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AGDC08: The Psychology of the MMO Gamer

Kevin Kelly

The first panel we attended at Austin GDC was entitled "The Psychology of the MMO Gamer," which seemed to hold a mythical amount of promise. Sure enough, once the panel began it was clear that these people had gathered a couple of days before and said, "So hey... what can we talk about?" It was a bit disorganized, but some good stuff came out of it, particularly finding out how a six-year old can grief you with pudding. Read on to find out how you too can learn this devious and delicious skill.

The panel consisted of Sean Dahlberg of EA Bioware (Mass Effect), Troy Hewitt of Flying Lab Software (Pirates of the Burning Sea) and Meghan Rodberg from Turbine (The Lord of the Rings Online), and two doctors of psychology from the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Samuel Gosling and Dr. James Pennebaker. With a group that decent on a panel, you'd expect some sort of an agenda, but they just busted out with discussing why characters fake their own deaths or the deaths of loved ones in a game. "For attention," was the short and sweet psychological answer.

But, should game masters and game support people be paying attention to this? Should someone get banned if they do this? Should they ignore in-game requests for memorial services? They can go pretty wrong, as it did in the case of this Warcraft funeral where rival players swooped in during a "moment of silence" and killed pretty much everyone. Forums also get choked with these types of posts, and people will sometimes set up a memorial site, and these end up getting bombed with porn and worse. What's a game support tech to do?

Likewise, what should they be doing about griefing? For those of you not in the know, or lucky enough not to have experienced it, griefing is when one player tries to ruin the gaming experience for everyone else. Meghan told us how her six-year old daughter gave her a pudding and, after she ate it, was told, "I licked it." A griefer at age six! Awesome.

One audience member had a very good point: "What does it matter if they do all this, because they're playing an RPG? Isn't the point that they're supposed to act like someone else? Not themselves?" True to a point, we'd say. As long as you're not actively trying to ruin the game for someone else, what's the problem with it? More so, what can game developers do about it? Besides the banhammer, which just leads people to create new accounts, there's not much.

Their general consensus was that the best thing to do about it is to promise that the situation will be reviewed, and then basically do nothing. You know, like filing a complaint about a character on Xbox Live. Those seem to get zapped into the ether where they vanish in a haze of nothingness. What other options can game designers incorporate? The panel discussed the "jail" system that was a part of Ultima Online, which doesn't sound like a bad idea, or the "ignore" feature where players get flagged and put on "ignore" if they continue to grief. Only they don't know they're being ignored, so they finally just leave.

Doctor Gosling noted, "But this is all superficial. You're fixing something after the fact when you need to be addressing the underlying cause of the problem." Sean chimed in as well, saying, "The more anonymous someone can be in any situation, then the greater the chance is that they'll act out." That definitely seems to be true. For now, the best option seems to be what Doctor Pennebaker said, "Just do what I do in my classes that have 500 students in them. Just pretend like you care about each and every one of them. There's no possible way I can actually care about them, but I can give them the illusion that I do."

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