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Police State

The irony of course is that we live in a democracy that abhors police states, but we choose perfect police states as our form of entertainment. Some will undoubtedly argue that MMORPG worlds are inherently fantastical worlds that have nothing to do with the real world, but as real world economies and law interface with these virtual worlds, and as we spend more and more of our time in these worlds, we have to wonder what it means when people spend on average 22 hours a week in a perfect police state.

Others might argue that players can always leave a game if they don't like it, but it is not easy for most players to quit a game because of the emotional and time investment that has been made. More importantly, this particular critique implies leaving one MMORPG for another, in essence transferring between different police states. As more of our work and personal lives become embedded into virtual worlds, perhaps the central question becomes - what does it mean when police states become seductive and fun? What does it mean when police states are chosen as places to escape to?

As our virtual worlds take on social and cultural complexity of their own and begin to mimic many real world functions - businesses, elections, and protests - will we find more or less freedom than we have in the real world?

Addendum (In response to reader comments):

I totally apologize for the unintended downplaying of those who do live in real police states.

I was more interested in pointing out the total control (especially over communication channels) that online environments have. And granted we can currently leave the medium altogether, but how soon is it until everything we do is digitally mediated?

And will those systems always remain separate or are they more likely to merge? And if only a few corporations control most of our communication channels, do we really trust them to be benevolent and working towards the greater good?

What fascinates me is this - Are MMORPGs a glimpse of how work and social life will become in 5-10 years? And if so, how comfortable should we be with the idea of such perfect control of communication and existence?


Posted on January 11, 2005 | Comments (19) | TrackBack (0)


if you think a mmorpg is a police state, you should consider speaking to people who lived in one.

this should have been phrased this something like "why should people who live in a relatively free culture choose to play in an environment with such heavy rules and regulations?"

because you're taking a giant gamer-sized (rhetorical) dump on the bodies of millions as the original stands.

Posted by: dhex on January 12, 2005 12:23 PM

There are a couple of important differences between a MMORPG "police state" and a real police state that are not evident in your discussion and the follow-up questions. I will outline them now because they reduce the blurring of the distinction you've made in this article.

First, a MMORPG police state must answer to a higher authority of a non-police state. A real police state has no such restrictions. This means that a MMORPG is inheritly limited in the amount of damage that it can do to the player; it can not arrest the player, punish him beyond any investment he may have made into the game world, or defame the player outside of the game world. In fact, if a MMORPG attempts to go too far in these areas, the external governing force can punish the 'police state' very effectively. None of these restrictions are present in a real-world police state.

Secondly, MMORPG 'police states' have a vested interest in maintaining positive relations with the majority of players. The reasons for this are two-fold:
- Players (not avatars) are free to come and go as they please and there is no way for the 'police state' to restrict this.
- Player communication outside of the MMORPG is not under the control of the 'police state'.

These freedoms do not exist in a real world police state.

If the MMORPG 'police state' does not behave fairly and equitably with the vast majority of players, it is likely that a bad reputation could develop and cause players to seek out different MMORPGs; the loser being the 'police state'. A similar risk exists if the MMORPG owners abuse their powers to harass or intimidate players in the game world.

Neither of these points are intended to argue the fact that a MMORPG is a more controlled environment than a free, democratic society. Why might we prefer a more restricted, controlled environment for entertainment? That is indeed a valid point of research. However, the common definition of a police state simply can't exist in a MMORPG without turning the 'real world' into a _real_ police state.

Posted by: Jason Collins on January 12, 2005 12:57 PM

How many police states to the citizens pay the police state for the right to live in the state?

How many police state compete with other police states in a free market economy offering different services at different prices in order to entice population to come live in them?

There are parallels in control mechanisms between MMOGs and government types, but the underlying foundations of a purchased form of recreation versus geographical government make the comparison smoke and mirrors at best. A more appropriate comparison would be a large corporation where the employees are free to leave, money is exchanged for services, and a very small group of people with all the power govern everyone else, even then I am ignoring the influence of shareholders.

Posted by: Lechiffre on January 12, 2005 1:58 PM

Players (people) can also communicate with E-mail, things like Yahoo messenger, and voice programs (becoming very popular these days).

I think the comparison to a police state is a little skewed. You could apply many of the same aspects (and many more) to attending a sporting event or going to a movie theatre. As far as comparisons, how about the phone company and phone records? And that's 'real' conversation, not somebody begging for buffs or handouts.

I think the boat was mixxed here, not there is no truth or no comparison, but you lost me at police state on this one. =)

And yes, this comparison is a discredit to those who do or have had to live in a police state.

Posted by: Kyrv on January 12, 2005 2:28 PM

I totally apologize for the unintended downplaying of those who do live in real police states.

I was more interested in pointing out the total control (especially over communication channels) that online environments have. And granted we can currently leave the medium altogether, but how soon is it until everything we do is digitally mediated?

And will those systems always remain separate or are they more likely to merge? And if only a few corporations control most of our communication channels, do we really trust them to be benevolent and working towards the greater good?

What fascinates me is this - Are MMORPGs a glimpse of how work and social life will become in 5-10 years? And if so, how comfortable should we be with the idea of such perfect control of communication and existence?

Posted by: Nick Yee on January 12, 2005 2:51 PM

On a tangent, it would be interesting to see what would happen in a non-controlled mmo. Just set the mechanisms running and let them figure it out for themselves.

Posted by: Damien on January 12, 2005 7:29 PM

A MMORPG is a game. Games have rules. In Monopoly a player can be arbitrarily transported to jail at the turn of a card or the roll of a die. Would you also consider Monopoly a "police state"?

Be careful with analogies, Mr. Yee, they can do more harm than good.

Posted by: Greyhawk on January 12, 2005 11:43 PM

Greyhawk - It is the communication and potential complete control, not the "rules" that was my focus. Your analogy is critiquing an argument my analogy never made. Be careful with your analogies too :)

Posted by: Nick Yee on January 13, 2005 12:26 AM

The term "Police State" has different meaning to different people.

On the surface, MMORPG's do offer total control to the regulating authority (the GM's) at a level that's only dreamed about by police states. When members of the "free world" express their fears of these emerging technologies in their nations, they speak of "becoming a police state."

The difference lies in application and recourse. In an MMORPG, the POTENTIAL for abuse is there, but it is not necessarily applied in a very restrictive manner simply because they players have a degree of recourse (cancelling their subscriptions) that would harm the enforcing party.

In the real world, these monitoring controls COULD exist without a heavy-handed approach as well, but the potential for abuse would be great while the recourse is minimal- we can't escape a heavy-handed police state as easily.

Posted by: Chase on January 13, 2005 6:13 AM

Well you can leave the game if you dont like it, regardless of how much time you invested in it. I played Ultima Online for 3 years, had 10 maxed out characters and a REALLY large house where housing space is scarce. I decided I didnt like the game anymore and left, just like that.

Posted by: David on January 13, 2005 5:02 PM

My tangent - Are these controls *always* a bad thing? No - for the role-playing slice of the mmorpg population.

There is great opportunity for role-playing in mmorpgs, but generally role-players get crowded out by others who are not interested in role-play. I propose that heavy-handed controls, which are the real issue, can create the environment or 'atmosphere' to allow role-playing to thrive. I'll leave another post about the societal implications of the online police state.

Role-players seem to be a tiny minority, while groups that demand unettered freedom to pursue their objectives (achievers, griefers, explorers, etc.) far outnumber them. There's nothing wrong with these goals (well, maybe griefers), but their numbers simply drive online role-playing business models. They also drive role-players to MUDs and MUSHs to pursue their role-play fix.

The role-playing minority could benefit from a heavy monitoring system that creates a structured environment - a society - with restrictions, laws, customs, traditions, even prophecies and individualized quests to be dealt with.

Some examples of things that drive role-players out of mmorpgs:

- Names like 'Gonnagankya' or 'Bobsbuffbot'.
- Players who taunt or insult role-players when they try to use role-appropriate accents or verbage.
- Role-players are marginalized when they attempt to role-play their in-character biases (won't group with enemy cultures/religions/classes, for example)

Things heavy controls would allow:
- Develop the early game. Whole cycles might be played out while your character is trying to:
* Impress the guild for entry
* Performing mandatory tasks for your mentor or guild once accepted
* Working through the Academy
- Changing appearance. Scars could appear when injured, tattoos could be applied/removed, hair style and length could change. A period of inactivity could lead to weight gain.
- Permenant injuries that affect game mechanics, such as a limp slowing you down, that may require a major quest/special treatment to repair.
- Politics as a game mechanic; factions within guilds, governments and other organizations where players must choose sides.
- Heavy faction hits against players who group with, buff or even give cash or goodies to opposing groups/factions.
- Game mechanics that discourage traditional enemies from working together. (maybe their magic or technologies interfere with each other.
- Massive faction hits (KoS to a certain faction) when a player kills *one* member of that faction.
- Complex and time-consuming tasks (quests) to straighten out your faction once it's messed up - not just killing 'uber' numbers of faction mobs.
- Sanctioned PvP (bounty hunters might be allowed to kill outlaw players for the faction-induced price on their head.)
- Trials and Imprisonment (probably a period of non-playability), fines and - in extremis -execution (loss of character) if captured by faction opponents.
- Outlaw communities with crippling restrictions.
* lawful citizens will not deal with them and
will call the watch
* fences will give outlaws poor prices for goods and charge outrageously for services
* guards will attack on sight
* Outlaws are free to burglarize, rob or kill whoever they want.

You can see the kind of monitoring that would be required. The data on each character would be prohibitively huge. But these things would appeal to the role-playing population.

Financially, a mmorpg actually *utilizing* controls would be manpower-intensive and would have database analysis continuously monitoring every account. It would be prohibitively expensive, except in a high-cost niche market.

More to the point, such controls would restrict the player's freedom to just go slaughter that guard - or player - for 'phat lewt' or 'uber-XP'. There are too many benefits to doing what is expedient and self interested, and no penalties for those actions in current role-playing games. There are no rewards fro characters who remain true to their archetype, either, which is a fixture of some face-to-face role-playing systems.

Conclusion: for this small segment of the mmorpg population, these heavy handed controls might create an environment that allows their brand of play to survive, when it tends to get squeezed out in a more open, freer environment.

Posted by: Rob on January 15, 2005 12:18 PM

The degree of control that might be desirable to create a certain atmosphere in a mmorpg already exists in most human organizations. we simply don't pay attention to it.

If you join the military, or a mega-corporation, an environmental protest group, or a hospital staff, they already alter your appearance, language, and even your name (whether through ranks, titles or nicknames) to match the exigencies of your new environment.

Some groups do this deliberately, like the military, where there is an initiation (basic training), uniform, appearance standard and formal rank structure. Others are more subtle, such as corporations where there is a dress code and an order of prestige in where you sit at meetings, the location and appointments of your office, etc that may not correlate to your title.

Some groups eschew deliberate codification, but because humans are pack animals, like breeds like; look at and listen to a group of activists, whether they are from Greenpeace, the National Rifle Association, Al Quaeda or the local Parent Teacher Association and you'll find a common theme of appearance and speech.

The question is whether society as a whole is trending toward a common standard, and technology could be used to enforce it. I doubt it. The tendency in society is toward increasing specialization, not interchangeable drones.

The workplace becomes increasingly specialized, with fields of human endeavor continuously divided and subdivided. Computer communities form based on common interest and common point of view supplant geographically based communities where compromise is essential. The emphasis on point of view rather than geography allows us to become more specialized in our views, to the point where we become increasingly virulent and polarized. I think the societal trend driven by technology is centrifugal rather than gravitic.

That said, technological ability to monitor does not equal ability to enforce, as weather forecasters know only too well. Even if you had technological means to both monitor and enforce, it would be prohibitively expensive... and money drives industrialized society, does it not?

Even assuming the means exist and someone has the resources to make the 'police state' happen, the question becomes: why? Why would any entity expend huge quantities of finite resources to shape the populace in some common image? The answer is, they won't - unless there is a perceived profit to be made.

Governments also have their idea of profit - maintenance of the status quo, typically. In the extreme case of the techno police state, a government with unlimited resources could monitor the populace for illegal activity, and may try to enforce their laws and views on the populace.

But unless a government was able to monitor and instantly act to shut down every means of communication, to include telephone, snail mail and face to face communication - it cannot keep ideas from being spread. Underground communications have always existed, and enterprising anti-establishment people are always able to find ways to circumvent the system - just as hackers are notorious for overcoming every attempt to forestall their attacks and capture/prosecute them.

Maybe it's a matter of faith, but I believe the human dynamic has not changed just because technology - and with it society - is changing. Organizations have always been able to enforce internal standards, and will continue to do so. Governments have always been frustrated in attempts to control an entire populace because it is stratified and specialized, a phenomenon which is accelerating rather than slowing as technology becomes more widely available.

In the final analysis, I think technology will do more to unify those who oppose governments than it will help governments to increase their grip on the populace. Look at the anti WTO activists, the continuing success of South American drug lords, the proliferation and specialization of Non-Governmental humanitarian Organizations (NGOs), the explosion of special interest groups online, and the increasing sophistication and number of mutually supportive insurgent and terrorist organizations worldwide if you doubt.

Posted by: Rob on January 15, 2005 1:09 PM

it's called The Matrix :p

good movie btw.

Posted by: lyssa on January 25, 2005 9:17 PM

EQ may log everything, but believe me. There are no police. Presently, as far as I've been able to see, there are no reprecussions for bad behavior. You can basically do anything you want. Petitions go unanswered, reports go unread, e-mails are either met with form letters or silence.

Posted by: Tsuga on March 4, 2005 9:37 AM

I do not play EQ, so I cannot speak to their customer support, but what I know about customer support, most harrassment petitions are handled with the accused and no one the wiser unless it has gotten to the point where the player is being suspended or banned (then you might only notice that you don't see them anymore). Usually the customer service reps do not want to advertise the warnings they give players because in the early instances it is meant to be corrective, not punitive. Games don't want to embarrass their customers and drive them away with heavy handed action. It is bad business.

Logs are generally not read unless there is a specific complaint to be investigated. In fact customer service logs are monitored far more than player logs to ensure appropriate behavior.

Posted by: Sychotic1 on March 18, 2005 8:48 AM

Interesting thought to associate any game to a police state... But the difference is we willingly can choose to play or not play the game based on a documented EULA/code of conduct...
If the rules are changed by the producers of the environment I am playing in, and it rises to level where I simply can deal with the policy or accept it, I can basically flip them the bird and un-subscribe.
And as far as apologizing that you might offend someone living in a police state. IMHO you have the right to say whatever you choose... Sometimes, in order to fully explore a topic, emotion needs to be removed from the conversation... just say it... most things said don't seriously insult someone unless they know that the comments have a high degree of truth...

Posted by: Aarconis on November 1, 2005 5:19 PM

A game company has every incentive to keep its citizens happy. A police state has to keep people just happy (or debilitated) enough to prevent a coup.

Games are "despotic" so that they can have rules. But part of the police-state perception is simply a function of the program itself. It takes much more programming to allow complete free-will than it does to limit action. This is because programs are finite in length, but by definition, complete freedom implies infinite possibilities. It's also the curse of a server-side game architecture.

But I think more importantly, people in MMORPGs -want- this policing and record keeping so they can "go on with their lives" so to speak. And after all, some data farming and record keeping is always needed to make mundane and complex decisions that players would rather not think about.

Players also enjoy playing in a world where they have a reasonable chance of leveling-up without being immediately slaughtered (well, most of the time) or limited by poverty. The controlled environment is needed to simulate a fantasty world simply because such a world does not exist. Consider the fairly draconian government of Singapore. Yes, it's restrictive and oppressive, but most residents actually enjoy living there, citing low crime and cleanliness as advantages. I'm not making the claim that the Singaporean government is all sugar and spice, but nominally benevolent police-states have some advantages. Whether those advantages outweight the constriction of freedom is your personal opinion.

Freedom and security are mutually exclusive in their extremes. The difference again is that the despots of MMORPGs have every incentive to keep us happy. When/if MMORPGs cease to be games without ultimate consequence and can affect our status and well-being in the real world, then I think your argument will apply more directly.

Posted by: Tony on January 4, 2006 2:24 PM

i dont think u should apologize for calling these world police states because police states are as much if not more about mind control as they are about bodily control. If you live in a total survelliance society as we in cybernetic world are moving towards, then you live in a police state. as a social science doctoral student (who doenst care about capitalizing his letters or spelling) i find your research most excellent and applaud the work you are doing

Posted by: zanoni on December 1, 2006 10:01 AM

hmm.. the comparison is valid. suddenly my interest with mmo's makes more sense as anyone with a heartbeat has recognised the changes in the world since the time of the original post. very interesting. very confronting.

if the 1st poster felt so strongly about police states i doubt he/she'd be sourcing mmo related material in the first place.

incase you missed it;
the whole world is becoming a police state, this is the escapist appeal of the mmo.

Posted by: ben on May 30, 2011 12:35 AM
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