Why Online Games Turn Players into Psychopaths is the silly headline of a WIRED article published yesterday. The author writes about behavior in the open, dangerous worlds of DayZ and Rust, and specifically his transition from helpful and cooperative to naked murderer. He keeps using the term “virtual worlds”, but I think he’s talking about worlds where violence is built into the game design. His sweeping statements would only apply to a tiny group I’ve met in an open virtual world like Second Life; much closer to the stat given in the article that 1% of the RL population is psychopathic.
The author doesn’t seem to grok that he’s writing about worlds where survival may depend on killing before being killed, so what he sees as psychopathic behavior can be strategic gameplay. In the games that he mentions, those cold-blooded and cruel killers are the ones that are having fun and are still alive, which means even more since death is permanent (there’s no “Continue”; a player must restart with a new character). Building a nonviolent commune in DayZ isn’t going to end well. On the other hand, that could be the model for a successful community in SL, where violence is limited to certain areas and griefing or harassment could result in an account ban.
At one point the author asks, “Are our actions in a virtual world tantamount to imagining those things we could do in real life but never would? Or are we merely behaving as we would in real life if there were no consequences for our actions?” Inhibitions are lower online, especially for those who maintain anonymity (John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory certainly applies to some). Online anonymity can be like Plato’s Ring of Gyges scenario: in The Republic, Glaucon asserts that even a just man would use a ring of invisibility to do unjust things, because it would be foolish to do otherwise. However, except for the tiny percentage of true psychopaths among us, we bring qualities like empathy and a sense of right and wrong with us when we enter virtual worlds. We might stretch our definitions and act far beyond our RL orientations, but I suspect that most of us still act within the perceived social contract of that online space. Most, not all.
On a tangent, there is a section of the article that resonates with my thoughts about the awful new player experience in Second Life. The author interviews a notorious thrill-killer from DayZ:
He says players in games like DayZ and Rust devise elaborate ways to abuse others because the open-ended nature of these games leaves them bored if they don’t create their own goals.
“Normally, when you log into a game, the game communicates its rules to you,” Kalle says. “If we both jump onto a Call of Duty server, the rules are there. It’s agreed that we’re going to kill each other. DayZ doesn’t give you goals, it just gives you tools.”
Thus, Kalle and his friends create their own fun. That might mean manipulating, abusing or even killing other players one day and helping them the next.
The open-ended nature of a virtual world is a two-edged sword. It’s full of opportunities, but without guidance it’s easy to fall into boredom or mischief. I think SL’s new member experience could benefit from some gamification. Rules, challenges, and rewards. Some of that used to exist with the initial tutorial, but not anymore. The answer is not in guiding new residents to classes at Caledon Oxbridge or other places, though those are useful. How addictive would Candy Crush be if you had to schedule hours of real time to attend classes before you could understand Level 2?