Thursday, 24 February 2011

Tragedies of the ludic commons - Jonas Heide Smith

1. Smith JH. Tragedies of the ludic commons - understanding cooperation in multiplayer games. Game Studies. 2007;7(1). Available at:

An article that links player behaviour and dilemmas in online games into two new areas of research for me - collective action problems and social dilemmas. This is sort of what I've been looking for, because I think that research on multiplayer online society ought to have some grounding in research into offline societies, even if it's just to expose the differences between on and offline experiences.

The paper introduces the concepts of collective action and social dilemma, but then links the two for the remainder of the paper. He then discusses three aspects of multi-player gaming that he describes as 'conflict-heavy' and how they can be understood in terms of social dilemmas. The three areas he chooses are aligned with my interests: cheating, grief play and responsible participation.

Cheating he acknowledges is a slightly grey area in places. Defining some cheats is straightforward - hacking the client for example obviously contravenes the rules of the game. However, exploiting loopholes that the developer didn't expect is grey - the player has to guess at what is beyond allowed, and what the developer expected. Also the author states that if everyone is 'cheating' it may just be that they are all playing a different game (although mostly the games where everyone cheats are not wildly popular). The cheat is compared to the prisoner's dilemma, where the very best outcome for the player is to have everyone around them be playing fair while they cheat, but the best for the group as a whole (in terms of the game-playing experience) is if everyone is playing fair.

Grief play is defined as disruptive play that brings the player no or little personal gain. If the collective good is again seen to be the enjoyment of the experience, this can be seen to destroy that collective good.

Irresponsible participation is a tricky one. This is defined (in this article) by example - so if you know a raid is going to take upwards of an hour and you only have 40 minutes, you'll have to abandon and potentially wreck the raid party. Alternatively, gambling at one point in a game and putting yourself at such a disadvantage that you quit could take the enjoyment of beating you from your opponent. Difficult. I suspect these might be very personal calls on what is and isn't acceptable - would be interesting to follow up on that.

The article goes on to discuss the ways that these problems could be alleviated for the good of all, including code, cheat-blocker software etc. It gets most interesting for me when he starts to talk about guilds as a method of managing the great proportion of these issues. The guild rules and reputation allow the players to judge others - so you know that if you're playing with people from your guild they ought to have the same ideas about what is and isn't permissible (within the norms you are forming). So, if a guild is one where team kill is turned on, you know that and understand that risk and won't be so upset if one of your team shoots you (in theory). I think the grey areas and judgement calls (i.e. is it acceptable to concede the game early and deny the opponent the thrill of winning) is what the guild rules will probably centre on and clarify - it would be fascinating to check that.

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