A while back Colleen ‘momgamer’ Hannon’s ranted about the ‘hate-filled miasma’ that clouds player vs. player interactions in online role-playing games. And it got me thinking… While I understand her point – maybe people want to be able to engage in a little friendly PvP without being subjected to a continuum of crap that begins with infantile lewdness and extends to potentially damaging attacks characterized by bigotry, misanthropy and vitriolic abuse – I can’t help but wonder if there is a larger phenomenon that we’re missing. Remember this beauty from a few years back? WoW gamers executing a complex set of raid attack moves and one of their players runs in and ruins everything. Hysterically funny.

Most of us are pretty comfortable with the idea that video games can provide arenas for transgressive play that allows people to explore taboos and societal no-no’s with impunity. I can mow down pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto, get the delicious thrill of doing something I would never, ever do in real life and then go back to my usual existence of not even being able to kill ants in my kitchen without feeling guilty about it. There are even those that suggest that these types of activities fill an important psychological need: in most animals play is preparation for real life.

I even wrote a paper about this recently – I summarize some thinking on play and its role in human development:

To overlook play as a critical component of the human experience is to miss an opportunity to leverage an inherent human capability for learning that is also a drive rooted in basic survival strategies. Play, as a state, is simply an opportunity for unfocused, open-ended experimentation, often in an environment that has been designed to allow for a range of experiences, some prescribed, but some almost entirely emergent… With respect to this alternative framing, rather than to say that one is ‘at play’ it would be more descriptive to say that one is ‘in play’, that is, one is carving out a space in which experimentation is safe and possible – this state is non-linear, unfocused on a particular end result, and allows for creative thinking, innovative problem solving, and shifts in perspective… Play also serves as a motivating force, but it is most powerfully an apparatus for allowing experimentation outside of limitations of physical practicality or other opportunity barriers, e.g. the difficulty of training for natural disasters, that arise from needing to develop competency in an area that is highly dependent on experiences that are not frequently encountered.

Okay, so here’s an opportunity barrier: how often do we get to see what happens when we are jerks to others? (Unless we spend all of time being jerks, which I suppose some people do). One of my hypotheses is that there is not so much a griefer archetype, so much as there are people who play at griefing just to see what happens when they do. Wreaking havoc in the real world just carries too high a cost. For some people, the temptation to be a little bit evil is overshadowed by a more pragmatic drive to conform to societal norms. But games let us play at being evil! And that means a lot more than picking the bad faction. For many there is a larger game of general obnoxiousness and seeing how people respond to our barbs.

We can argue all day long about whether there are people who are inherently evil, but the truth is that most people aren’t. It doesn’t make evolutionary sense to be mean to others when our survival is so often rooted in the cooperation and fitness of the group. But (warning: I’m going all post-modern here) this sort of play is just as integral to the development of identity in a complex society as play-fighting is for lion cubs. How do people respond if I do something? What can I get away with? What behaviors subject me to a penalty of some sort? This is especially important for young people who are in the process of identity formation. There are billions of options for how to be. Which ways work best, make one feel the best, allow for maximum success? Which contribute to Shirky’s advantages of youth? Is it good for the doormat to learn a thing or two about steamrolling their way through life?

Or maybe, as Conor Murphy suggested in a recent article, there is a cathartic effect at work? Isn’t it better to take out my aggressions in some PvP rather than beating my wife or kids, or pulling someone out of their car and beating the bejeezus out of them when they cut me off in traffic? The world is a horrible, frustrating place. Where else is that anger going to go? In Killing Monsters, Gerard Jones notes that catharsis comes from the Greek word ‘katharsis’, meaning ‘a release of dangerous emotions’ (Artistotle was apparently a fan; Karl Lorenz made it a theory), and requires that ‘emotions be stimulated before they can be released’. And yes, this thinking has been generally applied as a justification (controversially, to say the least) that violent videogames aren’t so bad after all. So let’s say there’s something to it. Could it also be applied to these nasty social interactions? Or does allowing them to happen perpetuate more of the same, a game of hateful, desensitizing one-upsmanship? Is there any rationale for applying what Jones says about violence to social transgression as well?

Anthropologists and psychologists who study play, however, have shown that there are many other functions, as well — one of which is to enable children to be just what they know they will never be… Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on the way to being good people. (p. 11)

I agree with momgamer that it sucks that well-meaning people get driven away from environments overrun by nasty people who have no qualms about ruining everyone’s fun. A new sheriff (and lots of deputies) might be just the thing. Cultures are mutable. They are a collective creation of the individuals who contribute to them: their beliefs and other patterns that emerge over time. Change can be effected, but to do so requires speaking up. You want a voice of non-bigoted reason in the Barrens chat? Then speak up. Find facing the Warthog repulsive? Go ahead and say so. Silence is sanction to continue. Model some positive behavior. But let’s also accept that every game culture doesn’t need to be palatable to everyone. I’m sure that none of us really think that stealing police cars and running over innocent people is okay, but is there perhaps a place for it in certain digital spaces? Instead of knee-jerk reactions to transgression, how about asking why we do it? That’s much more interesting.