Thursday, September 22, 2011

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

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