Bill Fulton has written an excellent (and sweary) article about online behaviour for Gamasutra. He talks about the problem of abusive players, who have plagued multiplayer games in the form we know them for a decade or more. Since the advent of voice communications and online console gaming, have become particularly bad, and the answer often given is basically “grow thicker skin”.
The answer treats the emotional response to griefing very simplistically: even if what a person is saying fails to upset you, they can be an annoyance to the point that playing is no longer relaxing or fun. Fulton talks about engineering social environments to make them more welcoming to players and risker for people who want to be disruptive, and has some clever ideas:
Another example from Shadowrun is how we empowered the players in a game to protect themselves against griefers. Shadowrun’s solution to these two social problems with vote-kick systems was to decrease vote calling in all but the most serious of situations (i.e., when the majority of players are likely to vote to kick). Two specific changes we made to the typical vote-kick system:
We made calling a vote a risky behavior. Typically, voters have two choices: abstain or kick the target of the vote. The wrinkle we added was to give voters a third choice: kick the vote caller. This change meant that if a griefer called a random vote, there was a chance they themselves could end up out of the game.
I find it fascinating that the kind of behaviours common in some online games or servers are taken as givens, when the structure of a game can actually help to mitigate them. Another model that comes to mind is IRC chat, where many servers will allow a lot of content to go unchecked, but also have channels heavily populated by admins, where people new to IRC can get their hand held and learn from some extremely patient people.
Obviously, creating such a social environment would prove to be quite labour intensive for games, but Fulton makes the very important point that the designed environment, even before it has any inhabitants, is a factors that affects behaviour. That’s a crux of level design, why not the structuring of online games too?
(Image is of Hillary Clinton’s Second Life campaign HQ being griefed by a swarm of Marios. Purloined from the seemingly dead Second Choices)