And here I thought my job gave me a great excuse for screwing around online

Via Broken Toys: A Loyola University professor named David Myers says that the thousands of hours he spent playing the online RPG City of Heroes/Villains weren’t just for entertainment purposes. He was actually conducting a “breaching experiment,” a sociological exercise in which “conventional social norms [are] breached and the consequences of those breachings [are] examined in order to better understand the mechanisms by which social order [is] re-constituted.”

In layman’s terms, the guy deliberately acted like an asshole in an online game, ignored other players’ repeated requests that he knock it off, and took notes on the entirely predictable nerd rage that resulted. After more than a year of this, having successfully gotten himself ostracized on multiple game servers, he ended the experiment and published an academic paper about it, “Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt.” Last Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a story on the “dismaying” results of Myers’ study.

Myers’ paper offers an unintentionally hilarious combination of academic jargon, third-person self-reference, and gamer smack talk:

The inability of Twixt’s opponents to acknowledge his success in zone play was probably, on one hand, motivated by having entirely different, more socially oriented game goals. However, the degree to which villain messages and in-game claims distorted and transformed Twixt’s behavior was drastic. For instance, Twixt was able to win the zone (capture all six pillboxes for the heroes) literally hundreds of times during his year-long period of breaching play on three different servers. Twixt’s opponents, during this same period, may have won the zone, in total, less than twenty times. Twixt was normally able to defeat, on average, ten to twenty villains a night, while villains seldom killed him more than once or twice during the same period of play — and, more often, didn’t kill him at all.

Rather than acknowledge these successes, Twixt’s opponents refused to admit they occurred: Whenever Twixt pointed to the objective results of his play, he was ridiculed and ignored. At one point, in fact, toward the end of breaching play on the Freedom server, Twixt posted verbatim transcripts of the game’s online combat log as a confirming account of what had occurred during RV play. This post drew severe criticism – most harshly from those players listed in the log as defeated by Twixt; several denied their defeats outright, others attributed their defeats to more devious or pitiable causes (including a rather long and detailed post drawing parallels between Twixt’s behavior and Asperger’s syndrome.)

Game designer and blogger Scott Jennings offers his own thoughts on the professor’s experiment here and here. The professor responds on his own blog here (and here and here). Adolf Hitler, not to be outdone, whines about his own online gaming woes here.

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As part of my ongoing search for interesting ways to occupy myself while waiting for Bad Monkeys to be published, I’ve started playing World of Warcraft. This is not an entirely pointless time sink. I did some freelance work for one of the local software giants last year, and it’s conceivable that at some point someone will ask me to be a “creative consultant” on an MMORPG, so I figure it can’t hurt to have some actual play experience.

Before hiking over to Fred Meyer to pick up the game client, I read a bunch of player and game designer blogs, and found some interesting essays. One issue that gets mentioned periodically in game design circles, in a “We really should do something about this…someday” kind of way, is that the vast majority of computer game designers are white men who, lacking anyone to tell them otherwise, sometimes make decisions that needlessly alienate millions of potential customers.

For my first World of Warcraft character, I decided to play a troll of the hunter class. About an hour into the game I got sent on a quest to a seaside village called Sen’Jin, populated by my fellow trolls, and while interacting with the non-player characters I realized that we were all speaking with Haitian accents. A particular shade of Haitian accent, seemed like: repeatedly, as I finished an exchange with a quest-giver or a shopkeeper, I was warned to “Stay away from the voodoo, mon.” Gee, I thought, that’s odd. Why would trolls talk like black people?

Seeking answers, I turned to the racial history section of the WoW manual, and read the following: “The vicious trolls that populate the numerous jungle isles of the South Seas are renowned for their cruelty and dark mysticism. Barbarous and superstitious, they carry a seething hatred for all other races…” Ah, I thought, of course. That explains it. Trolls talk like black people because they’re superstitious jungle savages.

WoW, indeed.

Naturally, this got me curious. Was this an isolated horrible worldbuilding choice, or was there more? After leveling up my troll a bit, I started another character, a Tauren druid.

Taurens, as their name suggests, are a minotaur-like species (although my female druid looks more like a bipedal dairy cow). But they really should have been modeled on bison rather than cattle, because it turns out Taurens are actually Native Americans of the Mix-n-Match tribe. Environmentally conscious citizens of the plains, they live in both tipis and longhouses, and carve totem poles. And their signature greeting is “How!”, an expression I haven’t heard since the days of F-Troop.

Again, WoW.

Don’t get me wrong. World of Warcraft is as fun and addictive as you’ve heard, very well done in most respects. But in a game meant to appeal to a mass audience, this sort of stuff is just incredibly dumb.

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