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The Development of Digital Morality

May 7, 2012

Dear Reader,

When did you learn that hurting others was wrong?

Do you remember a particular moment in your life when suddenly you became moral (assuming, of course, you are, dear reader)?

Child development psychologists suggest that as we age, we develop our views of right and wrong through many series of experiences where we do “right” or “wrong” things and observe the results.  When it’s a “bad” behavior, we are “punished” in one way or the other, whether overtly, through actual, well, punishment, or implicitly, such as seeing disappointment in someone we care about’s eyes, or a strong internal feeling of shame, or a social stigma attached to us. Every little experience adds up to an overwhelming personal morality.  In essence, every experience and no one experience matter, though some events may weigh more than others.

How does this translate to digital?  We hear arguments that over-immersion in “fake” worlds makes it hard for people to differentiate between fiction and reality.  I think, though, that this argument is completely backwards.  I think we’re having a hard time figuring out how to create moral behavior in digital environments precisely because we’ve become so good at compartmentalizing our online and offline personalities.

Additionally, we’ve been taught from a young age that fictional violence is funny.  How many of us were reared on violent cartoons?  Our parents’ generation had their fears that Looney Toons and the like might make us violent people, so they sat us down and talked to us about the difference between Wile E. Coyote swallowing a stick of dynamite and hitting our brother in the face (I am an only child, for the record).

So what we have in digital environments is a total absence of the same negative responses we get in the real world when we’re bad mixed with the idea that fictional violence may be entertaining.  One cannot observe disappointment in others’ eyes; there are no long-term social stigma thanks to renames and server switches, no real punishment (partially because Blizzard’s “penalty volcano” is uselessly forgiving and partially because a simple ban isn’t that much of a punishment), and only the possibility of internal shame based on a lot of factors including maturity, upbringing, and experience.  So many of the external controls we had as children to teach us right and wrong are simply missing from a digital environment.

Still, while that might explain why learning online morality is so difficult, that doesn’t explain why there’s not more transferal from some people’s (jerks) offline to our online moral schemes.  That’s where the compartmentalization comes in.  Being able to recognize the difference between “real world” bad behavior and “fictional” bad behavior is incredibly important in the real world, so we compartmentalize “right” and “wrong” so we can laugh at slapstick comedy when appropriate but avoid replicating such slapstick violence in the workplace.  So the problem, then, is that jerks haven’t realized that there’s a person on the other side of the computer, that, to them, “it’s just a game.”

I think that’s the hurdle that building online morality will have to overcome.  In our discussions recently about better player communities through prosocial behaviors, I’ve loved a lot of what I’ve seen, but simultaneously had doubts about its effectiveness.  As many commentators pointed out, kind people will do kind things, and cruel people won’t.  If it’s because of the distance that the Internet provides, the ability to sit back and compartmentalize it like cartoon violence and that it’s just a game, those are the behaviors we need to be addressing.  Incentivizing prosocial behaviors is great and I support it, but I don’t think it will inherently change people’s play.

I think the AoC murder points system attempted to do this, but twice failed miserably.  The problem is that while this form of “punishment” might parallel a parental role in the offline world, it doesn’t carry the message of disappointment, nor a serious social stigma, nor create shame in the heart of the players.  Instead, it functions like a score, something we as gamers always want to increase.

I don’t claim to have a solution to this problem; I’m only theoretically identifying what the problem actually is.  Other than (yes, I’m falling back on my one example again) LoL’s tribunal system which actually utilizes the community’s standards of acceptable behavior, thus clearly indicating disappointment as well as causing a punishment, and which has shown to be effective through studies of repeat offenders (or, in this case, the surprising lack thereof), I’m simply not sure what else is out there.  Thoughts?  Ideas?


Stubborn (and pensive)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2012 1:42 pm

    Here is something else to consider. MMO games are in general a money making system. Thusly, even if there were serious consequences, the profit margin of investors would outweigh justice as a whole. There are parallel’s to this in RL history by the way. Anyways, a profit orientated industry will rarely do any SERIOUS damage to anyone who plays in a manner which counters moral ethics and behaviors. The difference between the digital world and the Real world, is there can really be no serious consequenses enacted by game design.

    Here is why,
    Player X is an ass hat in game. He goes around trash talking folks to the point where they flip the switch onto pvp and have at him. Player X knows this and he is damned good at pvp, so he continues to goad others into attacking him as he enjoys infliciting pain and humiliation on other players. Play X also buys a shit ton of Fan gear or items from in game store as well as pays the premium membership. This brings Game profit.

    Player Z get’s hounded by player X in pvp and player z decided to switch servers or quest elsewhere due to the time investment in leveling and gearing his toon. Player X continues to hunt Player Z relentlessly. Player Z loves Game. Z decided to move servers instead of quiting game. Player X just won. But X won’t be persecuted by Game Authorities as that may infringe upon profit margin. They leave this to community, yet Community expects Game Authority to handle these issues.

    Profit is the ultimate corruptor. No game will openly punish truely antisocial behavior as they would be loosing customers. We pay to play. In reality I still believe it must be the player community who steps up and shuts bad behaviors down. They must be the ones to teach what is decent and moral behavior and keep vigilance. This sounds like a grand standing but it is in the end the truth as it is in any real world community.

    • May 7, 2012 1:48 pm

      There’s a flaw, there, though. Gevlon pointed this out regarding the Goons in EVE not long after the Mittani incident, and it struck me then as very true. These players who harass others are costing the games money, as they’re driving players who are unsure about the game to leave it.

      In your example, player Z loves the game, so your example makes sense. But about about players M,N,O, and P, who only have time for one MMO (the subset I really exist in) and are trying to decide which will earn their time and money. Players that are jerks run off all those unsure players (or prevent them from every trying a game, which reflects my feelings towards EVE).

      I don’t disagree with your main point, but the problem then becomes how to prove to developers why harassed players leave. When the number of harassed players outnumbers the amount of jerks (and I believe it probably already does), then developers would be willing to switch behaviors. It just becomes a problem of tracking; sure, there’s exit surveys to every game I ever quit, and while I would write that I was leaving due to a terrible community not well governed by the developers, I doubt a lot of people would verbalize things the same way. “Didn’t like the game” is a lot easier to think and write.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • May 7, 2012 3:03 pm

      I agree with you in the case of individual decisions but no corporation cares at all about individuals. Customers are grouped into traceable profit groups and it is fairly obvious that they have determined that it would cost more (in staff power and lost revenue from the griefers) to enforce decency than they lose from the occasional person who does drop because of the community.

    • May 7, 2012 4:25 pm

      Or they’re simply not as aware in their elevated status as we are on the ground floor of the game. There are many instances like this that have existed where “management” simply didn’t know the situation on the ground due to people not bringing it to their attention, covering it up to avoid embarrassment, or outright denying it so as to avoid looking like a problem. Just look at the American education system. Countless decisions are made because the people making the decisions are not teachers on the “street level.”

      Or, of course, you could be right. Corporations could exist as neutral entities that are solely self-serving. I’m quite sure many of them are that way. I’m sure the size of the company matters, but I wonder at what exact point it switches. It would be interesting to look at big corps like EA, Activision, and the like to see at what point they stopped being favorites and started being reviled.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. May 7, 2012 5:06 pm

    Or maybe there’s an inhouse hierarchy of “awesome” with a gameplay systems and cool monsters at the top and jobs nobody wants at the bottom which nonetheless require a senior to tackle – like developing systems to enforce a few basic (could call them moral at a stretch) standards of behaviour that would contribute to the smooth running of the whole operation by curbing antisocial players.

    I don’t think reward/punishment is the way to do it though – I think Pavlovian responses don’t extend anywhere near that far. But thats (firmly) my opinion. It’s perhaps more a case of the game developers/publishers providing some backup and being seen to act when one player has a justifiable complaint against another one. (I favour long-term removal over any other method. The one thing predators don’t like is not being able to plunder the fatlands of the less aggressive.)

    There’s a big volocano brewing too – real laws exist against harassment – can devs/publishers wash their hands of *all* responsibility for player behaviour or will they at some point be required to effectively and non-equivocably police the playerbase in-game – probably after some highly publicised horrific real-life incident. At that point their non-responsibility will be tested and settled properly in law, no doubt – and I’m sure they’re aware of it.

    Sorry about all the words. I’ve been at the chili.

    • May 8, 2012 4:29 pm

      I agree that it’s only a matter of time until Vesuvius blows, and I’m afraid that may be the way of the world. No matter how many seers warn that the volcano’s brewing, no one seems willing to act until someone gets hurt.

      I agree that there’s probably a dev hierarchy of awesomeness and that community management principles probably fall low on it. I’d actually be very interested to hear about that kind of thing, which gives me something to ask next time I’m in close proximity with such folks.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. May 7, 2012 5:12 pm

    Valid points Stubborn. I guess my view point is a little biased as every MMO game Ive ever played seems to not really care about the issue at all. My conclusions were drawn from the profit motivated persepective. And yes, the theory in logical sense has holes. But I often wonder if they just don’t give a damned about the morals of players. Hey here is your sandbox, I’ll keep the sand in it, you go play.

    The problem though dear friend, is that by and large people really dont care. I think it’s more cost effective to ignore the issues that to get in and make a tracking system and make a “sherrif” so to speak. I can’t say any of this is indeed fact, but I have my suspicions on the matter.

    • May 8, 2012 4:26 pm

      Yes, I agree with you on your main point, that vast majority of people are apathetic. By extension, some developers will be, too, and it makes sense that they’d just design the world and let people loose. The EVE devs first response to the Mittani thing was very hands off – what happens in EVE stays in EVE. They (impressively) changed direction very quickly when they saw which way the wind was blowing (and I think the case of the Yale student who was on trial for cyber-bullying his roommate to death made an impression, too).

      Still, I’d like to believe that if enough noise was made to improve the communities, the devs would respond, but I admit that WoW doesn’t really fit as an example; people have been concerned about the community for years now and we’ve seen nothing but backsliding away from the measures we were provided (like kicking).

    • sam permalink
      May 9, 2012 9:29 am

      I disagree. The problem is they care too much. People want to be successful and they’d rather do nothing than fail. Developers are invested in the game and designing social systems is a daunting task for a team of psychologists and sociologists. At a base level it’s easier to ignore that part and blame the players. If they try and fail then they own the problem. Faulty logic to be sure but very human logic.

      The players do care but it takes far more effort to organize a fix from the bottom than it does for the devs to do it from the top. And to implement a player based fix means there is always the possibility that the devs will undermine you. (Faction changes, name changes, server transfers????)

      Another problem is that these conversations always take place after the game is introduced instead of in the design phase.

    • May 9, 2012 4:24 pm

      I absolutely agree with your last point, that we always seem to discuss these things after the game’s already out, so any “fixes” will be seen as changes to cater to one group or another. I totally agree that any design elements in this area should happen internally and before the game’s released.

      Still, I’m not sure about your first point. The behavior you describe is very common with high achievers. Studies have shown that people who … you know, now that I stop and think about it, I think you may be more right than I first thought. Let me take you through my thought process. The research shows that people who have high expectations of themselves are more risk-averse, such as honors students. That’s less true for people with more realistic impressions of their capabilities. Still, since America is now #1 in overconfidence according to an International education poll that put as at the bottom of achievement but the top of confidence, I wonder if what you describe might be more true now because people don’t want to pop their own ego-bubble. It’s an interesting thought, and I may very well follow that up with some research and do a post on it.

      So over all, then, I think we’re in almost total agreement (: Thanks for the comment!

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