Online gaming as a social experiment

It is all to easy to abuse one’s position as an industry analyst and technology commentator. I’m not talking about backhanders from IT vendors with the unspoken promise of a mention. Rather, it is possible to steep oneself in the overflowing and delightfully warm spring waters of geekdom, claiming it somehow fits in the category of “research”. I make no such excuses, therefore, for my current “Level 60” status in World of Warcraft (that’s as high as you can go, folks), nor for the fact I’ve recently picked up copies of the galactically large Eve Online and the beautifully rendered Guild Wars. All of these fit into the category of MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role playing games, the title itself sealing the nerdy nature of the whole affair.

All the same, it is difficult not to be impressed by the phenomenal rise in interest about such “games” – I understand that Blizzard Entertainment (incidentally, currently looking for a PR manager) was pretty much saved from the very real financial wolves, due to the success of its World of Warcraft title. I use the term “game” guardedly as, while these things are undoubtedly designed for leisure time, there’s as many social aspects as there is slashing and burning. Eve, for example, is a great deal about trade – players are presented with a quite complex set of tools for buying and selling virtual commodities, from ore up to space ships, and can learn to hedge and profit from the imaginary markets. All of the titles encourage some form of collaboration – tasks get easier, puzzles are easier to solve and monsters are quicker to kill, and indeed the whole thing does become a great deal more sociable.

Perhaps most fascinating is where the line between “virtual” and “real” starts to become less well drawn. There was the famous case last year of a very real murder taking place, due to the “theft” of a not-so-real sword and its subsequent sale on an auction site – the authorities were powerless to do anything about the “theft” as, after all, the sword did not actually exist. eBay is serving as an international currency market for virtual gold: when I told a trading expert about the practice of “framing” virtual gold and selling it in this way, his first response was, “ah, money laundering.” Very recently, an online funeral was held for someone who had died in real life; unfortunately the virtual event was trashed by an opposing faction, who “slaughtered” the attendees at the funeral and videoed the result. There’s a fascinating expose of this at the most excellent Virtual Worlds web site, which also discusses such issues as men taking on female forms and then being propositioned for cyber sex.

There are many potential links that remain to be exploited. For example, online guilds often have their own forums and discussion boards, and there are in-game chat channels – it would make sense to bring both of these in line, so online and offline discussion and chat could be integrated in some way. The social networking aspects of the games are thus far under-exploited, but all it would take would be an API between (say) Eve and Myspace, and the rest would take care of itself. Perhaps both would drive standardisation across games, with the potential that trading could take place, and even that characters could move, between virtual worlds. There’s a very good, if tongue in cheek article about the possibilities, here.

The fruition of such ideas would not be without causing other issues. For a start, vendors of online worlds are currently very keen to ensure they keep their subscribers, and are unlikely to open the door to churn. Neither do most people want to reveal their true identities outside the gaming world – the current debate on identity management is already extending to “digital social environments” that include MMORPGs. The number of different kinds of abuse, from the aforementioned laundering to good old fashioned bullying, will be limited only by the imagination. Frankly I have no idea what is to come, but I do know that it stands to be very interesting indeed.

Online gaming as a social experiment

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