Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #58:

Future Memes, Part Four: Community and Reputation

by Shannon Appelcline

January 24, 2002 - Seven years ago now, the world changed. It seemed pretty small at first. Those of us already working in the high-tech industry didn't even notice, but there was a huge paradigm shift, a change in the way that we (at least those of us in privileged countries) look at the world. I'm talking about 1995 and the dawn of the World Wide Web.

Sure, there were some interesting milestones before. In 1969 ARPANET went live. In 1975 satellite links connected Hawaii and the UK and the mainland US. In 1984 DNS was introduced, so you could easily use names rather than numbers to refer to remote machines. In 1986 things started to solidify in the US with the creation of the NFSNET backbone. In 1988 the expanding global networks first really made the news after the release of the infamous Morris Worm. In 1991 CERN introduced the World Wide Web. And finally, in 1993 NCSA released XMosaic, the first graphical browser.

But, it was in 1995 that things really started to change. That's when WWW became popular. When you could first order Pizza Hut pizzas on the net and shop at virtual malls. When you started seeing web site addresses on billboards and in print ads. When the average American started really thinking about getting access to the Internet, and it started to slip out of the grips of us geeks.

It was an awesome change. An amazing change. A change that's still changing. It's creating a world that is totally different from the one that existed just eight years ago. Think about how you learned about world affairs on August 19, 1991, when Boris Yeltsin was climbing atop a tank in the streets of Moscow; then think about how you learned about worlds affairs almost exactly ten years later on September 11, 2001. Think about how you would have purchased gifts or researched information or talked with other people about common interests ten years ago, compared to today.

The World Has Changed.

To date, in the first three parts of this mini-series, I've been talking about future memes for game design which are essentially made possible by the mere fact of computer games — we can do lots of things that we just don't due to tradition. This week, I want to expand that and talk about future memes for game design that are made possible by the fact we're in the middle of a Revolution, as important as the Industrial and Neolithic Revolutions in its own way — made possible by the fact that our world is changing hugely every day in the way that we look at people and the communities they form.

Those changes are going to be center-stage for a while, but hang in there. I'll get to games before the end.

(And, briefly, I'd like to reiterate what I said in my first article in this mini-series: these are my thoughts and beliefs, not Skotos'. Because I get a bit mouthy this time around.)

The Global Community

A few million years ago now I wrote Trials, Triumphs & Triumphs #44, The Global Community, a fairly emotional look at global communities, fueled by the events of 9/11. Four months later I'm not feeling that same shocked emotions, but the concept of global communities is still a strong one for me. Actually, the concept has been forefront in my thinking for a few weeks now, thanks in part to a book by Vernor Vinge (sorta) called True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier which offers lots of insights into and views of the issues.

Communities, quite simply, are the center of the Information Revolution.

1000 years ago community meant the small village that you lived your entire life within. It meant your family, every one of which you knew from birth to death, and the other dozen families which lived upon the same patch of ground as you.

100 years ago community meant your local region. It still started in your home town, sure, but you might include a few nearby towns within your definition, since you could reach them by horse and wagon. And, for some fraction of folks their definition of community went even further because they'd traveled — from another town, another country, maybe even another region. No longer was the lower class tied to the land; they could move.

10 years ago the sphere of community had grown even wider. Through telephones and physical mail a person could theoretically include anyone in a 1st or 2nd world nation in their community. It was inconvenient and expensive to do so, but many of us had family across the country and penpals in foreign countries, and they were all members of our community.

Today community has the opportunity to become unbounded — to be truly global. It's cheap and easy to expand your community without bounds. I interact with some people without even knowing where they're located in the non-virtual world, and it really doesn't matter. Internet connectivity is fairly ubiquitous in the 1st world and its usage pretty cheap. How many people do you know living in foreign countries? Can you even count them?

For a thousand years now we've been undergoing a process of steady growth. From the local community of 1000 years ago to the regional community of 100 years ago to the limited wide community of 10 years ago to ... the global community of today.

The communities now forming on the Internet exhibit several unique and interesting points:

  • They're global. Although we haven't done that great of a job yet wiring South America and Africa and southern Asia, we're slowly approaching a point where there is a new community that will truly represent all of the worries, anxieties, hopes, and aspirations of the entire human race.
  • They cross all boundaries. This is most obvious in the fact that Internet communities cross national boundaries — and that's obvious mainly because it scares the hell out of countries like China (and, I suspect, it scares a lot of politicians, men-in-black, and federal spooks in this country too). But, Internet communities also span religious boundaries and class boundaries. As babelfish-like computer programs expand and improve, they'll even cross linguistic boundaries.
  • They support special interests. On the Internet, you can find a group discussing just about everything. The comic book Cerebus. The last episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. What it's like to have a birthday in March. Anything. Things people could never talk about before can now be the basis of community on the Internet.

The point of all this? Simply that the communities forming on the Internet are very different than those that came before.

Global Anonymity

There's another pretty important implication of the Internet revolution: anonymity.

Theoretically, you can sit down at a computer anywhere in the world — at your home, at your work, at the library, in an Internet Cafe — and access services on the web. Because access is so quickly becoming ubiquitous, access points are insufficient identifiers. Sure, many sites require you to create a login and an account, but who's to say that person you claim is be is real or is you?

That's anonymity.

Or, as a famous New Yorker cartoon said: on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog..

Some sites on the Internet require what are called identity tokens, to offer some proof of who you are. Porn sites happen to be on the cutting edge of this whole idea (traditionally, sex industries are on the cutting edge of many new technologies). Many "adult verification services" require you to supply a credit card to prove that you're at least 18. Microsoft's Passport service is another attempt to correlate anonymous users to identities on the Internet.

And, that's just the tip of the identity iceberg. Theoretically, as the question of anonymity on the Internet increases, more and more "certificate authorities" (CAs) will appear on the Internet, offering similar services to those AVSes and Passports out there already. Each one will offer to give you a new Internet-based identity token in exchange for you providing them with some proof that you're who you say you are (which is to say, usually, by offering them a real-world identity token). The amount of work that a CA does to verify an identity will directly correlate to how well trusted that CA is by everyone else.

All a very good theory, but it raises a crucial question: do users of the Internet prefer identity to the anonymity that currently exists?

A damned good question. I know that I don't. I know that my friendly, Big Brother like government quavers and quakes at the concept of anonymity on the Internet. I'm sure the government of red China froths even more. As for the average citizen ... I'm not sure what she thinks.

But, for now: there is anonymity on the Internet. There's anonymity on the Skotos games. There's anonymity in most games and on most sites. If I have my way, there always will be. So live with it and figure out how to design around it.

Global Reputations

When you start considering these future memes of global community and anonymity you begin to realize that there are some problems at the intersection point — some real opportunities for things to break down in pretty big ways. Namely:

How can you create global communities when you don't know who anyone is?

How can you keep out troublemakers and malcontents when you can't recognize them?

Fortunately folks have been thinking about this since the first day a social malcontent logged on to the global Internet. I'd place that date somewhere in 1969, at a guess. I'm sure Richard Bartle fought with the problem after releasing MUD in 1978. I'm sure Lucasfilm battled it when they released Habitat in 1985. And fortunately, lots of folks have all come up with one pretty good solution.


In essence reputation is produced by either (1) allowing users to rate each other -or- (2) providing some other information about a user, based on the user's actions. Quite a few big name sites are using reputations and to date they've been quite useful. Here are a few examples that you're probably familiar with, and how they work:

  • EBay - The big daddy of reputations on the Internet. After buying a product from or selling a product to another EBay member, you give them a good or bad rating. When trying to determine another member's trustworthiness, you look at their ratings. Although the reputation system does have the effect of making people want to act well, the non-anonymity of the ratings has often made them mildly useless. No one wants to give another user a bad rating, except in extermis, for fear of getting the same in return. In the end, a very simple sort of reputation system: good or evil.
  • Amazon -The Amazon site is filled with reviews written by customers, and part of the challenge for a visitor is determining which reviews are insightful, and which are written by drooling idiots — in other words to figure out the reputations of these anonymous users. Amazon offers two bases for making this decision: first, users who have written high numbers of reviews get special graphics by their reviews; and second, individual reviews can be marked as helpful or not, anonymously. Theoretically, anonymous ratings could have the opposite problems of non-anonymous ratings. Users could slam each other for no good reason. But, to date, this sort of reputation system has proven reliable. Amazon's reputation system, overall, is a lot more informative than EBay. You learn a little bit about the reviewer and also what other people thought of a specific review.
  • Netflix - This online DVD rental store offers a setup much like Amazon's. Members can review DVDs and other members can say how much they liked those reviews. But, it also takes a step further and links reviews in to more information about the reviewer, including what his favorite films are (based on his ratings with Netflix). Thus, you not only get information on whether a review is good or not, but you can also judge how closely a reviewer's tastes match your own.

Although they use different mechanisms, these systems have the same goal: providing more information about an anonymous user, so that other users can decide whether to trust them. Sure, there are issues with all the approaches. For example, how does someone get their reputation initiated, if no one will deal with that person because she has no reputation? (Typically, some folks give a first-timer the benefit of a doubt, and some sites allow low reputation users to do less "risky" things, like buying rather than selling on EBay.) How can you prevent someone from being "good" for long enough to get a reputation, then turn "evil"? (You can't.) And doubtless, there's more.

But, overall, the idea of reputations is one that's worked well, and is old as our culture.

By Thy Needs Be Known.

Global Game Designs

So, why the long babble?

Well, frankly I haven't been talking theoreticals this week. I'm talking about the way things are. Global communities, anonymous users, the possibility of reputation mechanisms — that's the heart and soul of the Internet today. And, if you're designing a game you're either going to have to close your eyes and hope for the best or do something to accommodate these various realities.

How? I have some scattered and brief suggestions.

Community. If you wanted to, you could actually ignore all the changes to community that are going on. You could put out a game that's going to interest whatever particular medium-sized group you're interested in attracting and you can pretend it's only going to be played by people in your hometown — like a bunch of friends gathering around a pool table for the evening. But, you're not necessarily going to be very successful doing so.

To be successful the first thing you should recognize is that your game's community will be global. It'll probably attract people predominantly from the English-speaking world, but that could include Australia, England, Canada, the United States and a variety of other locales. How are you going to support and entertain people who might have diametrically opposed sleep and work schedules? How are you going to amuse people from such a variety of cultures?

And, the cultural issue is even broader than just nationalities, because you're not going to just attract the sort of people that live in your hometown. There's all sorts on the Internet. They'll be offended by vastly different things. They'll be entertained by vastly different things. They'll have different hopes, different aspirations, and different desires. And somehow you're going to have to manage that whole zoo ...

Of course, the Internet does offer a totally different possibility. Because you can create extremely small Special Interest Groups, that means if you wanted you could actually create a game about the dor mouse trade in third century Rome and might actually gather together the 17 people interested in that topic.

But, you have to decide. Big or small? Global or locale? Taking advantage of the possibilities of the worldwide community or hiding from them?

Anonymity. On the other hand, anonymity isn't going to be so easy to hide from within your game. If you want to have viable game you're probably never going to be able to truly ascertain who someone is. (Meaning that with CAs present or future you could probably totally lock down someone's identity, but most folks would consider it intrusive enough that they'll give your game a wide berth.)

And, believe me, anonymity will cause you problems. You'll have to figure out what to do with troublemakers who come in just to smash up your game. And what to do when they keep using new anonymous identities to come back. You'll have to determine what you should do if possible real-world crimes and being planned (or executed) by anonymous people within the confines of your universe.

But, on the other hand, you'll get to reap the benefits of anonymity too. It can help your players to avoid being typecast. A villain can play a hero. A despised player can turn over a new leaf. There's a chance for variety, for redemption.

Reputation. In many ways, if anonymity is the problem, then reputation is the solution. It's what will help you deal with faceless users in a virtual universe, but only if you can find ways to make good use of it.

You'll need to figure out want you want to base reputations on: feedback from other players? A simple output of statistical or other information regarding the user?

You'll need to determine how that reputation should be used: does it simply offer information to other users? Is it used by your system to grant extra powers, access, or privileges?

And finally, you'll need to figure out what to do when reputation goes wrong. First, how do you check for failures of your reputation? Second, how do decide on the validity of those failure reports?

Skotos Solutions

Because I've asked so many questions here, I know that much of this is abstract. So, let me make things a little more concrete by outlining what we've done, at Skotos, to deal with some of these future memes. They're not necessarily the best solutions, but at least are a starting point.

Community. For us, the global community is probably the most troublesome of these memes. We've tried our best to support a four-time-zone community well, from East Coast to West Coast of the U.S., and even that's been hard. We've tended to schedule major events at 7pm PT to optimize it for all the zones, but we know that's not perfect; folks on the west coast may be just sitting down to dinner, while people on the east coast might be getting ready for bed. And it sure doesn't help our players in Hawai'i, Australia, or the UK.

Our original support hours ran 2-11pm PT, again trying to maximize both west and east coast usefulness, but again not being enough for the more far-flung time zones. As players have taken over more of the plotting and coding of Castle Marrach, it's become easier, because they're from a variety of time zones, and thus able to be active at a wider variety of times than a single monolithic company can.

Anonymity. We've been able to stumble along with anonymity mainly by requiring two identity tokens: an e-mail address for a trial account and a credit card for a regular account. E-mail addresses aren't particularly useful for identity, since it's pretty easy to get one, but at least they provide a small barrier to re-entry. Credit cards, on the other hand, are a very strong identity token that's not easy to cheat.

But, still, it's possible to get around our system. By creating multiple accounts with multiple e-mail addresses and multiple credit cards a user could theoretically have multiple relatively autonomous identities. We can track some of this by originating IP address, but a very careful person, who had different IP addresses, say at home and at work, could probably avoid detection.

It's proven enough to deter abusive users, though, and that's good enough for now.

Reputation. We've used a pretty home-spun reputation system to date: word-of-mouth and personal knowledge. We do use reputation to give special powers, in the form of StoryPlotters, StoryGuides, and more, but it's all about how you act and who you know. And of course the Favour system in Marrach is an IC reputation system, though again very casual.

We've considered mechanics for these things before — allowing people to accrue actual Favour points, IC, OOC, or both. But the need has just never quite arisen.

We expect to eventually have a reputation system for our game developers, as external designers continue to design, and their numbers grow. In a community of 100 games, how would you know which to play? Reputation. We envision a mildly complex system where designers have ranks and can only increase each others' reputations up to their own rank (i.e., a rank 10 game developer could say another developer was rank 10, but a rank 2 game developer could only say another was at least rank 2). The end result: games and their designers and maybe even their storytellers will all have reputations too.

The End of the Future

And that, at long last, is the end of my thoughts on memes for the future. My 2002 spirit is gone. I'm now ready to start trudging through it again, just like it were any other year.

I'm far enough behind on a variety of writing projects right now that it's starting to stress me, and thus I've decided to take one week off. Next week to be precise. After that, in early February, I'll be heading back to Building Blocks for a while.

There's a lot more to be said about the design of online games, one piece at a time. And we'll return to that in two weeks.

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