Note: this is a reproduction of an article that originally appeared on the Dreamwaver site in 2000 but which has since disappeared.

It appears with the permission of its author, Paul E. Schwanz II (writing as Phinehas). Paul has kindly sent me an updated (but as yet unfinished) version of the article, which I have here appended to the original.


Morality in Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games

MMORPGs have brought some unique new challenges to developers. I think that all of the social and moral aspects caught a lot of developers by surprise. The initial concept of a CRPG with lots of participants seemed simple enough. In reality, however, human behavior is a lot more unpredictable than most developers imagined. In a very real sense, developers of MMORPGs must now add a familiarity with social engineering, psychology, and other behavioral sciences to a long list of technical and design requirements.

I'm convinced that good design can still overcome a majority of the social and moral obstacles faced by MMORPGs. I believe that the use of values to address what a character should do in certain situations can go a long way towards overcoming some of the major obstacles. While the use of values can be understood in many different contexts, perhaps the best way to describe it is as a design method for encouraging role-play and consistency of character, especially in those who might typically be categorized as power-gamers.

At the heart of role-play is the decision to act a certain way based on the values your character purports to hold (not necessarily the same as the values you hold personally.) In MMORPGs, this concept is contrasted against a basic core value in many gamers, which is best understood as an attempt to obtain personal glory by making their character more powerful than others and demonstrating this power without regard to method, often resulting in a shaming of others. In other words, MMORPGs are often played by power-gamers as well as role-players. Values based role-playing (VBRP) seeks to encourage all gamers to role-play by leveraging the natural desire to become more powerful.

Values Based Role-Play: VBRP identifies four basic areas of concern for living: Health, Wealth, Power, and Information. Your character's values are based on whether your character prefers to give or take in each of these areas of life. For instance, someone who values affluence is a wealth-taker, while someone who values generosity is a wealth-giver. Each character's actions will be compared to their chosen values to determine what effect the action will have on their skills, relationships, etc. Those who act in accordance with their values will gain skills quickly, while those who act in contradiction to their values face a moral and psychological crisis in which they will actually lose skills. In this way, those gamers will maximize character development, who role-play their values well and maintain the greatest character consistency.

A table of values might look like this:


Not only would each character decide whether they prefer to take or give in each area, they would also prioritize their areas of concern. Each character will end up with a values profile. For example: H+4, I-3, W-2, P+1 (where + represents giving, - represents taking, 4 signifies the highest priority and 1 the lowest priority.)

To encourage gamers to act in accordance with their values, in-game actions will have value profiles as well. The profile for regicide might be H-4, P-4. The effects on skills, reputation, etc. of a character who comits regicide will depend on what kind of character they are. If they are a healer to the king, placing high value on life and loyalty (H+4, P+3) their action will mean something completely different than it would if they were an assassain with a penchant for subversion and conquest (P-4, H-3). To determine mathematical effects, a character's profile is multiplied by the actions profile and the results are summed.

healer who commits regicide: H(+4 * -4) + P(+3 * -4) = -28
assassain who commits regicide: H(-3 * -4) + P(-4 * -4) = +28

The result can then be used to modify skill gains. If killing a king results in +1000 skill points for the skills used, this would mean that the healer would lose 28000 skill points (-28 * +1000), but the assassain would gain 28000 skill points (+28 * +1000).

The basic concepts could be augmented and refined in a number of different and interesting ways. Summing giving values and subtracting taking values could be used to determine the overall moral alignment of a character (i.e. Morality=+4 for a character with H+4, P+3, I-2, W-1) which could then be used to determine the level of intervention or magic granted by good or evil beings and deities. Values could be dynamic, affected by a player's consistent choices over time or by magically cursed or blessed items (i.e. Frodo falling under the spell of the ring in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or Matt's reaction to the dagger in Jordan's Wheel of Time). Also, relationship (R+3 to R-3) to person acted upon and interpretation of your values based on a filter of order vs. chaos (O+3 to O-3) might influence the results of a particular action. These would allow for more complicated shades of morality, such as the fact that killing an attacking thug is different from stabbing a friend in the back; and a committment to health and life might cause one person to refrain from harming anyone ever, while another who values health and life just as much, might see it as righteous to kill one to save many. Also of note is the assassain who does good deeds for months in order to provide him with the cover he needs to get close to his mark. Are his good deeds really good? Perhaps an "undercover" option for betrayers would prevent their character from being penalized for acting against their values.

What follows is Paul's update on the above article.


Social System Overview

Virtual worlds are artificial worlds, yet the interaction that takes place in them can seem very real. This is perhaps their greatest attraction. However, even the interpersonal relationships in a virtual world, especially at a community level, don't seem to line up with our expectations. Virtual worlds are struggling especially to handle malcontents and anti-social behavior. While the real world hasn't really solved these problems, it has at least managed to set our expectations at a level which virtual worlds seem unable to attain. Why is this?

I think there are still some gaping holes in how virtual worlds work. Because there are still large foundational differences between how virtual worlds operate vs. the real world, there are large differences between what we experience and what we expect to experience. Here are a few differences that I think contribute to the discrepancy between how virtual worlds work and how we intuitively feel they should work.

The point is, if we want the virtual life we offer our customers to be more in keeping with their expectations as set by their real life experiences, we need to model some things to help fill in the large gaps created by unavoidable discrepancies. The following proposals attempt to do exactly this. Mostly, they are concerned with helping characters seem more persistent, more consistent, and more "real" despite the transient nature of players. They do this by enacting intuitive consequences and are based upon four interrelated concepts. The Values System helps define a character and also gives us a basic language for allowing the server to express, analyze, and communicate character actions. The Psychology System builds on values and centers around the notion that performing actions that fall short of a character's values typically leads to internal dissonance which can affect the character in negative ways. The Reputation System is about how other player characters and non-player characters react to actions or news, based on their own values and perceptions. It is also concerned with how information about actions or personal feelings about a character are communicated to others. The Karma System assumes some form of omniscient knowledge about player actions and responds with mechanisms (whether the reaction of a specific deity or the setting in motion of basic spiritual forces) to ensure that, in general, characters reap what they sow.

Values System

People generally act in a consistent manner because they have an underlying set of values or beliefs about life and how it should be approached. Because players are only playing, they bring to the game beliefs about games and not beliefs about life. If players act consistently, it is typically related to selecting the best course of action to advance their character as quickly as possible to a winning situation. There is nothing really wrong with this, but in a virtual world, the result can often be situations where a character's actions are not consistent with what that character purports to be. I might complain that the character is acting "unrealistically," but what I'm really saying is that I've been forced to see the min-maxing player behind the character. And this shatters my immersion.

To me, the solution would involve helping the player create a character with its own values and beliefs about life, and then giving the player incentives to play that character in a manner that is consistent with the values he has selected for the character. Obviously, since the player's goals are often about moving his character toward a winning game situation, it would be good to have the incentives reflect this. We'll talk more about incentives in the next section, but let's take a closer look at values.

While there are scores of different values or beliefs that we could offer the player to help him build the sort of character he wants to play, many would be spurious, since we might not have any ability to really track the player's success in these areas. So far, I've been able to identify four basic areas where I believe values could lend themselves well to being tracked. They are health, wealth, information, and power. (In some ways, these are individualistic reflections of the community pursuit of security, prosperity, technology, and advancement.)

So how will your character feel about the health of living things? Will he nurture or conquer? Will he be a healer or a warrior? Will he be a farmer or a hunter? Will your character primarily be health giving (H+) or health taking (H-)?

How will your character handle money? Will she take a vow of poverty or amass great wealth? Will she live like a priestess or a merchant? Will she be a minister or a miser? Will your character primarily be wealth giving (W+) or wealth taking (W-)?

How will your character approach knowledge and information? Will he spread it to all that are interested or hoard it to himself? Will he be a wandering mage, sharing his knowledge with each village, or like a paranoid wizard, will he shut himself in a tower to protect his research from prying eyes? Will he become involved with unions or guilds that attempt to control knowledge concerning their professions, or will he gladly train and mentor all? Will your character primarily be information sharing (I+) or information hoarding (I-)?

What will your character believe about power? Will she see it as a means for helping others or for imposing her own will? Will she be servant or master? Will she invest or control? Will your character primarily be power giving (P+) or power taking (P-)?

While we may think we've made some progress toward helping players define their character's values in these four areas, there are still some obvious inadequacies. For instance, we've said that a character that is health taking is a warrior, but what kind of warrior? Is this character a patriot or a murderer? There is quite a bit of difference between the two archetypes, yet clearly they are both health taking to a certain extent. In order to refine our system, we need a fifth value rating that can act as a modifier to the others.

It seems to me that the key distinction between a patriot and a murderer, at least from the perspective of society, lies in their allegiances. Whereas a patriot is being loyal to a certain community, the murderer is viewed as betraying it. So it seems that this fifth rating has to do with loyalty, betrayal, and relationships.

How will your character treat allegiances? Will he honor pledges or break them? Will he take his responsibilities to societies and groups with which he associates seriously or spurn community mores? Will he place great weight on his relationship to others when acting or will he be indiscriminate? Will your character primarily be allegiance honoring (A+) or allegiance breaking (A-)?

The real test of how appropriate these five areas are in defining values is to try them against all of the common archetypes. I encourage you to do so. If they do not reflect a particular class or play style with which we are familiar, then they need additional refining. I'll get the ball rolling with a few archetypes that may not seem to work well with what we have so far.

What about the warrior priestess? Is she health taking or health giving? Or take Robin Hood, for example. Is he wealth taking or wealth giving?

I would say that the warrior priestess really doesn't seem to have a strong belief about health one way or the other. It seems to me that what is of primary importance to this archetype is their relationship to the recipient of their actions. In other words, the warrior priestess is comfortable killing as well as healing. (She probably leans slightly toward healing, but maybe not.) The thing that will primarily determine which action she performs on an individual is likely to involve that individual's relationship to her religion. In this, she shows herself to be very discriminating and loyal first, and only slightly health giving later.

In a similar way, Robin Hood steals from some, but gives to others. In general, though a thief in the eyes of many, he probably leans slightly toward being wealth giving. Again, the thing which will primarily determine his actions toward a particular individual is whether or not he considers that individual to be one of "the rich" or a member of "the poor." In this, Robin Hood is also very discriminating and loyal, and only slightly wealth giving. These two examples help highlight the need for us to prioritize our values. It seems that each archetype forms a sort of natural hierarchy of values for their particular world-and-life view. Someone might view Robin Hood's approach to life like this.

How can Robin Hood be considered extremely loyal? He certainly isn't loyal to the rich. As I mentioned earlier, allegiance keys off of relationships. As long as Robin Hood has no relationship established with the rich, he doesn't need to be loyal to them in order to be considered extremely loyal.

What about Bubba Smythe, the owner of a pawnshop who feels a strong bond of loyalty to close friends, but couldn't care less about the fact that the town in which he is a citizen has passed a law against fencing stolen property? (We're straying a bit from the typical archetypes, but I'll address the question anyway.) In order to facilitate this distinction regarding loyalty, characters need to be able to prioritize their relationships with various groups in which they are members. There are some groups in which characters will automatically be members, but most are voluntary. Bubba might have the following priorities for his groups (where priority is lower moving toward the bottom of the list).

If he breaks a law against fencing stolen property in the town of Nunford, he is still allegiance breaking, but to a much lesser degree than if he harms Boffo, a member of Bubba's Merry Band. This can occur because each character or group that Bubba interacts with is given a relationship rating from -9 to +9 (where -9 is a mortal enemy and +9, as defined in his group priorities, is one of Bubba's friends). But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here. The main point is that sets of values do not have to exist in a vacuum. Instead, values can be dependent upon other factors that define who characters are and how they relate to others.

This concept for values also gives us a language for expressing, analyzing, and communicating actions. Suppose we had a number of database entries that looked like this:

ActionExpression of Values
kill enemy

Now we can express an action like murder in a way that can be processed differently by characters that have different perspectives when it comes to health, wealth, information, power, and allegiance. In a similar manner, we can work backward from value expressions to express something in text. For instance, suppose that Buffy's player logs out, but the character is set to remain persistent in the game world. While the player is logged out, the character is updated with the following database entry.

RumorIterationSourceActorExpression of ValuesReciever

When Buffy's player logs back in, the game sends her a text message such as the following.

You saw Bubba murder Boffo.

At first, this may not appear to be such a great achievement, but we will develop this concept extensively when we discuss the Reputation System later. For now, it is enough to see how the concept of values can help us define characters as well as provide a language for expressing, analyzing, and communicating character actions.

Notes to self:

A. I also want to add the idea of dynamic values to the document. Will include the concept of values changing when:

  1. Player plays consistently different from values. (Very slow change.)
  2. Player undertakes some sort of "conversion" experience. (Rapid change with "crisis" causing major skill degradation.)
  3. Player is cursed, i.e. by equipping an item. (Frodo's ring moves value P toward -5. Speed of change may vary.)

B. Add Iteration and Source fields to events (more for the Reputation System) [Done! Paul Schwanz - 20 May 2002]. Iteration is initially "E" (or just zero in the actual DB) and then is a number that counts up as events are communicated. So, in the Bubba murders Boffo example above, initial iteration would be E (eyewitness), and source would be Buffy. If Buffy "tells" someone else about the event, the message passed to them would have an iteration of 1 (1st hand) and a source of Buffy. If they "tell" someone else about the event, the iteration is set to 2 (2nd hand) and the source is set to their name. This gives a couple of advantages: an event can be set to die after a certain number of iterations (you can no longer pass on the event, but can still give someone your "opinion" of Bubba) and also, information can be traced back to its source.

C. Is the determination between "murder" or "kill" based on Buffy's (the eyewitness) relationship to Boffo, or on Bubba's (the actor) relationship to Boffo? It seems to me that it might be more appropriate for the message to be modified by each person's relationship. So, Bubba modifies the message sent to his psyche based on his own relationship to Boffo, and Buffy the eyewitness modifies the message she receives based on her own relationship to Boffo. In other words, if Boffo is Buffy's friend, then to her the action is "murder" with no regard given to Bubba's relationship to Boffo or his relationship to herself. But Bubba's relationship to Boffo matters a great deal when determining what message his action sends to his own psyche. It may also make a difference in determining what message is sent to the Karma System (e.g. deities). Additionally, it may make a difference to any court or council he finds himself facing under PlayerJustice?.


Elsewhere on this site:

Richard A. Bartle (
17th July, 2003.