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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at 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. ;)