World of Warcraft is the most popular massively-multiplayer online game in the US and Europe, and is rising quickly in Asia. We've mentioned WoW (as it's usually called) before, and I play occasionally. It's by no means the most advanced game in terms of graphics or underlying technology, but the designers have done a good job of building something that's both easy and fun to play. But they've managed something else, something less expected: emergent phenomena.
A recent patch added a new region to the world of Azeroth, a region where players must fight the troll god of blood, Hakkar. One of the effects in the fight is a "disease" that does persistent damage and -- more importantly -- can be passed from an "infected" player to any other nearby characters. It was a nasty but seemingly straightforward effect. But then things got weird:
The amazing thing is SOME PLAYERS have brought this disease (and it is a disease) back to the towns, outside of the instance. It starts spreading amongst the general population including npcs [non-player characters, controlled by the computer]... Some servers have gotten so bad that you can't go into the major cities without getting the plague (and anyone less than like level 50 nearly immediately die). GM's [game managers] even tried quarantining players in certain areas, but the players kept escaping the quarantine and infecting other players.
Suddenly the virtual world, which had largely been viewed by players in utilitarian ways (does this town have an auction house or bank? Can I get or complete quests here?), started to take on unexpected -- but surprisingly compelling -- mythic aspects. One of the main cities, Ironforge, became a plague-ridden ghost town, avoided by all but the most powerful characters; roving bands of infected players would seek out "clean" areas in the enemy kingdom to attack, with the main weapon no longer fireballs and battleaxes but disease. Locations that used to be considered "safe" from outside attack became deadly, not just from enemy action but from the environment itself.
On one level, this was simply an example of game players behaving in a way that the game designers had not anticipated (in this case, leaving the battle with the blood god while still suffering from the disease). But the overall reaction of players wasn't to curse the designers or shun those who had "exploited" a game function, but to embrace this event as a surprising, emergent change to the world. For all of the celebration of massively-multiplayer games as being dynamic because one's allies and opponents are other people, the settings themselves are notoriously static. Quests are run over and over again, as friends help each other complete them. "Unique" monsters are killed over and over again, respawning in the same location. You can even hit websites detailing exactly how to complete various tasks, because they're always the same each time they're done.
There's a lesson here for those who design virtual worlds: look for ways in which the world itself can change in meaningful ways, not just through scripted events, but through the non-obvious combination of dynamic interactions between players and the environment. The virtual plague that came to Azeroth demonstrated that game players have become sophisticated enough to see such unexpected changes not as the system "breaking," but as ways in which the virtual world could lose its predictability.
We may be on the brink of a new era of virtual worlds, brought to us by an unexpected epidemic.
(Image cut from a series by NecroRogicon at Flickr)
You should have a look at EVE Online if you want more of this. It's entirely player-driven outside the casual play areas. Things like the WOW plague are the norm: a few weeks ago for instance, some players carried out a heist worth $16,000 of real-world money from a player corporation.
A few years ago I played Asheron's Call, a game very similar to WoW. I played on a "Player vs Player" server where anyone could kill anyone else (something most games don't allow you to do).
By far the most enthralling part (for me the academic and me the gamer) of the whole experience was the social-political dynamic which sprung up.
Without interference or restriction from the game's designers, an entire political society developed which was very similar to the real world.
Completely on their own, players grouped together, settled in towns, defended them from others, went to war over good questing locations and monster spawns, rebelled against their leaders, overthrew them, established different methods of goverance (dictatorship, oligarchy, democracy), established territories and borders, collected taxes, enforced law and order, made treaties, broke treaties and more.
With a world at their disposal and no rules or gamemasters to tell them what they could or could not do, these players built an entire society to help them thrive in the game.
Jamais: what is your character / class / level / server? :)
Second Life has this potential as well. I'm aware that freebies have been used to transmit a kind of virus by players wishing to "grief" other players. If participants weren't under strict terms to not develop these sorts of things under risk of permaban, I'm quite sure SL would be overrun with viral outbreaks and self-replicating objects.