The cost of pseudonymity

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.


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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4 Responses to The cost of pseudonymity

  1. PT says:

    “Low cost pseudonyms essentially allow one player to play one off PD, while the other is playing iterative PD.”

    This is the heart and soul of the argument right here. But, the thing to balance that out is that in long-running online games where avatar capital directly translates to game potency, pseudonymity isn’t low cost. Distill a Diku down to its essential elements, and you still have a situation where those with the greatest ability to impact the community are those who have invested a great deal of time.

    At max level in WOW (currently 80), eventually you *do* start seeing the same faces in pick up groups. There’s still a very fluid surface to the community, but reputations do get established. Then there are games like EVE where real time is the only way to advance your character, so if your character is capable of flying capital ships, you’re risking quite literally a year’s investment in being a dick. Both games offer large enough communities that you might be able to find a new corner of the galaxy/new guild to be a douchebag in if things get out of hand, but it does increase the cost.

    On the other hand, a level 1 character or a brand new pilot in Eve or a freshly rolled newb in a Diku can be a douche all they want, but established community members treat them the same way as one treats a child goofing around while the adults are talking: they ignore it as harmless.

    Contrast that to games like Call of Duty, Half-Life, Unreal Tournament, or any other FPS. You still have teams, and objectives, but time spent in game or in the community has no bearing on your ability to affect the outcome of a match. Aside from player skill, everyone has an equal stake in winning or losing. Every avatar is equal, no matter how long someone has played (some FPS’s are toying with this model a bit, but essentially the longest-playing player can still be killed by noob518). Therefore, the potential for douchebaggery rises sharply. When one team has a full team of people cooperating, just one person goofing off can spell a loss.

    I think the major reason people still gravitate toward pseudonymity is personal security. Admins will never be able to form in-game relationships without there being an unacknowledged but ever-present spectre of power and authority hanging over the relationship. Asshats can’t get a second chance after they discover they actually *do* enjoy the game for its qualities and not just their childish amusement. Sadly, that cuts both ways: anonymity is safer than non-detection when committing a crime (or just a rudeness).

  2. Morrighu says:

    Unfortunately, I’ve observed this in action all to many times. It’s not until the anonymous nature of the game is broken by the intervention of law enforcement that a lot of this stops. Let me describe an incident for you. I’m the team manager for one team. I have a player named Tim. Tim takes on a player on another team named Bob. Bob isn’t as good as Tim. In order to get Tim to go away, Bob claims to the on-line game community that Tim has threatened him off-line. Tim, upset about the incident and Bob’s seeming sincerity, calls the police. The police start investigating and they talk to Bob who immediately admits that this is actually a game strategy to get Tim to back off and that no threats have in fact been made. Needless to say neither the police nor Tim are very amused. Bob’s team was quite adamant that Bob was telling the truth. My team was equally adamant that Tim was not the one who had threatened Bob. However, it wasn’t until law enforcement intervened and the anonymity was broken that the incident was able to be settled in the game. Once the off line consequences of his on line behavior caught up with Bob, he was quite ready to stop being an ass, as you put it and ended up leaving the game.

    To make things worse, we had to endure several other similar incidents. It is now my policy that all such incidents are referred immediately and without exception to law enforcement. We let the proper authorities handle it. Since they are able to obtain server logs, etc. and penetrate the veil of obscured identity, and it has become common knowledge that this is how we handle these incidents, we have not had another.

  3. Bart Stewart says:

    The link between anonymity (or pseudonymity) and Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation” is one that I’m always surprised isn’t more a part of the core literature of online gameworld design.

    I wrote about this back in 2005 (after encountering Axelrod’s work much earlier) at . But the gist is this: if you don’t want your gameworld to encourage people to act like jerks, then there’s a very small set of observations from “The Evolution of Cooperation” that can help you structure your world to encourage cooperation over defection… and most of those world-rules are about minimizing anonymity.

    I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons why games based on social networks like FaceBook are doing so well (they’re reported to have much higher number of users than even WoW) is that the interactions start with people who know each other. The very structure of the world encourages cooperative behavior over jerkitude since you know the people you’re playing with. And this knowledge of your fellow players — the near-elimination of anonymity — is probably THE reason why these games are so popular.

    • Dave says:

      When I look at Flatfingers’ bullet points in that post, I think of Facebook in general and Farmville in particular. In fact, that is Farmville’s secret sauce; why it has 70 million players to WoW’s 11 or so. Not only are you not anonymous, you are aware of all the people you know when playing the game and are essentially encouraged to cooperate with your real world social network instead of a pickup group of random strangers or a semi anonymous grouping of “guildies”, whom you only know by voice.

      They are on to something!

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