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Law, order and conflicts of interest in massively multiplayer online games

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In huge online games such as EverQuest or Star Wars Galaxies where a great number of players can be connected at the same time, social interaction is complex and conflicts become part of everyday life. There is a set of rules and norms in the game for what is allowed and what is prohibited and these are partly set up by the game publisher and partly evolve over time among the players themselves. Conflicts are surprisingly often based on disputes and quarrels revolving around a limited number of rules and norms that have been established over time by the players themselves in the game. This paper describes and exemplifies a number of often-contested behaviors around which most in-game conflicts revolve. Examples are primarily taken from two studies of Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot but the paper also draws on results from five other studies of five different massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). After describing different types of conflicts in MMOGs, the paper goes on to analyze these incidents in terms of social dilemmas. A social dilemma can concisely be describes as a "tension between individual and collective rationality" (Kollock and Smith 1996). The most well-know example of such a dilemma stripped down to its bare bones is the prisoner’s dilemma (Axelrod 1984, Poundstone 1992). A character in a MMOG can however belong to several groups that operate on different levels and there can be conflicts not just between the individual and the collective rationality but also between different levels of collective rationality. These levels are generically referred to in terms of micro, meso and macro (see Skågeby and Pargman 2005 for an example of analyzing conflicts of interest in file-sharing networks in terms of micro, meso and macro relationships). In MMOGs, these three levels correspond to: 1. A small group of close peers and well-known friends bound together by strong ties (Ganovetter 1973) (micro, everyone has a personal relationship with everyone else). 2. A "mid-sized" group of peers and recognized acquaintances (meso, a relatively small network with personal relationships or overlapping relationships between members) – typically a guild in Everquest. 3. A large group of anonymous strangers bound together by weak ties or by no ties (macro, ten thousand characters with accounts on the same sever). The typical relationship at the micro level is one of friendship, the typical relationship at the meso level is one of being acquaintances and the typical relationship at the macro level is one of being strangers. We can also relate these levels to the traditional sociological categories individual, family and close friends, community and society. This paper assumes that tensions, conflicts, misunderstandings, critical incidents and breakdown are fruitful starting points from which to analyze MMOGs (or "virtual societies"). The perspective presented here thus and in good company with Marx, Engels and Weber writes itself into the "conflict tradition" of sociology (Collins, 1994). Having defined a framework with three different levels of collective rationality, the paper proceeds by utilizing said framework to analyze concrete examples of conflicts within a MMOG in terms of a) conflicts between the individual rationality and the (different levels of) collective rationality (such as for example between a character and the guild he/she belongs to) and b) in terms of conflicts between different levels of collective rationality (such as for example between a guild and everyone else on the server). Finally we call attention to a particularly interesting class of conflicts of interest where it is eminently difficult even to determine if specific behaviors are best described as "crime in progress" or as the ultimate examples of "helping your neighbor". We end the paper by further outlining a framework for regarding MMOGs in terms of virtual societies and virtual communities at the same time (e.g. as virtual societies harboring numerous smaller virtual communities). References: Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books. Collins, R (1994). Four sociological traditions. New York: Oxford University Press. Granovetter (1973). The strength of weak ties. Americal Journal of Sociology, Vol.78, No.6, pp.1360-1380. Kollock, P. and Smith, M. (1996). Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in compter communities. In S. Herring (ed.), Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social, and cross-cultural perspectives. Amsterdam, Holland: John Benjamins. Poundstone, W (1992). Prisoner’s dilemma: John von Neumann, game theory, and the puzzle of the bomb. New York: Doubleday. Skågeby, J. and Pargman, D. (2005). File-sharing relationships: Conflicts of interest in online gift-giving. Submited to the 2nd international conference on Communities & Technology, .
Contact: Daniel Pargman, School of Humanities and Informatics, University of Skövde,
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