Thursday, December 3, 2009

Those Binds That Tie

Charles S. Pierce has been called “America’s greatest thinker.” You’ve probably never heard of him. Prodded by commentary at Spinksville, today I explore the implications of some of his theories for MMO design.


Pierce claimed that the key characteristic of an identity is the fundamental inability to change it. Pierce believed that there was a limited range of possible behaviors for any object in the universe and that this range of possible behaviors defined that object’s identity. Once an object acquired an identity it maintained that identity until the end of time.

In Pierce’s cosmology an object takes an identity through external action. Identity is a descriptive word in the sense that it refers to a habit—a pattern of behavior—which is historical in nature. There is, for example, nothing innate or intuitive about being an “American” or a “Swede”. “Swedishness” is simply the range of all possible things people from Sweden have done. In the same way there is nothing innate about a “comet,” the word “comet” only refers to the range of possible behavior of a specific body in space. The reason we distinguish between a Swede and an American or between a comet and a planet is simply because these things have different ranges of possible behaviors.

In an earlier post I talked about a marriage being valid because of the witness of the community. In Pierce’s view this is superstition. What makes a person a wife is not witness but action. We can’t say a person is a wife until they have been a wife. The old joke that a man never truly knows his wife until he has been through the divorce is a literal truth as far as Pierce is concerned. “Wifeishness” is just the full range of behavior a wife does. There is no pre-existing social script that wives have to abide by; rather it is through the actions of a woman in a particular relation to a man we find out what being a wife means to that woman. When we examine the full range of responses of all married woman we have the range of behaviors that identifies the concept called wife.

Raiding as an Identity

In this insightful post, Spinks makes an essentially Pierceian claim. Namely, that what makes a person a “raider” is not the fact that a person desires to be a raider but the fact that a person engages in a particular range of behavior. Spinks critical insight is that by programming a game Blizzard (intentionally or not) programmed players to behave a certain way. Further, she argues that this programmed behavior created a set of expectations in the players about the game. I’d go further and say that it not only created expectations it created a full-fledged identity for those players. The only reason “hard core” raiders exist in Warcraft is because Blizzard programmed them to exist.

In this interview Blizzard now admits that they defined the original range of possible behaviors that make up raiding too narrowly. The problem with this casual admission is that it totally ignores the human element. As the psychologist William James put it, the sense impressions left on neural pathways “do not easily disappear.” It’s easy to change pixels; it’s difficult to change minds. And as anyone who has ever redone all their key bindings in the game can tell you, it’s even harder to change behavior patterns. When Tobold accuses players of having a “sense of entitlement” he’s accusing them of having minds that work normally.

Identity as a Sunk Cost

A concept often used in economics is that of sunk costs. A sunk cost is a cost that has been incurred and cannot be recovered. For example, the three hours raiding spent last night are gone forever. One cannot have those hours back. One can relive those hours in memory but only at the expense of more time.

What’s interesting about sunk costs is that people value sunk costs more than they do present costs or future costs. This is sometimes called the ‘endowment effect’ and it’s perfectly summed up in the cliché that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The future is perceived as risky and people expect to be compensated for that risk.

If identity is a function of action then the more time a person spends performing that action the more that person will identify with it and the larger their sunk costs become. The larger those sunk costs become the more incentive will be needed to overcome it. If the time spent is long enough then there never will be enough force to overcome it and the truth becomes clear that the definition of identity is the fundamental inability to change it.

Implications for MMOs

Tobold has said that Warcraft doesn't care too much about identity. If that’s true then it’s another way of saying that MMOs don’t care too much about people. MMOs by definition provide for only a limited range of behaviors. The subscription model provides ample opportunity to spend lots of time. Spending a lot of time on a limited range of behaviors just is the definition of identity in Pierceian terms. The point is that MMOs by definition create identities in players; it simply can’t be avoided.

But that doesn’t mean the developers are helpless because there is still the question of what identity it is that player will form. It’s quite clear that Blizzard is trying to change player identity in all sorts of ways. For example, just as I predicted, Blizzard is seeking to change player’s identity away from their in-game characters to their account. is obviously an attempt to get players to identify with the Blizzard brand (write large) and not just any one game. Handing out what critics call “welfare epics” is simply an attempt to expand the range of possible behaviors that falls under “raiding” and thus change the identity of raiding.

MMO developers should think carefully about what identities they encourage players to form. Because while it is all nice and cool that Blizzard developers want to classify their changes as the result of “learning” and “becoming mellow” it must come as no surprise that some players see this as a “betrayal”. Because for them it is. Anytime you change the range of possible behaviors for an object you have changed its identity and anytime you change an objects identity you impose risk upon those who have sunk costs into that identification. In making the game more casual friendly, Blizzard isn’t simply reprogramming code; it’s reprogramming people. And people aren’t so easily reprogrammed as computer code.

This reality goes as deep as the intimacy of the computer keyboard. For every possible action of a player can be bound to a key. As you sit and repeatedly press your key binding for your frostbolt or shadowbolt you not just doing damage to pixel mobs; you’re spamming out your identity as a player. Those key presses—the action they represent—are those binds that tie.


Raddom said...

Blizzard, and other companies need to care about people and their identity. An essential part to MMOs is the interaction that takes place. The kind of interactions that can take place (raiding, chatting, trading) have been created by Blizzard. So therefore, Blizzard has created constraints to the type of identities that can exist.

There are people like me who love trading and love making money. There are also others who love rading, or gathering achievements, or who like gathering pets, or just interacting with their friends.

The reason why people don't think too much about constraints in WOW is because the game is so huge and it appeals to a wide range of players thereby allowing a wide variety of identites.

Very nice post by the way. It was a beautifully written and was an enjoyable read.

Pangoria Fallstar said...

First of all, good post. But as I read it, the time you mentioned things Tobold said, made me go, but that's not what he was talking about!

The sense of identity that Tobold talks about is how people view themselves as a Tauren, or as a Gnome. Playing a certain race speaks of who you are to many people. It's similar, but different to what you're talking about.

Also, double check your use of IDENTIFY over IDENTITY. I think you switched those around a few times.

Spinks said...

Very good post, I need to think about this some more.

To me, this cuts right to the core of MMORPG -- massively multiplayer ROLE-PLAYING games, and asks "what does it actually mean to play a role?" RPers usually use improvisational theatre/roleplay to play characters but in games, what we do defines the role just as much I think.

Pangoria: Remember, every race has their own starting area and quests. They have their own racials. They have their own mounts. Also, there's plenty of opportunity to observe how non-player NPCs of that race act. And since they share the same racial identity that helps to firm up in player minds what that means.

Elnia said...

@fallstar. Your are correct, good catch on the word mix-up. I can't believe that slipped by Larisa and me. It's been fixed.

Yes, it's true that what Tobold and I are talking about are not precisely the same thing. But I think it's similar enough that the point remains valid.