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The Guild Counsel: The ethics of gaming

Karen Bryan

As I head to GDC Online for its final hurrah in Austin, I can't help but think about the many panels each year that talk about things like monetization, marketing, and mechanics, and I wonder whether the industry somehow veered off course. Because the developers are speaking to one another, you usually get a much more candid look at what goes on behind the curtain, and lately it reminds me of Jurassic Park.

There's a scene in the film where Ian Malcom questions the rationale behind cloning extinct species of dinosaurs and then building a theme park to make a fortune. As he points out, you spent so much time figuring out whether you could that you didn't stop to think whether you should. In other words, the ethical questions of Jurassic Park weren't addressed until the last boat left the dock and Newman had corrupted the system and was hopelessly lost in the jungle with a shaving cream can of dino DNA.

When it comes to MMOs, there are ethical questions that the industry needs to consider, and some of them are questions that MMO guilds also need to address. In this week's Guild Counsel, we'll look at the ethics of gaming in MMOs, before there's a Jurassic Park catastrophe.


In order to succeed, MMOs need players, but over the years there's been much more of an emphasis on how to monetize games and generate even more revenue. Back when the western MMO market was largely subscription-based, the key was to get players signing up and sticking around. It didn't necessarily matter how much you played, just that you kept coming back. And players did come back because they were compelled to, not because they were swayed by marketing.

Free-to-play has lowered the barrier to trying an MMO, but studios are forced to make up for that by adding in cash shops. It becomes a slippery slope, though, because studios have to work that much harder to convince players to part with their cash. Gone are the recurring, reliable, monthly subscription payments, and in their place is a more volitile revenue stream. Players get a non-stop barrage of promotions, special deals, and one-time offers mixed into their games. Take to the extreme, lead gen offers try to tempt players to take offers for things that have nothing to do with the game itself in return for some cash shop points. We're asked to take surveys, order magazines, and watch ads to get some in-game credits, which is about as far from the original spirit of MMOs as you can get. Somewhere along the way, the discussion shifted from whether MMOs are art to ways in which MMOs can get players to spend even more. Game design now is as much about marketing mindgames as it is creating rich virtual worlds.

In essence, what many MMOs are doing these days is no different from what John Hammond did with Jurassic Park. They took something new, something that was never fully understood, and went right to slapping it on a lunchbox and selling it on a store shelf. They figured out how they could but didn't take the time to consider whether they should.

One more pull

Meanwhile, guilds also need the same thing as MMOs. They need players, preferably players who are loyal to the game and play regularly. But because guild content often requires many people to be online together, some guilds go beyond gentle coaxing and pressure or even threaten members to be online more than they might want to be. But where is the line crossed? We can probably agree that it's wrong for a leader to penalize or remove a player for not being at an event, but is it OK to contact someone offline and ask him to log in? Is it OK to beg a player to stick around for "one more pull," even though it's late? Should a guild leader send a tell to a member who's online but doesn't seem to want to raid that night? The fact that we can doesn't mean we should.

Let's face it: People are the lifeblood of MMOs. Nothing dampens the desire to play than an empty city or a lonely guild roster. And when MMO worlds and guilds are bustling with player activity, they're at their best. But to what length should MMO studios and guilds go to lure in players and get them to play (or get them to pay)? And if MMOs and guilds were to drop their sometimes heavy-handed approach, would that help or hurt things?

The Guild Counsel  The ethics of gaming
Doesn't mean we should

I think what we're seeing now in the industry is the dinosaur-unleashed scenario. John Hammond's idealized vision of a natural park accessible to all ended up crashing down all around him. Similarly, the "you ain't seen nothing yet" excitement from the MMO industry back about four or five years ago has completely evaporated. Instead of striving to be a unique blend of media, entertainment, and yes, even art, the MMO is now just another consumer product. Meanwhile, guilds, with their pressure to play and participate, have turned off many players and risk becoming irrelevant in the long run.

It's not too late, but it's time to really look at the ethics behind our games and our gaming. While we can't directly change the industry, we can vote with our wallets. More importantly, though, guild leaders should take a moment to really step back and look at how we affect our members' gameplay. In many cases, the members themselves either don't mind or won't protest, but that doesn't make it right to get people to play more than they should or could. Guild leaders should always be aware of the responsibility they hold because they often have a lot more influence then they realize. There are plenty of successful guilds in which the guild leader leads everyone toward a goal without compromising that responsibility along the way.

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.

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