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Glory and Shame: Powerful Psychology in Multiplayer Online Games

Conventional interactive gaming lacks the ability to make a player feel shame or glory, because single player gaming lacks the prime ingredient to elicit these emotions -- an audence. But the rise of multi-player on-line gaming has factored the audience back into the equation. In this article, Jonathan Baron takes a look at the psychology behind multiplayer on-line games.

Jonathan Baron, Blogger

November 10, 1999

17 Min Read

Editor's note: This paper was originally published in the 1999 Game Developer's Conference proceedings.

When you play a stand-alone computer game, you experience challenge, release, escape, frustration, and satisfaction; however, you cannot experience glory. Glory can only take place with an audience. Similarly, no computer game can shame you, again because shame requires that other people be present. But it takes more than merely the existence of other people in our environment to create opportunities for glory and shame - you also need a relationship with those people, one of either knowledge or recognition. This is why server network games, such as Quake, offer no special embarrassment when you perish or when you prevail.

Having large numbers of simultaneous players in an environment that records and preserves player records and actions diminishes anonymity and builds relationships among players, but it also creates the emotionally charged possibility of glory and shame in a game world. It's precisely because this does not exist in most forms of computer gaming that it is seldom understood by game designers; indeed, few have any idea of how even minor design decisions affect the balance between the two extremes. And this balance must be maintained, because if a game shames defeated players too much, many will leave. What's worse, no one will know exactly why they left.

Viewed in a simple engineering way, glory is achieved at the price of shaming others; that is, the greater the shame the greater the glory. To some extent this is true, but the entire concept resists quantifiable analysis. You cannot line up shame possibilities, assign them a numerical weight, and come up with a sum of potential glory. Nor can you quantify how the possibility of shaming others can motivate players to endure tasks of such tedium and boredom that no traditional game designer could imagine them. So powerful are glory and shame that they have bound cultures together for centuries, motivated innumerable people to risk their lives, and have driven countless others to end their lives. Thus, while the creation of such an environment provides an emotional depth to online gaming, it must be employed with thought and care, if employed at all.

In this article, I will explore how glory and shame work in online gaming, note their consequences, and show how they influence the underlying community culture a game creates. Glory and shame also offer a clue as to why multi-player gaming has yet to achieve a prominent place among other entertainment media.


Industry buzzwords such as "massively multi-player," "persistent universe" and the like only hint at their true meaning. Although everyone agrees that having many people in the same shared virtual space, whose actions are recorded and noted far beyond the gaming session is a good thing, few set out to fully manage the consequences of such a situation. Two very powerful, and potentially dangerous consequences, glory and shame, are deceptively easy to create. You cannot have either glory or shame without an audience that knows or knows of each other; hence the benefits of scale and records in playing to both emotions. Further, these emotions go wholly beyond what computer gaming has traditionally provided. Glory and shame explain not only online gaming's ability to reach people on a deeper level than previously possible, but they also account for player behavior that too often comes as a complete surprise - an unpleasant one - to game developers. My article will explain and explore the crucial quality that separates large-scale online games from their stand-alone or network brethren, as well as anything else in entertainment.

A Unique Audience

Many of you may question just how real or powerful the audience influence can be in multi-player online gaming. Most online games today have no persistence or scale to them at all - they are but a series of evanescent encounters amongst total strangers on a variety of hosts scattered across the world, for hich no record is written. Although the power of audience influence is present in these games, and many of the principles I will discuss apply to them, the focus of this talk is on what people refer to today as, for lack of a better word, massively multi-player games. It is this segment of the online multi-player medium that has the potential to attract a broad enough cross section of people in the future to make it one day a major entertainment medium.

Certainly many of you are thinking, however, that even the large scale, persistent world multi-player games can't wield audience influence over players that can rival the effect of living, breathing people in the same room with you. People don't actually see one another, don't actually know one another, most don't even live anywhere near one another. What power can any audience in the virtual world of cyberspace truly exert over anyone?

The power of this audience, as well as the reason it's unique, stems from the most important difference between multi-player games and all other forms of entertainment; namely, the audience is the medium. This is because the audience in multi-player games is unlike any audience in any other form of entertainment, as participant and audience are one. As a player, you are at once participant and spectator, beholder and creator of the game environment. In this there are no analogies, nothing comparable to this environment, other than the experience that people unfamiliar with gaming claim the online gamer is lacking: life. Because the multi-player game contains the force and influence that groups of people bring to real life, but does so in an imaginative setting that real life too often either lacks or dares not attempt, multi-player gaming can have a social impact on people more powerful than real life can provide. Thus, the influence of its audience, without anyone physically being in the room with you when you play, can rival or exceed its real life counterpart. While there are plenty of games that have no audience, or have no audience/player/entertainer boundaries, none has the ability to so consume and involve its participants like online gaming, as everyone who has been involved with the medium at any length can attest.

If the stadium in which the NFL Pro Bowl was played was filled with pro football players as its only spectators, imagine the psychological impact upon the players on the field. Now imagine that every new football player had to play in front of this audience from the moment they first played football. Imagine that every beginning football player had to take to this field and play amongst these players. This is multi-player gaming today, which is also why multi-player games are an infinitesimally small segment of the entertainment industry today.

The Power of Shame

Shame is so powerful an emotion that entire societies have been held together by it. Many still are today, Japan being an excellent example. Echoes of shame's once prime importance in our society exist in a variety of figures of speech ("Shameless", " Have you no shame?", "You should be ashamed of yourself", and so on). Japanese warriors, when shamed, would beg not just for death, but for the right to kill themselves in rather horrible ways. Although people no longer plead for the privilege of killing themselves, and thereby mitigating their shame, every person reading this has wished, at one time or another, that the ground would mercifully swallow us up after we had embarrassed ourselves. No matter the words we choose to describe it, no matter what we actually do in response to it, shame has the power to make us wish we were dead. There is no more powerful emotion. And, until multi-player online games became widely played, this was an emotion computer gaming could not tap.

Furthermore, it is an emotion that most game developers today have no idea they have tapped. Lots of folks in the industry wonder why the market for multi-player games has grown so slowly. Others bemoan the so-called lack of an economic model for them. People dwell on learning curves, barriers to entry, interface design, and compelling content. What they fail to understand is that the principle reason more people aren't playing hosted persistent online games tonight is due to shame - the experience of it, or the fear of it. I challenge you to name a single massively multi-player online game that does not absolutely require that every new player undergo a period of embarrassment or humiliation. Yes, learning any new game requires that you do badly before you can do better, but multi-player has an audience, which, as noted above, is unique in all of entertainment. Multi-player gaming requires that you not only perform poorly initially, but that you do so in front of other people. Embarrassment, even on an insignificant level, is completely unheard of in any other entertainment media, all of which are hell bent to make you feel good and good about yourself.

The Problem with Glory

Okay, you know that shame is bad, but there are other emotions multi-player gaming can tap into that are quite positive; namely, shame's opposite, glory. Shame can feed glory - the greater the shame, the greater the feeling of glory. What did Conan say when asked what's good in life?

But there are plenty of opportunities for glory, or at least opportunities to reward players and make them feel good about themselves, that don't require the other players be humiliated. What then is the problem with glory? Ask yourself this question: what is the problem with money? Stressing glory, even when it comes without shaming others, emphasizes achievement over development. Although we may think we're motivated by recognition in multi-player games (and, the more competitive people would argue, in most of life's activities), the reason we keep coming back after we know what we're doing is due to our development in the social fabric of the game's community. The distinction can be confusing, and I will try to clear it up some. I'll start with the most recognized forms of today's true online games, how they handle issues of achievement versus development, and by extension, how gracefully they manage matters of glory and shame.

Pure Meritocracy - the Ultimate Glory Game

In the massively multi-player realm, this sort of game is best represented by the multi-player air combat simulation. This can also apply to some degree to the first person shooter, but I will restrict my comments to the air combat sim, as it has a long, established history. These games demand skills rare in human beings, skills that you're expected to master to become a force in the community. Earning respect here is not like religion, as devotion alone won't get you there. If you can't think in terms of three-dimensional geometry, and interpolate multiple vectors in your head, then you'll never achieve star status here. It doesn't matter how many hours you play. There is no cumulative character scheme. You cannot earn extra hit points for your fighter aircraft. Put another way, achievement and development are very closely coupled.

Glory and shame here are unambiguous. The two major examples of this genre broadcast notice of your demise, when you perish, to everyone in the game world at that time. One goes so far as to broadcast the game names of both the victor and the vanquished. Not surprisingly, both games have an unspoken ethic that approves of, encourages in fact, attacks with words as well as war planes. Finally, both player communities prefer to resolve major disputes through duels. If they could issue dueling challenges by slapping each other with gloves, they would. Yes, most of the players of these games are men.

That said, both have developed communities that have, over time, matured to include members that aren't hot shot fighter pilots. This is, in part, due to the spiritual influence of the underlying subject matter of these games; that is, aviation in an important and actual war that is still in living memory. In part this is due to the sheer age of the genre. Its first example, Air Warrior, is 12 years old. The point is that the ultimate depth and eventual development of elders, as opposed to just killers, in these communities was not a direct product of the design of these games originally.

Is this genre successful? Few genres in computer gaming have been as enduring; indeed, in computer years, the genre dates back to the Pleistocene epoch. Is it a worthy model of multi-player game design? Yes, if you'd prefer a small, dedicated customer base. Ninety percent of the people who try these games don't hang around. Quite simply the glory and shame levels are so high, in particular the shame level for new players, that there will only be a mass market for this sort of game when society as a whole gives over to the worship of sadomasochism.

Cumulative Character Games -
The Devoted All Go to Heaven

Best represented by the fantasy role-playing adventure genre, in these games you can get there through devotion alone. Nobody, regardless of native skill, intellect, reasoning ability, or reflexes can be anything more than meat in these games until they've put in time acquiring attributes an qualities bestowed by the game itself. Being smart can help you become a force to be reckoned with faster, but you have to pay your dues.

Although at first these may seem like purely achievement-oriented games, probably because you usually spend your first few hundred hours acquiring skills and game stuffs. They do evolve, however, into development games. Players either acquire so much stuff that it loses its meaning and utility, or they carve out a niche for themselves, deciding, in effect, to leave the rat race behind them. In either case, players will eventually develop beyond, or in spite of, the reliance of these games on game-created goodies to drive their game mechanics. Although most examples of the genre are established in early medieval settings, online FRP design is dominated not by the pre-Christian mythology of swords and sorcery, but by pure, raw, unseasoned capitalism. You are who you are because of what you've got, what you've acquired, what you can afford to buy.

But, like the occasional over-wealthy soul, player communities move from achievement to development when they learn there's more to life than money, and you're not something special because you have more of it. Just like the meritocracy-based game, cumulative character games over the years develop rich and warm societies that value their members and bring out the best in them. And just like the meritocracy game, they do so for reasons that seldom have anything at all to do with the intended design of their creators. To-date the only cumulative character online game that was ever designed, from the very first, to create a mature, multi-tiered society where money didn't matter was the original Multiplayer Battle Tech which is, alas, no more.

Achievement Vs. Development

The time has come to dispense with abstract and semi-concrete examples. What, once and for all, is the difference between achievement and development in multi-player game design, and what does any of this have to do with glory and shame? Achievement is all about meeting the challenges posed by game design. Development is your growth in the society of the game world. Achievement, in a competitive environment where hundreds or thousands are striving for a sharply defined set of goals, is glory for the winners, shame for the losers and also-rans. Development comes not from your ability to achieve game goals, but rather from the ability of the game, intended or not, to reveal who you are. This is how people can come to believe they genuinely know people they've played an online game with. This is where the lasting bonds among online gamers come from, and is the reason why the emergence of online gaming as a major entertainment medium is inevitable. As game designers, however, it is our preoccupation with the achievement side of the games we make, and the side effects of glory and shame that we, with little thought, unleash upon our customers, that retard this medium's emergence.

Development over Achievement

The day we become conscious of the power of our medium, and of the power our design decisions have over it, is the day when online gaming leaves its Keystone Cops, silent movie era. Here are a few suggestions that can help you get there:


  • Don't build a pyramid. If your game mechanic can only be mastered by a rarified slice of humanity then you will have the harsh, rough, chest beating culture of the meritocracy game. It may evolve into something better, but if it does, it will be no thanks to you. People tend to think that these games have the testosterone-poisoned cultures they do simply because they involve combat. This is simply not true. Look at Tribes, and its ability to employ a variety of contributions from people in a combat setting. Imagine the culture it would create if it became a massively multi-player offering. Instead of a pyramid, build a game structure like a collapsible camping cup - many interlocking layers, nearly equal in size, needing each other to work.


  • Shelter your young. Perhaps the most powerful developmental tools the multi-player game has at its disposal are rites of passage, yet only rarely does it employ them. Don't tack on training to your game. Make raising your players part of the game. One major difference between shame in multi-player games and in real life is that, in the former, it can happen inexplicably and without warning. This, more than any other single factor, drives promising new players away from multi-player games - forever.



  • Devise a game design where achievement allows and encourages many different sorts of people to make themselves useful in many different ways. Do that, without falling back to the database driven, cumulative character scheme, and player and community development will follow. Do that, and you'll conquer the world.

Jonathan Baron has been with Kesmai since 1993, specializing in multiplayer online simulations, in particular the Air Warrior series of multiplayer air combat simulations. Coming from a previous career in politics in Washington, where he served as an aide to Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Bill Richardson, then a Congressman from New Mexico, he was drawn to online gaming's social engineering aspects. He is currently working on an SF RPG for Kesmai Studios, set in a universe he was unable to disclose at press time. His major interest, away from work, is flying N1516B, a 1948 Luscombe 8E airplane.He can be reached at [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Baron


Jonathan Baron has been with Kesmai since 1993, specializing in multiplayer online simulations, in particular the Air Warrior series of multiplayer air combat simulations. Coming from a previous career in politics in Washington, where he served as an aide to Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Bill Richardson, then a Congressman from New Mexico, he was drawn to online gaming's social engineering aspects. He is currently working on an SF RPG for Kesmai Studios, set in a universe he was unable to disclose at press time. His major interest, away from work, is flying N1516B, a 1948 Luscombe 8E airplane.He can be reached at [email protected].

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