A virtual education

A piece looking at gaming as a socially positive, innovative force, first published in the Observer, January 2010

What does playing computer games do to us? A YouGov poll has stirred up familiar worries about the effects of new media on children’s communication skills, saying that one in six children under the age of seven in England has difficulty talking – a problem that will have many worried parents looking at games consoles and wondering how far their children’s onscreen delights are implicated in this decline.

Anyone who has played video games, or watched their children playing, will know that they are an exceptionally compelling medium. As Jean Gross, the government’s new communication champion for children, noted, overbusy parents can spend dangerously little time talking to their children. Far easier to plonk them down in front of a mesmerising screen.

A lack of parental time and engagement is self-evidently a bad thing, as is the excessive use of any one medium. Yet this vision of gaming as a passive, inert activity does little to help struggling parents. For perhaps the most remarkable thing about modern video games is the degree to which they offer not a sullen and silent unreality, but a realm that’s thick with difficulties, obligations, judgments and allegiances. If we are to understand the 21st century and the generation who will inherit it, it’s crucial that we learn to describe the dynamics of this gaming life: a place that’s not so much about escaping the commitments and interactions that make friendships “real” as about a sophisticated set of satisfactions with their own increasingly urgent reality and challenges.

Take the idea of scarcity. In the real world, there isn’t enough of everything to go round and people suffer as a result. In the digital world, there is suffusion: anything can be duplicated almost endlessly at negligible cost. We are free to indulge ourselves to the utmost degree. Except, it turns out, people are rather attached to scarcity – and to difficulty, and to hard work, and to all those things that the narcissistic digital realm allegedly teaches us to avoid. We are deeply and fundamentally attracted, in fact, to games: those places where efforts and excellence are rewarded, where the challenges and demands are severe, and where success often resembles nothing so much as a distilled version of the worldly virtues of dedicated learning and rigorously co-ordinated effort.

The very first virtual worlds were indeed utopias. Places like The Palace, which opened its doors in 1995, offered users a kind of enchanted chatroom where they could interact with each other within graphical locations (“palaces”) that they had themselves created. Within the limitations of the technology, you could have and do anything you liked. It was a utopia, and it was boring. Not only did people prefer virtual worlds in which there were brutally strict limits on available resources, and where vast amounts of effort had to be expended to obtain these resources; they were actually prepared to pay money to spend time in these scarce worlds.

People liked other things, too: banding together to earn greater rewards; the escalating prospect of greater and greater challenges, involving levels of achievement at the top end only attainable by hundreds of hours of effort. Take the processes involved in playing Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console in its own online arena, Xbox Live – a digital destination that now boasts more than 20 million users. Thanks to the way Xbox Live works, anyone playing on Microsoft’s network isn’t just trying to beat individual games; they’re also working, often very hard, to earn cumulative “achievement” points for meeting particular targets in each and every game on the system, in an effort to lift their individual score ever higher in the global rankings. It’s this pattern of effort and reward, validated by a networked community of players, that makes modern games such an awesome engine for engagement.

When considering just how “real” anything that takes place in a virtual environment can be it is, first of all, worth remembering the degree to which most real-life activities, from work to shopping to dating, demand a degree of self-concealment precisely because of the direct consequences they entail. A virtual world is a tremendous leveller in terms of wealth, age, appearance, ethnicity and such like – a crucial fact for anyone who isn’t in the optimum social category of being, say, attractive and affluent and aged between 20 and 35. It’s also a place where “you” are composed entirely of your words and actions: something that breeds within and around many games an often extraordinarily complex network of conventions and debates that are integral to a community held together only by voluntary bonds.

Visit any website devoted to hosting player discussions of games like World of Warcraft, for instance, and you’ll find not hundreds but tens of thousands of comments flying between players who debate every aspect of the game, from weapon-hit percentages to mathematical analyses of the most efficient sequence in which to use a character’s abilities. It will range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and will be riddled with private codes, slang, trolls, flames, and everything else the internet so excels at delivering.

What you’ll find above all, though, is a love of discussion almost for its own sake; and an immensely broad and well-informed range of critical analyses. It’s not unknown for doctors of economics or maths to wade into the fray – and find themselves bested by other still more meticulous chains of gamer reasoning.

Perhaps the most sophisticated online game of them all, the epic science fiction universe known as EVE Online, has even seen its player community persuade the company running the game to hold democratic elections for a “council” via which players can voice their concerns directly to developers. Places on this Council of Stellar Management, as it’s known, were first competed for in a full election during March 2008, with 66 candidates putting themselves forward for nine positions. Every player of the game was eligible to vote, and the results were announced in May 2008: 24,651 votes were cast out of a pool of 222,422 eligible voters, revealing a turnout of 11% – not bad at all, considering the level of engagement with the game required to follow the campaigning, and the fact that players span more than 50 countries across the world. These days, alongside the council, there is a separate internal affairs division, designed to root out misconduct on the part of both players and developers after some nasty allegations of insider dealing with valuable engineering schematics.

In an election year for Britain, this kind of grand experiment in community government and participation is given an edge by perhaps the most fundamental traits of every gaming world: fairness, equality and transparency. Even the crudest game is, with its community of players, an arena of absolute and rigorously enforced equality in both terms of opportunity and measurement. It simply wouldn’t be fun otherwise.

Consider one of the most fundamental problems posed by any massively multiplayer online game: the distribution of rewards among a team of people who have collaborated in order to work their way through a vast – and rewarding – challenge. Nobody is being paid to be there. In fact, all the players involved will be paying exactly the same amount of money for the privilege of playing the game in the first place. Given that most in-game challenges tend to produce only a small amount of very valuable loot in the form of armour or weapons that almost everyone would like to own, the problem created is one that can only be solved satisfactorily by a solution that is self-evidently fair and self-contained.

In 1999 a group of players in the game EverQuest devised the first version of exactly such a system. Dubbed Dragon Kill Points, or DKP – the key task that necessitated devising the system was killing two very tough dragons – essentially it entailed introducing a private and self-regulated currency between collaborating players. Under a DKP system, every time anyone participated in a group mission they got “paid”‘ a set DKP allocation. These points were tracked – independently of the game, on an open website run by the players themselves – and accumulated over time until a player decided they wished to spend them on a rare or desirable item found during an in-game mission. At this point an open or closed auction system would allocate each item to the highest bidder.

Once the notion of DKP had been introduced, an increasingly sophisticated series of methods of quantifying the challenges and rewards in the game soon began to develop among players. “Price lists” were developed for in-game items, based on detailed statistical analyses of their properties. As one founder member of the EverQuest guilds that developed the DKP system put it to me, “loot handling in online games would probably be a PhD thesis in itself. It was very, very difficult. We had a good time trying to figure out what price things should be, what was the best way to distribute.”

In a digital world – and a political arena – increasingly preoccupied with transparency and accountability, the spontaneous emergence of such a system points towards the gaming world’s remarkable power. The DKP system is an entirely self-enforcing mechanism; yet its effectiveness among gamers who adopt it runs at close to 100%. This is because it works; because it’s transparent and meticulously fair; and because it has been laboriously calibrated over time to prevent collusive bidding or other kinds of “cheating.”

Neither playing Warcraft nor building a virtual polling booth in Second Life is likely to win many votes for a British political party in 2010, of course. And spending 24 hours a day in either environment is unlikely to do much for anyone’s conversational abilities. But it’s high time we began to understand games on their own terms, with all the potentials and dangers that entails: as arguably the most powerful models we have for connecting and motivating, and understanding those vast, disparate groups of people a digital age throws together.