Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Public Goods in Gaming

This is something I wrote for a Sociology class about online communities, but it is ultimately applicable to all forms of RPGs (aside from console ones ;) ) so I figured I'd post it here as well.

Online Societies

Over the last two decades entire communities of people have sprung up all over the net. Communities for all sorts of different things, interests, and hobbies. One of the more interesting ones, at least in my personal opinion, is the interactions that you get in the online role playing communities. By role playing communities I am not speaking about the communities of gamers playing things like World of Warcraft, but rather the groups - both large and small - who have moved the games traditionally played around a table top with a bag full of dice, some paper, and pencils into the online arena. Turning something meant for 7 people into a format that in some cases actually support and provide entertainment to dozens, if not hundreds, of players. As will almost all communities, these online role playing communities are also subject to "collective action dilemmas" as well as "public goods" though the way these express in these games, the actual resource and how it is used, renewed, or destroyed is fairly interesting.

Before going into the details of the Public Good in question here, it is important to explain how the game works. There are, generally speaking, two basic kinds of Online Role Play Communities. Free Form and Structured. In Free Form games there are generally no rules and play is done exactly as the name implies, in whatever way the players want. The other kind, structured, has a staff of people who run the game. Characters are made following rules, there is an over-arching story provided by the staff, along with a myriad of personal stories handled by the players. While both of these types of game have Public Goods in common, it is the structured good that has the most easily noticeable, and dissect-able good so that is the one I am going to focus on here. The good in question is a GM's (Game Master) or Staff Member's time.

In these games, almost all the rewards that can be earned in the game comes from time spent in character with a GM or staff member in something that is generally called a scene. Impact in the world, progression through story line, a character's accumulation of wealth and power, these are all things that are primarily accrued through scenes done with the GMs. As such, the GMs time is a commodity that is in very high demand, and it is not unusual for players to sit in the "Out of Character" Entrance Lobby for these games waiting for a GM to log in so that they can pounce on them for scenes and other services. The problem with this is that being a GM is not a paid position, and is generally a very thankless job, or in other words GMs don't generally last very long due to burn out from these very players looking to get ahead in the game.

The solution to the burn out is of course for people to work together. Instead of having an individual dominating a GM's attention, thus having them split in numerous directions, working in groups makes things both for the GM - who is then satisfying the demands of several people on his time at once, making his work load easier - which in turn reduces burn out and keeps the resource of the GM around longer. By sharing the GMs time, the players actually gain more scene time than they would by always trying to have te GM all to themselves, though this comes at the trade off of how special they may be in the scene that does run. In practice, the 'game' of how a GMs time is spent often comes out very similarly to how you'd expect it would if it was described as the game "The Prisoner's Dilemma". By waiting for a group for a scene, if everyone else waits, then everyone can profit from it, though not as much as they may otherwise. However, if some of them don't wait, they get the GMs time for themselves and the other players who wait are left with nothing.

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