In November and December I had a maelstrom of different things smash together that all sort of reminded me of strange parts of my education, all the while I was fighting some illness that was mildly Flu-like. First chronologically, while I was in the middle of trying to win NaNoWriMo, Sea of Thieves released their newest PvP mode for which I have a lot of criticism to discuss. Then I was hit by that Flu-like thing just after Thanksgiving and used that as excuse to binge watch all of Bluey that Disney+ had available. Whatever that was had responded to anti-histamines so I’m mostly sure it was a perfect storm of different seasonal allergies hitting me all at once and a couple of them in ways I haven’t felt in years, so I don’t think it was contagious but I was also trying for caution. Between the fevers, the migraines, and the binge watch I came out of watching Bluey feeling somewhat like I was going to write a PhD dissertation on it or, deep enough in the fever, like I already had written a PhD dissertation on it. (Unfortunately, I don’t know any college that awards Doctorates for virtual PhDs written about children’s TV shows while running a fever, but I still kind of feel like I earned one and someone should award that to me.) Then deep in the middle of Bluey PhD brain I was nerdsniped by a Folding Ideas video that seemed almost pointedly wrong given the PhD dissertation I “had written”.
It was a wild few weeks, and a lot of this I got into in somewhat real time on Mastodon and a few Discord channels, but seemed something interesting to coalesce into something of a better narrative form to blog about. Beyond the through line of all of it happening in short succession chronologically, I think there’s a lot interesting cross-threads and maybe a useful overall narrative to all these various sorts of games criticism.
A Quick Recap of My Odd Academic Background
To give some context to everything, allow me to briefly recap my academic background a tiny bit. In undergrad during my cooperative education internship with Microsoft I attended my first Penny Arcade Expo (“down the street” that year from where I was living in Redmond/Bellevue). While attending PAX I was reminded that in High School I’d thought I would like to make videogames, that coalesced with some of the games criticism I’d been blogging at the time, and I caught something of an entrepreneurial bug there. That lead me to discovering a card game that I loved, with great artwork, and from there working to license it to build a Xbox-playable version. I decided that was going to be a big grad school project for me. My program was a targeted Master’s Program and I had gone in with the assumption of finishing grad school (despite it being a degree that doesn’t quite matter so much in the software industry as whole, it mattered to me at the time).
I treated the entrepreneurship as its own grad school challenge, including academically. I used the small business as an excuse to pick up a lot of game design textbooks, especially those covering MMO design for several reasons. The card game I was working on wasn’t an MMO, of course, but was multiplayer. I had some ghost of an idea that given Adventure games were still mostly dormant outside of a few small developers that MMOs were an evergreen genre that if I could bootstrap into them could be very interesting. Here I had games like Puzzle Pirates as a particular influence at that time on ideas you could accomplish in a “low fi, bootstrapped” MMO. I’ve still never actually tried to bootstrap a low fi MMO, but I’ve still got lots of notes on various ideas from different years.
So in all that I think I had a rather deep education of the state of MMO research and the “classic” textbooks of videogame and game design in some brief moment in roughly 2007-2009. I capstoned that grad school work with a brief chance to be a panel member on what I felt at the time to be a great PAX session in 2009. I failed to predict the sort of economy that would greet me after I completed grad school in 2008, and the card game I was working on at the time was literally stomped on by Godzilla (which is funny now with distance, but of course was not at the time when my expected livelihood sort of depended on it).
That weird academic background I’m very proud of, but I’ve never made professional use of it. Perhaps it says something that my fever dreams thought I should apply it back to academics and go for an Imaginary Doctorate I wouldn’t know how to use professionally either. I still don’t know exactly where that came from.
Games are incredibly important to the (Australian originated) children’s television show Bluey, almost every episode is about games and even the intro to every episode is itself its own mini-game. I don’t believe this is a coincidence and I think this is underscored by the fact that the production company for the show decided to call themselves Ludo Studio, with ludo being one of the Latin names for games/play, and the preferred one for things like discussions of games theory (ludology) 1, and underpinning concepts such as ludonarrative dissonance (the difference, especially when troubling, between what the narrative, the story/theme, of a game is trying to say and what it’s game mechanics are built to impart).
Almost everything in Bluey is a game, including the intro, as I mentioned, follows rules, explores rules, and deals with concepts like fairness in play, and fairness in rule design, and even complex things like ludonarrative dissonance. It explores all those things, plus family and friendship and growing up and so much more, all in very tight 9 minute episodes. It’s equal parts delightful (for instance, every time someone wins a game, “Hooray!”), and emotional (some things get sad for the talking dog families of Bluey’s world). I don’t expect anyone needs a recommendation from a childless adult who binge watched the show in massive single sittings as comfort food during fever-like illnesses, but I loved it and strongly recommend it, and I would like to think that it it is the kind of show that can both hold young kids’ attention, and maybe teach them something.
It deals with some of the problems of game design, and offers hints of ways to solve them. It tries to instill ideas of fairness, of course, as many good children’s shows do, but it also gets into some of the deeper things beyond simple ideas of fairness in game play to why you need rules in the first place and what their goals are, how to have fun playing with people that have different ideas of fun or games than you, and how to troubleshoot cases where people stop having fun. Overall these are great life lessons that apply equally to games and things that aren’t games. It is said that some of the games children play are deeply to “rehearse” real life. The difference between real life and game play aren’t binary, they are things that bleed over and between each other. That’s a strong theme of Bluey throughout and some of the most fun episodes leave you wondering how much “magic” was real life. You get the sense over three seasons that Bandit, especially, Bluey’s dad, will do anything for a game and is possibly the best, most spirited games player so long as his kids are having fun, but sometimes Bandit leaves you with questions of how much he’s playing and how much is real (and that’s part of the fun of the show). That’s the power of a good game player sometimes. On the other side, many of the games throughout the seasons have deep real world repercussions and many things are “for real life” (including, among other things, the friends you make along the way and the family you keep).
While watching, I continuously had that weird feeling that so many episodes of Bluey showcased complex things from my weird grad school education but in relatable, easy to understand ways. That was at least part of where the idea came from that I could spend hours lecturing on individual 9 minute episodes and how they relate to a textbook’s worth of ideas on how you design games, on how you run them, on how you should act as a good player of games. Somewhere along the way “lecturing on it” turned into “writing a blog post” (such as this on it) and then became it’s own little Imaginary PhD dissertation that I dreamed I maybe actually wrote. There would be a lot worse things in life than to hold a Doctorate in Ludology As Explored by the Children’s Television Show Bluey. I think fever dream me earned it, and I probably don’t have enough moonlighting time to try to do it in real life, but if there’s a college interested in handing out that diploma, I suppose they could email me. (And as Bluey reminds us continually sometimes the things you earn in a game still count for real life. I’ll treasure the one I scrawled in metaphorical crayon for myself.)
Sea of Thieves Has a New PvP Mode, Y’all
In November’s Season 8, Sea of Thieves brought On-Demand PvP back as a game playing option. On paper, I think it is a great replacement for the lost Arena mode (and many people just call it “New Arena”, which I will have difficulty myself not just referring to it as that), I like that it uses Adventure servers in interesting ways, and that there is room for it to better exist side-by-side in the same spaces as “the rest of the game” in a better way than the “separate but not quite equal” menu mode that Arena was. Yet in practice, I’m highly critical of it, how it is balanced, and especially how it is rewarded. It’s very easy for this criticism to sound deeply critical in the negative connotation sense that I don’t like it and/or maybe even just hate it, so I suppose that’s why my brain spent a lot of time metaphorically blowing the cobwebs out of some old parts of my grad school education and looking to find ways to constructively criticize it (in the proper denotation of criticism as not specifically negative).
My harshest take has been that the new system is “Emissary 2: Emissary for Masochists”. The new system introduced two new Emissary factions that were clones of previous trading company/emissary factions but “PvP Only now”. It took some existing concepts such as the Emissary flags and their relationships with factions and built new slightly different versions but “PvP Mostly now”. There’s some good reasons to do that, of course, in that it in theory started everyone off on an equal playing field and they felt that PvP was undervalued so having “PvP Only” content was a boost that they felt the game needed after lots of PvE fine tuning over the last few years (and the shutdown of the Old Arena).
A useful lens for this to me remains the Bartle types. These were types of players as self-described on early MMOs and then compiled and studied by Richard Bartle among others. The Bartle types are sometimes considered an outdated or flawed methodology for several reasons: they were self-described, which can add some bias to the results, and they are sociological profiles that are quite (intentionally) broad. At its worst usage, the Bartle types are “MBTI or horoscopes for MMO players”. At its best, however, there’s still some usefulness in the way that Bartle types can describe a “four quadrant” game that hits many key interests of multiplayer game players. Despite being self-described, early studies of MMO players showed an equal split among players of which of the four types they personally felt most dominant, and that’s still a useful rule of thumb property for first order approximations.
I think my greatest criticism (as compared to my harshest take) about the new PvP system is not just that it is a “one quadrant only” solution, but that it feels a lot like a “less than one quadrant” system as it is currently balanced and based on that self-described demographics “rule of thumb” it’s the kind of thing that applies to likely less than twenty five percent of possible players. We already know that was a problem with the Old Arena and why it shut down, in that it was used by fewer than 25% of the player base. The new system doesn’t seem to repeat some of the same mistakes that made maintaining the Old Arena expensive by sharing entire instances with Adventure and not needing different or dedicated servers just to run it, plus it isn’t supposed to diverge from the rule set in play in Adventure in any significant way and is designed to interact with existing Adventure rules rather than replace them. It maybe isn’t the harshest possible take on the new system that in the long run it may again be less than 25% of players using the system because it maybe is better designed to survive that. I still find it is a useful to lens to discuss and criticize the system in this manner though, as particularly my own interest in the system comes from a perspective primarily based in the other “three quadrants”.
For brief recap: the Bartle types are generally referred to as Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers. A relevant subset of Killers that isn’t often considered a Bartle type of its own but has made its way into a lot of MMO discussions in general, the vernacular at large, and should rarely be ignored is Griefer. Bartle described the two axes connecting these four quadrants as Players versus World and Acting versus Interacting. In brief rough overview: Achievers primarily seek to act on the world (scoring points, winning things), Explorers primarily seek to interact with the world (finding hidden spots, solving puzzles), Socializers look primarily to interact with other players (hanging out, winning together), and Killers seek to act upon other players (killing them, of course, but more generally just in getting some emotion back out of them). Griefers are a subset of Killers whose primary fun is getting specifically the maximum amount of negative emotions out of other players. (Bluey has great episodes on nearly every Bartle type except Killers and/or Griefers. If the show needs suggestions on smart topics to bring up with complex needs and real world repercussions, I offer the suggestion that there is rich ground there to cover, though I also expect writing much on the subject for a children’s show seems to me to be rather tough.)
It’s very clear that any PvP system is first and foremost primarily focused on the Killers quadrant. That should be obvious from the Bartle type name. I think an issue with the new system, because it is entirely opt in (for good reasons, of course, I’m not complaining that it is opt in) it winds up being able to capture the attention of only a subset of Killers, for some of the same reasons that the Old Arena did. There was a lot of hope that I saw in the forums and Discords that the new PvP system would also pull a lot of the Griefers out of “raw” Adventure and push them into PvP cycles instead. That personal goal of maximizing other player’s misery for the Griefers generally means that they won’t opt in for long (or much at all), because random ships doing normal random stuff in Adventure without marking themselves as “interested in PvP” is always going to be the more “lucrative” target for them and their needs for their idea of fun than other Killers that opted-in for sport and are prepared to lose and are prepared to minimize their losses.
A somewhat related disinterest in the new system I’ve seen from some Killers I’ve talked to with the new PvP system is that the ranking system for matchmaking doesn’t have a visible “numbers go big” metric for them to watch and brag about like many other common Killer-focused games such as the Call of Duty franchises, Rocket League, Fortnite, etc. Many of those make matchmaking stats much more obvious, notable and sometimes directly and obnoxiously in their face. These are Killers mostly on the Killer-Achiever border that want that exciting achievement to brag about that directly reflects their Killer side. It somewhat makes sense that Sea of Thieves isn’t making ranking numbers a part of the UI: they want to keep it somewhat secret sauce, because it needs to be a crew ranking (team ranking) it by necessity has to be an aggregate across multiple players (which makes it harder to brag about personal scores), and in general Sea of Thieves tries to feel like an even playground/sandbox so such numbers are also somewhat counter to that spirit of play.
I know the developers of Sea of Thieves tried to mitigate this somewhat with the “Defensive” option to play the new systems, where it is most and worst like “Emissary 2: Glowing Figurehead Boogaloo”. This mode suggests that if you put a target on your own back and go out doing normal PvE stuff to build up a hoard of loot to defend that you will in theory gain other rewards faster (when you successfully defend your ship and hoard of loot). This was the original promise of the Emissary system itself: put a target on your back, gain faction rewards faster. To be fair, the game even lets you stack both Emissary 1.0 and Emissary 2.0 for higher risk/reward.
The original Emissary was balanced so that the target on your back is visible mostly only up to the edge of the current horizon, unless you were representing the “sometimes PvP” Reapers faction in which case your target is always on your back but you get potentially greater visibility of other Emissaries, eventually, if you do well.
In contrast, the new “only PvP” factions and the new “Emissary 2.0: Hurt Me, Please” defensive mode leaves the target up on your back for all to see no matter what and remains always visible on the map. It adds the additional risk of “invaders” that can spring out of the water at any time. (“Invading” is of course the other option from “defending”.) Additionally, the new Emissary cuts out most of the PvE-based reward gains unless you have specifically engaged in PvP at some point and won. This greatly increases the risk/reward, and so much so, that I have yet to find anyone that thinks Defensive mode is worth the time investment. I knew enough players that were afraid enough to raise the old Emissary flags at all, even with the tighter horizon constraints, and the new one has far less appeal than even that. Killers, in my experience, want the easy/fast/on demand instant action of the “Invading” mode, and while the Achievers are given plenty of commendations to try to achieve in the new mode and Explorers and Socializers are teased with role playing-friendly social zones to eventually access/explore if they force themselves to do enough of the new PvP mode, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough PvE reward for all of the extremely high risk. If you are going to put the time to put in all the PvE work to build up a good loot haul, you have very few reasons to do it with a target painted on your back at all times given the time investment. The current short term rewards don’t seem to align well versus the time investment, in my experience and anecdotally from other players’ experience that I’ve heard.
Anecdotally, from doing a lot of grinding of “Invading” very few seem like players actively defending a loot haul and the vast majority seem like “fellow invaders”. Some of the more hopeful on the forums think this is a temporary case, but I think from the Bartle lens above and examining the current risks versus rewards, I think it is unlikely to ever shift, especially with the December mechanics rebalance. (The December mechanics rebalance added more ways to speed up the “Invading” cycle, further making it the key focus of the new system and further leaving me questioning who the “Defending” mode is for given its risk/reward balance.)
My “home” perspective is from somewhere shallow into the Explorers quadrant in that on a given night I might lean into the Achievers side and feel the completionist bug, or I might lean into the Socializers side and just want to hang out with people. I can’t say I’ve ever felt much of a Killer itch natively. (There is sometimes a Socializer peer pressure for a bit of blood lust and I’m not immune to that, but my primary fun in those cases still feels a lot more for me like “socializing” than “killing”.) I feel frustrated that cool new social areas were opened to explore with seemingly impossibly high grind requirements for non-Killers. On the one hand this certainly gives me a reason to play these new systems with a Socializer or Explorer hat on, sure. On the other hand this makes me somewhat miserable and upset with the experience and while there are Killer-Socializers that might appreciate the new spaces, a lot of the Killer quadrant won’t appreciate that sort of new content as much as other quadrants. The Bartle types as a lens also generally suggest that Killer-Explorers may be among the least likely minorities in multiplayer games because that pairing crosses not just one but two axes at once. (Again, Bartle types are just a first order approximation of a player base and it’s possible game metrics may even suggest it is a larger minority than that concept of abstract axes of interest imply. Approximations remain useful for outside analysis though because I mostly don’t have access to any Sea of Thieves statistics but my own.)
Again, it is hard not to let my personal experiences sound too much like I hate the new systems on principle. I appreciate that true Killers have needed systems like this since the shutdown of the Old Arena and not every update is about me or how I want to play. I’ve done lots of “not fun” grinds in Sea of Thieves and I likely will again, that’s the nature of my relationship with the game at this point. I just also am the sort of meta-gamer that I will do a semi-academic breakdown of the process and over-evaluate it, and then blog about it, because that is fun in its own ways to me.
As an Explorer, I’ve explored how repeatably badly I can intentionally suck at the new PvP to grind my way
towards its social rewards with the least emotional investment on my part (because that just gives me anxiety
and isn’t fun for me) and preferably the least amount of time investment. This is the meta-game I’ve been
playing with the new system. I think I have a system at this point, an algorithm of sorts that is just
do x, y; wait until z; do a, b; wait until c; repeat. The completionist in me is haunted that this system
doesn’t quite earn me a bunch of statistics for some additional commendations and I’ll have to do a lot of
this grind again with crews of enough Killer hats anyway if I eventually care for completionism, but I
never completed the Old Arena either (and its achievements still haunt my Xbox, “Legacy” mark or not; I was
90%+ in one but couldn’t care enough before the Arena shut down and now that’s just going to be forever stuck
at the top of my “nearly completed” list in Xbox dashboards and a constant reminder in that Xbox sidebar that
shows up when you pause a movie and the Xbox is close to sleeping, sigh).
It’s kind of fun for me at this point, boring rote repetition aside, seeing how fast and how often I can lose matches. Though I’ve still got a large number of losses left before I get pity access to the new social areas. I’ve explored many of the ways to lose matches and narrowed down the ones that give any reward and then narrowed down a few that give the most possible loss reward for the amount of time investment. (Again, I have built a system for losing. I am maximizing my losses.) I am deeply amused at my growing count of accidental wins. (My current system does not involve firing a single cannon shot at an opposing vessel. Wins truly are accidents entirely out of my control at that point.)
I’ve discussed my system with fellow completionists and some of them have been appalled. They don’t want to ever grind just for losses. They can’t imagine what that would do their rankings. They hate what that might do to standings that they can’t even see (because as mentioned above, that is not something the game is interested in visualizing). But we can meta-game that a bit, too: So far the development team have stated that a crew’s ranking is a pretty straightforward average of each person’s win/loss ratios. Someone with a lot of losses brings the crew average down and makes battles on average easier (when easier opponents are available). I don’t care about my PvP metrics and I’m more than happy to be the good luck albatross of easier battles. I’m not saying losing a lot is a great strategy in the long run, but there are certainly tactical advantages to it. It’s okay to suck sometimes, especially if that’s more fun for you and you aren’t a jerk about it. (Bluey has an episode or three about that.)
Why it is Sometimes Fine to Suck at Warcraft
Folding Ideas somewhat recently dropped an hour and a half dive into the Raid-focused and end game Metrics-focused culture in the MMO World of Warcraft called “Why it is Rude to Suck at Warcraft”. This dropped late in my Bluey binge and its Imaginary PhD dissertation and with the giant swirl of Sea of Thieves meta-game thoughts above. I paused somewhere around nine minutes and forty seconds into the hour and a half pseudo-documentary and said to a Discord that was discussing it something to the effect that it was a) poorly researched, and b) the entire hour and a half could probably be summarized by a single tight 9 minute Bluey episode.
I’m not that wide or deep in my “pure” academic background. Most documentaries I gloss over when references and citations fly by. I focused on hard, practical engineering work for the most part, including that instead of doing a Master’s Thesis I opted for a Master’s Project as the more practical option. (I built a simple “game engine” for analyzing swarm algorithm mechanics, a neighboring sub-field to machine learning, in a light JS/Self-inspired custom language REPL designed specifically for very easy “follower” mechanics by default. Maybe not that practical outside of specifics to my advisors at the time, but more practical than the average Thesis.) But it turns out that there’s one domain where you can directly call out my strange academic background: the one I already mentioned, games criticism and academia circa 2009.
That roughly 9 minute stop in the Folding Ideas video felt like a direct call out to me specifically. I jumped out of my chair at the very first citation and went back and paused it to reread it and make sure that it was as bad as I had assumed. The video was quoting a 2006 “text book” that was among that deep dive I did in grad school (and I believe is in one of the many boxes of my personal library cluttering my den for the last couple of years, because I keep procrastinating dealing with them). But it wasn’t quoting it directly, it was quoting it from inside of a not directly related article. It was citing a quote without having directly read the book it was quoting, getting the quote itself only second hand. That’s a huge academic faux pas in general, but sometimes necessary when dealing with long out of print stuff. 2006 doesn’t seem to qualify to me as “long out of print” (there are hardcovers for sale for as little as $6 used on Amazon).
The further you get into the video the further it becomes clear that their reading overall stopped well short of many primary and secondary sources. Though to discuss why I think we need to first discuss the conclusion of the video and so this needs a massive spoiler warning for anyone looking to complete the Folding Ideas video. I include a spoiler warning here because I’ve appreciated many Folding Ideas videos before this one and shade aside to this one I wouldn’t have spent 45 minutes watching a half-hour video at 2X speed, several Discord and Mastodon threads, and this much time writing up a blog post on something I didn’t otherwise respect. I just want Folding Ideas to do better, I’m not interested in sending pitchforks in their direction. There is some good content meat in the sandwich of bad academics that could have been better researched. Go watch that video if you are so inclined and come back to this post unspoiled.
The conclusion of the video is basically (and baldly) that videogames are soylent: they are made of people. This should not be a shocking conclusion to anyone in the history of games. This wasn’t a shocking conclusion in 2009 or 2006. This is three-fourths of what Bluey is about in almost any given episode. It takes people to play games. People bring their baggage along with them into the games that they play.
The weakest part of the Folding Ideas conclusion to me though is that it ends without any suggestions on what to do about anything discussed in the video. It ends with roughly a noncommittal shrug. This is disappointing on a number of levels. The first one is because it took my immediate gut reaction that I could substitute a random Bluey episode for the Folding Ideas (though it may take me longer than an hour and half to explain why, as you can see here in this very blog post) and one ups it: a random Bluey episode (or a half hour of them) would likely be a better use of time because they offer better starting grounds of solutions to the problem statement. Bluey gets into lots of suggestions about how you engage with players with different ideas of fun and how do deal with inter-personal conflicts that arise in such situations. Certainly it delivers these suggestions in school child terms, and a lot of World of Warcraft players would look immediately look down on any suggestion that they should watch more of a children’s show, but that’s still a good foundation for deeper discussions to start from than just shrugging at the question of “What do we do about it?” It speaks directly to that conclusion the video thinks it makes: if games are people, the rules we build to “play nice” and try to get children to learn from an early age, apply at every age. To some extent it really doesn’t matter if you are playing “Keepy Uppy” or World of Warcraft if you can’t play nice maybe you shouldn’t play at all. Those are eternal lessons to learn about human society, which why we work so hard to teach them to children.
As nearly a tangent here from “Imaginary PhD dissertation” brain: one of things I found so powerful about Bluey and why it resonated so much was exactly this. The show starts from a lens of games, and nearly everything in the show is about games, including the intro is a game, but the life lessons are all so very for real life. It is said that games are a key component to how kids develop life skills by starting in relatively safer spaces, but something that not enough people remember into adulthood is that while games are built to be “safer spaces”, they are “safe spaces” only somewhat free from real life complications, and school of hard knocks real world life lessons. Games are one incredible part of how we train each other to better live in a society together, and the lessons we learn both come from and extend back out to real life. (Bluey has many of its share of those same sorts of games that children play to learn society itself: “Doctor”, “Shopkeeper”, “Parents”, and so many more. Again, with Bluey’s studio calling itself Ludo Studio I cannot imagine much of this is an accident, and I don’t know it is my place to tell them “well done”, but I can suggest that at least one fever-addled, childless adult was so impressed they imagined they wrote a PhD dissertation on it.)
It’s not entirely a tangent, though, because it gets back into the narrative of why it seems like such a shame that Folding Ideas stopped so short in their own research. I know a lot of this about why Bluey seems like such an incredibly well done TV show to me precisely because of that weird education I gave myself. The Folding Ideas video gave two reasons why they thought it best to stop short. The first I think comes directly from that confusion between “safer spaces” and “safe spaces” and a second-hand criticism that the early literature focused possibly too much on “safer spaces”. A lot of the literature did explore the concept of “ludic spaces” as “safer spaces” and what that meant about games, but most of it was specifically coming from that “we think of games as childish or child-like” and directly defining how “ludic spaces” may seem “safer” at first glance from a raw risk/reward standpoint than “real life”, but absolutely exploring all the ways that “ludic spaces” are always still a part of real life and “safer” is never safe from real world consequences nor real world harm.
The very cover shown as Folding Ideas dismisses almost all of older research in this way is a book of first and second hand accounts of people’s lives in Second Life and deeply proving that any attempt at “second life” is just “real life”. It gets into real life marriages that happened inside of and because of that game. It gets into people who tried to establish very real businesses in the game and in some cases for some brief moment made it work. It gets into real life crimes that occurred in the game, some involving Second Life’s powerful scripting tools, and others involving old fashioned terribly human societal problems like trafficking. A book mentioned elsewhere in the video third hand but clearly not directly read got deep into EverQuest life and the societies it formed and again very real things like marriages and divorces. All of these and more were in conversation at the time with the situation that occurred in Sims Online. Sims Online was a real videogame that EA spent millions of dollars to develop but never saw a single copy on store shelves because in the relatively few hours of its Beta existence it spawned an entire organized crime ring and allegedly had accusations that even got the US FBI’s attention. That was the game that spooked EA so bad that they got out of MMOs for nearly half a decade (despite being an early and profligate publisher of them prior to that), and their lone running (though long-running) MMO today is Star Wars: The Old Republic. (A lot of history rewriters today claim that EA got out of MMOs because they couldn’t compete with early World of Warcraft, but that narrative forgets key parts of history that we shouldn’t forget. This isn’t even a “distant past” problem, even just recently a parent sued the videogame Roblox among other defendants for its part in facilitating dangerous real world trafficking.)
The other reason that the Folding Ideas video gives for why they stopped their research too short is “World of Warcraft was the first game to…” This is patently untrue for many reasons, including starting from their own conclusions. World of Warcraft was never the first game to be played by people. Compared to marriage, divorce, running a business, real world crimes like extortion and trafficking, their concern of “some people in WoW were mean to me because I wasn’t using endgame-class/raid-level analytics tools and tactics” feels utterly banal. It feels almost as childish as those same WoW players would likely dismiss Bluey for being too childish and inapplicable to their circumstances, despite being almost the very sort of problem Bluey was built to teach about. Even extending that “first game” through the video’s various qualifications and hedges: WoW wasn’t the first MMO with deep scripting. Second Life as mentioned had user scripting crimes even. Nor was it the first RPG game-like MMO with deep scripting. EVE Online has had more than its fair share of mod tools (and Excel spreadsheets!), for longer than WoW. Reaching back further to text MMOs everything that the video talks about happening with mods and analytics tools happened in the history of text MMOs. Text MMOs used Telnet, an unencrypted, dead simple communications protocol and there was no way for text MMOs to have any control of mods and analytics tools (and many also had server-side scripting tools as well). The history of text MMOs is also fascinating here because there was an “other side” of the hill that graphical MMOs still haven’t quite hit (though ones like Second Life try): when everyone has scripting tools at their disposal at some point it stops being interesting endlessly data mining the existing content and there’s a deeper push to just build your own content. Many of the text MMOs with the most power in user scripting were also the most free in terms of possible content and how people could play/engage that content. There was little need for “perfect tactics” because there was always more content. Graphical MMOs have a while to go before we see that to any degree like text worlds saw (though for another instance Cryptic Studios certainly has spent a lot of time exploring it with their “Foundry” efforts and tools in their various MMOs over the years as well).
Academics is certainly a constant process of learning new things and applying what you learned in new ways until eventually you discover a better idea of things. But that also doesn’t mean that you can just throw out all of the academics from before you were born or your favorite game was born. The Folding Ideas video’s own citations imply several places where the team could have “followed the links” to earlier works that would have enriched the video and stopped just slightly too short to help even their own conclusion. Some of those books they skipped might have gone a long way to helping them come up with suggestions to make the game’s culture friendlier than the shrug they ended with. Different players exist with different ideas of fun, those early books spent a lot of time trying to describe that and coming up with very rough approximations such as the aforementioned Bartle Types, and trying to find ways to make more games appeal to “all four quadrants”. That many of the games they described are gone and long unplayable doesn’t make them any less relevant today. In some ways it shows how much more games need to mature that we so easily forget entire cultures of players, just as anthropologically lost as any empire lost to ruin, and often barely covered in a handful of first hand accounts in academic literature, such as the ones this video referenced but skipped. It’s all the more reason not to ignore the first hand accounts that we do have, to not just stop at third and fourth hand criticisms, but read some of it for yourself.
I also have few illusions that I’ve done much better than Folding Ideas at beating a random Bluey episode on these topics. This post is nearly seven thousand words and its own far cry from a tight 9 minutes of television. (It’s also still a hundred or so pages shy of that combined Imaginary PhD dissertation I dreamed that I might have written.) I suppose the most useful takeaway is, go watch more Bluey. Also, games are complicated and hard and full of real life and there will always be so much to say about them and so much already said about them worth reading.
Not to be confused with Game Theory (of Economics), though there is some obvious cross-over. ↩