If you ask me, there are two kinds of players in the videogames of life: There are passengers, and there are drivers. The passengers can be found riding the rails of most single player games; the drivers play MMOGs.

What it comes down to is a question of choice: How much of it do you really have? While open-world games like Grand Theft Auto and Gun have begun to give the unconnected PC- or console-bound player more and more choice as to how they’ll make their way through the environments unfolding on their screens, the single player experience is still mostly one of being guided through a series of missions that unfold, as the popular phrase has it, “on rails” – i.e., in a linear series of events that funnel the player down a relatively narrow path of gameplay encounters. In general, the player has only one choice to make: Go on to the next boss fight, or switch the damn thing off.

The experience of MMOGs and other virtual worlds, by contrast, can be fundamentally different (though it isn’t always). In virtual worlds, players are free to follow any number of different paths through the content that’s provided by the developer. Here, the player has a far wider range of choices as to what comes next. Or, at least, that’s what it looks like at first glance.

Though the software that underpins a game can do much to guide a player, in most cases, the player himself has far more control over just how he makes his way through the world than the designer does. There’s no one path to level 60 in World of Warcraft, after all, and theoretically, you could get there without ever doing any of the quests Blizzard spent so much time and money to seed throughout its game. In MMOGs, players rule. What may be surprising, though, is the fact that, quite often, it’s neither you nor the game that determines your path through the world.

A lesson from French existentialism may be helpful here. The play No Exit, first performed in May 1944, is Jean Paul Sartre’s drawing-room meditation on (among other things) how we create our identities. Sartre asks a question that should be important to anyone who spends time in MMOGs, where our identities are more malleable than anywhere else: How does one bring oneself into existence?

Sartre answers with a negative example. Perhaps the most important chestnut to be found between the opening and closing curtains is a line uttered by Garcin, the only man in the three-person play. Garcin sums up what all gamers already know: Hell is other players.

Well, actually, it’s other people, according to Sartre. But the epigram is easily tweaked to suit our current purposes. For Sartre, the most important element of who we are is neatly encapsulated by the choices we make in the world. But other people sometimes perceive us differently. Woe betide the man who lets himself be defined by the perceptions of others. Do that, and you enter a kind of hell in which you fail to exist.

Any WoW player who’s ever tried to chat with the NPC Hemet Nesingwary in Stranglethorn Vale on a PvP server knows this is true. More often than not – especially if it’s early on a Saturday evening, Eastern Time, when Californians are just logging on and Europeans are done questing for the night but not yet ready for bed – Nessie, as he’s known, is nowhere to be seen. Why? Because he’s been killed by the high-level Alliance players (or Horde, depending on your server profile) who are hanging around Nessie’s camp site, waiting to kill you, too.

Stranglethorn is rightly called Ganklethorn by players frustrated by being “ganked” over and over again (i.e., killed by high-level characters for whom the battle is hardly a challenge). But on WoW‘s PvP servers, other zones can be just as bad.

Alliance players often find it impossible to make their way through the quests available to them in the eastern portions of the Ashenvale zone, and Horde players who’d like to take a run at the instanced dungeon known as Uldaman often find themselves so impossibly outmatched by Alliance players, they can hardly reach the entrance.

To many players on the receiving end of such seemingly needless virtual violence, this kind of gameplay amounts to little more than griefing – one player making life hard for another, for no other reason than it’s possible. Clearly, Hell is other players.

But is there more to what’s going on here? Were you ganked last night just because someone decided to be mean? Are those insufferable Alliance players a bit too deep in their roleplaying, too focused on keeping the little orc down? They don’t get any honor or experience points for killing you. So, why do it at all?

In fact, what they’re doing is much more than just griefing, and has less to do with some perceived battle between one faction and the other, and much more to do with the very real tension that exists between designers and players of almost any game. What the gankers are doing is attempting to define themselves by exercising their freedom of choice in one of the few ways WoW allows its players.

Seen in that light (and to misquote yet another source), griefing is good, it “clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit,” as Gordon Gecko might say.

Most of us, myself included, wish it would just go away. But I’m willing to grant that griefing is good because it’s evidence that an MMOG is more than the sum of its software, and players are trying to use the platform to do more than just play a game. Designers flatter themselves when they claim to have shipped a complete game on the day an MMOG goes live. The truth is, that game will never be complete – not because most MMOG companies release patch after patch of new and/or updated content, but because it’s the players who add the most important content to the game.

They do so in the process of defining themselves through the choices they make. It’s when MMOG players exercise their freedom of choice in the gray areas that exist between coded gameplay mechanics that the most interesting results come about. They are choices that often take the form of almost overtly political conflicts between factions, or similarly political alliances among groups within the same cohort. At its best, this kind of emergent gameplay transforms the collective power of players’ individual choices into a meta-game that has less to do with competition over the resources provided in the software and more to do with questions of control.

There are more constructive examples than can be found in Ganklethorn Vale, of course. The raiding alliances that form between guilds in WoW, for instance – which allow small guilds to band together in order to experience the endgame content that wouldn’t normally be open to them – are a simple solution created by players themselves with no recourse whatsoever to coded gameplay mechanics.

It wouldn’t be a game without competition, though, and in MMOGs, which only tangentially support direct competition between players, players have found ways to compete over the most important resources of all: choice and control. By going outside the virtual physics of a gaming universe, they can attempt to define not only themselves, but the world.

Depriving Horde players of the opportunity to complete the Green Hills of Stranglethorn quest is only a simple example of how players can compete for control over each other’s actions and identities in an MMOG. In EVE Online, player pirates often station themselves in dangerous star systems and attempt to extort a ransom from weaker players in return for granting them safe passage. Ambitious virtual merchants have often attempted to corner the market in various raw materials in any number of MMOGs; they are earning money, yes, but they are doing so by depriving their fellow players of the important choice of who to buy their swiftthistle and raw fowl from.

At its most complex and sophisticated, this kind of “choiceplay” can come down to questions of who controls the world itself. The gameplay mechanics of EVE allow player corporations to band together into alliances that can claim sovereignty over star systems and space stations. But EVE‘s alliances have built a layer beyond that, claiming control over vast tracts of space by virtue of their military ability rather than any flags set by the software.

One new MMOG, set to launch on May 2nd, has expanded its gameplay to give players explicit control over the future of the world itself. Seed, a new MMOG from European developers Runestone, puts its players in the roles of new “seedlings” meant to colonize the distant planet of Da Vinci, but find something has gone terribly wrong. It is up to them to repair their underground environment and develop the tools that will allow the colony to survive.

Seed’s comic book graphics are compelling, and one of the game’s most interesting conceits is to do away with combat and health gauges almost completely. More interesting still is the fact that the society developing on Da Vinci gets to make its own decisions about which of several strategies for survival is best. Should Da Vinci be terraformed? Should an attempt be made to contact distant Earth and send an interstellar S.O.S.?

Should resources be diverted toward implementing an enhanced evolutionary process so the colonists can survive the harsh conditions on the planet’s surface? Or should a ship be built that might allow the Da Vincians to escape?

Most of the gameplay at the early stages of the game differs little from other MMOGs, except for the lack of combat. Instead, players gather resources by repairing The Tower, in which the colonists live, taking biomedical samples from other players or performing various types of research. It’s all in the service of one of the long-range goals that will hopefully save the colony. But how the Da Vincians decide which of those goals to pursue is the interesting thing about Seed. The Access Points earned in the course of gameplay can be used to vote for player Administrators who control which types of research and manufacture can be performed on The Tower’s equipment. In essence, the entire colony makes a collective choice as to which course forward is the best to pursue.

It’s exciting to see a game give players so much control over their environment, but the real excitement in Seed will come when players begin to build on top of the software’s gameplay mechanics, as they inevitably will. The Administrators who control The Tower’s equipment can make their choices based on any criteria, after all. A creative group of Administrators could potentially use their power to control the Da Vinci society itself at a level beyond gameplay. Administrators will inevitably be lobbied to devote resources to terraforming, to genetic experimentation on seedlings, or on other pursuits.

But imagine a group of Administrators who made their choices based not on which technology they preferred, but on social criteria instead, granting access only to those players who followed an emergent set of rules put in place by the Administrators themselves. Administrators might grant access only to players who did not use profanity, to players who logged on every day, to players who paid a certain amount in “taxes” to the Administrators or to some other arbitrarily selected group. Through a bit of creative gameplay, a game designed to bring the greatest number of players into the decision-making process could become one that puts control in the hands of a select few.

Would this be griefing, or would it be gameplay? Would it be player governance, or would it be an exploit of gameplay mechanics? Would it be Heaven, or would it be Hell?

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

Disclaimer: Runestone, Seed‘s developer, is a client of TAP Interactive, a division of Themis Group.

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