Richard Bartle is a major name in game design. He is likely best known for having created Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) – a precursor to the Massively multiplayer worlds that we see nowadays. He also has an excellent paper where he, I believe, pioneered the psychological investigation of gamers by characterizing and describing four basic types of game players.

Bartle gave a recent keynote. The slides are available in pdf form. (Includes some profanity.)

In the talk, he answers the question of where he sees MMORPGs 10 years from now. His answer takes the form of three possible futures with a nod to the Clint Eastwood film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

One part of the slides stuck out for me. A possible path described a change in games when a law passed to consider virtual objects as real-life property. As a result, the designers could no longer remove those objects or alter their properties. For example, a sword considered too strong for the balance of the game would normally need adjustments of its characteristics but such changes would no longer be allowed.

How are we then to consider “property” and “ownership” in virtual worlds. Must they be thought of as permanent?

Indulging in real-world metaphor for a moment, one knows that a flower purchased from the florist will fade in time. Prior to arriving at the florist, it started as seed, grew as plant, and finally bloomed into flower.

Can we not consider the existence of objects in the digital realm to evolve as well? The game begins as idea, germinates in the game company, and is exposed to the world where it finds nourishment or death.

If objects within the game were to be considered permanent, then what happens in the latter case? Companies can go out of business resulting in death of the game.

Or, at the very least, adjustments need to be made to a game and its components as it lives, otherwise players would lose interest either having learned the game in full or because of imbalance issues that create an unfair game. There are likely other reasons why a static world would not condone a pleasant virtual experience.

What then? Does the game designer owe it to players to maintain the objects and even the game’s very existence simply because players own virtual property?

I doubt this could ever be the case. If it were, as soon as a person acquired the first good, the company would be mandated to stay in business, never bankrupt, and maintain the goods as long as the players lived. They would have to foresee all possibilities of imbalance before exposing it to the public. Such a weighty and, ultimately, untenable responsibility would crush even the smallest interest of ever creating a MMO.

One can perhaps view virtual items as property, but they are inherently ephemeral with expirations less predictable than even those of a clipped flower.

Continuing the garden metaphor, the player rents an abstract, coded plot of virtual land in the form of space, avatar, equipment, systems of communication, etc. The company, as gardener, creates and adjusts this land to maintain a homeostasis or enable some vision of growth for the entire garden.

I may say I own a flower that sits in the soil, but the flower likely does not care for my whims. It continues to interact and exist with the rest of the aspects of its world. If there is anything that can make claim to the flower, it is more truly the cumulative aspects of the environment with which it interacts and which provide its nourishment and means of existence.

Hopefully, viewing it by way of this metaphor would allow us to, at least, avoid “the Bad” path of development and veer towards the optimistic Good as opined by Bartle.