Combatting Antisocial Behavior

The Freakanomics blog is worth subscribing to, if you haven’t already. Via it comes word of a neat experiment: in the psychology department coffee room at Newcastle University, prices for tea and coffee were posted on the wall, and an “honesty box” (i.e., in which to place your payment) was set nearby. This sort of experiment is fairly common, but the twist was that, in some weeks, a photo of flowers appeared above the price list. In other weeks, it was a pair of human eyes, staring directly at the person reading the price list. In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks.

This brought to mind my earlier post on the wonderful book Predictably Irrational, which noted that you could dramatically cut down on cheating in exams if you simply asked students to recall the Ten Commandments before they took a test, or — more pointedly — by reminding them of a school honor code. (You had to do this right before the test — it couldn’t happen weeks before and still retain the effect.)

A long time ago, I wrote an article for Gamasutra exploring the possible design of a feedback/rating system that would discourage antisocial behavior in MMOs. That system, which still may have merit, pales in comparison to the wonderful elegance and simplicity of these psychological tricks. And given that (1) one of the biggest challenges for online, anonymous systems like MMOs (and LIVE) is antisocial behavior, and (2) companies are spending tens of millions of dollars on these systems (if not more), why aren’t more companies hiring psychologists and behavioral economists as consultants or full-time employees? The cost seems justified, given the potential benefits.

(Actually, I’ve heard of a few MMO developers hiring economists, but I think that most are focused on the optimization of in-game economies, as opposed to tackling anti-social behavior. There is a relationship between the two, but they are not equivalent.)

One response to “Combatting Antisocial Behavior

  1. Despite the fact that less than ten minutes ago I came across this blog site I feel compelled to give my personal feedback on this topic (primarily addressing your article on Freakanomics) as I have spent many years under the oppressive thumb of MMO’s 😀

    What a waste of game developers time… all this time spent picking over players who use vulgar language, kill steal, grief kill, ninja loot or otherwise generally have anti-social behavior is an epic waste of time. This is probably one of the many reasons why release dates are constantly pushed back. Aside from the obvious long standing work-arounds for these problems such as ignore features, language filters, looting rule sets, server wide rule sets, etc. Attempting to deter anti social behavior is simply a tightening of the already limited “sand box” feeling that all MMOs have. The key to an MMOs success is… ready… HUMAN INTERACTION. The only way to bolster human interaction is… FREEDOM!

    Looking to the past for a reference as to why a profitable, industry-leading MMO comes about as often as a presidential election you have to really understand that MMO’s content comes from the player not the developer. Sometimes player content isn’t just funny jokes and a band of warriors working together to defeat a common foe. Sometimes its competition, distrust, dislike and anger. Is it possible for players to band against more than just a giant enemy boss? What about a guild, crew or gang of players working together against another guild who has a reputation of ninja looting constantly? It’s about helping create a relationship between the teams’ members and in turn creating a network of teams, players that begin to bolster conceptual factors such as politics, economics and loyalty. Once these begin to form in an environment that was never coded for such components a game truly becomes an MMO.
    I understand that this wont apply to all MMOs’ as some are not as in-depth like most MMORPGs are but the general concept rings true through the entire genre.

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