MMOG: An Overview of the Massively Multiplayer Online Game Phenomenon

Main Page - Introduction
Contexts for Libraries
What are MMOGs?
The Development of MMOGs
Issues and Discourses
Works Cited
About the Author

Issues and Discourses


Emergent economies, virtual property, and cyber-crime

New social worlds


        The runaway popularity of the MMOG EverQuest opened up a veritable hornet’s nest of controversy concerning the potentially addictive qualities of this particular game and its associated computer game genre. When 21 year old Shawn Wooley shot himself in front of his computer after a long-term obsession with EverQuest, popular media outlets pounced on the attention-grabbing story. The resulting onslaught of media coverage of Wooley’s tragic death created considerable buzz concerning the issue of videogame addiction. News conglomerates such as CBS conducted surveys resulting in such findings as “2,000 Everquest players found the average playtime was 20 hours a week. Thirty-seven percent of players said they were addicted and another 27 percent admitted they were probably addicted” (CBS News). Game players were angered by these highly unreliable surveys as well as by media reports that ignored mitigating factors such as Wooley’s history of mental illness. The Shawn Wooley case has become somewhat notorious among game enthusiasts. An EverQuest forum on the popular media website UnderGroundOnline devoted an entry in their “EverQuest Discussion Dictionary” to this particular case, displaying obvious disapproval of the manner in which this issue was treated:

After a string of unsteady employment and movement between apartments, his mother's house, and group homes, Shawn Wooley was found dead in his apartment, apparently the victim of a self- inflicted gunshot wound. Despite his stint in a group home and other life-problems, Shawn's mother blamed her son's suicide entirely on his addiction to Everquest. (EverQuest Realm)

        Computer game addiction has been receiving increased attention as a diagnosable form of mental illness. Doctors Pirzada Sattar and Sriram Ramaswamy state that “current data on Internet gaming addiction suggests that on-line fantasy gaming is associated with introversion, low empathy, low self esteem, depression, and social isolation” (870). In a study of adult and adolescent EverQuest players published in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Adolescence, psychology researchers M.D. Griffiths, Mark N. O. Davies, and Darren Chappel express concern that adolescents sacrificing time devoted to school-related work in order to play more often will experience difficulties later in life (95). Griffiths, Davies, and Chappel also propose that the addictive nature of EverQuest stems from the person-to-person competitive and co-operative play, which may be more addictive than games in which the player only competes against the computer or game software (95). Given that EverQuest was released in 1999, these predictions are dire indeed, considering the scant years of data available for researching adolescent players of Everquest. As MMOGs are enjoying an ever growing popularity among computer game players, the topic of computer games and addiction will surely be an issue that will continue to be addressed by professional researchers, players, and the popular press.

Emergent economies, virtual property, and cyber-crime

        One of the unexpected consequences of the popularity of MMOGs was the creation of a sort of emergent game economy that affects real world commerce and trade markets. It may seem ludicrous or completely absurd that worlds created in the minds and displayed on the screens of computer game fans could actually develop economies on a real-world level. Yet that is precisely what economist Edward Castronova suggests is happening. Due to the trading of virtual goods and currencies for real money, the economies of MMOGs such as EverQuest and Lineage have a sort of trade in exported goods that exists very much in the real world. According to Castronova, the basis for this emergent economy, which originates solely from virtual goods and services is that economists judge the value of an item according to its practical effect on people as opposed to more abstract theories of value - or even of existence (2). It does not matter if the item being sold - such as a powerful sword or piece of armour - does not exist in a tangible sense. Rather, it only matters if it exists in a monetary sense, if it is deemed valuable enough by an individual to warrant the expenditure of money to acquire it.

        Because in-game items have been deemed valuable by many individuals, and are frequently sold on auction and trading sites such as eBay for prices that will seem positively exorbitant by all but the most ‘hardcore’ players, the virtual worlds of the MMOGs are effectively producing their own national product. Castronova’s economic study of Norrath (the name of the world in EverQuest) has produced surprising figures for the virtual economy of this fictional land. There is so much exchange of EverQuest game items for genuine money that Castronova determined that Norrath was the 77th richest economy in the world in 2001, with a GNP per capita right in between those of Russia and Bulgaria (1). Norath’s currency is valued at USD 0.0107, determined “in a highly liquid (if illegal) currency market, and its value exceeds that of the Japanese Yen and the Italian Lira” (Castronova 3).

        The act of money exchange and economy in MMOG environments is directly tied to questions of ownership of virtual property and of ‘cyber-crime.’ If goods can be bought and sold for genuine money, can in-game items be stolen? If the items are stolen, is it a crime? The question of ownership of virtual property may be argued in many ways; one may say that an account balance in a bank is virtual, as the money ‘owned’ by the account holder does not actually exist as a pile of banknotes in a secured vault, but rather by a credit-style system of recognized funds. With games, however, the lines between proprietary rights are blurred. Dr. Richard A. Bartle argues that there is no such ownership of game items, as ownership of the virtual world - and therefore of everything pertaining to it - belongs to the game developers or copyright holders (5). Regardless of the actual ownership rights of in-game items, the monetary value attached to the virtual property has had real criminal implications. One particular incident concerning virtual property resulted in murder; early in 2005, Shanghai gamer Qiu Chengwei stabbed fellow gamer Zhu Caoyuan in an argument over the ownership of a virtual sword from the MMOG Legends of Mir 3; Caoyuan had sold the loaned sword online for 7,200 yuan (BBC News). It should be noted, however, that virtual property theft and price-gouging is certainly not the only form of cyber crime present in these online game worlds. Social crimes such as stalking, harassment, sexual predation, fraud, and other illegal behaviours may be encountered as readily in virtual game worlds as in ‘real life.’

New social worlds

        A discourse garnering considerable academic interest is the formation of new social environments within the MMOG world settings. MMOGs, particularly those of the role-play sub-genre, provide cyber spaces in which complex social environments are created by the characters. These spaces are governed by both the official rules of the game, which are embedded in the software but are sometimes tampered with, and the unofficial social rules of the players, which tend to display great consistency and are often based around a perception of fair-play. In her studies of MMOG literacy, Constance Steinkuehler joined the Lineage game and interacted with more experienced gamers. While being accompanied on a quest by an experienced player with a higher-level character, Steinkuehler learned that the interaction between her character, JellyBean, and the other player, Myrondonia, mimicked valuable real-life apprentice-style relationships in key ways, namely through their joint participation in an activity that had a mutually valuable goal (7). At a deeper level, however, Myrondonia was introducing JellyBean to the social values of that virtual world and giving her lessons on how to function within the norms, such as the method of determining how treasure is to be divided among party members and the protocol of sharing hunting territories (7).

        Of course, not everyone wishes to obey the social standards of the game-world in which they play. There are no true agreements among players as to how everyone should behave, nor are there consequences to in-game behaviour that would likely affect the player’s real life in a serious manner. Characters occupying these games seem to take on a life of their own, and their actions and behaviours increase or decrease the reputation of the player. Some players behave benevolently and become well-liked among other regular players, while yet other players act in a manner considered socially unacceptable in the game worlds. Such players are often called ‘griefers,’ and derive enjoyment from intentionally disrupting or destroying the in-game experience of other players. These game deviants often spread trouble through actions such as:

      • ‘kill-stealing,’ wherein a player jumps into the end of a combat to deliver the killing blow to an enemy, thereby ‘stealing’ from the other player, who had done the brunt of the combat, the experience points or rewards gained by the kill
      • ‘ninja-looting,’ wherein a player lurks around a combat site and steals treasure dropped by the defeated enemy before the player who had killed the enemy has a chance to pick up the ‘loot’
      • cheating players during in-game item trades
      • ‘player-killing,’ wherein the player-killer unfairly attacks another player (such as a player with a character of significantly less power, or whose attention is otherwise occupied ) or otherwise attempts to kill a character without the permission of another player
      • ‘corpse-camping’, wherein the player ‘camps out’ at the corpse of another character they have just killed so they may easily kill the character again as soon as it revives (characters in MMOGs frequently come back to life after being killed, albeit in a weakened state)

        The nuances of these on-line in-game interactions may seem peculiarly complicated to those with the opinion that an MMOG is ‘just a game.’ Yes, these are games, but they are also a form of group storytelling and highly imaginative play in which one can become a hero or villain with little potential for true consequence in real life. It is a form of experimentation with one’s own ego, enacted through the mediation of a game software system and a graphical user interface. The tendency for MMOG players to immerse themselves in a vastly complex social world is a point of interest for many scholars, and as long as these games remain popular we will continue to see the academic study of these emergent and dynamic social worlds.

Created by Lauren de Bruin
School of Library and Information Studies
University of Alberta
Last updated on March 8, 2006.