MMOs are Social Experiments? – When the game gets too real

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear MMO? Of course it would have to be economic debt, disease epidemics and good old fashion tribal killings.

Wait… those aren’t the first things you think of?

After doing some research into the bizarre places online games have taken us in the past those are certainly topping my list. If it sparks your curiosity too then let me share with you a few golden moments in virtual history that were entirely accidental! Yet still painted a frightening parallel to the real world. Be warned some of these examples go to unsettling places.

Let’s begin with something a bit closer to home for online multiplayer fans; Warcraft.
Now let me preface by saying I never got into WoW myself. As much as I love oversized weapons, elemental dragons and big green dudes carrying all manner of axes… it just never scratched the RPG itch I felt growing up. But it certainly did for millions of others (12 million at its peak) and as such there is no end to the social weirdness that can be found there. But we’re not looking at Blizzards fantasy juggernaut for its gold farmers and questionable roleplay guilds…

We’re talking extinction level disease epidemics.

Back in the prehistoric times of 2005 a new content patch was given life in WoW’s virtual world of Azeroth, granting whole new play areas including Zil’Gurub. It was in this painfully difficult new raid that one of the new content bosses had been added- Hakkar the Soulflayer- who was as charming as his name might imply. Mostly because this boss could inflict a debuff called ‘Corrupted Blood’ which caused no end of nightmares for the 20-man parties that went to tackle him.
Corrupted Blood was a damage-over-time that could spread to anything and everything that came too close to an infected player, such as mounts and even NPCs. Normally the games safeguards would be enough to prevent any players bringing that debuff outside of the boss zone, but video gamers are a crafty bunch. It was soon discovered that Hunters could deploy their pets in battle and deliberately infect them with the corrupted blood, leaving the debuff active as they travelled back to populated areas (or respawned after death) and then it was only a matter of time. As soon as a pet was summoned the disease was live- spreading between crowded cities of players and the hundreds of NPCs; merchants, smithies and quest givers alike.

The ‘disease’ was a high level DOT meaning lower level players were wiped out within seconds, acting only as a vector to bounce the contagion over to other health survivors. It could not be dispelled in the game (emulating an illness with no effective cure) and since it didn’t do enough damage to kill a level 60 character outright players fleeing from the cities where this outbreak was happening would take it with them along the roads to other cities, unintentionally spreading it across the world. Within hours all Azeroth was contaminated. Skeletons were everywhere on the map, priests in the cities were trying in vain to heal players en-mass, those that remained took to hiding in remote corners of the world’s forests away from civilization.

The event caught the attention of epidemiologists In the US, who called the outbreak “a fascinating though accidental case study for modelling disease origins and control” at the Games for Health conference in Baltimore. They ran comparisons with real life epidemics and found it adhered spookily close to real world behaviours: such as originating in remote regions before being carried by travellers to populated zones, hosts among both human and animal populations, and the ‘spread map’ of exactly how and where the disease bloomed. It was even simulated closely to avian flu for having many of the same patters!

One critique shared by people who experienced the happening first hand was that the epidemiologists simulated models failed to include an important element- Curiosity.
It was well documented that many people would rush into infected zones to see the outbreak before trying to leave, often bringing the contagion with them. This wasn’t deemed an important factor until the academics involved noticed most players doing this were recording or documenting the incident for websites or blogs- something which frequently happens in real life disease control zones and is the typical behaviour of reporters and journalists. Many others believed this was a scripted event by the developers and went out of their way to propagate the disease, which while never officially noted in the research papers, raises the haunting question of how many people would connect a global pandemic to an intentional or religious act and follow a similar methodology.

Information on the Corrupted Blood incident became so well known that counter-terrorism researchers have used it as an emulation of deliberate viral outbreaks with real human responses. To this day the event has been called the Great Plague of Zul’Gurub and the Azeroth Plague, living as one of few examples of real people responding to an extinction level disease outbreak!

A pretty startling comparison isn’t it? But the truth is this incident isn’t the only one that shines a light on how truly unprepared the real world is for these tragic scenarios.

Let me pose a question that has been baffling economic giants, both in the real world and the virtual world, for many years now; What do you do when your money becomes worthless?
This is something we’ve seen numerous times in human history, currency becoming bloated (or over-printed) to such an extent that the paper is worth more than the money printed on it. Let us not forget post-war Germany after the reparation fees and crushing debt led to the German Mark, then called the Papiermark, being taken off the gold standard and abandoned in wheelbarrows on the street!

What does this have to do with wizards and warships, I hear you ask? Where does it tie in to the world of video game MMOs?

Well the most important thing to know is most MMOs stumble and break both their legs at the first hurdle- namely keeping the influx of currency in their ‘world’ in check. Anyone who’s played an online game can tell players always get a reward from things they kill/grow/craft until money is practically spilling out of the code. With hundreds of thousands- even millions- of players generating new gold coins from their playtime there is a never ending stream of new currency hitting the market. If you thought Zimbabwe was bad with its one-hundred trillion dollar bills thrown away like toilet paper… well you pretty much know what to expect.

So how did these games respond to an ever inflating landfill of gold? Well in Diablo 2 the player base decided of their own volition that Stones of Jordan, an in game item, would become the new regular currency. Since it was a useful item that people wanted as well as being light enough to carry numerous at once most trades made in the games later years used this stones instead of gold! It was a similar story with Asherons Call where Shards kicked in once having a few trillion in your bank account became no big thing. Worse still in Gaia Online the money became so worthless the company offered to donate $250 to charity every time players permanently threw away 15 trillion gold from the economy!

This behaviour reflects more than just the greed of a lively playerbase. Identical methods are being used in the real world right now to try and put an anchor or sinking currency- namely using Reserve currency. Much like the Stones of Jordan so long as a worthwhile resource could be tied to a monetary value, much in the way the ‘gold standard’ was used back in the 1930’s depression, countries can stop their markets from collapsing completely.  In this same way EVE Online offers items with a real world value attached which can be brought with in-game currency, meaning their virtual pennies will always have a minimum value that nobody can diminish…no matter how many Stones of Jordan you have.

EVE also has one of the most gruesome economy solutions you’ll ever hear- they make most of their money back through death! In this space pioneering game dying has a huge cash penalty, as well as laying waste to any materials and equipment you might have used or lost. Because of this the developers actively encourage player on player wars between corporations as a way of boosting the economy. By destroying goods on the market through death and charging the regular monetary cost for replacing all this gear the game does something truly dastardly… running a profit off modern commercial warfare.

But who cares about commerce? I hear you say. We want to hear about the sexy violence.

Well there is one more case study I feel is worth mentioning. This one is extra bizarre because it’s not a standalone title, but rather a mod for the popular ARMA 2 title for PC. I am of course speaking of Day Z the apocalyptic survival game that rocketed to popularity with its enormous open world map, material scavenging and player permadeath.
The real surprise turn came a few months after its launch at the peak of its popularity. With tens of thousands of people playing in huge open-world communities where trade, teamwork and joint survival were the focus of the game you might expect a degree of cooperation… but that is not what Day Z became.

In an environment where any person can be a viable threat at any time the immediate response became to shoot on sight and ask questions never. People avoid each other as much as possible, scrounging for beans and evading the undead (that are supposed to be the primary threat of the adventure). Instead the blood only starts pumping when another player is nearby, as violence is always the answer for anyone who’s been playing the game more than a few weeks. Violence is practically the national language.

The primary cause for this might well be the scenario that’s being played in- there are no laws in Day Z, no punishment or consequences for wrong doing. It’s an interesting template for anarchy to a degree even the developers didn’t intend, since very few games have artificially imposed restrictions on how to interact with other players. Dean Hall, the games creator, said during an interview he will not “deliberately intervene to make people prefer teamwork or slaughter”, indicating the experience was supposed to be a balance between PVE teamwork and PVP renegades.

So what tipped the scales and turned the world of Z into a perpetual manhunt?

The online think-piece REroll performed a video study within the game in an attempt to get some first hand opinions from the desperate survivors themselves, and how they felt about the primal society the game had become. As the project unfolded the interviewers were at such a high risk of player assassination from the people they encountered they had to establish a safe word for concealed snipers surrounding the area! With commentators likening the even to journalists entering a warzone.

Which would be compelling enough in such a hostile mockery of the lawless world, but something even stranger began happening during this experiment. The anthropology team had to come clean about just how far they too had fallen victim to whatever social transformations happened when stakes were high but crime was unsupervised. Going so far as responding to subpar interviewees- or just those who didn’t want to talk- by terminating them at gunpoint. Or threatening people with violence if they weren’t willing to cooperate with the study.

The ‘Lucifer Effect’ is a term thrown around in their rationale. This word was penned to describe the results of the Stanford prison experiment, a huge social test involving putting regular people into the roles of both prison guards and convicted prisoners. The Stanford experiment is worthy of an article in itself but I highly suggest looking into the details of just how dark people can become when put into an environment without consequence and an obvious balance of power. The Lucifer Effect is an argument that a person’s behaviour can be defined by the situation they are in rather than any personal beliefs and mortal fibre that person may have beforehand. As the world goes into a difficult political time we’ll perhaps see more of this psychological trap coming into effect, and Day Z was the perfect testing ground to see just how far it can take us.

So those are our case studies into where MMO’s cross into the real world in unexpected and frightening ways! As the virtual playground grows ever larger there may be no end to the fascinating parallels we’ll come to witness. Perhaps someday people will realise what a perfect place the realms of video gaming is for posing difficult real world issues…

Just without the horrific consequences!

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