A recent article in the New York Times came out talking about sexual harassment in gaming, and it reminded me of the many types of people I have run into during MMO sessions. Some of the pick-up groups (PUGs) I’ve joined have been some of the most fun I’ve had in games; others have been a nightmare out of Lord of the Flies, with people threatening and cursing at each other throughout an entire dungeon run. There’s generally nothing in-game indicating to other players the age or personal information about a player behind an avatar, so players are generally left to deal with these situations on their own. That said, there are tools in game that allow players to ban a particular player from chat, and to vote to boot a person from the group. The most extreme forms can reported to an in-game referee, but it’s a rare case where that happens, and rarer still for corrective action to be taken against the offending player(s) – gaming companies, after all, are interested in keeping their paying subscribers.
But if a mature, reasonable person is in the minority, those same tools can be used against that person by the bad eggs. I, myself would probably not feel too bad about getting kicked out of such a group and would look for a better one, but there’s also stories of one character getting singled out and harassed and bullied throughout the entire dungeon run.
Ultima Online (UO) was one of the first MMORPGs to deal with “bad eggs” in game. That game started out purely open world, and allowed players to do almost anything they wanted in game, including player vs. player (PvP) combat. This, of course, resulted in players killing other players, or “PKs” as they became known. This “anything goes” feature is cited as the best and worst thing about UO. Many gamers extol the ability to choose any form of progression – heck, in UO, you could be a pure crafter or merchant, and never pick up a sword, ever. Older gamers reminisce about the open world, and the ability to build your own home in game or simply be an explorer.
But PKs became a problem in UO. “Ganking” is the term used for players who attack unprepared, weaker players without warning, especially if they are new to the game. “Camping” is a term for players who hid close to resurrection points or quest locations with the goal of killing players and quest givers. “Griefing” is the term for repeatedly killing the same player simply to ruin his or her playing experience. The UO developers’ idea, early on, was that players would step up and police themselves, and that some kind of “frontier justice” would take care of the player killers. While this worked to some extent, and today’s PvPers know PKs “come with the territory,” there were enough players at the time who didn’t wish to play this way that UO went on to create separate instances of the game world where PvP was disabled unless a player consented. Many games since then have followed this model, perhaps adding specially designed battlegrounds or zones where PvP can take place. To this day, a vocal group laments the loss of open world PvP, and curses the “casual players” who don’t wish to participate in this type of gaming – to them an MMO is a place where PvP should be the default, and casuals “should go play a single player game somewhere else.” This is a case of gamers who prefer pure competition (former console game/first-person shooter players) vs. gamers who prefer cooperation (former single-player RPGers).
So what does this have to do with the harassment these women experience in real life? Well, here we get into the territory of the game spilling over into the real world, and where I think game designers should take a hard look at the philosophy their game is espousing. Yes, all games have a theme, but what are the values of the game? Grand Theft Auto was a first-person shooter where the players is maneuvering between two underworld gangs, and is basically free to do whatever he wants. It was controversial at the time because players were free to run over pedestrians, shoot police, demean women, and basically be a menace to society. Sure, it was rated for mature audiences, but lots of kids played it, and there were some studies that linked the in-game violence to using violence to resolve conflict in real life. An adult may be better able to differentiate between video game violence and the real world, but an adolescent, especially one who is not been given strong parental guidance, is pretty impressionable. Bring that kind of “I am a criminal” attitude in to an MMORPG where other characters in-game have real people behind them, and it’s suddenly very easy to see people extending their Grand Theft Auto personality to in-game players and others in real life.
Another form of this behavior, one that many experienced when the internet was first exploding (and often still do) is the ability to anonymously post to forums. Many can recall the “flame wars” that broke out in public discussion groups, and most people know that “trolls” are people who enter discussion groups with the express purpose of baiting people and disrupting rational conversation. Today, Facebook, YouTube, and text bullying is a known issue.
It’s this same anonymous extension of the real person into virtual space, where the normal rules of social behavior are either not in place or are unenforced, where one realizes where we’ve entered the jungle. What to do?
Of course, getting rid of video games, virtual worlds and the internet is not the answer. Sure, we can pretend that these things do not exist, but we have an inherent draw to environments where we can play out fantasy, talk to other people around the globe, and draw on a vast well of information. What we can do is be better informed and choose our games more wisely. If one of our kids were get to ahold of Grand Theft Auto, it might be better to sit down and talk about it first before banning the game outright. For the women who are victims of bullying in game, it’s our responsibility as a society to ensure the bad behavior is censured and that we do not sit idly by when someone is obviously being attacked. Game developers need to be careful about the message their game is promoting – sure, free speech guarantees us the right to develop pretty much anything they want, but does it make sense to build in some societal norms so that the consequences of bad behavior play out the same way in-game that they do in the real world? Even Ultima Online punished players pretty severely for killing guards or merchants within the city walls. Forum moderators can ban or block posters who are obviously being disruptive. Ironically, the answer is to bring the technologically advanced, socially immature virtual jungle into line with the modern values and philosophy we as a society have worked so hard to establish.