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Designer's Notebook: Implementing God in the On-Line World

Has the anarchic arena of online gaming gotten so bad that it needs an all-seeing, vengeful Old Testament-type God to punish the predators and protect the weak? Ernest Adams delves into "that old time religion" for answers.

Ernest Adams, Blogger

April 24, 1998

15 Min Read

I hate cheaters.

I hate people who pass cards under the table, or who move your chess pieces while you've gone to the bathroom, or who steal your Monopoly money while you're getting a drink. I think they're scum.

I hate online cheaters, too. I hate people who hack their files or use line sniffers to give themselves an unfair advantage over other, less technically skilled, players. People who exploit weaknesses in a game's security to beat other people. Some people who wouldn't dream of moving an opponent's chess pieces think nothing of hacking a computer to cheat opponents they can't see.

And in particular I hate people who get their kicks out of spoiling a game for others. People whose sole reason for playing a game is to make other people miserable. In the online role-playing world, they're called player-killers.

Hate 'em.

Several columns ago I talked about online outlawry, and I advocated putting some flatfoots on the infobeat. The term "online community," I said, is an oxymoron. A community has to have enforced minimum standards of behavior - in other words, a system of justice - or it won't be a community. Yes, it's expensive. It's expensive in the real world, too. That's the price we pay for safety and peace of mind.

This time I want to talk not about chat rooms, electronic extensions of real life, but about online, role-playing games: fantasy lives.

Now most role-playing games are set in a world that's pretty dangerous. There's a lot of weaponry, and fighting, and gaining of experience points, and all that D&D-esque stuff. And that's what a lot of people want to do: go on heroic (or sometimes unheroic) quests and kill monsters and get treasure. But the problem with most of these environments is that they're a free-for-all. It goes all the way back to the earliest days of Gemstone, on the GEnie network. Anybody can do anything to anybody else. There are no rules. The world becomes hyper-violent. And this naturally leads to player-killers who gain money and experience for their characters by picking on novices, people new to the game.

A while ago I got so sick of hearing about these creeps that I started to have a fantasy about how to stop it. Right now, the problem is being handled by vigilante justice -- groups of people who learn about someone killing off inexperienced players, and go trash the perpetrator. And I thought about what fun it would be to do the same thing all by myself -- to build up a character to the point that he was effectively invincible, and then use him to wreak righteous vengeance on evildoers in the name of the downtrodden. A sort of Superman, if you will, except that I thought of him more as Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites. I would name him TheLordThyGod, or maybe YHWH - the Tetragrammaton. If I was running him, God wouldn't talk much. Maybe all he would ever say is "mene mene tekel u-pharsin" (Daniel 5:26 - look it up). Or maybe he would only quote from the Ten Commandments, right before he smote you down. "Thou shalt not steal." Whack!

The word would get around. If a guy calling himself God just showed up at unexpected times, kicked the hell out of some wrongdoer without saying a word, and then vanished, you can bet the bulletin boards and chat rooms would be full of the news. They would wonder if God were being run by the system implementors, and if he could see them at times when they thought they were alone. People might start worrying that God would show up and implement swift justice. They might think twice about their behavior.

In other words, it was your basic adolescent revenge fantasy. A sort of comic-book God.

It wouldn't really work, though. For one thing, all the psychos would start gunning for you. Since a non-insider can't actually create an invincible player, chances are that eventually God would get killed. If that happened, he would lose his credibility and all his value as a deterrent.

However, I have thought of a couple of other possible solutions. Here they are:

No Friendly Fire

A lot of computer games that implement combat make life easier for the player by ignoring the problem of friendly fire. As any experienced soldier will tell you, it's a huge problem. As many as 50% of the U.S. casualties during the Gulf War may have been from friendly fire. Computer games, and especially video games, simplify the equation by making it impossible to shoot your own people, period.

We could do that for on-line games as well. Unfortunately, it would reduce the roleplay value of the game too much. Online games depend for a lot of their interest on the interactions between the players, and some of those may, and perhaps should, be confrontational.

The Justice Field

There's a wonderful and funny British science fiction comedy series called Red Dwarf. In the show, a motley group of ne'er-do-well adventurers are trying to find their way home after 3 million years of suspended animation in deep space. In one episode, they come across a space-going prison where a "justice field" has been implemented. Inside the field, the consequences of anything you try to do to someone else happens to you instead. If you hit someone, you, not they, feel the blow. If you stab them, you suddenly have a knife wound, and so on.

We could implement such a thing in the on-line world quite easily. If you attack someone, your own, not their, hit points are deducted. It would quickly put a stop to attacks on fellow human beings. Attacking someone else would accomplish nothing but suicide. The problem with this idea is that it's just a more drastic variant of "no friendly fire." It works, but it eliminates a lot of roleplaying. Or we could formally enforce the Golden Rule: however many hit points of damage you do, you take the same amount yourself. This doesn't work, however, since it still enables big strong characters to prey on weak ones with proportionately much less damage to themselves. Besides, healing is so easy in most RPGs that they could easily heal themselves back up.

Implementing God

I was talking the problem over with a friend at work, and we realized that there's a better way: implement God, not as an individual, but in the system software. But not the God of the Israelites. I think what's needed here is the approach of the medieval Catholic Church. But before we get to that, let's talk about balance.

All games depend on balance. If a game is perfectly balanced, no one can ever win it. If it's very finely balanced, it can go on for a long time. This is what happens in the kids' card game War. Each side gets half the deck, with the cards chosen at random; you shuffle your half, then each deal a card face up one at a time. Whoever has the highest takes both cards. The game is over when one side has all the cards. If the deck was reasonably well shuffled to begin with, a game of War can last for hours.

On the other hand, if a game gets unbalanced too quickly, people don't enjoy it because it's over too soon. What people want is for a game to become unbalanced gradually, and that there should be opportunities, either through luck or skill, for the balance to swing back the other way. That's how Monopoly works. Everyone starts out even, but over time, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The rent inflation in Monopoly guarantees that eventually, luck isn't enough to restore the balance, and eventually you lose. (The Free Parking rule some people play by adds an extra measure of luck to redistribute cash.) Chess and checkers work the same way. You can win even if you're down a few pieces, but the more pieces you get behind, the more difficult it becomes.

But on-line environments aren't supposed to be zero-sum games, and they're not supposed to come to an end like Monopoly or chess. Also, since people can join the game at any time, the players aren't all equal. At any given point, there are a large number of old-timers who have great advantages over the newcomers. If they're in direct competition, the newcomers will lose every time.

In short, on-line environments lack normal game balance. They need something to discourage old-timers from beating up on newcomers, and encourage them to pick on someone their own size.

I said in my earlier column that on-line communities fail because they lack shared values. I think that's true in online roleplaying games, too - and especially if they're for-profit, "come one, come all" games with no selectivity about who gets to play. But on-line, there's a way to create, and most importantly, enforce shared values. You tell your players:

God exists, and He sees all.
God hates sin, and punishes it reliably.

Then you go on to define sin. Since I'm chiefly concerned with player-killers I'll define sin as attacking other players without their consent. (We'll get to why they might consent later on.)

What you want as a punishment for sin is something quite drastic and difficult to repair. I think if a player attacks someone without her consent, the system software should damage his basic characteristics -- his speed, strength, dexterity and so on. And it should start taking away his special skills, and perhaps his money and prized possessions as well. This should happen not just after the fight is over, but immediately, at each hit. In other words, when a player commits the sin of violence, God makes him poor, weak and sickly.

Most of these things have nice parallels in the real world. By taking away his speed, the evildoer becomes lame. By taking away his dexterity, he develops palsy. You can make him mute, by limiting his ability to send messages to other players, or deaf, by limiting his ability to receive them. You could even give him an unsightly disease by distorting his graphics.

Naturally self-defense is permissible. The person who strikes the first blow is flagged as the aggressor. The defender can respond with impunity. You may wish to place limits on this -- if the aggressor withdraws or sues for peace, the battle is considered over and the defender no longer has carte blanche.

This also raises the question of what happens if a third party steps in to defend someone. You don't want such a noble soul being flagged as an aggressor just because she stepped in to help. To solve this, once someone is marked as an aggressor, it's open season on him - anyone can attack him with impunity until he withdraws or ceases fire.

Another important principle is that the punishment should be proportionate to the relative strengths of the people involved. The punishment for a player who attacks a novice should be much greater than the punishment a player who attacks an experienced warrior. You can compute this by the ratio of their hit points, or experience points, or character levels.

Some people might try to get around that system by forming gangs. The gang members would take turns attacking, thus diluting the punishment by distributing it among several people. The solution to this is to add the strengths of all the gang members (defined as all the people attacking within a specific space of time) together in calculating the strength ratio of attackers to defender, as described above, and apply the resulting punishment to all of them equally. Thus if five people of more or less equal strength attack one person, the ratio is five times higher and the punishment five times as severe - for all of them.

There should be other weighting factors as well. A well-armed character attacking a poorly-armed one (in most of these games no one is ever completely unarmed) should receive an extra measure of punishment. Likewise, attacking a player whose hit points are below their maximum should be grounds for extra punishment - it's the equivalent of assaulting an injured person.

But every element of a game needs a balance - especially in a non-zero-sum game like an on-line environment. This is where the medieval Church comes in. Simply put, it should be possible to repent and be absolved of your sin. The way to get your strength, dexterity, etc. back would be to make confession to some (automated) priest, who would then assign you a noble quest to demonstrate your repentance. You must undertake the quest alone and, more importantly, while still in your weakened state. If you succeed, then you regain some of your lost attributes. However, the value of doing this should drop each time you do it. You cannot go on killing people and then expect to return to God's good graces by making confession and repentance each time. The quests get harder and the benefits smaller. If you persist in returning to your evil ways, you will be excommunicated and the priest will no longer receive you.

(One reason the priests should be automated rather than human is that they are incorruptible. The selling of indulgences is an aspect of medieval Christianity that it would be preferable not to simulate.)

Finally, we come to the issue of consensual combat -- ie. duels. To permit affairs of honor, dueling should be a special mode of combat which permits fighting without any repercussions. However, duels have their own rules. First, the parties must be equally armed - the arms can be automatically supplied by the system, then taken away again after it is over. In traditional dueling, the challenged party has the choice of weapons. Second, no one else is permitted to interfere. This can be done by the simple expedient of maintaining an exclusionary zone around duelling fighters that no one else can enter, or perhaps requiring duels to take place in an arena. Finally, duels must have a mutually agreed-upon termination. There can, of course, be duels to the death, but they need not go that far. Duels could also end when one party has lost half her hit points. In traditional pistol duels, each party was supplied with a single-shot weapon; as soon as both shots were fired, regardless of outcome, the duel was over.

Dueling in an arena could easily be turned into gladiatorial games, with a crowd and wagering, if you wanted to go that route. Another variant of the duel that takes place over a longer period of time and in a less formal manner is the feud. In this case, the two people or groups of people mutually agree that the other is fair game, and there are no rules about where or with what weapons.

I should point out that this is getting rather far afield from the usual godly notions of decent behavior. The Church tried to ban dueling, and did ban gladiatorial contests… but so long as it is fully consensual, it seems harmless and fun in the fantasy context.

Of course, none of this does anything to solve the problem of bad verbal behavior - race-baiting, ham-fisted propositions, and so on - so the need for flatfoots on the infobeat remains. And I know some people will object that they want the freedom to respond to on-line insults with on-line violence, without interference from any system-software God. But I think they're missing the point. If the objective is to create a space where violence is frowned upon and has negative consequences for the perpetrator, then this provides a mechanism to do it - without the expense of juries, trials, and all the other impedimenta of the real-life judiciary.


* In the course of this column - written on Easter Sunday, no less - I say a few things that might be seen as disrespectful by practicing Christians. Let me make it clear that I have no intention of denigrating anyone's religion. What I am doing is using medieval Christian notions of sin, retribution, and absolution as a metaphor to show how morality can be introduced into on-line environments.

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About the Author(s)

Ernest Adams


Ernest Adams is a freelance game designer, writer, and lecturer, and a member of the International Hobo game design consortium. He is the author of two books, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, with Andrew Rollings; and Break Into the Game Industry: How to Get a Job Making Video Games. Ernest was most recently employed as a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and for several years before that he was the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL Football product line. He has developed on-line, computer, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Playstation 2. He was a founder of the International Game Developers' Association, and a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers' Conference. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at [email protected], and you may visit his professional web site at http://www.designersnotebook.com. The views in this column are strictly his own.

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