Engineering Altruism

When players are asked to describe memorable positive experiences from their MMORPG game-play, many bring up altruistic events that occurred unexpectedly. These experiences of altruism typically fall into two categories. The first revolves around getting twinked by a stranger - getting powerful equipment from a higher level character.

When I was a new player I didn't really know what I was doing. My husband had played UO when it first came out but there had a couple expansions since he had quit and we both started up playing so he didn't really know what was going on either. I chose to start with an animal tamer/mage which I found out later was a difficult template for a new player but I liked the idea of being able to have pets. So I wandered around taming low-end pets and selling a few here and there to make money. One day I was leading pets to the bank to sell and I stopped to talk to a friendly passerby. The person liked the name of my horse--MyLittlePony--and shared that his wife was also a tamer. From our conversation it was obvious I was new to the game. This man and his wife gave me several full sets of armor and clothes, 10,000 gold pieces (which seemed like a fortune to me then!), runes to several great spots for taming and several other items. Then, they took me to a place where I could tame forest ostards (which sold for a lot of gold at that time) and even tamed me a high-end pet for when I was a little more advanced. Over the next several weeks we kept in contact via ICQ and they spent hours working with me and helping me find what I needed. It was wonderful to have someone take me in and show me the ropes and give me a few items to get off to a good start in UO. Ever since, when I see a new character I go out of my way to help them out--taking time out of whatever I'm doing to give them some tips or answer some questions. I tend to be that way in real life anyway so it's natural for me to extend that in-game as well. [UO, F, 28]

I was a baby ranger, just becoming active in my guild. The then-Knight General (the guild has a very peculiar hierarchal pseudo-medieval set-up) and his RL wife (ranger/druid in game) ordered me to meet him at the North Freeport bank (we're talking 4 years ago here!)... I was unsure what he wanted... but when I got there he handed me a pair of Ivy Etched Leggings (then not only the ranger quest armor but a very valuable item, especially to a level 20ish ranger!). His wife said, 'Sting would never hand these to just anyone; he thinks you're very special.' Needless to say I was very touched! And they've never been turned in for a gem reward either! From that beginning grew a friendship that spilled over into real life. The druid is now my best girlfriend; her husband also my friend (and though a self-declared hermit always seems to look forward to my visits). I spend weekends with them as often as I can, given the 500 mile drive between us. I've learned to quilt from my friend, helped them with projects, and in general cherish the fact that a pair of virtual trousers has given me this wonderful real-life relationship. [EQ, F, 60]

From my 4 or 5 years MMOG experience Id say that simply helping others is the most memorable thing you can do. Sometimes I would blush IRL at the amount of thanks people would give me. As a higher level player you could totally make someone day just by helping them level for a little bit, or giving them a item that was no use to you. [WoW, M, 30]


The other category revolves around being helped by a stranger in a time of great need. Typically, a lot of time investment, risk or trust is needed during these events. In real life, many friendships are solidified through a series of favors or repaid debts because they signify a sharing of trust and understanding. The difference is that crises are far and few between in our everyday lives, so it takes months if not years for those kinds of relationships to solidify, whereas MMORPGs are designed to be dangerous worlds where crises occur frequently.

One day I was traveling in EQ and entered Runnyeye (a somewhat low level zone) and heard a message over the zone that somebody had lost their corpse. Being high level for the zone, I was able to locate their corpse and drag it up toward the zone line where it was safer. This required trust on their part since at the time I could loot all of their belongings, but I was honest. She and I parted ways without incident, but months later we met again by chance on different characters and became friends with one another. She once mentioned when we were passing near Runnyeye how she almost lost her corpse there once, and she told me the story when I pressed for it. By complete chance, we had found each other again on different characters and got along well. I just thought it was nice how a good deed came back to be fortunate for me. We're still friends today even though we both have since quit EQ. [EQ, M, 22]

It might not seem particularly major but I once lost my corpse in very difficult circumstances. Basically it was impossible for me to recover it without skills which I did not possess. This would have lost me quite a few months of developing my character. I told a 'friend' who I have never met but only spoken to in-game and she not only dropped what she was doing and came to help but also got her son-in-law to log in and come help as well. Between them they got my corpse. What got me was these people only know me through a game, will never meet me but were more than willing to help at some cost to themselves, even if only of time. [EQ, M, 53]

When I was very new to EverQuest, I had to make a trip from a newbie town (Surefall Glade) on one side of Antonica to a different newbie zone (Freeport) on the opposite end of the continent. This involved a very long and dangerous run which I had to do by myself at level 4. After a few false starts (getting mauled by a rabid bear right outside the newbie zone, and zoning into a werewolf that killed me before the zone even loaded), I finally got a good start, and made it through the first two zones (West Karana and North Karana), albeit with some difficulty and very slowly. In the next zone (East Karana), I was unlucky and had a named Cyclops spawn practically on top of me - I survived the first hit, and was prepared for a long walk back, when it suddenly keeled over and died. I scrolled back through the spam to see someone had nuked it to death. Turns out, it was a level 50-something Druid named Shider. He buffed me up, gave me SoW, and was actually nice enough to escort me all the way back to Freeport, which took a good half hour of his time. I thanked him profusely, and went on my way. I thought that was just about the coolest thing anyone's ever done for me in an MMO. I was a complete stranger and he took time out of his day to give me a hand. Quite strangely, about a month later, I was hunting near Surefall Glade with a different character, and ran into a higher-level character camping the Glowing Black Stone (a very rare drop that came from a rare spawn just outside Surefall Glade). We started talking, and I helped him out with buffs and heals in between fights. He was there for a few days (on and off, not end-to-end), and we ran into each other frequently. Eventually, he invited me into his guild, and lo and behold, the first person to welcome me to the guild was Shider (!!!). Turns out, Shider was a woman in real life. I still talk to her once in a while, and her boyfriend and I (who also played EQ at the time) have become really good friends over the years - thankfully they only live about a 4 hour drive from here, so we get together (IRL) every so often. [EQ, M, 23]


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.