People know me
Last Friday night, during primetime playing hours, a GM in the game I was playing logged in to announce that she would be on for a casual and impromptu question-and-answer session with players. Now, I'm not going to name the game because it's really not relevant to the article, and this story could easily have taken place in practically any MMO that's out there. So for this story, I'll be using an alias for the GM, like, oh, I don't know, how about GM Veronica Corningstone. For the next hour or so, she fielded all sorts of questions about technical issues like game performance, questions about class balance, and questions about upcoming content, and it was a fairly informative session even though she couldn't give up any closely held secrets. But a handful of players also asked her questions like "are you a female," "are you a female irl," "are you hot," "wanna go out," and several others that I won't repeat here. She did a great job of answering the gender question and rising above the others, but here we are in 2012, well into the MMO evolutionary timeline, and we still can't avoid public conversations such as these.
It's like a scene from Anchorman, although I can't tell whether it's the serious Ron Burgundy who's trying to lift his "500th curl" in order to get attention or the Ron Burgundy who makes juvenile prank phone calls in order to annoy. The difference is subtle, yet the result is the same: a gigantic /eyeroll. It's like going out to a restaurant where the chef's spent hours preparing your meal and the wait staff is going out of its way to provide the best service possible, and someone climbs up on the table and starts shouting inappropriate questions. The restaurant wouldn't tolerate behavior like that, and to some extent, MMOs don't either.
The incident struck me for several reasons. First, here's a GM taking her own free time, on a Friday night no less, to answer player questions, and she's met with a smattering of rude remarks. But equally striking is the fact that we've all basically lapsed into grudging acceptance of it. There's almost an expectation that this behavior is par for the course. Any longtime player will read the event and reply with, "So? This isn't new," and he'd be right, but why isn't that just a bit unsettling?
I tried to look at it from a distance, to figure out why some players would act this way. It's possible that they're sociopaths; after all, the real world has a certain percentage of people who aren't quite stable, so why wouldn't we expect the same in our virtual worlds. Another possibility is the gamer that "only acts like this in game." He's roleplaying a jerk! (Although he'll get extremely defensive if you even begin to suggest that he's into roleplaying.) I have to rule out shock value, since this behavior is far from surprising.
But now more than ever, it's easier to be a creep and get away with it. Early MMOs required lengthy times to level up, and the gaming communities were a lot more intimate and tightly knit. If you earned a reputation for being a creep, it could make your life pretty uncomfortable because people remembered it and recognized you afterward. Since re-rolling was a monumental task compared to today, it was a pretty stiff punishment for antisocial behavior (although there still was plenty of it). Today, though, it's easy to perform the virtual-world equivalent of strutting into Times Square, flashing the crowd, and getting away with it. Large server populations along with server transfers, name change services, and an overcrowded market make it easy to either blend in with the mass populace or slip away completely to another game.
Great story. Compelling and rich.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not complaining about bad behavior being offensive. My gripe is that it's just tiresome. And I'm not here to call on game studios to censor chat, ban offenders, or otherwise clamp down. On the contrary, I'd like to see our MMOs become an outlet for more freedom, but that's on our shoulders. Right now, we're certainly not making ourselves out to be poster boys for MMO gaming, and that sure isn't helping things out in an already difficult period of MMO evolution. Game studios spend years and truckloads of money to create breathtaking worlds, and as soon as the doors open, a handful of people come in with permanent markers and start drawing all over the walls. Is it any wonder that we're still seen as a niche market?
So what's the solution? Well, we can't really create a daily Police Log of griefing and overall creepy behavior (although it would be pretty awesome), and for those of us on PvE servers, we can't really mete out justice Wild West-style. But believe it or not, guilds can help hold people accountable for their actions. If you were a ninja-looting jerk the day before or you acted like a cretin, you're going to hear about it from your guildmates, and if you care about maintaining connections to the guild, you'll be embarrassed enough to stop doing it. If you see the same faces day in and day out, you're probably not going to want to be seen as the weirdo who harasses female gamers or the foul-mouthed player who lit up world chat. It's not going to solve the problem completely, but it does help. Guild leaders don't need to put extensive codes of conduct into their guild charters; they simply need to create a culture in which antisocial behavior is just not cool.
In the meantime, maybe we should start a campaign with the slogan, "What would Burgundy do?" (And then do the opposite!)
Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.