Ask Massively: Taboo topics

Image from the game formerly known as The Bible Online
In the US, we have a joke about how you never discuss politics or religion with friends if you want to keep those friends, which is a shame since those are usually the most interesting subjects, especially when it's three in the morning and you're out of jello shots. Today's topic might seem as if it's about religion and politics on the surface, but it's really not. A reader named Ediz wrote to us with the following question:
While browsing the official Neverwinter forum guild recruitment section, I noticed several guilds openly advertising their religious orientation. I think this is really bad, even if they accept non-religious members. This type of behaviour should be strongly dealt with by community managers. The last thing I want in a game and especially MMO is to see people's religious, sexual, or political orientations openly advertised as it just ruins my immersion. I politely complained about it on the thread, and my post has been casually removed by the moderators. What is wrong with these guys?
Short answer? Nothing at all.

I've had similar experiences. In Ultima Online, there are several very vocal religious guilds. They don't just recruit on forums; they literally build churches with overt religious symbols painted on the rooftops, and they preach about their religious icons on virtual street corners, even using game mechanics to advertise prayer groups to passersby. Regardless of whether you share that religion or not, it's a weird feeling to log in, expecting to be immersed in a lore framework, only to have it shattered by something very real-world and out of place for the MMORPG setting. It'd be even weirder in a science fiction universe!

But this isn't really about religion at all. This same immersion-shattering occurs in non-religious contexts. If you're roleplaying your mandoviol-player in a cantina and some Wookiee comes in talking about last Sunday's football game? Immersions shattered. If you're leading a vigil for Elune at a moonshrine and some punk starts jawing about Chuck Norris in general chat like it's 2005? Immersions shattered. If you're hanging out in Great Temple of Balthazar assembling a Zaishen dailies group and the kids are blah-blahing about how their mean-ol' parents won't buy them iPhones? Immersions shattered.

There are a million ways for people to maliciously and innocently ruin our immersions. In the absence of an enforced roleplaying server, our only recourse is to avoid the people creating those problems. I don't visit the churches, I add the Wookiee to my ignore list, I turn off general chat, and I assemble my hunting groups in zones less likely to attract attention-seekers who want to chat rather than be immersed.

TERA
Games themselves aren't immune from trolling our immersions with real-world gunk, either. Consider how many games insist on shoehorning Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day, Independence Day, and dozens of other holidays into their lore in order to pander to whatever target audience. If you ever cringed at Ewoks with cupid wings, then you know what I'm talking about.

As for why games allow it in the first place, that's down to reciprocation. Outside of hardcore roleplaying servers where the rules about real-world references are openly declared and strictly enforced, most games just don't care about immersion or roleplaying, certainly not as much as they care about providing an inviting setting for as many customers as possible, and that includes letting players assemble as they see fit. Hate-oriented guilds are usually restricted in all but the most wretched titles, but beyond that, players can generally form their clubs around a shared religion, political persuasion, love of The Beatles, or conviction that periwinkle is superior to chartreuse (and it is). Religious guilds might tend toward families and LGBT guilds might tend toward adult topics, but both, in my experience, are more about acceptance than about a theme, and few people in them actively seek to ruin anyone's immersions -- they just want a guild where they feel at home and free from hate, just like everyone else.

Game studios also don't want to provoke a scandal like the 2006 fiasco Blizzard bumbled into when it threatened to ban World of Warcraft players for advertising for a LGBT guild. "We have determined that advertising sexual orientation is not appropriate for the high fantasy setting of the World of Warcraft and is therefore not permitted," declared Blizzard. A few weeks later, the story had gone viral and Blizzard reversed its decision, promising sensitivity training for the errant employees. Whether the apology was genuine or just an attempt to subdue the resulting PR nightmare, we'll never know, but it's definitely the one thing no one wants to clone from WoW.

The bottom line is that in order to acquire freedom, we have to give it to everyone, and that's something every roleplayer learns very well. If you want other players to accept your silly pretense, be prepared to reciprocate and accept theirs, whether it's in-character or out. If we want the freedom to assemble for ourselves, we have to make sure that right belongs to everyone else too -- yes, even at the expense of our precious immersions.

What should you play? Where is the MMO industry headed? How does Massively operate? Has Lord British lost his marbles? Why is the edit button on a timer? Should "monoclegate" be hyphenated? Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce submits to your interrogations right here in Ask Massively every other Thursday. Drop your questions in the comments below or ping us at ask@massively.com. Just ask!

This article was originally published on Massively.