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Engineering Altruism

But beyond the "dangerous world" effect, there is something else that drives altruism in MMORPGs. In the real world, modern technology and society has made it easy to deal with most everyday inconveniences (i.e, illness, travel, long-distance communication). The only ones that are hard to deal with are typically of epic proportions. It is often hard for us to help when a real crisis occurs (i.e, car accident, fire, etc.). Most MMORPGs on the other hand are designed to contain many everyday inconveniences. You need a travel ability to travel long distances. You need someone to rez you. More importantly, MMORPGs empower users to help each other. You can heal someone who is about to die. You can craft a component another player needs. You can root a mob long enough for the player to escape. Thus, MMORPGs empower players to help each other in a way that is often difficult in real life.

The following player articulates another very important difference between altruism in the virtual world and the real world.

I find people's altruism extraordinary. In RL, much altruism is met with suspicion... 'if you're trying to help me, you must want something'. Or it's dangerous to be altruistic, like picking up hitchhikers, or intervening if there is a crime in progress. But in virtual worlds, I find an outlet. I get a lot of satisfaction from performing random acts of altruism. And I'm always touched when people do the same with me. I think it taps into people's need to be needed. I'm not sure that it's clear that people are needed in RL. Certainly my husband spends so much time playing because he feels that his group 'needs' him. But I also just like making people happy... so a lot of it is about an outlet for generosity ... [CoH, F, 35]

In other words, MMORPGs remove much of the ambiguity and danger of altruism. At the same time, the game design empowers users to help each other in meaningful ways. A kind of social engineering occurs in MMORPG by restructuring the rules and expectations of how and when people can help each other. Of course, game designs don't always encourage altruism. For example, some games make players as independent of others as possible. But what is clear is that we could think of altruism as something that can be engineered by the game design.


Posted on January 11, 2005 | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)


Yes, it is very satisfying doing altruistic acts. In RL I also like to do good deeds but things are not so simple. Sometimes doing good deeds in RL can backfire. For example, your actions could be misinterpreted, or you could be taken advantage of. Also, my parents tend to be very cynical people and would frown on me whenever I tried to help other people out when I was younger.

Posted by: Burt on January 13, 2005 1:17 AM

Perhaps you can extend the study to relationships between altruism inside and outside gaming for an indivisual. What are the reasons or logics behind these people's generosity? Is any group of gamer more likely to be generous than another group?(explorer, socilizers, etc.)

Posted by: SSH83 on January 13, 2005 12:23 PM

I find altruism a very important aspect of online games. By giving up a little of your time (or items), you can give a lot to someone who appreciates it.
However, some people can not appreciate help even when it is offered to them and keep demanding for more. These kind of people can consume people who like to help others out, resulting in frustration.

Luckily, these people are not the majority, and helping often becomes reciprocal.

I've been offered help countless times, and it has motivated me to help others aswell.

And remember, if you help someone - don't do it because you want them to return the favor but do it for yourself and for the feeling.

On a sidenote, does anyone else have very satisfying shivers going throught their bodies when someone does something for you?

Posted by: Shmn on January 27, 2005 1:53 AM

I have found that, in my experience, these altruistic acts are more often extended towards female avatars than male. It does not seem to matter whether the player is actually male or female, but those who seem to be generous with their gold/time/items seem to gravitate towards the "fairer sex".

This is not to say that male avatars never recieve any help, but given a choice, people seem more willing to help the cute female elf than the plain male ratonga.

Posted by: THCampbell on February 8, 2005 10:58 AM

I had the same experience of being twinked, a LONG time ago (on the first ever MUD, Essex University, UK, in the early 1980s!) I have never forgotten it. Thank you, Tan the Necromancer, wherever you are now!

People are often cynical of altruism, especially if they have little experience of it in their everyday life. I've found that, in general, the more people are concerned with money, the less faith they have in altruism. I think that a large part of this is concerned with the way money works - the more you give away, the less you have yourself. So you don't many altruists in the business world. Least of all in something like the money markets. Where real goods and services are involved, things are different. It's possible to give a little in such a way that the recipient gains a lot. I see this as the key into how to engineer a system that promotes altruistic behaviour, something that I think is long overdue. People have spent too long under a system that makes everyone interact as if life were a zero-sum game!

Robin Upton
Altruists International

Posted by: Robin Upton on February 15, 2005 9:05 PM

Your definition of altruism is false. Altruism is not equal to kindness, which can easily be proven by the fact that also egoists can do acts of kindness. It can very well be in a person's self-interest to be kind against other people, and by that take part in the development of a benevolent order of society.

The ethical doctrines of altruism and selfishness do not differ in the question of benevolence, but in the question of sacrifice. While altruism claims that sacrifice is a virtue, that a person should sacrifice his own values for others; selfishness claims that man should act in a way that will be in his long-term self-interest.

The question of whether one should help another person, need not be a question of sacrifice. For instance if a person is a bus passenger, and a person needs help with his baby carriage, it is not a sacrifice to offer him help; it is rather a way to participate in the making of a benevolent order of society.

However, if you are in lack of time, and you have to be at work in two minutes to not get fired, it is indeed a sacrifice to help the other person with his baby carriage. It is here the difference between altruism and selfishness becomes clear, when the altruist chooses to help the person with his baby carriage even though he is going to lose his job; the egoist, however, chooses to go to work, because his job is a higher value than some person he does not know.

To conclude, the essence in altruism is not benevolence or kindness; it is sacrifice for others. The essence of selfishness is not to not care about other people; it is rather to act in one's long-term self-interest, which includes acting in an benevolent way.

Posted by: Fish of Freedom on February 27, 2005 10:35 AM

I enjoy helping new players. I help them find landmarks, answer questions in OOC, sometimes give them money or items that they need, but I really cannot stand beggars.

Some players make low level alts just to beg for credits and that really irritates me. I don't mind helping, but I am not the ATM, which is why when I hand out credits, it is a large amount for a new player but paltry for a high level character. When I do this true new players are very happy and beggars get abusive.

It is actually fun to help new players, and being a social player, the newbie I help today might be the high level that helps me next month (powerleveler!)

Posted by: Sychotic1 on March 18, 2005 9:00 AM

I agree with Fish of Freedom in as far as you need to think more about altruism and what it really means. However I think that most MMORPGs tend to favour altruism like this because things (items, money, whatever) generally become less valuable to you as you move up levels. Something that is extremely valuable to a baby character is not even worth the time to drop it from a very high level characters inventory. For high level characters there is very little opportunity cost in twinking like this, and the social capital that it builds well outweighs this. Even the online gratitude that is expressed is worth it.

It would be interesting to see how this worked in a game where loot wasnt accumulated, characters didnt loose the need for items or have them replaced, or even one where characters didnt level up in the same way.

Posted by: Dan Dixon on March 30, 2005 2:57 AM

I found this fascinating, because in my opinion the altruistic aspect is the very best part of the MMORPG experience ... and ironically, part of what made the game so addictive for me.

I distinctly remember the first time I high-level stranger handed me equipment that, at the time, seemed priceless. Or another time when a higher level toon popped up out of nowhere to volunteer to powerlevel me for a couple hours ... just because he wanted some company.

It's the best part of the game, and it gives me hope for humanity.

Posted by: Jake Knight on March 28, 2006 6:54 AM

I played UO before the Age of Shadows expansion, and I helped hundreds of noobs start up. At that time there was a sytem called the "see saw", which allowed a character to max their stats in a matter of hours. for a warrior character, this meant that within 6 hours, they could be viable earning characters. I spent a fortune helping these peeps.
My friends, I was in a huge guild, gave me hell because I was throwing money away. I had all I needed, a house, gear, and a good pvp record.

Posted by: Finnegan on March 31, 2006 8:06 PM

As Fish Of Freedom explained, not all behaviour that benefits others is altruistic. In social psychology there are two schools of though: one emphasizes the role of empathy (empathy-altruism) and the other maintains that "while people can exhibit altruistic behavior, they cannot have altruistic motivations. Psychological egoists would say that while they might very well spend their lives benefitting others with no material benefit (or a material net loss) to themselves, their most basic motive for doing so is always to further their own interests." (Source: Wikipedia)

Due to the unresolved problem of whether "true altruism" exists or not, another term -- prosocial behaviour -- has been adapted and is better suited for discussion.

The main difference of engaging in prosocial behaviour in a MMORPG and outside one, in my view, is that the costs for the individual are consistently lower in a MMORPG, as pointed out by Mr. Yee. As the very concept of a MMORPG involves persistent character growth as opposed to complete emphasis on player skills, it is with relative ease that older players can by giving little help new players a lot.

Undoubtedly the same relativism applies to helping outside virtual realms: the rich can afford more charity. It is not, however, with same consistency that people acquire wealth that players acquire levels, equipment and the means therefore to offer help with little cost to themselves.

While there may undoubtedly be other factors that increase prosocial behaviour in a virtual context -- such as motivation -- I maintain that the simple matter of cost effectiveness is the most influential one.

Posted by: Jin on January 30, 2007 6:06 AM
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