Is it wrong to steal a loaf of virtual bread, to feed your starving avatar? Should we care?
Whether we should care or not (I argue we should), is an interesting and potentially tricky question, but one we don’t need to tackle right away to delve into the ethical issues found in MMO gaming.
People DO care. In fact, they care great deal, as this classic video demonstrates (NSFW!). We see a 40 person raiding guild successfully taking down the boss Garr from Molten Core, who leaves behind three epic items of loot as a reward for beating the encounter.
40 people working together to take on and beat a difficult challenge, with only three items as a reward? How do we decide who gets these epic items? The issue of distributive justice in MMO’s is a long standing concern. Any player of these games has surely encountered the term DKP, that stems from the earliest forms of distributive systems designed to tackle this problem. This issue is the focus of my current research, which looks at these systems and their variants in detail and compares them to our philosophical frameworks.
But what happens when things go wrong? The guild in the video have decided upon a distribution system that today we would call ‘loot council’. They discuss who needs the items in question and then make a decision on who to give it to (what factors influence this decision and who makes up the loot council are important parameters, which are unfortunately unknown in this case). However, they have also decided not to (or simply forgotten…) to enable ‘master loot’, meaning that potentially anyone could walk up and take all the items for themselves.
What might stop them? Well, in this era of the games history, a player was fairly locked into the social community they found themselves in. People tended to have one character, and play on one particular realm, and so reputations were formed of particular players and of particular guilds. If you decided to walk up and steal the loot for yourself, you would be branded as a ‘ninja’, or thief as we would say in everyday terms. You would be kicked out of your guild and the entire realm would soon know you for what you were. No other raiding guild would take you on, as no one wants a ninja in their ranks. In essence, the fear of finding yourself in exile is the deterrent for the would-be ninja, and the trust in this deterrent is the glue that keeps the guild’s distributive system together.
But the glue is not that strong. In the video, ‘Chron’, unbeknownst to his guild mates, has made a deal with another guild to join their ranks. He has no fears of social exile; he can behave however he likes, fearing no retribution from his current (soon-to-be ex) guild, knowing that he will have a new home regardless. So Chron casually walks up to the boss, takes the loot for himself, leaves the guild to join a new one, and portals away to Ironforge amidst a tirade of abuse from angry and bewildered former teammates.
There are so many memorable and quotable phrases thrown out in this video, but my personal favorite has to be the closing remarks: “Yo, yo, I told you that shit was gonna happen one day, everyone’s like…. “We trust everyone.””
Are issues of virtual trust analogous to our everyday ethical concerns about trust? I think everyone in this guild would argue they are. Exploring ethical issues through the platform of MMO gaming affords us a vast experimental base to challenge and develop our philosophical frameworks.