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Government in Games with Dr. Richard Bartle

While attending the 2008 Indie MMO Game Developers Conference, Community Manager Laura Genender had the opportunity to hear Dr. Richard Bartle speak on the relationship between online games and governments; exploring both real life situations and hypothetical outcomes that may be on the horizon.

Government in Games with Dr. Richard Bartle
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The first computer game I ever played was Nibbles, the 1991 MS-DOS version of Worm and Hustle published by CLOAD.  In Nibbles, I played a yellow snake that lived in a world of bright blue.  I needed to survive on a meager diet of numbers, overcoming environmental obstacles such as walls and my own body.  If you had told me then, as I eagerly wove my yellow snake toward the delicious number 14, that video game developers would one day be discussing the possibilities of government interference in virtual worlds…well, I would have called you crazy.  What use could kings and presidents have for my lowly number 14?

But this past weekend, I found myself seated at a roughly square shaped table, listening to Dr. Richard Bartle discuss possible scenarios of government regulations and controversies over MMOs.  Bartle, who co-wrote the first MUD back in 1978, has been making games since before Nibbles was a gleam in a developers eye.  As a man whos been at the helm since the birth of persistent online environments, Bartle has a lions share of ideas and understandings about how this industry works.

As MMOs gain more popularity, with big-ticket titles like World of Warcraft, the government is starting to notice the issues and possible profits that surround our online worlds.  Bartle first presented a scenario that is not just a “what if”, but a “is happening” across the seas in China.

Scenario 1: Times Up!

Like comic books before them, MMOs and video games have been at the end of plenty of pointed fingers.  MMOs have been blamed for suicide, murder, child neglect, addiction, depression, ruined marriages, lost jobs, and more.

In August of 2005, China decided to do something about this; the Chinese government announced that it was testing a system that enforces a time limit on MMO players. “The system would work as follows,” reported Joystiqs Ross Miller.  “After three hours of consistent playing, the abilities of your online character would slowly diminish until they became virtually unplayable after five hours. The player must wait five hours after that time to play again, during which he or she could check on their child, make amends to their fellow player in person, or simply cater to their own health needs.

Bartle turned to the session audience, posing the scenario that this happened not just overseas, but in the US.  What, he asked the assembled, mostly-American developers, would you do?  Would you keep making video games?

To these developers, who deal daily with crafty players finding exploits, cutting corners, and min-maxing their character stats in ways no developer could predict…well, it wasnt too big of a worry.  One attendee pointed out that, while the government might restrict players to one account and limit those accounts to 3 hour playtimes, gamers have plenty of non-gamer friends who could get their “own” accounts, then lend them to their gamer buddies.  Oh, sure, single characters would only get 3 hours of playtime a day, but your average gamer would likely still keep to their former schedule of all day game-a-thons.

Scenario 2: We Interrupt Your Program…

Commercials and advertisements are an everyday part of television, newspapers, websites even your drive to work is accompanied by billboards.  The newest wave of advertisement has been in MMOs.  Take a look at Dungeon Runners; update Chunk 2 released more features to non-paying customers, but free players have to stomach a bar of ads at the top of their screens.

Now, where there are advertisements, there are PSAs public service announcements.  Bartles next possible future of government interference was government influence on advertisements and PSAs.  What if the government demanded game developers allow election announcements?

One developer stated that hey, as long as the government (or political parties) paid for these advertisements, it sounded fine to him.  Other developers, though, indicated that it depended on whether they were given a choice of which parties to back.  And while it was generally agreed that mandatory advertisements like this would not drive these designers out of the industry, they were worried that it would break in-game immersion.

And of course, theres always this issue what if a candidates platform was largely based on the idea that games are bad, mmkay?   No one would want to air their ads, then!

One factor of this that received more support was airing PSAs concerning important national or international events, or looming/occurring natural disasters.  Examples of this were 9/11, or the tsunami.

Scenario 3: Owned!

And then came the final scenario, the true kicker, the big elephant in the corner playing the harp.  This scenario is the most likely to occur in my opinion: What happens when/if the government decides that users own their virtual property?

If end-users own it, they should have a say in it what if the government mandated that taking player feedback was mandatory?

This, said several developers, is when Id leave.  Not only is this lawsuit-waiting-to-happen, when the first database bug flushes thousands of dollars of virtual “property” down the drain, but this is the end of creativity.  If developers no longer have an artistic say in the world and experiences they play, they are no longer composers, just musicians, and thats not what they signed up for.