10 min read

MMOs: The Psychology of Discrimination

How can an MMO environment, which encourages social modeling and social learning, change the way we interact with others both in the context of the game world and in real life, specifically in matters of racial and international tension?

A few days ago I read a very interesting study on MMOs and Social learning.  Since I myself spend a lot of time locked away in my room, nose to the LCD screen, eyes bloodshot from caffeine intake with the curtains drawn like some kind of creature who absorbs energy from solitude, (Think “solar-powered” but instead “soul-less-powered”) I can often get very defensive when reading articles that bash gaming and “what it’s doing to kids and society”.  So I’ll be the first to admit that I somewhat sought out information that spoke in favor of my hobby gone career choice.  Regardless, the study is legitimate and well worth discussing.  The research paper I’m talking about can be found here and is definitely worth the read.  What Ducheneaut and Moore’s paper actually discusses is the principles of social learning, how they are modeled in MMOs, and can actually teach real-world skills like teamwork, leadership, and other buzzword qualities that everyone likes to hear about.  But what I want to talk about is a little more tangential than a direct commentary of the study. 

As I mentioned, I like to play games (You don’t say?), a lot of games, and most recently I’ve been playing a lot of MMOs.  As background, I’ve been a Guild Wars player off and on for about 6 years.  But lately I’ve been testing the waters in three other titles: Lord of the Rings Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.  It’s the combination of SWTOR and the Ducheneaut-Moore study that prompted my thoughts for this article.    

Like I discussed in a recent post on our company website, we at SRRN are all about games that ask questions.  So I want to talk about a big question that some games are currently starting to ask and how we could extend that question further.  So here it is:

How can an MMO environment, which encourages social modeling and social learning, change the way we interact with others both in the context of the game world and in real life, specifically in matters of racial and international tension?

Both SWOTR and LOTRO have the seeds planted to address this question and from what I know of Guild Wars 2, it will also begin to explore it.  If you hadn’t figured it out, and if you play MMOs at all I expect that you have, the thing all three of these games have in common is that each player chooses not only a profession for their chosen character, but a race as well. 

Because games are so inherently an expression (as all art is) of our experiences as people, these games all give the different races and cultures stereotypes that are generally adhered to.  This is both to help players better understand the social context of the world more easily, but also a reflection of the way we view ourselves.  From a psychological standpoint, humans rely on stereotypes to help us process information.  But as we all know (and probably remember vividly from highschool), stereotypes can also have negative side-effects in the way we view and treat others.  And as history has taught us, racial and ethnic stereotypes have always been a consistent and sticky issue, as they continue to be today.  All of these games display this truth to us in various ways.  In LOTRO there is the obvious tension between elves and dwarves that consistently leads to aggression and disagreements, in Guild Wars it is the Humans and Charr, and in SWOTR there is a whole mess of implications between different races—though the one that comes most readily to mind is the Twi’lek race who has a colorful history of being abused and enslaved due to their original lack of technological sophistication.  (Sounds uncomfortably familiar, doesn’t it?)  Now that I think on it, Skyrim also comes to mind, even though it isn’t an MMO.  The Khajiit people in Skyrim are often mistrusted and stereotyped by other races as petty thieves and criminals. 

Now, with all that background information tucked safely under our belt and fresh in our minds, I want to tie it in to the Ducheneaut-Moore study and project that to the question I’m asking.  This quote from the paper best illustrates where I’m going:


“Although it is not an explicit goal of MMORPGs,

social learning nonetheless occurs all the time as a

normal feature of participation in a “community of

practice” (Ducheneaut-Moore, 92)


This is where the Psychology nerd in me comes out.  For those of you who need to brush up, Social Learning is derived from the work of Albert Bandura, best known for the studies on violence and modeled behavior in which children who observed violent behavior were more likely to display violent tendencies in play.  There are two sub-sects of Social Learning that are important here, Live Modeling and Symbolic Modeling.  Live Modeling being where someone actually demonstrates the behavior or practice in question and Symbolic where the behavior is modeled through media such as movies, TV, or in this case gaming.  MMOs are a combination of the two in that players Live Model through the symbolic tool of the game world.

There have been plenty of studies done on racial stereotypes in gaming, most notably the Grand Theft Auto franchise that catches a lot of backlash for its very negative portrayals.  But the reason I want to talk about MMOs is because they inherently encourage players to act on the social learning they’re doing in real-time.  Secondly, these MMOs allow us to discuss the issues without the tension of racial stereotypes that are too close to home because the races involved don’t actually exist.  (Unless you believe in elves, in which case you should be reading some other psychological studies.)

So there are now two parts to this question: Does Social Learning affect the way a player views a particular race in-game? And: Does does Social Learning affect the way a player treats another player of that in-game race and if so, how?

As to the first part, I’d argue that the answer is easily: yes.  I hesitate to go back to Skyrim but I think that it portrays this principal best.  While playing Skyrim, the player often sees the Khajiit people hated and discriminated against--not physically, but there are plenty of slurs to be had.  (In fact, the Nords pretty much discriminate against everyone…) If we’re to take Social Learning as a reliable theory, and I do, then we have to conclude that the player, in some way or another, has their opinions about Khajiit affected and it is shown in the way that they then treat the Khajiit NPCs they encounter.  Whether they become prejudiced themselves or feel like they should defend the underdog races is irrelevant.  Either way, the modeled behavior in the society has affected the player. 

Now is when the MMOs in question become important.  As it stands in multi-race MMOs, the player chooses a race and because of that choice, often encounters NPCs who reflect the beliefs of the society about their own race and about others.  In LOTRO, for instance, my Elf Loremaster often encountered dwarves who had a thing or two to say about her heritage.  In Guild Wars the same thing is true between humans and Charr and the effect will only increase in GW2 when the charr become a playable race. 

Here’s another psychological theory for you: the Social Identity Theory.  This theory states that people are more likely to show favor to people considered in their “group” whatever that group may be: a sports team, a country, a company, hell even a crochet club (Seriously, there was a vicious group of crocheters at my high school), and more likely to discriminate against the “out-group”.  I imagine that you can see where this is going.  Does a player who chooses to play as an elf in LOTRO end up harboring some subconscious resentment for dwarves?  And beyond that, does the player then take a little of that resentment into their interactions with other players who are dwarves?  That second question is the one that needs more research to back it up.  (If you’re feeling skeptical—and you may be—about the idea that people could so blindly hate other players for concepts that are fictional, then I invite you to talk to anyone who plays Guild Wars or World of Warcraft and ask them about Luxons/Kurzicks and Alliance/Horde respectively.) 

So here’s the idea that I’m going to leave you with: Imagine picking up a new MMO, a fantasy one maybe.  Upon starting the game you’re prompted to pick a race from among—say, five choices.  You spend your first hour of gameplay totally engrossed in the culture of your chosen people, getting to know them, helping them.  Once you’ve gained your first few levels and won’t embarrass your clan, you young bright-eyed warrior you, you’re pushed forward into a new area—one with another race in it, maybe two, and things between them and your people aren’t so amicable. 

Perhaps your people are the impoverished few in a large metropolis; maybe they’ve been deadlocked in indentured servitude for decades with no way out.  There are layers of indignity and spite all built up, just waiting for you to buy in—and you do.  You spend your time doing the quests available: undermining those pigs in every way possible, smuggling your friends and family to safer places, saving young girls from those with more power in society that would take advantage of them. 

But what about the other players—the ones who chose to play as that evil abusive race?  Did they spend their first ten levels of gameplay being shown the injustice of their people?  No, of course not.  They’ve been told that the superior technology of their race is helping your people, giving them the gift of modern medicine and civilization.  They are your protectors, your champions.  And what were they told about you?  That you’re ungrateful.  You take the benefits of their society and never give back.  You steal from those who only wish to help you.  They think they’re the good guys.

And here’s the kicker:  At level 15 you’re transitioned again into a new area where, for one plot-driven reason or another, these races are inter-mingled as equals and given the option to team up.  A player of that other race invites you to their party.  There’s a two-man mission ahead.  You could use their help.  Do you accept, knowing that there are two sides to every story—that they aren’t evil?  Or do you tell that guy where to shove it?  Maybe you’re a pretty level-headed person and you go ahead with them.  But I’m willing to bet my weight in ramen that you thought about telling them what’s what—just for a second. 

And what does that say about you?  Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but it says something.  And you may even learn something from it.  Maybe, as Ducheneaut and Moore hypothesized, you would take those in-game lessons on human interaction and apply them to your real-world practices.  Maybe, just maybe, you’d start “teaming up” in real life with people you otherwise wouldn’t have.  I’m not talking about the change in a 90’s movie where that nerdy girl takes of her glasses and is instantly hot.  I’m talking about a small change.  But if that game affected the way you thought about real life, even a little, then it asked a damn good question.  And that’s what games should do, right?  Ask the questions that can’t be asked any other way.

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