them hooked - the bigger "success" my game will be. It's this logic that I find myself questioning.

I think to really classify this problem, we have to ask ourselves some questions:

1. Are MMO's addicting on the same level as a drug or alcohol addiction?

I've found myself comparing the MMO genre and it's addictive qualities to any sort of addictive drug. We could use cigarettes, crack or heroin as an example here. Whatever the case, people use a substance, and their body becomes dependent on it. Should we classify MMO addiction into the same categories as drug and alcohol addiction? One could argue that MMO addiction can be just as destructive to a social or physical well-being of a person or family as any sort of drug addiction. While MMO addiction might not lead to the physical violence of say, alcoholism, it can lead to relationship problems, money problems and serious health problems.

This has varying levels, of course. As with life, anything in moderation can be healthy. It's the "in moderation" part that we run into a problem here. A moderate dose of cocaine isn't that bad for you. A moderate amount of marijuana usage is clearly ok. Social and moderate drinking isn't considered alcoholism. In this same logic, we have to conclude that moderate MMO gaming isn't bad either.

The question we have to ask is: are MMO's as addictive as these illegal substances? If they are - which some might agree that they are - what are the side-effects to such an addiction? It's there that we'd have to use logic and reason to determine if something should or should not be made, is it not? We'd have to take MMO addiction and treat it much like alcohol - neither are illegal, but both in extremes can be extremely dangerous for an individual and society.

2. Should game developers/producers encourage this sort of addiction?

Are developers responsible for this? You could argue that developers only make the game, and people make a choice to play them. Well, a guy that sells heroin does the same thing. People have the "choice" to buy or not buy heroin. It's the people that need it - heroin addicts - that aren't so much making a choice, but fulfilling their body's need for a substance. MMO addiction might not make your body crave a chemical or substance - but physiologically speaking it could be argued that it's doing something similar, which would be classified as a true addiction.

Would it be possible to make a successful MMO without inserting mechanics that obviously cater to an addiction-based crowd? Personally, I think it's less the game we're worried about and more about gaming habits. The problem with introducing a MMO that doesn't encourage a 60-hour play week is that people will need to find other things to do with their time - probably play another MMO that needs this sort of time commitment.

It leads to a depressing conclusion: to have a successful game, you have to try and make people spend as much time as possible in the gaming environment.

3. To what level should a game maker be held responsible for creating an addicting product?

The encouragement of this addiction is what makes MMO's so insanely popular these days. It's a marketer's wet dream and a casual player's worst nightmare: the more time you spend in a virtual world, the more successful you are. Combine this with a humans natural ability to want to succeed, and we get people competing in virtual worlds to be "the best". Well, a little friendly competition never hurt anyone - though the lengths that people will go to do be at the top is where the problem lies. MMO's that want long term customers then introduce artificial time-sinks into the game, such as reputation or money grinds, that works on a system of "put X number of hours into task Y" to get to status Z.

Developers have given people a choice to either not succeed in MMO's - that is, spend less time - or go "all out" and spend as much time as possible to be elite. The addiction part comes in where people naturally want to succeed - don't we all? - and do anything that is possible to do so. This can include alienation of friends, spouses, partners, kids - lack of interest in any other social activities - poor performance on the job, schoolwork, etc.

With that said, there would have to be some sort of legal implication of making an addicting product to really hold the developer accountable for what they create.

4. Lastly, should there be any sort of legal consequences for selling or encouraging an addictive product?

I think this is a really interesting question. At first glance, it screams "Freedom of Speech" violation over it. People don't want the government telling them what to do. However, people seem to be ok with letting the government say: "You can't smoke crack" or "You can't shoot heroin". This makes me wonder the legal process that was involved in making illegal drugs, well illegal. What sort of requirement does something have to have to make it illegal? Looking at the effects of illegal drugs, they have different degrees of severity. Nicotine is legal, yet it's highly addictive, and the health side effects are horrendous. Marijuana usage is illegal, yet studies show that it's less addictive than nicotine, though it's immediate effects (being high) are more dangerous. Alcohol can cause serious problems as well and ultimately lead to obesity or liver failure. Other drugs like cocaine and heroin are highly addictive and have more drastic effects on the body of the user. All of these things used in moderation might be ok, but habitual addictive use of any of them has been shown to be extremely dangerous to the social, mental and physical health of the user.

So where do MMO's come into all of this? Since we're talking in extremes here, someone that lives and breathes for MMO gaming (and there are quite a lot of these people) would exhibit many of the same side effects and symptoms of an "illicit drug user" from the list of illegal substances I listed above. We can assume that many of the side effects of alcohol are readily present: anti-socialism and failure to operate normally outside of the zone of intoxication. Some traits are also shared with actual substance abuse as a hardcore MMO player doesn't physically feel right if they're are not playing a MMO. What you won't find is the direct chemical need (unless we're talking about neurochemistry) for a substance.

Outside of extremes, I'll use myself as an example. Balancing what most consider to be a normal life - job, wife, children - I operate mainly on a 7 A.M. to 8 P.M. schedule of commitment to either my work or my family. Allocating 6-7 hours of sleep, that leaves me roughly 4 hours every night of the week (if I choose) to do whatever I want. If this time is allocated completely to MMO gaming, we're estimating an average play dedication of 28 hours, give or take. Allocation of all of this "free time" towards MMOing can, of course, cause serious problems. You've left no time for friends, time with your partner, housecleaning or other things that normally need to be done on a day to day basis. Just in this example, to play MMO's roughly 25 hours I week, I'd have to alienate all of my friends, never spend time with my wife, and not help around the house at all. Plus, as a business job isn't physically straining whatsoever, we're also looking at problems like poor cardio-vascular health along with obesity problems.

Other long term social side-effects need to be considered as well. Addiction to MMOing usually means limited social interaction outside of the MMO environment. How well rounded is an individual that spent the majority of their late teens in a social MMO environment as opposed to a real one? What sort of medical and sociological effects does long term MMO immersion have? These are questions the gaming industry should probably be asking themselves, lest they be held accountable. Though, looking at the track record of other "addicting habits" and their providers, I don't think that would be the case.

Other habits, like television, gambling and even sports can fit some of the criteria above. While I think you'll be hard-pressed to find a large group of people that watch T.V. 16+ hours a day, I'm sure there are at least a few. We also need to take into account that some couples / families play MMO's together - so some good family / spouse time is actually inside these virtual worlds. These are the minority of cases, however, and we're still presented with the other non-social aspects of the addiction. Should we treat family MMO time the same as we'd treat family crack-pipe time? Seems a bit extreme to me.

This leads into the topic of "How is an MMO addiction worse than another addiction?" Why not attack T.V. addicts and Playstation addictions and Halo addicts? I agree that they are very similar in the aspect we're talking about people spending an unhealthy amount of time engaged in digital entertainment. I might also argue that console games and T.V. don't specifically engineer their product for addiction, though I think I'd be wrong in assuming that. Perhaps it's just I'm more in touch with the MMO addiction as I'm a direct part of the problem as a paying customer and a possible developer of said addicting product.

What does personal accountability count for? The common argument against any of this is "People choose to do what they want." Fair enough - and for me, it's hard to imagine a country or world where mediums such as gaming and escapism were not readily available. Where do we draw the line though? Do we, as society, have to step in and say "enough is enough!"? How many people would have to be over the line for us to take action on this issue - or does action even need to be taken? Is it some sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest that's in place here? Do we side with empathy in helping our fellow humans or do we sacrifice empathy for the freedom of choice?

So there it is. I'm at a crossroad in my professional life: I stay where I am, or I throw myself into the realm that is MMO development.

I'd like to hear some thoughts on the subject. ;)

Goply writes:

I didn't read everything but I did read a lot ill finish later, in a rush atm and wanted to post a little some thing...

Only you are going to find the answers you seek. I have played a lot of MMOs and designed them in the free time, practiced programming ect.  I also have thought about this idea before, and I beleave its the reason a lot of people say to "Kill Your Television"...

The games are going to be made weather you take part it just depends on how you do that, that matters. Add stuff to the game to make it worth the players time, make them learn things while playing, its also a hobby of yours, to not take part would be to change your outlook on life and your habits, so it mainly boils down to, why you want to take part in game deving, what you want to avoid, can you avoid those things, you may even one the one person that changes gaming all together, maybe you can eliminate these things all together, or maybe you will be the person who creates the matrix and ends humanity forever...

Mon Apr 28 2008 8:55AM Report
whistlelock writes:

Your question, distilled down, is it right to provide an addict with their addiction addresses the symptom and not the sickness.  People use the games as escapist material- but why?  Why do they need to escape from anything?  For me it's not a question of right or wrong about the mmo- but a question of why.

What do the players need to escape from?  Have their lives spun so far out of control they need to go somewhere that they can control?  Some spot in their lives where the rules are clearly laid out, as opposed to the "real" world that has unknown rules that are ambiguously laid out?

 

So, really for me it isn't a question of should we provide escape material, but why do we need to do so?

Mon Apr 28 2008 9:58AM Report
faren_rathe writes:

I am a Game Addict. . .  I work between 42 and 52 hours a week on a week that I don't schedule any dating, getting the kids, or what not I average 44 hours of MMO game play. I am not one who scratches and claws my way to the top. . . to elitism. I play for the story lines, for the character development. I average a running of three different MMO's at a time but cycle through them on a bi-weekly basis or so.

Anyway loved your dissertation! Morality itself has to be worked through and defined by the individual, with Good Morals being defined as those that benefit the whole of society. But ultimately we're not really talking about society, are we? We are asking if you love what you do, if you can live with knowledge that you could have benefited as many as you could possibly hurt, and lastly if you have achieved what you really wanted to achieve.

As the addict I say enjoy what you do, use it to provide for you family, and leave me with the choice, be it to be entertained, escaped, or addicted, which ever fits my needs and desires at the time.

Mon Apr 28 2008 10:22AM Report
Player_420 writes:

Good post, and good luck on the new MMO.

I get little things in my Guild Wars chat box every 2 hours asking me to take a break! I always feel like I should get off soon when it says "you've been playing for 4 hours, please take a break"....4 hours is usually a good session so I try to get off within the hour.

Been an addict since UO, and I have been looking for the new UO since LBR was released......guess it makes me play even more

Mon Apr 28 2008 11:09AM Report
Azmaria writes:

Echoing what has been said before me, morals are up to the person considering them.  While I've always been a personal fan on Darwinism and letting people suffer (or prosper) for the choices they make, this doesn't sit well with a lot of people.  This is not to say, however, that I don't have empathy; I just think that people need to learn from mistakes or those mistakes will constantly be made again and again. 

While I'm admittedly not a game addict anymore, I was just a few years ago, literally spending upwards of 12 to 13 hours playing MMOs per day, every day.  After doing that and being completely secluded from the area around me for a summer, I managed to determine for myself that it wasn't what I wanted to do, and so cut my game time back to a more reasonable amount.  It's not hard to do as long as you can scrounge up some willpower and give your time to something or someone that needs it a bit more than you and your MMO do. 

So, in my opinion, why make a game suffer in its content and enjoyability just to try to stave off the inevitable addiction?  If people want to get addicted to a game, they will, no matter if it has multiple bad elements that were purposely put there to remove the addictive factor.  Any time that there is more to do in a game (levels, quests, gear, storyline, etc), people will continue to fight to be the best.  If they choose to get addicted and ruin their lives, that is their choice and the fault should be laid squarely at their feet and not that of the producers.  Choices are a big part of addictions, and to say that you had no choice in trying and getting addicted, and you couldn't stop...that is a form of escapism right there.

Mon Apr 28 2008 11:52AM Report
grimfall writes:

You need to seperate addiction into physical and mental.  MMO's aren't physically addictive (I would actually say they counter-addictive because long sessions can cause pain, seizures and other physical problems).  Most of the drugs you listed are both physically and mentally addictive.  If you think quitting MMO's is anythin like quitting cigarettes, you're sadly mistaken.

 The best comparison would be gambling.  Luckily the consequences aren't so damning, generally, but they can be.

I don't think game makers should face any moral conundrum.  Making a good product that people like should be your goal.  Do you think Coca-Cola worries about people drinking 6 diet cokes a day?

Mon Apr 28 2008 12:06PM Report
JB47394 writes:

I wouldn't liken the compulsion to play games as being like a physical addiction.  This is about psychology.  A virtual world happens to cast a very wide net because of all the behaviors that can be acted out, and  that net can catch all manner of compulsions that don't have an outlet in people's normal lives.

The responsibility of game developers?  It's the same as anyone's; act for the best interests of the individuals in the society that you belong to.  For you and me, that means everyone on planet Earth.  Unfortunately, in a world dominated by the thinking of relative morality, nobody agrees on what 'best interests' are anymore.

If you are at all concerned about the morality of your role as a game developer, I will offer the following bit of advice.

What you do today will be with you for the rest of your life.  If you're proud of it, it will lift you up.  Always.  If you're not proud of it, it will drag you down.  Always.  And the kicker is that the stuff that you're not proud of will never be wiped out by things that you are proud of.

As a software developer, I would never knowingly build a game that was inherently structured to compel people to play it.  If I can't build one that people happily step into and walk away from at their leisure, then I won't build it.  In truth, I fear immersive games in general because of the temptation to players to tune out the world.

Here's a shocker for you: The purpose of a company is neither to make money nor to serve its investors.  It is to provide a service to the community.  To help it.  That's true because companies are just a bunch of people, and our purpose is to serve our community.  When we lose sight of the need to serve the community, we start to make compromises.  Then we go down the slippery slope pursued by people like John D. Rockefeller and Jeffrey Skilling.  They exploited their community.

Good article.

Mon Apr 28 2008 12:30PM Report
Loke666 writes:

Almost everything is addictive. It should be the users choice whatever or not to use an addictive product (Television is an addictive product for once, sugar another one).

Do you really thinks a guy that works at Guiness feel bad about people that get drunk? Not likely.

As long as you not forcing anyone to use a product (Like a certain software company who makes OS) then you're ok by my standards, I choose what I will spend my spare time doing and the choice is always mine.

Mon Apr 28 2008 12:51PM Report
undeadmojo writes:

"So there it is. I'm at a crossroad in my professional life: I stay where I am, or I throw myself into the realm that is MMO development."

@ Daedren : I will qoute from a favorite Jimi Hendrix song

“I'm the one that has to die when it's time for me to die, so let me live my life, the way I want to”

I live by that rule. The only people responsible for themselves becoming addicts is themselves. If you worry that you would become at fault by contributing to someone else's lack of self control don't be.

Public schools to my knowledge don't teach common sense. Your expected to learn that through the course of experience and time. This is a capitalist society we live in driven by consumerism. Critics of consumerism often state it is the desire for material aquisition that equates to social happiness often leaves society to develop destructive tendencies.

With this in mind if people are willing to detract time from other more constructive things to play games instead, well that's their choice. The most any MMO would be responsible for would be a warning label for those idiots who pretend not to know that doing anything excessively has consequences.

Don't pass up this opportunity. I think by being in the mix, especially as thoughtful and concerned as you are about these things, you will be the kind of developer that gamers respect. Which in this industry us gamers need more people like you on our side.

On the other hand MMOs could just give a in-game warning message. "You have been playing for more than 6 hours straight, please go live life." That would be more than enough responsibility IMO.

 

Undeadmojo

Mon Apr 28 2008 11:06PM Report
Melf_Himself writes:

Guild Wars has almost that exact message undeadmojo ^^

@ Daedren: Here is your opportunity to try and make an MMO that is extremely fun but doesn't force you to grind in order to drag out the content. A casual one where you can log on for an hour, have a good time, and not stress out that you're not playing it for a whole day

Good luck :)

Tue Apr 29 2008 4:07AM Report
Daedren writes:

Thanks for the feedback everyone.

@Melf: Not sure if my Corporate overlords would like that. ;) -- They seem to be pushing the WoW-model of "hook them, get them to play as much as possible" sort of thing. The good thing is we're still in the design phase.

@undeadmojo: Good advice, great song. I try to play some Hendrix on my Fender (acoustic) and while I do a couple of his riffs nicely, some of his stuff is so damn amazing I just sit there and listen to it and don't even try and play it. It's almost like 2-3 guitars are playing. Jimmy was a damn Shiva. ;)

Generally speaking, I know what you're getting at. Live your life, do what you want, don't have regrets. You say "don't pass up this opportunity" which is good advice being outside the situation. (There are many logistical and monetary concerns for being a game dev - not suprisingly, they don't make great money) ;)

I'm not worried about my abilities to make a great game. What I'm worried about is in 10-20 years, I can look back and say "well, I kicked some ass. I have MMO X to show for it. That was me who helped make that."

What if I made a game that was too good? The first great 3rd Generation MMO? I effectively double or triple the MMO market - a huge accomplishment. We've peaked out at 20 million subscribers. How many people have lost their job, neglected their children, ignored their wife, became obese, or otherwise shut themselves off from society due to the sheer awesomeness of my game?

I know it's a bit arrogant to think like that - that I, one person, could do such a thing - but when you venture into making an MMO that has a possibility to do this - you have to take this into consideration.

I often think - do Blizzard devs think about the sheer power and draw their game has? When they were scheming up patch 2.4 with the ol' Sunwell - basically introducing another time-sink of an end-game raiding instance along with "daily quests" which is another way of saying "daily work" - they knew they were just creating more repetitive content not to challenge players, but to keep them entertained while they work on the next big thing.

I suppose that comes down to lack of creative vision and just working with an already existing model. I guess you can't expect a dev team, even one as well financed as WoW-Blizzard - to reinvent the wheel every content patch. They just put more water in the bottle and a few more balls in the feeder and let their hamsters be happy just taking what they're given. The hamsters keep paying their 15$ a month, the devs get money to support their lifestyle, and Blizzard/Activision execs get enough money to buy small countries.

Tue Apr 29 2008 4:34AM Report
Daedren writes:

@JB4739: You say that MMO addiction shouldn't be considered a "physical condition". I'll agree that we're mainly talking about a psychological addiction here, but I think that MMO addiction has - or can have - certain physical addicting traits to it. Perhaps this goes back to "Computer Addiction" - but I know quite a few people, mainly my MMO buddies - who don't feel right if they don't spend X amount of hours in front of the computer a day. Of course, sitting in a chair for 12+ hours a day can lead to things like muscle atrophy and other physical ailments, as I'm sure you know.

In fact, if humankind keeps this up, I'd like to think that in 20,000 years or so, we'll all have evolved into chair-shaped beings. Our asses will double in size and we'll lose the ability to stand up straight. Hey, it could happen. ;)

You hit on an excellent point: "Act for the best interests of society..."

And it's that exact thought that keeps me in a "limbo" stage of becoming a MMO developer.

I can't truthfully tell myself that the world would be a better place with another MMO. If anything, I think that the resources that people put into making and playing these games would be much better off given to impoverished countries and people in need. It's sad, actually -- I wonder how much good in the world could be done with 10 Million people's 15$ a month subscription fee.

I know that this outlook is very altruistic. It's not completely hypocritical, as I myself try to give to the needy monetarily - though it's hard to find a soup kitchen to work at in the French Riviera, there are legit programs and organizations you can give your money to, which I do.

I find myself coming off a bit like a bastard saying something like that. Like I'm so much better because I give 20$ a month to the poor while the rest of the evil MMO community shuts it out and continues to give their cash to the corporate beasts of MMO development. I know it's not like that, and that a good number of people, MMO players including, are probably good people with an empathetic look on life that try and do their best.

Anyway, I'd like to continue this line of discussion if you'd like. ;)

 

Tue Apr 29 2008 4:43AM Report
rsreston writes:

First of all - freedom. Freedom of choice.

When I started in City of Heroes, the first days were addictive. Started playing in the evening and stopped at dawn and not even noticing it - some 2 days. Then I settled down and had lots of fun with control in my hands.

Recently I found myself running away from my responsibility (writing my thesis) into SWGalaxies. I only found it out when my subscription ended, I couldn't sign up again for a while and I had found a serious problem in my thesis: I wanted to runaway to my game but couldn't. There were no other options (movies, comics, TV) - it had to be the game.  The only right thing to do was get back at writing my thesis - but I didn't want to do it. I even opened my WoW client to see if its updating had finished, but it hadn't. My heart was beating fast, my breathing was accelerated and my mind was rushing miles per hour. I guess I almost had an anxiety attack.

But I managed to get myself together, controlled my mind and relaxed at last. I got back to my computer, opened my thesis file and started writing. Later I talked to close friends and realized I wasn't addicted to neither SWG or another MMOG. As whistlelock put some post before this one, I was using those games as a means to escape my real life into a world I had control over, whose rules I knew and understood.


I'm still writing my thesis but I don't touch my dear games until I'm satisfied with the day's work. I don't wanna spoil my fun using it as escapism, but as pure entertainment. Since then, I haven't felt guilty anymore when going to sleep.

Tue Apr 29 2008 8:37AM Report
JB47394 writes:

Daedren: "I know quite a few people, mainly my MMO buddies - who don't feel right if they don't spend X amount of hours in front of the computer a day."

Psychological distress can certainly manifest itself in physical conditions.  Simple conditioning can lead to physical responses.  The classic example is Pavlov's dogs.

Daedren: "I can't truthfully tell myself that the world would be a better place with another MMO."

Certainly not another of the type we see today.  Consider that MMOs are vehicles that permit people to interact and it is those very people that are part of the community that we're interested in helping.  Will Wright is using games in an attempt to educate, as are other developers.  What if an MMO did something as simple as putting links into the game that permitted players to find out more about an object from the web?  What if games operated solely on voice, requiring people to get to know each other?

I understand that each of those examples is a drastic departure from the traditional escapist and self-indulgent environment fostered by MMOs.  We don't want reality to intrude.  But perhaps that's what a healthy MMO is - a game that lets real people interact using game pieces that they could never hope to interact with in the real world.

I think that the important thing to keep in mind is that you really are interested in doing good.  If you keep your eyes on that goal, then you won't end up working on Grand Theft Auto XI, and you might just figure out how to make a billion dollars by bringing MMOs into the mainstream of the world's entertainment - instead of being a tool for escapists.  You can pursue a lot of social agendas with a billion dollars.  Especially when it is earned from worthy efforts.

rsreston: " I'm still writing my thesis but I don't touch my dear games until I'm satisfied with the day's work. I don't wanna spoil my fun using it as escapism, but as pure entertainment."

That's awesome.  I hope that all of your entertainment works that way for the rest of your life.

Tue Apr 29 2008 9:39AM Report
KamiKazeTG writes:

I only have one thing to say that answers all the questions at once.

Cigarettes (and other Tobacco products) are legal with no consequences. Even if someone gets cancer and dies. Why? Because it is the individual's choice to smoke/chew etc. If you started holding people accountable for everything they make/do that could hurt someone if improperly used/done, you'd have to arrest and/or fine 90% of the people on the planet.

Fri Jun 13 2008 4:43PM Report
KamiKazeTG writes:

You could always put a disclaimer on your product "If you're a moron please do not buy this"

Fri Jun 13 2008 4:44PM Report

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