How does gaming structure facilitate gamer warfare?.

Joe Yang - This article is about a collective action on part of gamers to achieve a specific goal in competition with another group and how conduct can change based upon structures already within the game. The term ‘war’ is used in a larger perspective to acquire, achieve, and maintain specific objectives determined by time and space for the express purpose of power and resources by a single group. Instead of competitive behaviour, gamers declaring war is considered an organic endeavor emerging from perceptions of power structures, either artificial or borrowed from the real world.

This article looks at ‘wars’ conducted in three different environments, and attempts to figure out whether there are undercurrents of gamer expectation of how war is conducted. Nationstates, EVE Online, and Second Life are cases of where groups can come together to achieve certain goals with incomplete information of the other side.

 

Author’s Note

I was uncertain about the publication of this article, simply because in the course of research, goals and ideals changed. Rather than provide an in-depth understanding of the minute occurrences and interactions that create the structure of war, I found only the role of institutions in the cases chosen. Part of the downside in relying on primary research is the amount of rhetoric involved in all sides, making research by anyone not involved in these events directly extremely difficult.

Therefore, research has changed somewhat from its original intentions. The change was not done lightly, and in consideration of the constraints of the research, as much care was taken to ensure that a neutral light was cast for all cases. Likewise, I am aware of the central problem with uncertainty of virtual reality versus actual gaming. The case of Second Life is a considerable ontological problem, both in terms of ‘gaming’ and in terms of ‘warfare’, as components of griefing, trolling, etc., may not be warfare at all, depending on who you talk to and how it’s conceived.

 

Defining War

The main problem associated with understanding how gamers go to war is ‘do they go to war in the first place?’ The answer is contestable because of the nature of war. According to Resolution 3314, war is both an ends and a declaration of a state of aggression between sovereign states. In comparison, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines war as “an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities” (Stanford). This is limits the analytical capability of our studies, because this requires that a simulated political community must exist in some respect before we can come to the conclusion that specific groups wage war in the first place!

The challenge in defining war, therefore, is that such political communities may or may not exist at any given point in time; the cost of movements between groups are so small in many cases in gaming groups and opportunity costs so little that the formation of political communities may not even exist. Investment on part of gamers into a specific group is dependent on the particular structural context implicit in that game. Logically, games that have a much larger emphasis on entering and remaining within a specific group are therefore more likely to establish political communities.

The challenge in defining war, therefore, is that such political communities may or may not exist at any given point in time; the cost of movements between groups are so small in many cases in gaming groups and opportunity costs so little that the formation of political communities may not even exist.

There is, however, an alternative. Rather than construct an artificial group, theoretically gamers can use a pre-existing group as a structure upon which they conduct themselves virtually. Consider, for example, Democrats and Republicans treating each other on forums, or Christians and Atheists having lengthy debates on Youtube. These are not constructed because of the pre-existing constraints of the virtual site, but rather copied from real life into the virtual world. The Master status of a person thereby can be transferred into a virtual world, and as a result we can (hopefully) find instances of political communities this way.

This two-pronged approach limits our case selection significantly, as our focus is now on the questions of ‘Where are there political communities?’, and ‘Where are there political communities that can come into competition with each other?’ This brings up the epistemologically regressive issue of ‘what are political communities?’

The simplest example is statehood. The Westphalian definition for statehood is a complex organization given legitimacy by other states with a monopoly of violence over a given territory. In the context of the virtual world, applying statehood is difficult only because there is no physical territory or monopoly of violence to be applied: administrators, moderators, and virtual demarcations are critical concerns for the definition of statehood.

Another alternative is nationhood. As a collective defined by common ideals, ideas, practices, language, entertainment, religion, cuisine, images, and artistic expressions, the existence of a nation may be a more viable case for how we can understand the conduct of war between groups in a virtual setting. Nationhood is an oft-used concept, with rhetoric applied between groups using slogans, organizations forming under acronymic labels, and banners and guild symbols created for association. Nationhood is a closer form of political community than statehood.

In the context of the virtual world, applying statehood is difficult only because there is no physical territory or monopoly of violence to be applied: administrators, moderators, and virtual demarcations are critical concerns for the definition of statehood.

Therefore, when we consider war, and the waging between political communities, we conceive of these communities as loose nations, connected by rhetoric, symbols, leadership, vision, and entrenched identities through investment and effort. People of ‘in-groups’ on these virtual platforms are more likely to know others by name and can resonate on several individual levels, whether it be virtual or physical. Likewise, access to leadership within these groups is easier, thus forming an inside and outside divide upon which we can define community.

In short, though this limits our analyses and case selection, we know that gamers can declare war because by definition, they can construct political communities through explicit insider-outsider divides in the structure of the game. Likewise, they can also transmit their own sentiments and their own positions from the real world into the virtual world, establishing political communities of their own.

 

Cases

There are three cases: Nationstates, EVE Online, and Second Life. All of which are virtual realities, simulating some sort of facet of real life, with embellishments or changes where needed be. Likewise, all three have formed unique political communities of their own for separate reasons, comprising of a variety of different reasons.

Nationstates is an online browser-based game that uses a two-tiered community system. Players can either play using the game’s mechanics, or develop their own mechanics by role-playing on the forums. Internally, Nationstates communities have emerged radically different from each other due to the structure of the game’s rules. Imagined communities versus existing communities therefore allow players to create groups with contrasting and different power structures and expectations. ‘Bleeding’ is seems rare. Members on a whole, prefer to remain closed off from members of the other format. Roleplayers seem to rarely connect with ‘Gameplayers’. The case of Nationstates is one where the structure of a game allows the formation of a political community, and as a result the establishment of war is one both imagined through roleplaying, but also created through a ‘Raider’ and ‘Defender’ dichotomy. Players can choose to grief regions while others can choose to defend, with the latter establishing a police action rhetoric to support their choices.

EVE Online is a mix of structure and community establishment. Players advance in real-time, visiting star systems and involving themselves in a variety of jobs. Because of the nature of each system and the easiness of systems’ dependency on specific jobs, players have an instrumental value in collaborating and conducting their behavior in large groups. The actions of specific players as they specialize is rewarded through a level up system, some of which can take a considerable amount of time. Because of its complex and involved combat and economy, EVE Online has developed a complex network of functions and behaviors unique to its climate, which  can allow for treaties, pacts, agreements, and ultimately powder kegs.

Second Life is the third case. Arguably, Second Life is less of a full game and more of a simulation, similar to how Microsoft Simulators may be less of a full game and more simulators themselves. Second Life allows players to establish Residents, which can interact with other Residents. A major draw to Second Life is that it allows players to construct virtual objects within its universe, thereby creating, quite literally, a ‘second life’.

 

Conducting Warfare

From thee three cases, what can we learn about how gamers conduct war? First, for games that create native communities gamers conduct war with varying levels of formality. The act of war is institutionalized by the fictional conception of war, where one group declares or has an implicit declaration of upon another group. In comparison to Second Life, the conduct is more organic, and has no rigidly defined structure.

Second, there is a considerable amount of internal dialogue. Compared to the protests in Second Life, EVE Online’s Honey Badger Coalition and Cluster Fuck Coalition carried a series of internal alliances not unlike the first World War. Likewise, the invasion of Sharfgotten in Nationstates exploded in activity based upon the actions of leadership within a specific region of the game. Planning and networks of protection and grand strategy ultimately determined how things went within these two games, where Second Life had less of a structure and functioned more as isolated cases of griefing and counter griefing.

Third, while real politics could transfer into virtual politics, gamer treatment of war is still fairly tame in terms of conduct. This is not to disparage or presume gamer conduct as less involved, but rather the retelling of events – as dramatic as they can be – play very small roles in understanding the line of events. In other words, experience is a critical factor in limiting how gamers treat other gamers in a specific context, and the cases of Nationstates and EVE Online versus Second Life show that while real world politics can explode into virtual politics (such as the case of Palestinian ‘invasions’ of Second Life’s Israeli territories or French protests), virtual politics seems to rarely be transmitted into real world politics. Griefing in Second Life, raids and piracy in EVE Online, and Raiding and Defending in Nationstates all seem to never translate into accounted cases in the news of gamers replicating the politics of the virtual world in the physical world.

…while real politics could transfer into virtual politics, gamer treatment of war is still fairly tame in terms of conduct.

This cannot be discarded simply due to a lack of virtual gravity. In the case of EVE Online, the estimated cost of the Honey Badger Coalition versus the Cluster Fuck Coalition is estimated at nearly 15 to 22 thousand dollars. In Second Life, a considerable amount of services and information moves between various Residents. Gravity is still a concern, and as these games become dependent on micro-transactions and are being integrated into a central framework of how to conduct war, then losses (though they may not be lives) are becoming very real.

So what does this mean? Ultimately, there are political communities within virtual space, commanding specific groups that are tasked by gamers to act within a certain way and abide by certain expectations. Likewise, there is also a considerable and arguable relationship between the structure of how a game creates warfare and how warfare is conducted within the virtual space of that game. Games that do not have an integrated war system upon which it can dictate its rules are left beholden to more organic forms of combat between its innards, such as griefing, spamming, and bots. In comparison, when a combat system is implemented, gamers are less likely to borrow their real world politics to create identities and instead form politics of their own.

Because of the nature of virtual space and its increasing commercial clout, costs are becoming very real for gamers that conduct war on large scales.

Because of the nature of virtual space and its increasing commercial clout, costs are becoming very real for gamers that conduct war on large scales. While this is not yet transmitted effectively into things such as MMOs, when we consider a game such as Diablo 3 that utilizes real money for auctioning, it can quickly devolve into a scenario where armies begin to emerge rather than clans or guilds. This is not meant to be alarmist; the cases of EVE Online and Nationstates have shown that gamers are at least reflective of the actions that occurred, and many of them mature enough to consider the costs associated with it. However, it also bears to mention that large groups depend on more structure, as in the case of EVE Online we see cases of coalitions and alliances creating a powder keg scenario.

 

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