Thursday, December 22, 2011

Telling Tales in Gabriel Knight 2

I decided to post this one over at Gamers with Jobs. It's a fun website that I've lurked on for years with typically more mature commenters. The offer to post something came up and I thought I'd give it a spin. I like running a personal blog and all but this kind of thing isn't very fun without a community to share it with. That's what Google+ does for me these days but it's important to keep branching out.

As far as my conclusions about systems narrative that I got out of playing the game, I'm adding that the main characters of a game inherently have no character development. They are always reacting, nothing is unveiled about them because we are the ones guiding their actions. It is the other characters in the game that we learn about. Which has been on the table for some time, I just now have a justification dating all the way back to a 1994 adventure game.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On-Line Dating Advice for Strange People

All of these lessons were learned the hard way.

#1 Always hug your date at the end and get their phone number if you were interested.
This happened because during the date we both agreed to meet at a friend’s party the following weekend. When I said, “Let’s meet up at the party next Friday”, I should have said, “Let’s meet up at the party next Friday. As this is our first date and I don’t really know you that seems like a safe place for a second date after our delightful brunch.” I did lean in for a hug but it hit that awkward chasm where neither of us were quite close enough and I bailed at the last second. I zapped her a friendly facebook message wishing her a good week a few days later. She refused to speak to me.

#2 When meeting new dates at parties, make sure she isn’t best friends with the woman you didn’t call.
I realized my horrible mistake a few days after swapping phone numbers and friending her on facebook. A quick perusal of her photos and not only did I realize she was friends with the first date, they were into besties territory. I’m a quick learner so I made sure to hug and call often, but that seemed to make things worse. After the second date ended with the woman who taught me lesson #1 joining us for drinks, I decided to match their awkward social situation with an extensive explanation of spatial story telling in Bethesda Games. Never heard back from either after that.

#3 People don’t actually mean they like hiking when they say they like hiking.
I love the outdoors. Mountain biking, camping, or hiking are all things I love doing when the weather permits. The problem is that most dating websites will frame this question in terms of, “Do you leave the house occasionally? “ or “Does sunlight hurt you?” Nobody wants to click that they don’t like hiking and it seems like a fun thing to say. Right up until you’re pulling out a map and explaining a 15 mile vertical climb that is a 4 hour drive away.

#4 It’s usually a bad sign if they cancel a date four days in advance because they’re too tired.
One of the trickier problems that crops up is dating people who are too nice to be dating online. An overly nice person doesn’t really want to do the rejecting or hurt anyone’s feelings. So if you’re really into them and they want out, prepare yourself for a long and awkward period of never-returned calls and cancelled dates. If they stand you up once, shame on them. If they stand you up twice? Shame on you.

#5 Watch or read something the average person can relate to.
On one date we were chatting about media and I realized I had been on a bad obscurity bender again. Between my job, rewatching old sitcoms on Netflix,, and reading bizarre academic papers I did not have a single thing to say that the date would have any interest in. After a bit of pestering I finally just started talking about my latest crackpot theory about rules and video games. She was quiet when I finished and asked me how I related to people if that was what I did for fun. I told her, “I don’t really, I go on internet dates.”

#6 Joking that you’re going to get a dog if doesn’t work out can be easily misinterpreted.
It doesn’t make it any better if you say you’re kidding and that you really like cats instead.

#7 When dating multiple women with the same first name, organize them by their last name.
G-chat, cell phones, facebook, all of it. Apologizing will not undo this one.

#8 Don’t do dinner on the first date. Just meet for drinks of some sort.
There isn’t actually any story behind this one, just pure statistics. Every girl I took out to dinner on the first date ended badly eventually. Drinks, be it beer or coffee, ended the best and we’re still friends. Well, I don’t wish something bad would happen to them. Lunch always ended up somewhere in the middle.

#9 If two dogs are fucking in a truck next to your outdoor table on the first date, just let it go.
After realizing the giant Labrador had enough in him to last all day, I just ordered a beer and asked her if she was familiar with The Wire. She said no and talked about herself for the rest of the date. The dogs stared at me the entire time.

#10 It’s okay to ask them out more than once.
I base this on the fact that most of the messages women receive on dating websites are incoherent, creepy, and often just asking for sex. If you’re writing a grammatically correct, polite message that comments on several things you have in common and invites them out for coffee somewhere, that’s okay. You don’t need to send it every single day, or even every week, but people are busy and things change fast with internet dating.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Kill Screen Article on Textualism and Contextualism

A quick link to another Kill Screen post, this one on textualism and rule enforcement. I thought the idea had interesting ramifications in video games since we are all so used to to literal enforcement. The conversation about enjoying good old fashioned table top RPGs or looser experiences is nothing new, but it was interesting to twist the idea around to law then back into games.

I will have to think of something clever for the next one though, I'm not satisfied with the link ratios just yet. I can do better. With gaming culture there is always one sure-fire method for doing this: write about a classic hit. Unfortunately none of them seem to be about law. Or not yet anyways.

Challenging material to produce, hopefully not to read though.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Content Degradation in Modern Warfare 3

The leaves have changed and fallen, the days grow cold, and yet another Call of Duty game has been rented and returned. I picked up Modern Warfare 3 from redbox and made a weekend of it with my Brother and Cousin. We drank Bushmills and passed the controller until the Bushmills finished us off. The following day I dusted off the short campaign and spent another few hours in multiplayer. I liked it better than MW2, it is still not as good as MW1. Treyarch still makes the best MP maps.

The gist of a Call of Duty game is modeling the map. In multiplayer this is learning the various fire corridors and hiding spots, then cycling through them carefully without getting caught by another player. In SP it’s about identifying choke points that the AI is streaming through, whether these are infinite spawns or just how to channel a group of enemies without getting hit yourself. That’s the game design, all it needs is a steady stream of new maps and there is always new material for veteran players to model. Like a new sudoku or crossword puzzle, FPS maps can be created in near limitless variation.

The biggest thing that caught my eye about MW3 was the de-emphasis on setpieces. The setpiece, which is usually in a narrow section and your options are extremely limited, is a zero system. There is so little going on in terms of game design that the player supposedly ends up focusing on the content. All you can do is press X or move forward. These have become a staple in these games, starting with the nuke scene from MW1 and continuing into MW2’s macabre ‘No Russian’ level. They’re both zero systems but MW1’s deserves credit for making sure you never quite hits its limits. You can only walk around for so long before you just fall dead, you can’t run around exploring. It goes back to the map modeling nature of these games: the nuke scene works because it is always an unknowable space.
Alternatively, I spent most of the ‘No Russian’ level wandering around and admiring the details of the airport. Which was fun, but not exactly what the game intended. MW3’s is barely worth mentioning, you have minimal control over anything except to sit and watch as a family vacation becomes a lot more interesting. MW2’s suffers because I just go back to playing the game and figuring out how the map works instead of paying attention. MW3’s doesn’t let me move or give me any control at all.

Keep in mind I’m talking about a player who is not new to these games, a beginner who is still fixating on content would have a dramatically different experience. For the seasoned player the meaning of the content is so thoroughly degraded that it’s only inducing apathy. As soon as I realize I’m in a closed map where there is nothing to model, my brain tunes out and I start debating what I want for dinner. The nuke scene stays relevant because I’m fussing about trying to move somewhere, anywhere, in a sad echo of the rest of the gameplay.

When I say content degradation, I mean my diminishing capacity to view the objects in the game independently of the system for which they signify. I don’t think a falling chunk of skyscraper may actually potentially kill me in-game during the opening level of MW3. I see a setpiece unfolding. It is no more startling than an animatronic on an amusement park ride. I enjoy the aesthetics of the experience and possibly the jolt it sends my brain, but it bears no relationship to the play system I am in. It has no emotional meaning to me because my understanding of the game comes from the game design, not the content. MW1’s setpieces and levels are still some of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen on a console because that was before I plowed through five Call of Duty games.
Of course this is speaking for my own personal experience, I imagine someone whose very first shooter was MW2 would be blown away by it just as they would be by MW3. What’s going on here is that familiarity with the game design breeds contempt for the content. The moment I started playing MW3 I was analyzing the space and figuring out where to shoot. I wasn’t aware of the content on an emotional level anymore. The content isn’t a differential for the game design, it’s just a signifier now. And a setpiece signifies nothing except that I can’t move until it’s over.

This issue extends out to the game’s narrative itself. On a literal level I understand what’s going on in these games: Makarov wants a big global war and used the airport attack to make it happen. He’s ticked about the guy I shot in MW1. The General is upset about…the nuke or something from MW1. By the time MW3 comes around we’re just resolving various global conflicts and hunting down Makarov. The problem isn’t so much that the story is incoherent or that images of urban chaos are unmoving, it’s that the dialog, cutscenes, and setpieces no longer have any emotional meaning. It’s all been degraded because of their minimal relevance to the system itself. I’m only aware of signifiers and their value as defined by the system.
There is not a black-line test or moment when this happens for any player. We are talking about the dynamics of the subconscious and conscious as the symbols which represent things in the game become interchangeable. At moments the game is able to jolt me into paying attention to the content. Often this is in a new or unique situation where I don’t know what’s going on in terms of the system, forcing my brain to model new information and thus look at the content.

I focus on these minor aspects of the game only because so much of it is similar to the previous two iterations. I already wrote about map-modeling and the roller-coaster aesthetic years ago. Like eating a bag of Doritos or drinking Bushmills with family, these games are guilty pleasures. I am a year older, the world continues its cycles, and Call of Duty has stopped by for its November visit. I look forward to doing this again next year.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Systems Narrative

While working on the Gamification and Law series, I got curious enough about advertising to start thinking about the reverse idea. Games offer a new way for people to advertise crap, but do advertisements offer games a new way to communicate? It’s not really that strange of an idea, ads are basically meaning generating systems where values are assigned to various abstractions. Applying a few ideas from advertising to games has made me wonder if perhaps video games have worked like advertisements all along. I will be borrowing extensively from Judith Williamson’s excellent book DecodingAdvertising. Just bear with me.

The above image is from a famous ad campaign featuring Catherine Deneuve for Chanel No. 5. She is, or was I guess, famous for her sophistication and classic beauty. You slap the product next to her skull and print it into every single magazine you know potential consumers read. They glance at it, shrug, and keep flipping pages. The subconscious makes the connection, your conscious mind doesn’t have to do anything. The basic formula is “Fame and Glamour = Catherine Deneuve = Chanel No. 5”. You dump enough cash into this and eventually people will eventually just think, “Fame and Glamour = Chanel No.5”. That’s a basic 1 to 1 ad system with only one intermediary. Williamson’s theory is that, “this is the advertisement…constantly translating between systems of meaning, and therefore constitute[ing] a vast meta-system where values from different areas of our lives are made interchangeable.”

Here is the catch: unless you know who Catherine Deneuve is, the ad is just an empty system. It has no content, no value assignment. Williamson points out that an observer needs exposure to the referent system, the fashion and modeling industry, because this allows the observer to apply differentiation. This might be a bit tricky to understand if you don’t give a shit about modeling so I’ll try a different example. Pretend you live in a vacuum and there is only one chair. You have never seen or even heard about any other kind of chair existing, this is it. As a consequence, you have no conception of the chair being good or bad. There is no other chair to compare it to in order to generate value. It just is. Williamson explains you need to know about the whole system the referent exists in to fully understand the ad.

Like Deneuve’s skull and Chanel No.5, in a video game two systems are being juxtaposed so that the player will eventually connect them. The formula is “game system = game content.”  On a very superficial level you can already apply some of Williamson’s ideas to content you see in games now. The space marine image derived from Warhammer 40K or Aliens is borrowed heavily. Sexualizing the female form to play to male conditioning. Elves that look like Tolkein’s elves because people recognize that shape. Orcs that look like green nasty things because that’s what other people have done. This is obvious and you don’t need me to spell it all out. Games borrow these preconceptions and expectations because it’s likely their referents are already in our heads. We’ve all seen these movies, played previous games, or read these books.

What’s interesting about games is that they also generate their own referential and differential systems at the same time that all of this stuff is being juxtaposed with our models of reality and our models of the game’s system. That is, it’s borrowing the visuals for the orc but also assigning various values like HP, damage, and other values generated by the game design. Unlike the ad, interaction in the video game creates an additional layer of meaning.

Several interesting questions are raised by this, the largest being how much conflict can there be between the referential visual system and the differential game design system? This isn’t a new concept, Clint Hocking coined the term ludonarrative dissonance to describe when the content and design are experiencing disconnect. The issue, when using Williamson’s formula, is the fact that she asserts there is no need for there to be a connection between the two. The dissonance is what gives it meaning, not the corroboration. Hocking is presuming the opposite.

The revelation here is abandoning the notion, like ads long ago did, that the content is speaking to the player. It goes beyond just a translation between visual images and systemic values. It isn’t just X = attack. Instead a vast web of associations and meanings that cross from content to system, then back again are all in play. The NPC giving you a quest is not JUST a downtrodden peasant nor are they JUST a quest-giver. They are metaphors for one another with two separate sets of values. One comes internally from the game design and one comes from the content and our own cultural values.

This constant system of visual and audio metaphor taking on systemic meaning is akin to a specific kind of metaphor. James Geary breaks down the metaphor process in his book I is an Other. Metaphors are an extension of our natural desire for pattern recognition. We naturally assign agency and consciousness to things we don’t immediately understand. A knock on a wall becomes a ghost, a flash of light a UFO. You deal with something new by basing it on the familiar. Geary goes over many different types of metaphors but I think with games it might be better to focus on the scientific variety. This is because scientists have to struggle with the presence of literal scientific information and the need for analogy so people can understand it.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted in the book, explains it like this, “We cannot learn to be surprised or astonished at something unless we have a view of how it ought to be; and that view is almost certainly an analogy. We cannot learn that we have made a mistake unless we can make a mistake; and our mistake is almost always in the form of an analogy to some other piece of experience.” Scientific analogies develop slowly. You begin in the subjective by asking something basic like is the Earth formed like Tapioca. You do tests, you compile results, and eventually you start to put together a model of the system. Metaphor tells you what things are like, not what they are. Eventually as you gain complete understanding of the system you dispense with the metaphor.

When we say the dissonance is what generates meaning in a system narrative, we mean that the relationship between unrelated systems, the referential mechanism of both value from game design and the analogies in content is where it comes from. Sticking these two things alongside each other establishes the connection, our minds will find it in the same way they make associations with an ad. Pressing X is attack. This does damage. I need to damage this thing. I know all of this because of the complex series of animations and signals the game sends to me. Competing with all this is the slow erosion of those first subjective impressions as the player goes from subjective to objective, from the analogy to the system. That transition process is where the bulk of the narrative takes place through metaphor and new experiences. New subjective information must constantly be added for the player to base their constantly developing model of the game design.

The necessity for this kind of approach is that most games already look like this. A systems narrative has several common features. Characters do not change independently, they are static until the system coerces change. The narrative consists of ever-shifting viewpoints of the system and various changes enacted there. These effects are observed as they spread and characters respond to them. Examples of this in other mediums would be something like The Wire, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I am mostly proposing abandoning half-ass attempts to shoehorn in literary conventions and conversely avoiding totally ignoring the attempts of games to tell their own unique brand of story.

We’ll see how it goes, it is time for me to focus on individual classics and modern games with a particular critical lens. We’ll see if this has any legs when going over a variety of individual examples.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

So Long Buzz

I was inspired enough by Courtney Stanton’s eloquent rant on the loss of Google Reader that I decided to do my own homily for Buzz.

I’ve been bonking around social media the same way most people have: right on the cusp. Instant Messenger got big while I was in college and I had a long list of friends. Remember Away Message culture? Those funny little AIM icons at the bottom with those white faced cartoon characters? Repeating a funny quote from a convo or selecting that choice line from a movie that just really described your mood. I had a Prodigy account where I insisted on writing everything in all caps. An AOL account for logging in and jabbering in those awkward chatrooms. I even got onto that MTV show once where they livecast chats. I typed in all caps for that one too.

Facebook came to my college right as I was graduating and it was initially a lifeline to old friends as we all scattered around the country. I remember life before the newsfeed. G-mail was a no brainer and g-chat quickly became a staple of any lecture in law school. I signed up for Twitter as all the friends I’d accumulated writing about video games made the same migration. For the longest time my relationship with digital media was to connect with as many people as possible. To find as many points of view as possible and absorb them. My path was to always go where the people were.

I’m not quite sure why that started to change. The fighting, probably. I think I was known for having a temper back in the day but I’m not even sure what I was mad about. Law school was no picnic certainly. And I do have a blunt attitude. There are plenty of people out there who don’t have a high opinion of me and for good reason. It’s just…the noise. The endless waves of links, opinions, ideas, caps on, caps off, cacophony that hundreds of people generate when trying to talk all at once. I would turn on Twitter and spend 20 minutes just sifting through what I’d missed, only to have to spend another 10 sifting through what got posted in that time.

This got so intense that I would literally turn on Twitter and it would put me into a bad mood. Sarcasm has been an emotional crutch for me for so long that it might as well be a third leg. Combine these two things with waves of people talking at me and it just brought out the worst. And let’s not forget that this is true of people online in general. Why on Earth someone could ever think it’s a good idea to tweet to me that my article is completely wrong and I should read their correct article is beyond me. The fact that they meant it innocently, phrased it politely, or were totally correct was something you could only cling to for so long. I’ve begun to believe that being an internet celebrity has a lot more to do with patience than actual production.

I finally realized one day that something had to give. So I shut it all off. There is about a 9 month period where I basically vanished from the web. I moved to a new town where I had to make new friends. I had to start a new job and start all over again as a first year associate. I resigned from my post at Popmatters after 3 years of working for free there. I quit writing in general.

Buzz was something that I handled the same way most people did when it came out. I flipped it on, followed a bunch of people I recognized, lost interest, and went back to Twitter. I’d turn it on occasionally but never paid much attention to it. At my new job I found myself sitting in front of a computer all day. I don’t even remember why I was reading it that first time, boredom probably but I imagine the desire to share was finally coming back after 9 months of silence. You can only go so long without sharing with others, particularly about your passions.

Buzz was a pretty crude place. The people I found talking there were venting their rage and frustration at life and video games. You could call a popular, well-connected writer a fucking moron without worrying about them getting offended or blacklisting you. Even if they did hear about it, Buzz had so few active users that it wasn’t the same level of insult as saying it on Twitter. It’s the social difference between a whisper and a scream. But it was a well-designed forum. Topics could be posted and commented on indefinitely while new ones kept piling up to give each one a natural lifespan.

What interested me was that none of the usual social media vanities cropped up. Nobody cared how many people they were following. There was almost zero desire to vapidly increase the number of people they were broadcasting to. As a consequence you had less nonsensical posts of cats or wonk. Less desire to hit ‘post’ without even considering who would find it interesting. My theory is that like Facebook, Twitter began to sabotage itself by coercing people into connecting to so many others that you could no longer actually talk. If you criticized something, a dozen or so people would jabber at you about why you were wrong. Like Reddit, only positive and polite things would get encouraged by the system. The desire to ever say anything controversial or different was steadily eroded. I was on Twitter for 2 years. I can't think of a single meaningful exchange I ever had on there. At a certain point, the social service just became another mask.

Buzz was different because it stayed small. I've lost count of how many brilliant ideas or great links I've gotten from people on there. You got to know the people around you. People didn't take it personally if you mouthed off because they knew it was just you being you. You can't force something like that to happen, it's just a matter of time and place. I could post an elaborate ramble on a game I was playing, post a cool quote I saw, or just spout nonsense. On Twitter, you couldn't do that because everyone was watching.

And now, as with many others, the only online forum I give a shit about is being shut down. I’ve tried using G+ a few times but it is essentially the same problem as Twitter or Facebook. It’s a numbers system, people broadcasting their views on as many people they can while Google charts clicks and exchanges on a global scale. It’s not the privacy thing I’m bothered by, I accepted what these services were a long time ago. It’s being channeled into the same kinds of services I stopped using 2 years ago because they mostly seem to bring out the worst in people. Myself included.

Buzz was not a perfect service. The very thing I enjoyed about it was that so few people used it. But it is still a place in the way that all forms of social exchange become places. The occasional drunk rant. The rapid fire comment sections. The long, wordy posts and responses when someone suddenly had the impulse. Posting quotes from random books. The unspoken codes of conduct about not posting nonsense or delving too deeply into narcissism. You hold these things close even though they aren’t really yours or anyone else’s. They are the space we have between one another.

And now it is fading away.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Complexity in Laws

I've been really enjoying Friedman's History of American Law and discovering all the experiments, problems, and resolutions the country has adopted over the decades. It's probably a surprise to many people that many of the problems we're experiencing today with Banks and Wall Street are just one of the many times this has happened. Different solutions have been proposed over time, often involving getting rid of all the lawyers and making everything simple to understand.

That process of things getting complicated and the issues it poses for fixing it started to fascinate me. It has been discussed at length by various sources and you can find dozens of proposed to solutions. I decided to use my experiences with a particularly complex game to just illustrate the how and why of complexity with laws.

It just getting people to accept the very notion that nothing is simple with large rule systems is a start.

Friday, September 30, 2011

What Can Games Teach Us About Law?

I had the good fortune to get a column published over at Kill Screen. It's a relatively new webzine that is exploring the range of topics for games. I always manage to find a new angle that surprises me there.

The column is about the inherent knowledge gamers develop about systems and how this approach applies out into the real world. A lot of these ideas are in the gamificaiton series, but I tackled some relevant issues instead of getting bogged down into theory.

Here's hoping the gaming generation keeps getting bigger.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

MMO Judiciary - Functions and Solutions

In the United States we are used to a court system whose focus centers on rule elaboration and enforcing public norms by handing down rulings. Joanne Scott, in her essay Courts as Catalysts, discusses the changing role of courts by focusing on their capacity to share information, fact check, and test the authenticity of government decisions by weighing their evidence. It’s a new model meant to reflect the role the courts may play in a steadily de-centralizing government. She inadvertently presents a potential template for resolving the conflict between Coding Authority and player.

The basic idea in Scott’s paper is that courts can serve to check the evidence of the governing authority while still fulfilling important obligations in the community. It’s a kind of PR, a government institution separate from the authority who handles disputes in the system. The institution does not have the power to make new rules, only legitimize or overturn existing ones. Scott’s vision of a system where, “courts become a source of communicating ideas and experience, without being the source of their creation, and without being specifically prescriptive in relation to any particular form” may find its most useful application in virtual space rather than reality.

The necessity for this kind of system, as noted in the previous essay, crops up when you have the strange type of tyranny that’s possible in an MMO. All laws are automatically enforced, traditional methods of feedback are cut-off and players are often forced to quit. It’s unlikely any developer would actually do this on purpose, it’s just inevitably going to happen in any system of rules. An essay by Leslie Green on the causes of Judicial Decisions reminds one that rules are indeterminate, not merely in dramatic or marginal cases, but in most cases, because indeterminacy flows not only from vagueness but also from pervasive unresolved conflicts among the laws of the system. There is always an unintended consequence or unexpected application stemming from the rules of conduct or the code itself.

Application of this will vary from game to game. You probably do not want the judiciary to have any authority over the actual design such as nerfing items. A more debatable issue, such as perching in Asheron’s call, duplication, hording or some other in-game strategy, is more ideal because it’s allowed by the Coding Authority. It just has the unintended consequence of disrupting the entire game for players. Rather than have the designers fret over financial impacts or disrupting the economy, you just have a hearing where people make their case. Evidence is drawn from the servers and personal accounts. The dispute gets resolved quickly, transparently, and with player involvement occurring throughout.

It’s important to remember that in many cases transparency just means communicating your reasons for acting clearly. Most concerns about the language of a judiciary becoming unwieldly aren’t really necessary. As Peter M. Tiersma notes in his book Parchment, Paper, Pixels, the reason the modern legal system is so wordy and difficult to understand is because the language is meant to only have one meaning. In America we practice common law, meaning each court ruling is binding on all future rulings. To avoid multiple interpretations of a contract, bill, or law you have to phrase it a manner that’s very alien to most people.

That’s especially true today where the internet has enabled rapid communication. People write like they talk now and it’s understood in the same manner. Unless the judicial system wanted to impose some kind of common law model, precision in the writing to that degree would be unnecessary. You just ask the judge for clarification. You can already see an example of this practice with Xbox Live’s Why Was I Banned? forums. Having a clear explanation from another person helps give authority and clarity to the rules of the Xbox Live service. The average person should be able to understand everything going on but having a model for dealing with people always helps.

The same goes for pleading a complaint: if they can form a complete sentence then there’s no reason they couldn’t make a complaint. Lawyers exist because just one part of the legal system takes months or even years of study to understand. It got this way because the bigger the population, the more rules you need to protect all those competing interests. An MMO is not ever going to become large enough that the average player does not already know everything they need to when crafting a complaint.

Diversity in judicial opinion, both between judges and their views vs the Coding Authority, should also not be taken as a huge problem. Uniformity must occur in the results of rules, but not necessarily in the way those results are reached. A textualist approach, where the Judge reads everything literally, may have various uses and appeals depending on the game. Alternatively a Judge who discusses the issue with the Coding Authority and adds weight to the views might be more favorable. A great Judge would be able to juggle multiple perspectives to get a result satisfactory to all. As Lawrence B. Solum explains, “Good judges are clever in using the resources within existing law to solve the legal problems that come before them. The very best judges are experts at avoiding originality. And the very worst judges may be the most original. Very bad judges may use the cases that come before them as the vehicles for changing the law, transforming the rules laid down into the rules that the judges prefer.”

At the end of the day, the existence of a judicial system would ultimately be derived from the Coding Authority, who is in turn controlled by the Developer, Publisher, and their shareholders. While mounting arbitration costs and threats from the outside world are a good reason for creating a means of resolving disputes in-game, perhaps the best reason of all is simply advertising. In his guide to building a successful MMO Raph Koster explains that the key is ownership of something in the game. Whether it’s buildings, characters, or a job the player needs to, “feel a sense of responsibility to something that cannot be removed from the game.”

Examples of MMOs violating this sense of ownership are everywhere. Despite the strong sales of the latest WoW expansion, players quitting the game by the thousands. The anger at the expansion varies from being being too short to stripping the game of all complexity for newplayers. One scathing comment explains, “Cataclysm is the end result of an MMO design by numbers philosophy inspired the wishes of accountants and avarice of shareholders. This is one picnic basket of childish quests and facile gameplay expressly designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator out there.” These complaints have nowhere to go and no one who will listen to them. And while the expansion might make money in the long term, it’s also costing them the veteran players who have stuck with the game for years.

At other times it’s problems that arise from a GM acting carelessly. A huge controversy arose in a Bioware forum when a moderator closed a thread because a group was debating homosexuality in the Star Wars universe. Such blank and total censorship generated massive amounts of negative PR even though the forum moderator was only attempting to prevent a flamewar. A similar example was the removal of Nazi soldier’s name from an in-game badge. No discussion, no explanation, and nothing but negative PR for the game for operating in a totalitarian manner.

The benefits of this will vary depending on the game, there is no one model for every MMO. A judicial branch mediates the conflicts that arise between the hard laws, the social standards and the general strangeness of humanity. All of these things clash and overlap in constantly changing ways, creating indeterminacy for the outcome of disputes. Introducing a third party relieves the Coding Authority from assuming a totalitarian approach to all conflicts, gives transparency to the process, and creates a more legitimate avenue for conflict resolution outside of enforcing the EULA.

Judith Williamson, in her seminal text on Decoding Advertising, explains that an ad is essentially the transference of human qualities and characteristics to consumer products. Concepts like fairness, loyalty and safety are generated and projected onto the game. An internal MMO judiciary represents a concentrated effort to form that connection with the player as a kind of background association. First and foremost, they should be enjoying the game and having fun. But if things go wrong, they can know they won’t need to deal with an expensive legal system or negotiate a EULA. Their problems can be resolved in-game, fairly and transparently.

MMO Judiciary - The Balance of Power

A model for resolving internal MMO disputes should be built around the perspective of the player. A player primarily understands the parts of the game that affect them directly so any breakdown of authority begins with recognizing those forces. The first and most profound authority in an MMO is the Coding Authority.  John William Nelson in his breakdown of virtual property writes, “Code affects transaction costs because all transaction involving virtual resources are regulated by code at some point. Purely internal transactions clearly rely upon the code regulating trade among users. Partially external transaction rely in part upon external regulation, but they all inevitably return to the virtual world and its code-based regulation to complete the transaction.” All value, all rights, all methods of exchange boil down to what the designers have permitted in the game. So, from the perspective of the player, an MMO judiciary begins by putting the Coding Authority at the top.

What this means in principle is that the rights given in the game are the only rights you’re entitled to. An example of this would be Ultima Online’s thief skill. It is possible to steal things from people by looting their corpse or picking their pocket. When a player complained about being robbed, the thief was not punished because the Coding Authority allowed this kind of conduct. A massive Ponzi scheme was permitted in EVE Online because financial corruption is a way you can play the game. In this sense the Coding Authority shapes the culture of a game because it controls how people interact, resulting in an authoritarian power dynamic.

There are limitations to this model. Video game code is a unique kind of rule system because it has enforcement automatically built into it. I can’t jump over that cliff because an invisible wall exists that stops all progress. Even if I got past it, the game does not support the existence of the space and will probably crash. There’s no concern about police, tickets, courts, or all the other mechanisms that come with enforcing a rule. Nor can people just break the rule or ignore it. While this is handy in terms of costs, the problem is that costs are an essential form of feedback in a rule system. The more a rule costs to enforce, the more likely it isn’t favored by the population. People cannot express their discontent by breaking the rules in an MMO, their only option is to complain or quit the game.

In an ideal MMO, a judicial system would represent the bridge between these two forces. The players are given a way to express their grievances with the absolute power of the Coding Authority that makes them feel empowered. The power of the Coding Authority is not superseded or changed, but their relationship with their players becomes a more hospitable one. It is not the court’s job, when a dispute comes before them, to invent a new rule saying how it should be resolved. It’s the court’s job to say how the pre-existing rule should be enforced. The greatest virtue of this branch is their ability to explain the decisions of the Coding Authority. Andras Jakab explains in his paper Concept and Function of Principles the criteria for a legal system as, “(1) the greatest number of legal phenomena can be explained (2) coherently (3) with the highest possible degree of simplicity and (4) political and ideological factors can also play a role.”

For example, a bug or design imbalance is up to the Coding Authority to fix, in our model the Judicial system would not have the authority to change it. How the court system empowers the user is giving them the ability to complain about an imbalance and have it declared as one. A duplication bug is brought to someone’s attention because of a complaint. A ruling is issued explaining why the bug is unfair and why a person has had their account wiped. The action was introduced by a user, the results were made public, and the logic was clearly explained with references to social rules and the Coding Authority. Actual enforcement powers would not really go beyond what a GM already possesses. Nor is this any different than the Dev Blogs many games already operate or Xbox Live’s user forums. What’s different is the transparency of the action and the empowerment this provides for players by giving them an official forum to act in.

Making a model like this successful means delegating priority to various complaints from the players. You would want to avoid lumping everything together: personal feuds, bugs, balance problems, property disputes, not everything can be resolved effectively under the general ticket system with a GM. Nor does having a single individual resolve them on the fly always cause social discontent. A GM pulling me out of a wall I glitched into is not really on the same level as a player claiming a character is using a bug to mass duplicate gold. The key to a sound judicial system is recognizing the problems that users are concerned about and giving their resolution as much transparency as possible. The day to day issues that need to be resolved speedily can be explained with rules of conduct and quick references. More complex issues can be separated on the basis that they will affect the entire game or some other criteria.

While one justification for an MMO judiciary is that the Coding Authority needs an agency to bridge itself with the players, it is equally important that the players have a means of organized communication. The frothing rage of the forums is not a viable means of feedback because it’s just too knee-jerk and unfiltered. Traditionally this is the role an elected official would play in a system of governance, in this case selecting judges by popular election. The delays in election keep people from throwing them out on a whim while the electoral process also filters unqualified participants out. The issue here would be impartiality. As Raph Koster points out in a basic outline of MMO laws, the playerbase is rarely ready or willing to police itself. They signed up to play a fun game, not engage with politics, and they may not be willing to separate the two.

Various MMOs have experimented with elected officials with varying results. EVE Online maintains an elected council to give feedback on the game by airing grievances. The council is currently mounting a PR war because of the company’s failure to expand the game in ways the council desires. On some levels a thing like this can only exist in EVE because it only has one shard. It is not broken down into multiple spaces consisting of smaller, easier to govern populations. The council also has an inherent authority problem because after airing their grievances, the makers of EVE Online decided to ignore them. A judicial system, then, offers a means of self-governance that doesn’t necessarily have to put the Coding Authority in direct conflict with popularly elected officials.

A prime example of an MMO that features popularly elected Judges is Nexus TK. Note that page highlights their activity levels and rank in the game, you can already see unspoken criteria for what constitutes a good judge in public information. The game features extensive self-governance. A post on by a disgruntled player highlights the issues that formed. Top tier players formed cliques that controlled everything in the game. Developer appointed players had extensive powers to silence or blacklist people who spoke out against them. Actual trials simulated the actual real world process: a player could accuse someone of stealing and all you needed was two witnesses to get a conviction. This exacerbated the control of one clique in the game. This, in turn, drove away players.

The point of these two examples is that players are inevitably influenced by their relationship with the game in ways that does not make them the best choice for being a judge. The impulse to operate like an elected official influencing Coding decisions, as in EVE Online, can lead to challenges to the Coding Authority which they might not be able to resolve peacefully. On the other hand Judges are susceptible to corruption and influence just like anyone else. Like most GMs today, a member of the judicial system would be someone disconnected from the game. That disconnect can be ensured through monitoring, transparency, and establishing a clear relationship with the Coding Authority.

In this discussion we’ve gone over who has the authority and how one may go about delegating communication with that authority in a way that leads to what players perceive as fair resolutions. Such a broad goal has to be approached by remembering that fairness itself is a social value, it changes from group to group. Saying someone has a keen sense of fairness does not necessarily make them a good judge, just that they do what’s popular. In an essay on judge selection Lawrence B. Solum comments that people often mistake impartiality with meaning a person does not care or understand a person’s complaint. He writes, “the impartial judge is not indifferent to the parties that come before her. Rather, the virtue of impartiality requires even-handed sympathy for all the parties to a dispute.”

It is impartiality that the judicial system must offer if people are to rely on it for resolving their grievances. A fair chance for both the player to be heard and the Coding Authority to present its side of the dilemma. Whether or not it achieves this objective comes from the perceptions of the players.

Link to Part 3

MMO Judiciary - Why Even Create One?

With the growing buzz around Diablo 3’s in-game auction system comes several tricky questions about how the virtual world and the real world should interact. Issues like taxation, property rights or possible litigation between players become legitimate once money enters the system. Each MMO will have their own unique ways of addressing these problems as they draw the line between seriousness and play. Maintaining that division means making sure the play world can resolve its own disputes to the satisfaction of players and developers.

Let’s start with why our current legal system should be kept out. For most MMOs you don’t have any property rights and until recently you could not even sell the items legitimately for money. The game needs this because anytime the designers need to nerf an item or character it will lose value on the market. This could very easily cost thousands of people money. Considering they’re already unhappy because their in-game prowess is reduced they will be all the more upset that their wallets are being hit. Expansions and updates are the lifeblood of an MMO and the only way to make them possible is by keeping ownership of the items strictly in-game. The developer can’t be concerned with legal liability if it’s going to maintain the game.

It’s also unlikely our current legal system would be any help for resolving in-game disputes. Picture the following e-mail going out:

I have this Elvish Bane Sword in Diablo 3 but unfortunately my account has been banned. If you just give me the password to your account, I can get the sword. Of course I would be happy to give you a small cut of the profits from the sale.

Someone falls for it, gets stripped of their possessions and wants their cash value back. First, if the person lives in another state or country you have massive jurisdiction problems for even bringing the lawsuit. A person outside your own nation does not have to obey your laws or care about a claim brought against them. Second, if you don’t have any property rights to the item then you don’t have any grounds for suing them anyways. Even if the EULA or ToS contains some clause about theft it won’t help you get your money. The contract is between you and the game company, not the person robbing you. Third, if the person turns out to be a minor it’s debatable whether they are bound by the contract anyways.

The thing that keeps all of these issues out of the game is the EULA. It’s not that the courts don’t recognize the potential for property rights, it’s that everyone playing them signs a contract agreeing that they don’t own anything in-game. For the most part this creates an effective legal barrier that has survived several lawsuits for different games. The problem is that, as with any click-wrap contract, they contain the litigation by insisting you resolve your problems with arbitration. This has been an effective deterrence to litigation because of the expense and the fact that business wins 96.8% of the time. It takes extraordinary circumstances for a court to rule that an arbitration agreement is unfair.

While the solution may be effective, it obviously has a couple of problems even if it keeps working. Presuming that the addition of real world auctions increases litigation, defending the EULA will cut into the game’s profits. The EULA isn’t going to protect player versus player property disputes. Furthermore, EULAs are increasingly viewed negatively by consumers as companies use them to change their contract terms, fostering distrust and negative perceptions.

What could potentially threaten a EULA is if the courts decide a person has been forced into an unfair bargaining position. The hypothetical scenario would be someone accumulating a large amount of virtual wealth and then being forced to agree to new terms in a EULA which damages them. They can’t transfer the money out of the game and they don’t have any kind of recourse inside of the game either. It’s a question of options given to the player, do they have an alternative besides signing a contract that hurts them? If they do not, then the courts may step in and take matters into their own hands.

Preventing this from happening means taking a long, critical look at how MMO’s resolve their own internal disputes and considering alternative ways of distributing authority and enforcement in the virtual community. There is no one solution, every game has its own needs and community surrounding it.

The majority of MMOs practice a kind of authoritarian approach to governance. They own everything, they resolve all disputes on their own, and they decide how to design the game on their own. Input is evaluated from the players but no real authority is granted to them. Enforcement occurs either automatically or through GMs. Both of these methods of enforcement are problematic. Automatic enforcement means the developer is often acting without proper feedback because there are no immediate costs to their rules. Nor can players break the rules like they do in real life: invisible walls and code law are final. It’s arbitrary and often leaves the player feeling powerless when bold changes come out for the game. 

GMs, on the other hand, can be inconsistent. A forum thread on GMs in World of Warcraft at MMO-Champions gives a pretty common example of how this gets expressed. One player thinks the community rule about no swearing should be more heavily enforced, so they constantly report these players to GMs. Others don’t see it as a big deal while several others didn’t even know it was against the rules since the game self-censors. A thread on points out that GMs must deal with everything from code issues, gold farmers to social conflicts and harassment. Results vary depending on the GM’s background even though they are all lumped together. Another thread allakhazam complains that they feel increasingly like a subscriber rather than a customer. There are so many complaints that GMs can’t attend to them all and the issues go unresolved.

Greg Lastowka in his book Virtual Justice points out that the biggest problem with GMs is their inconsistency. You can just hassle a different one until you get the result you want by filing complaints over and over. This kind of conflict resolution may suffice in the current MMO system, but as real money enters the system many players are not going to take arbitrary decisions lightly. As Lastowka explains, “When virtual worlds empower users with a wide range of creative freedom and encourage them to take economic ownership in their productions, those worlds are more likely to attract lawsuits from all directions. Large scale financial stakes and uncertain rules are a dangerous mixture.”

So the reason one should at least consider overhauling their current MMO dispute methods are two-fold. One, if you don’t create something the players believe is fair the real world courts may be tempted to do it for you. Two, a fair and transparent judicial system could make your players happier and improve their overall experience. The knee-jerk response that lawyers, property rights, and all of the costs and expenses associated with these things is neither an inevitability nor really necessary. As John William Nelson points out in his essay The Virtual Property Problem, “Virtual property is a solution looking for a problem.” Perhaps we should keep it that way.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gamification and Law - 5

To borrow a popular criticism of gamification, a feedback system alone is not a game. It is, however, a potential application of game design principles to a system that employs both seriousness and play to produce tangible benefits. Going back to Greg Lastowka, he identifies three key differences between a legal system and a game:

1) Games are disassociated from life in a way that makes them less serious than ordinary life.
2) Play absorbs players intensely and utterly.
3) Games are not materially productive.

Gamification, if we were to condense it into a form, provides a means for 2) to exist in a system that otherwise does not necessarily have the other two elements. Huizinga’s example of this occurring was the Renaissance and I narrowed it down to something like the art patron model in the previous post. A person is given the freedom to totally absorb themselves in an otherwise productive task. This was possible because the patron environment creates an accelerated feedback system. The artist is paid before the work is completed so they have something to live on and to give them supplies. Nobody yet knows if the work will be any good nor is this payment indicative of that.

Donella H. Meadows, in her great book Thinking in Systems, explains that the information delivered by a feedback loop can only affect future behavior. It can’t deliver the information immediately and so can’t have an impact fast enough to correct behavior that is driving the current feedback. An example she uses would be letting the water out of your bath tub. The water isn’t all gone immediately, it takes time to flow out and you don’t notice until the water is gone. In the patron’s case above, you don’t know if the money is going to lead to a great work of art until it’s too late.

This situation can play out in dramatic ways because people are often making bad decisions based on improperly interpreting feedback. For this reason a system often cannot self-regulate and repair itself, the feedback may take decades to resolve itself and by then it’s too late. On an individual scale this is something as simple as not exercising. On a marketing scale this could be a person failing to use a product properly or not experiencing the full benefits of its use. Gamification would be an attempt at making a system capable of self-regulation because it has good enough feedback to where people can make proper decisions based on their own self-interest. They’ll introduce their own corrective behavior and engage more fully.

Advocates of gamification being used for social change would use this to help people experience immediate benefits for tasks like recycling or exercise where those rewards often take time to play out. You get some bonus points every time or your score competes with other participants. That way, even though recycling itself is not giving positive feedback until many years later, the system can still provide it. Marketers, assuming they actually understand what they’re doing, would be using a similar approach by creating a more coherent feedback when engaging with a product.

Just as a law requires a certain amount of social acceptance to function properly, a gamified system would have to align itself with the individual’s own self-interest. Meadows explains, “The most effective way of dealing with policy resistance is to find a way of aligning the various goals of the subsystems, usually by providing an overarching goal that allows all actors to break out of their bounded rationality.” That bounded perspective simply refers to the limits of our perceptions of any system. The feedback helps prevent the “drift to low performance” problem that occurs because people can misperceive negative feedback and cause the system to go into drift. That is, people are no longer behaving based on what’s going on but rather a misperception. The lower the perceived state of the system, the lower their self-interest propels improvement through corrective action because they don’t think it’s working.

A gamified system will have to be sophisticated and carefully tuned to the individual’s wants while also guiding them to longterm goals. This would be the basic dividing line of the play elements (individual wants) versus the longterm goals (serious elements). The problem is that, as noted above, a feedback system is not a game. It does not have the play element in it because it’s a static system. You need a certain degree of competition, creativity, something generating the play form to allow the absorption aspect we’re trying to maintain.

Which is where the complications begin to arise because like the comparison between a utopian society and a more diverse community in a previous post, a game is not composed of one play standard. For each cultural sphere there will be a unique play sphere that applies. More realistically, a culture can support numerous play spheres of different types and in varying states of solidity. The classic example of this is Richard Bartle’s different types of MUD players. If the play sphere exists independently of the game, then it’s important that one maintain a system that is always adapting to the varying needs of the individual to maintain alignment.

Most legal systems are built around the reality that feedback is often slow to arrive. Laws take a long time to create and then long periods of fine-tuning are expected via the common law. Things simply do not change fast enough to necessitate a legal system that quickly modifies itself and preventing improper reactions to feedback is a virtue in this case. One area where this is changing is environmental law because you need to be able to respond more quickly than a traditional front-end system allows. If a natural disaster occurs in an area that has been protected or a species is put at extreme risk, you may need to change the rules that day, not in four years. This is the topic Barbara Cosen tackles in her work..

I’m going to borrow from J.B. Ruhl’s essay on dynamic system theory for this section. The issue with systems that have random elements is how much space do you allow it to deviate before its fundamental structure and purpose has changed. Sticking with our Renaissance example, certain restrictions are imposed on the artist by the patron like make it classically themed or painting the patron standing next to Jesus, while creative independence is also allowed. Excessive control would be like the Big Bear Plane Company example, where the boss is insisting the plane have a propeller because he likes them. There isn’t any one specific element that corrupts the system, it’s the complex nature of their relationship that creates the dynamic

Resilience is the key test for a dynamic system because it gauges what kind of changes it can handle. Ruhl defines it as, “the capacity of a system to experience shocks while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, and therefore identity.” This comes in various forms, with Ruhl outlining ecological resilience as the magnitude of disturbance the system can absorb without changing versus engineering resilience tries to channel and minimize disturbances through design. Ruhl uses the analogy of a bowl and ball with the ball representing an occurrence in a system. Engineered design is a vase: the ball has a limited opening to enter the system and it is tightly channeled into a small area of possible outcomes. Ecological resilience is a large bowl: there is more space for the ball to land but it will roll around and potentially stop in multiple places.

Resilience can be problematic if the system is so stiff that it’s producing results outside the acceptable spectrum of standards. A gamified system would have to be a much looser and employ more adaptive reward structures than a traditional game if it wanted to maintain its play element. Ruhl identifies the five key features of a system contribute to the capacity to endure through surrounding change: 1) define problem, 2) determine goals and objectives for system 3) determination of ecosystem baseline, 4) development of conceptual models, 5) selection of future restoration actions, 6) implementation and management actions, 7) monitoring and ecosystem response, 8) evaluation of restoration efforts and proposals for remedial actions. The goal of this approach is to increase response diversity so that unexpected positive behavior can be rewarded without having to change the entire system. It’s the Renaissance, with all its limitations, but still that possibility that you can do something new and amazing.

You need a lot of authority delegated to an individual or agency for this to work. Administrative systems focus too much on the front end design without making changes on the fly. The Renaissance was able to work because it mainly boiled down to the artistic tastes of one eccentric patron in the exchange. They could be bartered with and changes could be made more easily than if one were dealing with a corporation or committee. Whatever elements of play you were extracting out and relying on to induce absorption from the user would have to be carefully maintained in an environment where the serious aspects are always in flux. Large dynamic changes are going to have be made to a gamification system on the fly, you can’t just change the scoring model every year and expect it to hold together.

Which brings us full circle on this series. The very first post on Gamification and Law began by stressing that the most important game design has to offer law is crowd sourcing techniques. Dynamic legal systems represent that idea by proposing laws that can change quickly and respond to social conditions on the fly. Legal theory, in turn, has a lot of nuanced ideas about how to study and address rule systems once you get outside closed-off play systems. My goal with this series was to cross pollinate a wide range of ideas and disciplines on the subject of gamification, something the public dialogue has sorely been in need of. If gamification is to make much progress, it will be in the hands of people who do not care much for boundaries and other static ways of thinking. As Donell H. Meadows comments, “It is great art to remember that boundaries are of our own making, and that they can and should be reconsidered for each new discussion, problem, or purpose.”