I mentioned Caroline Bradley and Michael Froomkin’s paper on law in MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role-playing games) earlier today. Its argument is straightforward – these online communities offer a nice way to test legal scholars’ (and social scientists’) arguments about how different rules will affect behaviour and exchange. By looking at how this or that rule in an online game affects how players behave online, we can (with plenty of provisos and cautionary footnotes) reach interesting conclusions about social behaviour more generally.
My tuppence worth: one theory has already been ‘tested’ in this way; the argument that easing restrictions on weapons and their use will lead to a drop in violent crime. If you grant the assumption that MMORPGs are analogous to everyday life (a whopping assumption to be granting, I’ll admit), then the evidence is unequivocal. A society where each can use weapons against each without restriction is likely to deteriorate into Hobbesian anarchy. People will positively beg for a Leviathan to come in and put an end to the Warre of All against All.
Evidence for this assertion comes from the grandaddy of MMORPGs, Ultima Online.1 From its beginnings, Ultima has been plagued by ‘player-killers,’ players who go around the realm of “Brittannia” killing other players for kicks and profit. Some people just find this more entertaining than beating up on the computer generated fauna. In the words of one player-killer;
Being a bad guy is loads of fun – there’s more to do, more options to explore. You still get to hang out with lots of great people and help them out, but you’re helping out other Dread Lords like yourself.
This made life especially difficult for new players, innocents who were liable to be lured out of the safe zones by player-killers, and then cruelly murdered. People complained. Most players wanted to live quiet lives, adopting various trades that involved repeating tasks over and over in order to gain brownie points. Perhaps they’d kill the odd computer-generated monster or two, but they certainly didn’t want to be victimized by other players on killing sprees.
Initially, the designers of the game took a hard line; they wanted the players of the game to take action themselves against player-killers. In the words of the game’s head honcho;
“Those who have truly learned the lessons of the Ultima games should cease their complaining, rise to the challenge, and make Britannia into the place they want it to be.”
Unfortunately, these admonitions didn’t work; efforts by players to organize themselves against player-killers didn’t come to very much. Game designers did their best to encourage self-help, creating reputation systems in order to identify wrong-doers. Player-killers soon found ways to game the system, so that reputational signals were very nearly useless.
Eventually, the game designers gave up on the notion of self-policing, splitting the game into different ‘facets.’
Britannia these days exists in two parallel versions, or “facets”—Felucca, where killing other players is O.K., and Trammel, where, except under very limited circumstances, it is not. Four-fifths of all players choose Trammel.
A very substantial majority of players seem to prefer that a Hobbesian Leviathan step in to prevent people from using their weapons against each other, so that they can carry out their trades in peace. They prefer a system in which the sovereign authority (in this case the game designers) rule out interpersonal violence by diktat, to the nasty anarchy which otherwise prevails. And I believe (I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong) that this is true to a greater or lesser extent of all MMORPGs; all of them have peaceful zones where inter-player violence is ruled out by fiat, so that people can just get on with their activities.
As I’ve hinted, I don’t think that this analogy can be pushed too far – the circumstances of online games don’t map very well onto real life. But it’s still suggestive. Experience from MMORPGs suggests that self-help only goes so far in answering the threat of violence. The threat of armed retaliation from individuals doesn’t necessarily work to deter violent crime (especially where the bad guys have the bigger guns). But perhaps I’m wrong: I’m half expecting John Lott to come up with figures proving that more broadswords (or crossbows or fireball scrolls or magic wands) do lead to less crime. Certainly, he’s shown a quite extraordinary flair for fantasy statistics in the past.
1 Note of caution – I’ve never played one of these games myself, so take my assertions with a grain of salt.