Nearly every roleplay environment that I’ve ever seen is Pseudonymous; meaning that the players use pseudonyms and are essentially anonymous. Anonymity can be liberating. Some players regularly create alternate player accounts to avoid metagaming by other players. It is often informative to see the difference in how certain players treat your established personality versus the anonymous one. Some simple do it to have a quiet chat panel. Some do it to firewall in-world identities from offline ones; whether it is the man who does not want his friends to see how often he role plays female characters or female players who want to avoid sexual harassment. Lastly, knowing that the elf priestess is played by a 40 year guy from New Jersey who works as a tattoo artist and whose other hobby is his Harley might be just a tad anti-immersive.
For the GM team, the ability to play incognito is a virtual Swiss army knife. GMs also like to play and may simply want to relax and be a player for a bit; free from a barrage of GM related requests from players. They may want to avoid players acting differently because they are in the presence of a GM. They may use it for research purposes. A “newb nobody” player is more likely to see open cheating or griefing than a known GM moniker. Lastly, they may use it for “NPCs in PCs clothing”. Players often mentally separate PCs from NPCs; especially when the difference is obvious, or there are means of doing so (such as a currently active player or character list). The GM team can use a player account to give an NPC a PC cover for certain uses.
Anonymity has a well known downside however:
We’ve seen it all; the griefers, the problem players, the trolls and the cheaters. Everyone has seen the banned player pop back up under a new moniker, a new IP address and a new CD key (where appropriate). Meta roleplayers may be harmless to a community, or even beneficial in preserving immersion; but if they are highly networked, as in the case of “Karyn” of LegendMUD (probably the most famous example), they can produce a “community bubble”. A community bubble is a short term strengthening of an online community at the cost of its long term cohesiveness; often induced by highly networked meta-roleplayers. Previously, I was somewhat neutral on the subject, but I now wonder what effect that the player I wrote about earlier had in the ultimate demise of “her” particular online community. This is not unique to online identities, but it certainly is more common online than offline. A griefer inspired one of the earliest media articles on virtual worlds, “A Rape in Cyberspace”, before most had even ventured online. That banal incident of greifing on LambdaMOO would be a dog bites man story today; there was not even any corpse camping or teabagging involved. In the early days of public awareness of the internet, it was still newsworthy. Mr. Bungle’s account was closed by community vote afterwards, but it was likely that his actual usage of LambdaMOO was uninterrupted as he could simply come back under another moniker.
The Karyns and Mr. Bungles impose a definite cost on community cohesion. Friedman and Resnick’s paper, “The Social Cost of Cheap Pseudonyms” (warning, 20+ pages of wonky, academic discussion) explores low cost Pseudonyms as a game theory problem. The conclusion that they reach is that the most effective – but still highly inefficient – limiter of bad behavior under the cover of pseudonyms is treating all newcomers to a community badly until they have proven themselves. Unproven Ebay IDs often don’t have their purchases shipped until after the check clears, while users with high ratings get their shipped right away. Many forums don’t allow PMs until they have a certain number of posts. Friedman and Resnick do agree in their paper that the ideal should be to treat newcomers well until they have shown that they should be treated badly, but that low cost pseudonyms decrease the cost of defection too much. “Defection” is game theory speak for “being an ass” and game theory is a branch of mathematics exploring that part of human psychology related to putting the screws to our fellow human beings.
The simplest example of game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma. If the prisoner’s dilemma, the participant (known as a player) is told that he has been arrested and the police have enough evidence to convict him. He is offered a deal. He can testify against his cohort, or remain silent. If he testifies against his cohort (the defection choice) and the other remains silent, then he walks free and the other fellow spends 5 years in jail. If he is mum and the other fellow testifies, the reverse happens. If both testify against each other, then both server 4 years and if both are mum, then both server 2 years.
- Obviously, the best outcome for the player is if he defects and the other is quiet.
- If he feels that he can’t trust his cohort, then he must defect to minimize the damage.
One critical aspect of the game is whether it is played as a one off affair, or has subsequent rounds (known as the iterative prisoner’s dilemma). When played over many rounds, a player is subject to retaliation for earlier defections. The most common strategy in multi-round games is known as “tit for tat”, where a player does not initially defect (i.e. they remain silent) but subsequently repeats the last action of the other player. This threat of subsequent retaliatory defection is a very effective deterrent against defection. When the game has only a single round, defection is clearly the best choice.
Low cost pseudonyms essentially allow one player to play one off PD, while the other is playing iterative PD. Because of this, long time personas have to assume that any new persona will defect; making the community less welcoming to newcomers. Since online communities always have a certain degree of turnover, they need new members to replace retired or inactive ones and a less welcoming community has to work at a handicap to stay healthy.
Next time, we’ll explore a potential strategy for handling player pseudonymity.