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Constructive Politics in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game

Thus far, major Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) have been slow to implement any politics besides very rudimentary. Micheal Mihaly lays out the basic reasons why an MMORPG should want a political system, and guidelines for designing and implementing a system to provide constructive politics in a massively multi-player online world.

Matthew Mihaly

March 9, 2000

36 Min Read

Politics are no doubt one of the most persistent and pervasive aspects of modern life. Since the days of Cleisthenes in ancient Athens, success in politics has conferred status, power, and often wealth upon its devotees. It consumes and often destroys those who seek it, but the lust for success in it seems unquenchable. Thus far, major Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs) have been slow to implement any politics besides very rudimentary. This is a shame, as the social engineering possibilities provided for by political systems are legion. The object of this essay is to lay out the basic reasons why an MMORPG should want a political system, and guidelines for designing and implementing a system to provide constructive politics in a massively multi-player online world. I'm not going to go into detail about any specific system, because nearly every functional detail will depend upon the particulars of your world.

To begin with, I must define what I mean by "politics", and particularly, by "constructive politics". For our purposes, let us define "politics" as generally non-violent competitions for power over fellow man. Thus, this would include anything from the American presidential race, to 'office politics'. On the other hand, I would not term the French Revolution, or the Austrian Wars of Succession, to be politics in this sense. I should note that in this discussion I will focus mainly on what you'd call state governments, or autonomous (at least when you ignore the power of the admins) governments who control a geographical area. Particularly, I'll be using the city-state in the ancient Hellenic style as my examples, as the largest governmental organizations in most MMORPGs with political systems are functionally similar.

What then, do I mean by "constructive politics"? I believe that political situations can often be categorized as static or dynamic. It's not merely a bivalent possibility of course, but a scale. On one end, there are completely static political situations, meaning that there is no competition whatsoever for power. Of course, as an absolute, that is not possible, unless it is a state of one. Monarchies and tyrannies generally are static political situations. There is some competition for power, usually of the 'office politics' situation, with the various individuals competing for the favor of the those above and ultimately the top person, but in the end the only way to truly change the government is through some sort of physical force-based pressure against the installed government, whether that government be a national, office, or household government.

Dynamic politics, on the other hand, are political situations where fluidity and whim are the rule of the day. A hypothetical system where elected officeholders are forbidden from holding office longer than one day, and could not compete for it on the day after their day of glory, would be an extreme example of a dynamic system, particularly if the electorate was large and diverse. I believe that in order to build and maintain a constructive, rather than a destructive, system of politics, one must build a dynamic system that is tempered with static elements.

Reasons To Implement A Political System, Admin POV

Why should you care about having a political system in your game? I've identified three broad, main reasons: binding players to your world, creating opinion leaders, and newbie assistance.

Politics allow you to provide players with two very important, positive feelings: a sense of attainment, and a sense of ownership and control over their environment. By giving players methods by which to advance in a political hierarchy, provided there are rewards attached (which will be discussed later), you give players the important feeling of achievement as they climb the ladder of success. Further, as players gain power in your world, they begin the transformation from guest to owner (at least in their minds, and that is what is important). The second reason for having a political system is the facilitation of the creation of opinion leaders. What I mean by this are people who others look to for guidance and who influence others opinions. To some extent or another, anyone who isn't a complete hermit is at least a very minor opinion leader, as we all have friends, family, and associates who are influenced by us to some extent. What we are concerned with, though, is the ability to manipulate the player-base without having to directly manipulate every single player. By manipulating players who have power over other players by virtue of their opinion, or by virtue of their position of power (which tends to make them an opinion leader), one can guide a world into productive behavior patterns more easily.

The final reason, from the admin point of view, for having a political system, is to provide incentives for established players to help newbies. If you create a system where the membership of an organization, and particularly the leaders, benefit from numbers of players and more importantly numbers of heavy players, the established players will work to orient the newbies and ultimately make them feel a part of your world.

So, reasons for having a political system, from the admin point of view:

  1. A sense of attainment and ownership in the world.

  2. Creation of opinion leaders.

  3. Provide incentives for player-assistance of newbies.

Citizen Motivations For Civic Participation

While it's well and good to say that there are a number of benefits to be had in having a political system from the admin point of view, we need to examine reasons why players would be motivated to participate in a political system. First, however, we need to understand why the citizens of such a system would care enough to participate. Without a citizenry that cares, a political system will fail. Let's first briefly list the reasons that motivate people to participate as a citizen, in real life systems. These would include:

  • Fear of the current regime. An example of this is the old Soviet Union, which liked to brag that 99% of its citizens voted (under duress of course, and generally with only one, state-sanctioned choice).

  • Comradeship. I use this as a blanket term for motivations that involve a feeling of connection to the other citizens. Leaders of countries with a strong sense of nationalism often use this feeling to motivate the populace.

  • Public services. One of the most tangible benefits a citizen in modern states receives are services that the government has elected to provide, such as public roads, a legal system, security from foreign threats, and so on. Of course, it is the case that citizens who do not participate may nearly always still take advantage of these services, but many do feel obligated to participated due to taking advantage of the services.

  • Glory by association. Rather intangible, but not to be discounted, the feeling of glory that citizens of a successful state receive can be a prime reason why people care about their state. Whether it is an ancient Roman's pride in its immense military and organizational success, or 19th century Germany's pride in its cultural and intellectual prowess, or modern day American pride in its status as the sole superpower, glory by association is a powerful motivator.

  • Desire for self-determination. People want to have a say in their governments, given the level of power they can have over citizens. It's no more complex than a nearly universal desire to have one's opinion count.

It is the case, of course, that the reasons for a citizen in a MMORPG to care about being a citizen, will not be quite the same as in real life. Particularly, one cannot expect to use the element of fear too heavily. Unlike real life, where often the only way to disassociate yourself with the state you live in is suicide (I don't think I need to go into the significant psychological barriers to that method of escape), players in a mud can and will simply quit if they feel that what they believe to be their rights are being impinged upon too heavily. Further, regardless of what in-game age you have a character start at, you will never achieve the kind of rabid sense of obligation or nationalism that real governments can achieve through indoctrination from a very early age. Players come to MMORPGs with their fundamental values already ingrained, and trying to change that will just frustrate you and irritate the player.

Although it is true that some players, particularly in an intensive role-playing environment set in a world with a pre-existing history of nationalism (Star Trek, Tolkien's Elves vs. Dwarves, etc), can play with nationalist fervor, these players will never suffer the kind of discomfort and unpleasantness that real nationalists will. In the course of role-playing of course, their characters may, but the players themselves are there to have fun and will not stay around forever supporting a hopeless cause, as people may who are engaged in real-life nationalist movements.

Of course, there are similarities. Just as in real life, comradeship is a powerful motivator. However, this motivation only exists in any large degree when out-of-character relationships (assuming there is some element of role-playing in an MMORPG) are strong enough to cause players to feel that they have real, interpersonal relationships with the other players that far transcend the characters themselves. A player must feel that what happens to his friends character does, to some significant degree, affect his friend. He must feel that if his friend's character is harmed or disadvantaged, then his friend is actually suffering.

Likewise, a player can be manipulated to care about being a citizen by allowing governments to provide services for its citizenry that the citizenry either cannot attain independent of a government, or which are significantly difficult to attain independent of a government. I will go into specific examples of this later.

Glory by association is also a real reason which can be used to make players care. Even though the actual contribution of a citizen-player to the relative success of his government may be negligible, just like in real life, players will take significant pride in the success of a political organization to which they belong. This can be true even if the player-citizen has absolutely no voice at all in his government. Like sports fans in real life, people construct psychological attachments to essentially unrelated organizations, and the success or failure of these organizations can cause powerful feelings of glory or shame.

Why Should I Lead?

So, now I have given reasons why the citizenry of a political organization can be caused to care about the organization, but I have yet to explain why the leaders of such an organization would be motivated to take upon themselves the responsibilities of power. Unlike the motivations for citizenry participation in a political system, which differ in some respects between real life and an MMORPG, the motivations for participation by the leaders are fairly similar in both. Broadly, these are: power, glory, challenge, and a desire to help.

Power needs little explanation, and is perhaps the prime motivation for the majority of political leaders, both in an MMORPG and in real life. People value power for a number of reasons, including for its own sake, for the ability to attract members of the opposite sex (particularly in the case of men), for the ability to profit financially from either legal or corrupt exploitation of the power (Roman governors of mineral-rich provinces such as Spain were particularly good at this), for the ability to exact revenge upon ones enemies, and so on. All of these reasons can motivate players in an MMORPG as well as in real life.

Glory is the recognition by ones peers (your peers being those whose opinions you care about) of your success, or at least the perception by one that ones peers are honouring your achievements. For an excellent essay on the power of glory in MMORPGs, read Jonathan Baron's article entitled, "Glory and Shame", which may be found at http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3395/glory_and_shame_powerful_.php.

While I suspect that the desire to overcome challenges plays a smaller role in real life, I believe it can play quite a large role in terms of motivating political leaders in an MMORPG. The reason for this lies in the way that players tend to view success in a game. Conditioned to expect there to be at least some pre-defined goals in a game, some players will treat a political system as another of Raph Koster's 'Ladders of Success' (found in the Laws of Online Gaming document he maintains at http://www.legendmud.org/raph/gaming/index.html ), and will measure their success by their rise in a hierarchical political system.

The desire to help is, of course, what we wish all politicians were motivated by. As anyone who pays any attention to real life politics knows, it is generally an unfulfilled wish, often because of the high cost in time and money associated with attaining any office. Still, there are those individuals for whom the simple desire to help is the main reason why they seek office, and it behooves designers to ensure that there are roles for these people.

Players lead because:

  • Power

  • Glory

  • Challenge

  • Desire to help

The Creation of Meaning

So, now I have described the reasons why politics can be valuable from a design and administrative point of view, the general reasons why a player-citizen may care about politics, and the reasons why anyone would bother seeking office in an MMORPG. Let's now begin to examine more specific methods for creating a system that can provide solutions to these three general categories of reasons. I'm not going to lay out a specific plan for creating such a system, because the details must largely depend upon the details of the rest of the MMORPG.

The first and most important thing that you must consider when creating a political system is that it must have meaning. It's not enough to, for instance, set up an electoral system and create some offices to be run for. If the system has no meaning to the player-citizens, then any power that officeholders have over the citizens will serve no purpose except irritating and angering the citizens. You must create perceived benefit for the player-citizens.

I discussed earlier what perceived benefits a player-citizen may find from a political system to which he is subject, namely public services, comradeship, and glory by association. Let's look at ways to create these perceived benefits for your players.

The first, public services, is the proverbial carrot. By allowing your political organization to provide benefits that the player cannot get elsewhere, you provide an initial, concrete sense that political organizations are meaningful. The range of benefits that can be provided is large, but, like most details of a political system, will depend to a significant extent upon the details of the world within which the system is set. Broadly though, these services could be things like teachers who will only teach citizens, NPC security forces to protect citizens from their enemies, state-owned banks, state-owned shops, quests that take place within the city, state-run brothels, and so on. Anything that is moderately interesting or useful to the players can be used, and will help to create meaning for political organizations in the minds of the players, as long as whatever you are using can't be easily gotten elsewhere.

The second, comradeship, is best realized via one, very important method: collective striving under threat. The players must be given the opportunity to experience fear for the survival of their organization, or at least for survival of their organization's pride. They need to strive together against credible threats, and for credible goals.

There are really two emotions that we want to arouse in the players to accomplish the goal of comradeship: fear and the elation that comes from overcoming challenges. It's important to understand that by fear I don't simply mean the fear one feels when one looks out ones window in the morning to see Mongol hordes thundering towards that lovely little picket fence in your front yard that you spent last weekend painting. I also mean the fear of humiliation; the fear that comes when your hated rival bests you at something you both care about.

The most obvious way to create this sort of unifying threat, which has numerous real-life parallels, is hostile foreign militaries. Creating a military system for your statist governments is a topic too complicated to go into here, but suffice to say that as long as your military system has potentially real negative effects for the citizenry of the victim political organization, and provided that the victim citizenry doesn't feel totally powerless to combat the threat, and further provided that there are perceived positive benefits to being a citizen (public services, etc), external threats can be a fantastic way to gel a citizen base into a viable sub-community within your MMORPG. Fear is a powerful motivator. This fear can be useful, even when the object of the fear triumphs. Providing that a certain hope of eventual success remains among the citizenry, the siege mentality that can come from being beaten can really bind people together.

One can create effects similar to a military system in this respect by establishing and making public certain yardsticks of success for competing political organizations. For instance, perhaps you might make public the total net worth of these organizations, and give some sort of minor reward to the citizenry based on the success of the political organization relative to competing ones. Alternatively, you could hold international competitions between your political organizations like the Olympics. The details aren't really that important. It's simply the element of competition and the fear of humiliation and defeat that matter.

The second method of creating comradeship - the experience of collective elation - also requires that there be some sort of external threat or rivalry to the organization over which the members may triumph. What this threat or rivalry is isn't particularly important, but the more the players fear or hate the thing providing the threat, the more effective this will be. If you don't want to set up a situation where one political organization must lose, you could provide rivalries with NPC organizations (or powerful individuals). The upsides to this are that no one loses. The downside is that it is difficult to get players to feel the kind of rivalry with NPCs that they do with actual players. It takes a lot in terms of admin resources to create an ongoing rivalry of this sort.

A side benefit to the process of collective victory over an adversary is the final way I've identified to get your players to care about being a citizen, and that is glory by association. I liken this to the bandwagon effect that sports franchises experience when they are having a great season. Suddenly all the fans, even ones who were not fans until the team started winning, are having a great time being involved in the experience, despite having nothing whatsoever to do with overcoming the challenges the team has overcome. Similar effects can be seen in successful organizations in an MMORPG.

Create meaning by:

  • Creating public services that the government can provide.

  • Unify the populace through fear and collective striving.

  • Ensure at least occasional collective victory.

Democracy and Hierarchy

The next important thing to consider in constructing a political system is that it needs to be based on some sort of democratic or republican principles. I wrote earlier of the fact that players come to your MMORPG with their fundamental values pre-determined by factors out of your control. Given that the vast majority of internet users come from democratic cultures, it is folly to try to force them into a feudalistic or autocratic system. Now, of course you can call your system feudalistic, autocratic, communistic, or anything similar, but in reality, unless the users feel like they have a say in their government, they _will_ be annoyed. This say doesn't have to be on the principle of one man, one vote, but it does need to give them the feeling that their opinion matters, or at least, if they meet certain, attainable requirements, their opinion will matter.

When actually structuring your system, consider the importance of hierarchy. A hierarchy of governmental positions allows participants to climb the ladder of success, and it also makes for more vibrant politics. Now, for this hierarchy to have any use, it must have real, though limited, power over the citizenry, and ideally there should be a division of responsibilities.

The reason that I advocate a division of responsibilities is that by doing so, you increase the number of players who are potentially interested in participating in the political system. I've seen games where the only position of power in an organization (in this case a city), was the mayor. So the only people interested in that kind of position were fairly ambitious players who yearned to be at the top of the food chain, with the most control possible. It's my experience, however, that these players are not in the majority. Many players want to participate, but they either don't feel they are ready to be in charge yet, or they simply have no desire to be in charge. Further, in many cases, even an ambitious player does not have what it takes to lead, but could still make excellent and valuable contributions to a political organization.

There are really any number of ways to divide up responsibilities, but I would generally suggest using a division by function. You might immediately think of simply imitating the large-scale structure of a government, say, the American. In other words, divide things up into legislative, judicial, and executive branches. However, it is important to keep in mind that this is supposed to be fun. Mimicking a real, modern government is neither really going to be possible or desirable. Who wants to sit through endless budget hearings or worse yet, a US Senate filibuster? Streamline, and simplify.

Since one of the explicit goals of a political system in an MMORPG is to glorify the participants, and since you do have an admin staff that can step in to stop extreme cases of citizen-abuse, you do not really need to worry as much as many modern governments do about the idea of checks and balances. Checks and balances exist to regulate the behavior of government in absence of external authority, but this is not a true concern in an MMORPG. Regardless of how much power you cede to the players, the admin staff necessarily can step in, preventing would-be Stalins from driving their own citizens to quit playing through repressive actions. To stop certain designers from going fits of apoplexy this idea, permit me to hastily add that admins stepping in to regulate government in this manner should be a last resort only, and hopefully never at all. In practice, due to the fact that you can permit people in a virtual world to pick up and move far more easily than is possible in real life, and thus can afford to tolerate more repressive government than you could if the barriers to moving were as high as real life, and due to the fact that you can set up your system so that some sort of civic mandate is required to continue to rule, there is almost no need to intervene. If a ruler is too repressive, his citizens will replace him or he will soon find himself ruling an empty and rapidly-failing city.

Instead, then, of organizing your governmental systems to accommodate internal checks and balances, you can concentrate on organizing it in such a way that best fulfills the reasons for having a political system at all that I mentioned earlier, namely a sense of player attainment and ownership, plot control, and newbie assistance. A hierarchy that is meaningful can fulfill the sense of player attainment. Giving the officeholders some real power, of which I'll speak more in a bit, gives them a feeling of ownership in the world. Masses of citizens can be motivated to act in ways that contribute positively to the overall atmosphere of your world by making them care about their organization, and then creating goals applicable to the entire organization, such as triumph over a rival organization, etc. Newbie assistance can be provided for by ensuring that an organization benefits from increased numbers of players, and particularly from increased numbers of active, involved players.


Possibly one of the most difficult aspects of constructing a political system is deciding how much potential power the government can have over the citizens. The government has to have some, or the system will have little meaning to anyone. But, if the government has too much, you risk either the government abusing it and irritating the citizens to the point where they may permanently leave your world, or having to emasculate the government by frequent admin interference. Interfere too much, and the system loses meaning, because the players begin to perceive their actions as being necessitated by admin demands rather than as being the result of their relatively free choice.

Some things to consider when measuring the impact of power are: How intrusive is the power? One thing that players particularly hate is the feeling that their private, out-of-character conversations are being spied upon. Giving a player government the equivalent of unlimited wiretapping is a bad idea. How difficult/punishing is it for a player to escape the authority of a repressive regime? If it's impossible to escape in-game, you force players to escape by leaving the game. If it's too easy to avoid the authority of a government, particularly within its geographical jurisdiction, then you may as well not have one. Oftentimes, if the political organizations are sufficiently discrete (meaning that there is limited social crossover between them), the cost of leaving the organization is kept sufficiently high simply because players do not like to leave their peer group.

What kind of power might a government have over its citizens, or, more generally, those living, working, or merely being, in their jurisdiction? You might consider taxation and the regulation of commerce, some sort of judicial system, and police power to enforce both the dictates of the lawmakers and the decisions of the judicial system. Here one must be careful however. It's been my experience that players are less willing to accept taxation of their income than people are in real life. Much trickier to pull off are judicial and enforcement systems that players will view as fair.

The construction of judicial systems has been the subject of extensive debate, to no satisfying conclusion, within the MMORPG design world. Three of the focal points of the disagreements are 1) How to bring and hold those suspected of criminal activity to trial (whether that trial be by player-magistrates or player-citizen jurists), 2) How to conduct the trial itself, and 3) What punishments can be acceptably imposed upon the player found guilty? The problems are largely those not faced in a large degree by real-life systems, and they all involve deciding how much power to allow players to have over each other. I'm not going to go into the various proposals for solutions to this problem, but I will say that in my opinion, the most difficult judicial issue to deal with is the issue of repeat offenders. This is because it's my opinion that players should _never_ be given the power to permanently and irreversibly harm another player. In real life, we deal with criminals who have repeatedly committed certain acts considered particularly heinous by, usually, permanent (or at least extremely lengthy) imprisonment, or execution. Neither of these are truly options in an MMORPG's political system. Permanent imprisonment would just cause the player to lose interest fairly quickly, and execution (which, unless the game in question has a permadeath system, is not the same as 'killing' someone in the game), or, in the case of a game, deletion. Some would not doubt disagree with me, but I believe that limiting punishments of this magnitude to the administrators is wise.

Civic Participation

So let's say that by now, you've designed a system that takes all the aforementioned elements into consideration. You've planned out a hierarchy, you've given it some, but not too much, power over the citizenry. You've created external threats or rivals to help bind the citizens together, and you've given the government the power to provide valuable public services, to further create a sense that the government has worth. The citizens are able to regularly voice their approval of disapproval of their leaders, and the leaders stand to lose their jobs if enough citizens disapprove. Perhaps you've created a bureaucracy that is either elected or appointed, and divided up the responsibilities of the government by department (Department of Defence, Department of Interior Security, Department of Newbie Assistance, Department of the Treasury, and so on, for example). What's missing?

Civic participation. So far, the only way we've given the citizens themselves a way to take part in politics is by voting, or some other method of expressing favour or disfavour of a leader (for an interesting system in which players announce approval or disapproval of a leader on a daily basis, rather than in a one-time vote, see the MMORPG Dark Ages (http://www.darkages.com). This, however, is not enough. You need to give the citizens opportunities to get involved on a more day to day basis. Perhaps they could work as aides to the officeholders, with some, but not all, of the powers that the officeholders have. Better still, create tasks that any citizen can perform that will help the city. Make it as arbitrary as you need. Maybe your governments need widgets. These widgets are in limited supply around the land, but all governments need the same widgets. Ensure ways exist to recognize the citizens who bring in the most widgets to help his or her government. Bang! You've created the external rivalry I spoke of earlier, you've provided a challenge for the players to overcome, you've made the citizens feel more a part of their 'nation' (or whatever), and you've given an opportunity for them to be recognized by their leaders for their work. Another example, specific to the city or city-state type of government, would be creating a rodent problem within the city and setting it up so that an excess of rodents within the city has ill effects for the city (perhaps outbreaks of disease among player-citizens, or a lowering of morale of the NPC population, which would lower economic productivity). The city could offer bounties per rodent, which would likely be an excellent way for small players to help the city and be rewarded financially at the same time. Positive reinforcement.

This leads us to the final, basic thing to think about when creating a political system: creating incentives to build successful citizens. By successful, I mean successful from your point of view (i.e. they stay customers of your business and enrich the world in such a way as to cause more people to become customers of your business) and successful from their point of view (i.e., they feel enriched and excited by you world). You can significantly reduce your cost of administration, and increase your rate of newbie retention, by setting up a system that inherently rewards organizations that take good care of its newbies. For instance, if your system has an element that depends upon players voluntarily donating money to their government, it's likely that the cities with more active, competent players will benefit.

A word is necessary as to why I strongly advocate allowing player-governments to be responsible for some essential services. The obvious objection is that due to the discontinuous nature of most player's in-game lives (players regularly up and leave the game, take extended absences, and so on), it's dangerous to set up a situation where players are potentially deprived of services they need and desire. My response to this is that a political system shouldn't, in any case, require constant effort and attention on the part of the leaders. There may be benefit to the government if the leaders do work constantly and steadily, but in most cases this is expecting too much. In order to prevent a disruption of services that the players need and want (and in turn prevent your customer service lines from lighting up with complaining customers), simply ensure that more than one person in a government is capable of performing the duties that an office requires, and that in case of emergency, the players have the power, through a special election, or whatever means of selection your system uses, to replace the itinerant leader.

Destructive Politics

I've mainly talked, thus far, about constructive and beneficial politics, but now I want to discuss some major pitfalls, that can lead to destructive politics. These fall mainly into three categories: Overly dynamic politics, overly static politics, and an inability to resolve disputes. I've touched on most of these earlier in the essay, so I will keep this brief.

Overly dynamic politics mean that the system is too fluid and changes too frequently. When political leaders are cast in and out of office too often, it becomes difficult for them to establish themselves as opinion leaders, and provide good leadership for the player-citizens. Further, winning an election (or your equivalent of an election) loses meaning to the victor, because he knows he got swept in on today's whim, and probably will be out again on tomorrow's. It also gets tiring and repetitive to the citizens if a new election is taking place every day (note that the aforementioned system of very regularly expressing your preference that Dark Ages uses avoids this, despite frequent 'voting'. Real-life systems have never used this on a large scale because of logistical details that are mainly nonexistent in a virtual world).

Static politics result from a powerless citizenship, or from a system that makes it too difficult to replace the leadership. This is undesirable because it removes the climbing-the-ladder-of-success aspect (if you can't replace the leadership, then no one new has a shot at climbing the ladder). In practice, this can be created by making the requirements for voting too high.

The final major pitfall to avoid is the lack of ability to resolve disputes. This is a well-known pitfall in MMORPGs as regards plot resolution, and the issues involved here are basically the same. Example: World X has a political system whereby the in-game governments can define the voting criteria for its citizens. The government of city A has decided that only those of the Tsol'aa race may vote. This greatly upsets members of the Human, Rajamalan, Horkval, and Dwarven races and they would like to do something about it. Clearly they can't vote the government leaders out, so their only options (short of bribing or convincing the Tsol'aa voters to force their leaders to change their policies) are leaving the organization, unless you institute a way by which a government may be forcibly overthrown via force. Leaving the organization is really not something you want to force the citizens to do in a case like this, because they may be leaving their homes, breaking their psychological attachment to the organization, and so on. These can be very stressful things to do for a player, and can damage his interest in your world.

Another example of poor plot resolution would be an experience I had in an MMORPG I designed and run. This world has a system of city-states in the Hellenic style. Two city-states were continually at odds, but the military system had not yet been implemented. One city-state, Ashtan, seemed to be winning most conflicts between players, and generally had high morale. It's primary enemy, Shallam, had somewhat lower morale, due to some internal conflicts that prevented it from gelling as a community. The way the military system was set up, it rewarded those city-states who had very active and devoted governments far more than it rewarded any strategic ability on the part of the generals. In any case, quite soon, Ashtan had conquered probably 10x the amount of revenue-producing land as Shallam, and was literally at the gates of Shallam, ready to take it over. I had not anticipated this would happen that quickly, if ever, and I was caught with my pants down, because I had no way to resolve this. There was no way to "take over" a city, and simply letting Ashtan burn Shallam to the ground was not an acceptable solution. In the end, I had to solve it, rather lamely, by simply nullifying the effects of the system and putting the system on hold while it was redone. Clearly this is just about the worst way to handle plot resolution, as it irritated the victors, and made the losers feel as if they didn't need to try next time, because the administration would rescue them.

In retrospect, the major problem was that the Shallam citizens did not care enough. They didn't feel like there was enough reason to care whether they won or lost, and once Ashtan got rolling, the attitude that "We can't do anything about it." quickly prevailed. These were largely the results of an improperly constructed political system. There wasn't enough perceived benefit to being a citizen, and the major benefit that players saw was glory by association (which, of course, doesn't do much for those presently losing a conflict). So, the external threat posed to Shallam by Ashtan wasn't effective, because the citizens of Shallam didn't feel attached to Shallam.

Major pitfalls:

  • An overly dynamic system.

  • An overly static system.

  • An inability to resolve disputes.


I believe that I've elucidated the fundamental reasons and requirements for having an in-game political system in your MMORPG. It is useful from the administrative point of view because it is something interesting for your players to do, it binds communities together, and it can help reduce the cost of administrative support for newbies. It is viewed as useful to the players because they can achieve glory, because their friends are involved (circular, I know), and because they can gain services they could not otherwise gain through it.

On a less practical level, political systems in virtual worlds are fascinating both to the creators and the players. Those in my MMORPG often comment that the intensity of politics are their favourite thing about it. There's something very, well, for lack of a better word, cool, about political interactions. I've watched people who started off as meek, seemingly weak players blossom into lions when the burden of leadership was placed upon them. I've seen problem players become responsible and valued leaders who, through their actions, also improved the experiences of those who followed them. Finally, few conflicts and storylines are more exciting to watch and arouse more passion in the participants than those of nations at odds. Without a political system, all you have is a bunch of informally aligned players clashing. But give these players a formal framework to work within, and suddenly players are making nobler sacrifices and deeper efforts than most of them ever would make if only their own welfare was at stake.

This essay has merely scratched the surface I'm sure, particularly as so far, MMORPG political systems have been fairly rudimentary. I have little doubt, however, that as successive generations of MMORPGs are created, politics will become a more integral part of the design process. I expect to see systems with features that have not been tried on any large scale. For instance, systems where the players can, without admin assistance, determine their form of government, be it direct democracy, republicanism, plutocracy (rule by the rich), communism, anarcho-capitalism, or whatever! Social engineering in virtual communities is already a nascent field of study, and as research into it progresses (certainly beyond the meager scope of this essay), I believe we're going to see these political systems become more sophisticated and more dominant (along with other, somewhat related systems, like economics) in game design. We have the technology. We can build them.

Matthew Mihaly is the President of Achaea LLC. He currently resides in San Francisco, and has a degree in political science from Cornell, 1994. Previous experience includes being aide to a US Representative and a licensed stockbroker. He has played text MMORPGs for 10 years, and developed on a number of them before starting his own, Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands. That project began in 1996, and went online (after relatively sporadic development initially) in 1997. He still works as the primary designer and as a programmer, as well as handling all business and legal affairs. He can be reached at [email protected].

Geoffrey MacDougall, a social engineer for a MMORPG that is just getting started in development, called Solar Knights, made editorial contributions to this article.

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Matthew Mihaly


Matthew Mihaly is the President of Achaea LLC. Currently resides in San Francisco, he has a degree in political science from Cornell, 1994. Previous experience includes being aide to a US Representative and a licensed stockbroker. He has played text MMORPGs for 10 years, and developed on a number of them before starting his own, Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands. That project began in 1996, and went online (after relatively sporadic development initially) in 1997. He still works as the primary designer and as a programmer, as well as handling all business and legal affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]. Geoffrey MacDougall, a social engineer for a MMORPG that is just getting started in development, called Solar Knights, made editorial contributions to this article.

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