Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ethics in a Virtual World

By Susan Esther Barnes

My husband was playing an online video game when an ethical dilemma arose. He was in a raid of 25 people, some of whom were strangers, and some of whom were in the same guild as him. (A guild is a group of people who play together regularly, and may have their own set of rules regarding behavior, how loot is distributed, etc). The raid members, working together, killed a monster, which dropped a rare axe that is one of the best weapons currently available in the game. The game allows the players two hours to decide who gets the item. Once those two hours are up, the person who has the item cannot give it or sell it to someone else, even if they want to.

Before the raid started, the players had agreed they would distribute loot using a common system, called “need before greed.” In this system, anyone who could use the item for their own personal use (as opposed to selling it for cash) would use the game’s random number generator to “roll” a number from 1 to 100. The person who gets the highest number wins the item.

This particular axe would have been a big upgrade for my husband’s character. Winning the item would have given his guild a better chance of killing a difficult monster they had been working on over the last few weeks. So my husband rolled for the item, and out of all the people trying to get it, his number was the third highest. The person who rolled the highest number, who I’ll call person A, won the item. No fuss, no muss.

The dilemma arose when person A, upon looking at the item a second time, contemplated the fact that he already had a pretty good weapon, so the axe was only a minor upgrade for him. Further, he is in the same guild as my husband, realized the item would be a much bigger upgrade for my husband, and determined that if my husband had the weapon, it would greatly increase their guild’s chances of killing the monster they had been trying to kill. As a result, he tried to give the weapon to my husband, while sending him a private message that said, “Shh, don’t say anything.”

My husband, who badly wanted the weapon and understood the benefit to the guild if he were to have it, was worried about person B, who was not in the guild and who had rolled the second highest number. Clearly, person A was also concerned about the reaction of person B, or there would have been no need for secrecy. Normally, if the person with the highest number decided they didn’t want the item, it would go to the person with the second highest roll.

A conversation ensued between person A, my husband, and the raid leader, who was also in the same guild as my husband and person A. The raid leader’s opinion was that person A had won the item, and therefore it was up to person A to decide whether to use it or to give it away to anyone he wanted. He thought this would not violate the “need before greed” agreement, since he was giving it away for free rather than selling it.

Although the raid leader’s argument sounded logical, and went along with what my husband wanted to hear, the fact remained that both person A and the raid leader encouraged my husband to keep quiet about it, and not to use the axe until later, when person B wasn’t around. If nothing else signaled that this plan wasn’t on the up-and-up, the secrecy was certainly a sign.

Looking at the situation from person B’s perspective, person A, the raid leader and my husband are all in the same guild. As a result, it doesn’t take a particularly paranoid mindset to think they may all be in cahoots together to get the best loot for their members. How does person B know whether person A rolled for the item with no intention of keeping it, but only to give my husband a better chance at getting it? Even if my husband didn’t use the item right away, if person B saw him with it later, and never saw person A with it, might he figure out what happened and feel cheated?

On the other hand, what obligation does my husband have to his guild to do whatever he can within the letter of the agreed-upon rules to get the best gear possible to give them the best possible chance to reach their goals?

The question arises, does it really matter? We are talking about a video game. The weapon in question is just pixels on a screen. In time, there will be new additions to the game, with new and better weapons. Eventually, everyone involved will move on to other games or other things. In the long view, why not just take the axe? What’s the difference?

It matters because, even though the game isn’t “real” and the axe isn’t “real” and even my husband’s character is just pretend, the feelings of the human beings playing the game are real. If person B feels cheated and angry, his real blood pressure in his real body will go up. His real world view about how people treat each other will change. And the guilt my husband would feel would be real. How he thinks about himself in the real world would change as well. What kind of person you are, your ethics and your values, are reflected in the virtual world, and have real world consequences.

Frankly, this is one of the things I like about online video games. It is in times like this that we get the chance to discover our own true nature, in a way we rarely get to in the real world. How often in the real world have you walked down the street and found a wallet full of money and had to decide what to do?

In this case, my husband asked me what I would do if I were him. I told him I know what I hope I would do, but it’s impossible for me to say for sure, because unless you’re the person experiencing it, you can’t really know how it feels. We all hope we would do the right thing, but until it actually happens to you, you can’t say for sure. Games give us a chance to discover our true selves by presenting us with ethical dilemmas and forcing us to make decisions that matter.

So what did he do? What would you do?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting dilemma. I probably would have given the item to the next highest roller. You don't want to tarnish your guilds or your own reputation in game. The social aspects of MMO's reflect real life more then we think. Eventually person B would have found out and then the trash talking would commence.