MMO MMOnkey: The greed game

Take a look at the world around you.
Tell me, why is there so much need?
Because of greed.
Because of greed.

Damien Dempsey, "Celtic Tiger"
(From the album Seize the Day)

Greed. Countries go to war so that the powerful can take land, gold, oil from the weak, can kill them and take their stuff. Greed. The richest 1% of the population of the United States control over 30% of the country's wealth as they clamor for and are given massive tax cuts by the government while, by the government's own estimates, roughly 12.5% of its citizens live in poverty. Greed. Corporate executives with multimillion dollar salaries lie, cheat, steal and commit fraud as they gut their companies and destroy the jobs, lives, retirement funds and futures of their employees. Greed.

No matter how much they have, they want more. No matter how little you have, they want more. Greed. It infests our countries, our governments, our corporations and businesses. It infests our favorite MMOs.

MMOs tend to become greed games when they're structured around gear at a fundamental level. World of Warcraft is a good example. Once the level cap is reached in WoW, further development comes from getting more and better stuff. PvP often turns on who has the better gear rather than who has more skill. If you play WoW as it was designed to be played, it's all about the gear in the end .

WoW was not the first and certainly won't be the last game that is driven by gear. Part of the reason is that WoW is so good and has been so successful that other game developers copy it shamelessly. Another reason is that an end game built on acquiring ever-better gear works. All you have to do is look at all the people at max level doing raid instances over and over again in WoW in their quest to get the next piece of tier-whatever gear to see how effective a gear-based end game can be. In and of itself, a gear-driven game is not a bad thing. It does not compel players to engage in the greed game although it provides them the opportunity to do so. The problem is that far too often we the players grab that opportunity in our grasping little hands.

One way greed manifests in MMOs is when people ostentatiously display their stuff. You've probably seen the toons that hang out between the bank and auction house in Ironforge parading around in their tier-terrific gear and doing everything they can to draw attention to themselves. If it's not Ironforge or WoW, it's some other place or some other game but they're always there. Having gear that is better than everybody else's is central to this behavior. If somebody shows up with better stuff, you have to get something that is at least as good and preferably better. You don't really need it to actually play the game, but you have to have it because somebody else does. Greed.

A milder version of the same thing happens when players feel compelled to display their stuff by linking it in chat. "Look what I have!" carries with it the unavoidable implication of "And I'm special because I have it." I was in a guild once that exhibited no trace of this type of behavior until the most advanced members began to approach the level cap and then people started displaying their stuff in guild chat. At first, the displays were met with a chorus of "Congrats" but soon other players took it as an opportunity to show everybody their stuff too. "Look what I got!", "Yeah that's cool but look what I got!!", "Oh no, my stuff's not as cool as his stuff, I gotta get better stuff." Greed.

Although I've played and thoroughly enjoyed WoW off and on since the day it launched and have brought many characters to the level cap, I've rarely grouped for instances and raids. There are a number of reasons for this but one of the most important is that I can't stand the greedy bickering over loot that so often occurs during instance runs. For a long time one of my characters was a member of one of the best guilds I've ever been fortunate enough to be associated with. The guild was increasingly turning toward raiding and my guild leader, a truly caring, considerate and thoughtful person, organized a special guild run through Coilfang just so that I could have the experience of running an instance with my guildmates. The instance was below the group's abilities but they gave of their time with good spirit simply to provide a nice experience for my character. It was that kind of guild.

One of the characters who was several levels below mine was generally interested in the same kind of gear as I was. When the first piece dropped that we could both use, he declared "Need" and I thought nothing of it. When the second piece dropped I was about to take the item when he declared "Need" again. I was confused by this because I thought standard procedure was that once you had declared "Need" you didn't declare it again until everyone who was interested in the same type of gear had the opportunity to pick up a drop. However, I was so inexperienced at running instances that I thought there was a good chance I was mistaken and thus I asked about the loot procedures the guild followed. Now the point of this story is not about good and bad loot rules and practices. The point is about what happened when I asked the question.

The other player immediately launched into a defensive and somewhat belligerent tirade about why he deserved the item which boiled down to he was entitled to it because he wanted it. It was greedy, small and ugly and it left me shocked, appalled and dismayed.

I was dismayed because I found myself wanting to respond in kind. Not only was this something the character I was playing would never do, it was something I didn't think I would do. I was ashamed of myself. How could I have allowed the structure of the game to lead me to react with greed? Clearly I had work to do in order to root out and try to eliminate some personal failings.

I was shocked because the other player was one of the last people on the planet I would have expected to display naked greed. He was a guild officer who in all other aspects of his play was utterly selfless in his devotion of time and effort to working for the guild and helping members at every level in any way he could. No task was too inconsequential, no member was too new or too low level for him to take time out from his own game to offer help if needed. He was one of the nicest people I'd ever played with. What kind of game could lead a person like this to act as he had?

I was appalled because no one else in the group thought anything of it and, as I thought more about it, I realized this was the most discouraging thing of all. I had been a member of this guild for many months and had come to know the players as the kind of people who cared more about doing what was right than doing what was of most benefit to them. The guild was dedicated to displaying honorable behavior in everything they did and the players who made up the group doing Coilfang lived up to that ideal without exception. It was a privilege and an honor to be a member of that guild and every minute I carried the guild name above my head was spent trying to live up to the high ideals of selfless behavior exhibited by my guildmates. They would not have accepted this display of greed from a guild member in public, yet here in this instance, no one said a word.

I thought it likely that others in the group had spoken to the other character privately rather than make it into a public issue as this was the way behavior problems were usually handled within the guild. When I spoke with people individually about it later, I found this wasn't the case. Everyone agreed that it was ugly and regrettable. Everyone also agreed that while it was unfortunate, it happens. It's just part of the game.

Greed. It's just part of the game.

I expect this column will elicit flames from those who get hysterical whenever something negative is said or implied about WoW or who are desperate to justify their own displays of greed. There are also many counter examples one could cite of random acts of kindness in WoW along with compelling arguments than can be made about ways to enjoy WoW, and every other game we play, without exhibiting greed. While I am likely to agree with many of these comments, I don't think they negate the observation that the greed game is alive and well in many of our favorite MMOs.

Okay, so some people are greedy and some of our games allow them to display their greed. So what? What's the point of this column anyway? It's not about WoW, it's not about me, and it's not about the other character whose behavior I've described. It's about all of us who play in and care about MMOs. It's about how we are all complicit in allowing naked displays of greed to become part of our game. It's about how we have accepted and thereby quietly encouraged a culture of greed that has unpleasant consequences in game and devastating consequences in the real world.

It's enough to break your heart. It broke mine.

This article was originally published on Massively.