Series Info...#16: Guiding Lights

by Shannon Appelcline

January 11, 2001 – I played my first MUD in September of 1989. It was an AberMUD located somewhere at, way on the other side of the world. The transatlantic connection was still brutally slow and I remember constant slowdowns and lags. It was like playing on an epileptic 2400 baud modem.

There were people in the world – players just like me – who were jetting around, picking up claymores, finding gold necklaces, and battling the occasional monster. But were also these other people – entities who were aloof from the concerns of the world, who could come and go at will, who created the world we inhabited.

They were Wizards or Archwizards or Gods and it seemed to me like they were enshrouded in mist, lit by soft light, blurry to the eye. There were people to respect and worship and they were utterly incomprehensible.

Volunteering Help

As I came to learn more about AberMUD the spotlights on these folks dimmed just a little bit. The blurry lines sharpened and I could actually make out the men (and women) behind the masks. These Gods (and Wizards and Archwizards) were folks just like me... and indeed during the two years that I played MUDs, from 1989-1991, I eventually became a God: one of the three creators of a world. It was for a MUD located somewhere north of me: Alaska or Washington I think. I got to choose a name and a title: Dinthiar the Elven King.

Catchy in a I-was-still-18-years-old kind of way.

The important bit, at least for my pontifications today, was that I, an average user, was given the opportunity to become one of the administrators of a world. And, it wasn't just that I was given an opportunity, it's that I wanted to take that opportunity. I wanted to help build a world. I wanted to tell my own stories. And I did.

I told the tale of a mighty war between the Elf King Dinthiar and an undead lich that had risen from the bowels of the Earth. It was the tale of a beautiful, sylvanic land, blighted and destroyed. It was the tale of the smallest hope, how a land once lost might be restored again.

As I was programming in rabid squirrels, angry bears, and insane elves some of that probably came across.

This volunteer ethic has always been a part of online games. Every MUD I've ever played in was full of people who told stories and invented worlds. LPMUDs and other later offerings allowed programmers to write code from within the game. Even beyond the world builders there have always been people who just want to help: writing documentation, providing newbie schools, and guiding beginners. Some of our graphical brethren, such as Ultima Online and EverQuest have huge volunteer programs in place, assigning hours and shifts for their legions of helpers.

Fighting Lawsuits

Unfortunately this is all in danger due to one of the most noxious banes of the United States: lawyers. A few lawsuits over the last two years hold the possibility of destroying community sites across the Internet. They hold the possibility of making it illegal and impractical for users to volunteer their efforts to make the communities that they're a part of more enjoyable.

It all started in May of 1999 with a class action law suit called HALLISEY AND WILLIAM VERSUS AMERICA ONLINE COMMUNITIES, INC. A couple of disgruntled ex-community leaders at AOL decided to claim that they'd been treated as employees, and thus were due back wages. Analysts at the time stated that damages could be up to ten million dollars if all of AOL's volunteers joined in.

Ever since there's been considerable worry among community web sites about the results of the AOL lawsuit. A few months later GeoCities was talking about how a result against AOL would have a negative effect on their own business. Lots of other companies began speaking out, saying that their volunteers did not meet the criteria required for employment. In August of 2000 Origins was one of the first companies to take real action regarding the AOL lawsuit. They took away their volunteers' free accounts, so that it couldn't be claimed that they were giving their volunteers some compensation, thus making them eligible for minimum wage compensation.

One month later, in September of 2000, Catherine Reab, along with two other Ultima Online counselors, filed suit against Origins, demanding minimum wage for their volunteer work. A trend had begun. The Ultima Online and AOL plantiffs hope that the judges will say, essentially, that volunteers can't help for-profit companies without becoming employees.

That's the American legal system for you: protecting your rights by taking them away.

You can find out a lot more about this on the net. News articles have been written about both the AOL and Origins suits. There have also been some interesting editorials written, supporting both the communities and the volunteers. Finally, you can find some discussions on slashdot, both from 1999 and 2000. (1)

Guiding Lights

If you've pulled out your pocket calculators and Palm Pilots you'll have realized that Skotos got caught right in the middle of this. Back in January of 1999 we started dreaming of an online community site. Four months later the first lawsuit hit.

We've agonized about it. We don't really know what the right solution is. But the bottom line is: we want our players to be able to take a role in making Skotos a more fun place. So, we are implementing a volunteer program.

We're setting up a few different classes of people. The main ones are StoryGuides and StoryTellers. StoryGuides will be able to help folks out with OOC problems – like having troubles with the parser – and will also be able to deal with the occasional abusive player. StoryTellers will be able to help form the plots that make up the story of Castle Marrach. At a later stage we might add on a few StoryBuilders, who can get into the guts of Castle Marrach and build new stuff.

This is all in process right now and should be going online yesterday or so. Definitely we expect to have a number of StoryGuides within the next few weeks. We'll be detailing everything more on the StoryTeller page as we can.

Unfortunately, we're still huddling under the legal shadow of the AOL case. Thus we're doing what we can to make it clear that volunteers aren't employees – because we want you to be able to make the community a better place. So, some of the things we're doing are:

  • We're placing no demands on volunteers. We aren't creating schedules or minimum online times or anything of the sort. We'll have rules of conducts and such, sure, but that'll be it.
  • We aren't offering any incentives. This is pretty unfortunate, because we need our volunteers to know that they're appreciated. But by offering even a minor incentive (like a free Skotos account) we open the floodgates for all incentives (ala, salary).

Fundamentally we believe that online volunteers are helping to create content – participatory content as it's called in our TOS. We hope that by underlining that factor we'll make it clear that if anything our volunteers are like book authors or game writers. With totally different rules applying. It's totally untried legal ground, however, so we don't know how things will work out.

Thinking Forward

So, we're implementing a volunteer program. What does this mean to future StoryBuilders?

We don't believe that volunteers are required to run Skotos games, not even games as Host-intensive as Castle Marrach. We do believe that volunteers can improve the experience of an online game. So, first rule of thumb for StoryBuilders: Consider letting players take on responsibilities in your worlds as soon as you gather a following. We started Castle Marrach up on September 21, 2000. Within two months there was enough buzz and enjoyment that players were clamoring to help out. Future games should have any shorter ramp up times, as our community grows.

But, be aware that volunteer programs will cause problems. I've seen it happen both on MUDs and on computer servers that volunteers have helped out with.

As a StoryBuilder you should:

  • Set ethical guidelines. Volunteers will tend to have more "powers" so that they can help people. Make sure that they know how and when to use them and that they don't accidently compromise the privacy of your players and that they don't use their powers in ways that decreases the enjoyment of the game for other people.
  • Be aware of your possible losses. At least initially we're establishing three different levels of trust: access to minimal abilities to permit OOC assistance (StoryGuide), access to all abilities in the game to permit plotting and hosting (StoryTeller), and access to the development system (StoryBuilder). At the top levels people can accidently do damage to your game. Be aware that you might have to rebuild things every once in a while due to honest mistakes.
  • Be aware of what your volunteers are doing. You don't need to watch them, because you should be selecting trusted people, but you do need to listen to your players (and your volunteers) if there are any complaints. You're the final arbiter.
I probably don't need to say that volunteers are a boon and can only make your game a better place. I'll say it anyway. There will always be some gotchas but the benefit of allowing community members to better their community far, far outweighs them.

  1. 11/13/01. The lawsuit is still crawling through the court system, but according to Yahoo! News at least the labor department has decided they're not going to get involved — leaving it just an issue between the plantiffs and AOL, not the government.