The WoW Factor: the ethics of online communities

Just last week, I created a Facebook discussion thread for USC gamers who want to join a Trojan clan for the upcoming release of Halo 3. According to Douglas Thomas, this action is a tremendously significant one: I’ve taken the first step towards creating an online space where like-minded gamers exchange knowledge and knowledge resource locations.

If that sounds like jargon, it probably is. Monday’s presentation at Annenberg, “Understanding the Gamer Disposition: What gamers can teach us about learning in the 21st century” was largely an obfuscated statement of the obvious… that gamers like those who play World of Warcraft (WoW) are early adopters of online communities and use them in unexpected ways.

Thomas has managed to create a research field for himself that allows him to do what he obviously loves: put in lots and lots of gaming hours. “At this point, I’ve played so much Warcraft that I feel like I should introduce myself as a level-70 warlock who plays a university professor on the USC server,” he quipped.

Thomas argues that WoW, Star Wars Galaxies, SecondLife and other massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs) of their kind aren’t terribly useful as teaching tools of actual facts, but rather have a secondary market that teaches players how to learn and teach other players. Translation: secondary player-created resources, like ThottBot, a forum of quest strategies for WoW, spring up to allow players to share their experiences in game and synthesize new ways of playing.

“Players pass knowledge around, teaching others how to find information for themselves.”

However, Thomas seems to hold the belief that these objective-driven game environments give rise to an ethical community system. “Games can’t necessarily work as teaching tools, but they can teach ethics and civic engagement,” he said.

That’s the case in WoW, where the game design–by virtue of being an RPG (role-playing game)–has collaboration at the core of its architecture, but what about online games that don’t reward collaboration?

“The social life of a game exists outside the game,” he says. “The gamers define what constitutes citizenship.”

Fine for World of Warcraft, not so pleasant for online first-person shooters or games like Grand Theft Auto. Thomas believes that games are a “transitional phase” of massive online communities, with games easing our culture into the realm of the future, where online avatars represent us and interpersonal relationships are forged in a virtual space.

As a gamer, however, I find that is not always the case. If the game design rewards cooperation and being nice to one another as in WoW guilds, players will do it–not for altruistic reasons, but for self interest–and if the game does not reward those behaviors, like in Halo 2, where intimidation and threats may help you win, players won’t behave that way unless forced to by the threat of banning.

It’s scary to think that if games are to be these ethical learning engines that teach us how to act in the virtual space, game design inevitably rests in the hands of major media conglomerates that want to sell as many units as possible, with little or no regard to the kind of meta communities that emerge as a result.

Thomas did present a compelling profile of the so-called “gamer disposition.” With more than nine million players logging into World of Warcraft, this is a demographic that is becoming rapidly more important for media folks to understand.

He said that typically, (1) gamers are “hungry to be evaluated and scored” and that improvement and curiosity to see new things keep them playing, (2) gamers quit playing when they stop learning and (3) dissatisfaction with the status quo defines a gamer personality.

In WoW, for instance, players want to get better equipment and level up their guy for two reasons, the first being status, but the second, and more important, being the desire to see new and interesting things built into the game world. “Purple shiny pants let you see new things more quickly,” he said, cheekily summarizing the motivation for getting new equipment in MMO-RPGs.

In the end though, none of these attributes amount to altruism or actual ethics, which are the ingredients to real social world-building. But for the business world, the gamer disposition can be novel and advantageous. Thomas told an anecdote about a software exec who, when presented with a new project, instead of recruiting people and hiring resources to tackle it, simply assumed that the resources and people were already in his company and went out and explored the building to find them. When pressed about it, the exec, a gamer, said “Well, it’s like a quest, right, and I assume that the solution is built into the game environment.” Novel indeed, but not always correct.

Douglas Thomas sees a future where we all lead second lives, with an ethically culpable avatar representing us online. “By 2011, 80% of Americans will have some sort of avatar,” he said. He looks to games as the ushers of this new world order. “The first thing many Brazilians do when they log onto SecondLife is set up dance clubs. People hear the music, and start to talk to one another.”

The benefits of an altruistic, curiosity- and community-driven online realm seem nearly limitless. But to gamers like me who have heard 13-year-old boys with sniper rifles shouting things that would make a Hell’s Angel blush, that future seems a bit overly rosy. The future of the online world will probably look a lot like the present of the real world: there will be nice people, there will be jerks, there will be rewards and drawbacks to being either. Choose wisely.

About Noah Barron

Hi, I used to be Robert Niles' research assistant, but I actually graduated and actually found a dead tree j-job at the Los Angeles Daily Journal, where I am general assignment/verdicts and settlements reporter.