Still Logged In: What AR and VR Can Learn from MMOs
In this 2017 GDC session, `Ultima Online MMO designer Raph Koster talks about the social and ethical implications of turning the real world into a virtual world, and how the lessons of massively multiplayer virtual worlds are more relevant than ever.
Social spaces aren't just games. When I was making Ultima Online, I designed places and worlds and societies that just happen to have a lot of games in them. Really, most of the work was going into simulating things like tailoring and rabbit hunting and running a shop. So, if you are making a social VR or AR space, you aren't just making a game, you're designing a society.
MAKE ENHANCED INTERACTIONS ON PURPOSE, NOT BY ACCIDENT
Do you recall the case of the virtual groping in quiVR?
A woman logged into this game about doing VR archery, and a stranger named Big Bro, I think walked up and started virtually groping her. The company didn't know about the incident until an article was written about it. To their credit, they immediately put in a bunch of features so that gropers couldn’t access people. Bodies could not see one another anymore. When they came into close proximity, players could expand what they called a personal bubble and they added a new gesture that they added a new feature where you can create an exploding blue force field that turns the harasser invisible and prevents them from interacting with you. The company was very upfront and immediately posted a post mortem about what had happened and encouraged everybody to take this stuff seriously.
Ideally there would be other players on hand, people who are logged on 24/7 monitoring behaviour, who could make a harassment call, turn Big Bro into a toad and ban him for life. This is actually best practice in online community spaces.
Because if you host an online community where people can cause harm to another person you are on the hook.
You're the government of that space, you're hosting real people.
CREATE A DUE PROCESS
You need to institute a rule of law. That means having a code of conduct and user license agreement, Terms of Service written in plain English that every player affirmatively signs up to the first time they log in and they swear an oath. I will abide by this and it needs to be posted everywhere. And you need to be reinforcing this as a cultural thing every day.
You don't get to abdicate doing it. It has enormous benefits, just not only as a cultural thing, but also for clearing up edge cases, because you're going to be fighting an awful lot of edge cases.
DOCUMENT WORLD ACTIONS
The most concrete practical thing is a tool called the circular buffer which is simply a recording keeping track of the last minute to five minutes of every single interaction each client sees and storing it, discarding the stuff that's over five minutes old and always entering the most recent stuff so that when something like this happens players can hit the Report button to ensure that they have impartial evidence to hand which can be adjudicated.
Believe me you will have cases where it will turn into one says the other says if you don't have tools like this.
You need to have an incontrovertible evidence. Voice logs aren’t enough. You need to record every single gesture so that when somebody does this, the CES person can replay it back and verify who started the fight.
It's not going to be cheap.
But you need to do it.
CREATE PERSISTENT ACCOUNT SYSTEMS
A key lesson from all kinds of social spaces in virtual worlds is that offenders repeat. The number one killer on Ultima Online was personally responsible for murdering over 4000 people. And if your social VR or AR System does not have a persistent account system with persistent identity the players invest into, you're effectively making every player get away scot free. Because all they need to do is create a brand-new account every single time they log in.
Actions like this matter more in VR, precisely because VR embodies us and makes us feel like we're really there.
If you haven’t read the original rape in cyberspace article that’s homework item number one. This was an article that came out in the Village Voice in 1993, regarding the first major documented virtual rape incident.
He didn't even do it to their actual bodies. He did it using this technological tool that was available in this game called a puppet. And the puppet all it did this was create text and make it look like somebody else was doing something. The victims were actually just standing there and they could mute and block him all they wanted. But it didn't matter because it looked to everyone else in the room like Mr. bungle was getting these poor people to do horrendous things to themselves. In 1993, this became a bit of a cause celeb because people started arguing about whether or not that was really rape. I mean, it's online. That can't be real, can it? We know better now, I hope. Although, and we'd have to see. I think there's plenty of Twitter trolls who probably still like what's the big deal, right? But I'm pretty sure that right now somebody is going you know, it'd be awfully cool to do user generated content and social VR, and somebody is probably inventing the VR version of that puppet right now.
And of course, the most famous incident I encourage you go look up the video on YouTube. It's, it's astonishing in a surreal kind of way. This poor woman Auntie Chung was literally attacked by a flying swarm of thousands of penises that's world around her in a tornado. If you run that world that's on you as much as the troll.
Every feature you make should be looked at first as a weapon.
How will a player abuse someone else with this?
Odds are you aren't actually evil enough when you play test.
How many of you played A division? It’s an MMO shooter on the console with a triple A team in which they made all the players collide with all the other players and then they had single quest-givers sitting in the Central lobby. So there were lines running out the door and people would barricade the door to prevent other people from getting quests, right. My personal experience with making that mistake was in the alpha for Ultima Online … players would let others out (who would then often try to block access for others) and then they would rush to the windows and shoot them in the back as they walked away.
LIMIT WHAT EMPLOYEES AND ADMINS CAN DO WITH THEIR IN-WORLD POWER
And the people you hire will hire other people who will in fact do things like consider it a perk to go over to people's private chat spaces and watch them as they engage in you know, very private things. You have to hard code in limitations, log off every kind of extra normal command, the ability to grant or revoke any kind of capability granularly per individual, and only grant the powers that are specific to the scope of that individual's job.
In the early days of MMOs we had issues where game masters were having hot tub parties with players and trading sexual favours for endgame items. They needed the ability to spawn those items for their job. Unfortunately, we didn't have logging in the hot tubs, so it was hard to prove that these situations were happening. We have drifted away over time from having in game admins and the reason is in order to minimize the possibility of personal relationships forming between customer service and individual players because corruption happens.
DEVELOP LEGAL INFRASTRUCTURES
MMO started as the wild west of gaming and ended up being the single safest genre for women to play in gaming, because everything else is unmoderated voice chat.
Whereas MMOs have persistent identity, have persistent community have the logging, all this stuff that you talked about, and that's something that we fought for And Blizzard led the way and made it real. And you can actually see the gender split of that audience of Wow, just go from 20-80 to 50-50 over the course of a decade. And I think that's important for us to realize it took a lot of work.
Also, be aware that if your virtual world is successful, your digital objects are going to have real money value. There's no escaping it, so simply assume that anything you create as a digital object has real world value. And people will be doing things like sleeping for it, paying for it and stealing it. Just go in the door, assuming that that is part of this field.
Fundamentally, you should not be opening a virtual world unless you think in terms of this kind of legal infrastructure. You're the government of this space.
Furthermore, the people who use virtual spaces are very often using them for therapeutic purposes. That means a higher incidence of individuals inside your space who are dealing with psychological stress of various sorts. There is not a single, large scale commercial virtual world that does not have the FBI and suicide hotlines on speed dial. The number of runaways that we tracked down for the FBI and the police, while at Sony Online, was easily in the triple digits.
Be prepared to deal with manifestations of mental illness. Those folks will frequently be calling for assistance within this virtual setting. And you have gone and built their home away from home, the place that they use to cope, the place that they're using in order as their support system. Often the friends that they've made in your space are the ones that literally keep them alive. You are holding their lives in your hands. So you have to take it seriously.
LET PEOPLE PLAY WITH IDENTITY
One of the huge mistakes of social VR is that they're forgetting the joys of being someone you aren't. That has always been a fundamental premise of engaging in a virtual world. Even in the normative modern MMO worlds, cross gender roleplay is still incredibly common.
One of the beauties of the early internet and virtual worlds in particular is that nobody could tell you were a dog, only now we can hear you barking on Discord.
This is why I hate voice chat. Because it's one of the many things that is taking these tools away from people.
The original world which Richard Bartle designed was intended to be a blow against the British class system. That is why you can level up and be anyone in anything. Because he felt like he'd grown up in a very restrictive world where, oh no, you have the wrong accent. You'll never get a doctorate. And in fact, a lot of the earliest virtual spaces were safe spaces for they were safe spaces for queers, and for the asexual who prefer the idea of having hundreds of little tentacles for genitalia.
It extends beyond voice chat, though. How many of you are short? Like me? All right, short people, you guys know that you have lower lifetime earnings than tall people, right? You get less promotions and lower salaries. So it turns out that halflings and gnomes in fantasy role playing games earn less XP per hour and level slower. Because we import real world biases into these worlds. I have lost count of the number of social spaces that don't have race as a customization option that it’s embarrassing.
BUILD EMPATHY WITH IDENTITY INVESTMENT, TEAMWORK AND EMOTE SYSTEMS
As people enter a space, if they don't have a stake in the space, if they don't have persistent identity, it's very easy to behave as a virtual sociopath. They don't have any community ties whatsoever. So you have to start creating investment into an identity really early on. So those of you who are making systems that are dropped in, don't.
You also can't use things like credit cards to block for example, average U.S. household I think has 13 credit card numbers. So the real way you have to do it is by causing personal investment in the identity they're creating, so that they don't want to lose the investment they've made.
There are two classic ways of doing
1)gameplay that involves teamwork.
2)Incorporate an emote system. Best Practice emote systems involve automatically parsing text chat and pulling out the emotional cues that people are already sticking in there like Smiley's. Otherwise, if you give people manual, complex puppeteering structures it’s too hard. Yes, there's a subset of people who are good at puppeteering. Most people are not however.
LIMIT SOCIAL OPTIONS TO SUPPORT POSITIVE INTERACTION
While voice does convey a significant amount of emotional content, you can't expect people to be trained actors and know how to convey emotion. If they need to do is convey real emotion, they will prefer to use Skype where they get all the cues. So my actual advice to social VR people bluntly, is to sidestep as many of these problems as possible. Don't have large scale worlds with a bunch of strangers interacting with one another in an unsupervised fashion.
Stick to small groups, people who mostly already know each other. Also, make the avatars relatively unrealistic so nobody cares about the fact that the emotional cues are wrong.
If I were making a social VR thing that I wanted to be a commercial success, I would go clone a game where you sit at opposite sides of a table. You can wave your hands and your head, all you want. You can build crazy avatars, because it's all about personal expression, getting to know the other person. It's limited to two people at a time. So, if you bail or block, you'll never have to deal with that person again. It just sidesteps all the issues, right?
Play to the strengths of VR today. It’s clumsy, but you can play with that. I think that is part of why something like Job Simulator is one of the most successful VR experiences we have. it embraces the limitation.
All of these issues get dramatically worse once we're talking about social AR.
Rendering is by far the least important part of this entire field. The representation is not the part that really, really matters. What matters is the action that's going on on the server, which is where you actually track things like the avatar profiles, their histories, the location of objects, how they interact with one another.
Text games actually embody you almost as powerfully as VR does. That is why text muds are also great role models. For example, consent systems for paired emotes was a very, very common design trope in text muds. Where you can't just hug somebody or grope somebody, but there is almost a two-factor authentication process the players must go through in order to engage with others.
That stuff popped up in the text worlds first, because in the text worlds, there was no distinction of distance. Everybody was standing on a pin in each individual text room. So, all it took was one word for them to be interpenetrating with your avatar.
All of those things will happen in the real world. It is not going to be very long until there is a template ID associated with your washing machine, and it will have its own character sheet that will have its repair history. That's not far-fetched. So if you start designing your social structures in a way that incentivizes players to commit virtual violence against one another, they're probably going to start doing it for real.
MISTAKES ARE TOO EASY: DEVELOP A PLAYER’S DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
All of these things can be quite unintentional. Pokémon GO I'm sure absolutely did not intend for its map of spawns to be racist and classist. And yet, it's really hard to find Pokémon in poor black neighbourhoods and in rural areas, because it's UGC map happened to be built out of kids who are going to Stanford and Berkeley. So we do have to think about these issues.
It might be that someday legislation will that protects virtual layer annotation rights. That might actually be the only solution to something like Pokémon spawning in your backyard.
As yet there are few clear rules. What if somebody happens to start spawning Pokémon on top of a Black Lives Matter rally? It is trivially easy for an operator of a virtual world to pull something like that. We've seen the early Harbinger's of things like that. Anonymous got its start by holding a flash mob in front of Scientology facility in New York City. We kind of trained people to do this.
If there was only one Pikachu to have in a Pokémon Go flash mob, I think we would have seen Pika murders by now. It's human nature.
And there are other risks - Just yesterday, it was discovered that a cloud toy company was storing the voice chat logs of all of the kids that ever talked to their plushie on AWS instance on a database that was not password protected.
To my knowledge, exactly three virtual worlds in history have bothered to adopt a Declaration of the Rights of players.
Start thinking in terms of the rights that players should be having in these spaces, because soon enough Internet of Things is going to hit. This is also not fiction
Let's have some fun. Seriously, let's explore, have some fun.
Just get your homework done first. Thank you.
Koster, Raph. 2017. STILL LOGGED IN: WHAT AR AND VR CAN LEARN FROM MMOS. In GDC Vault. U.S.: YouTube.
The USW Audience of the Future research team is compiling a summary collection of recent research in the field of immersive, and enhanced reality media