1984 the MMO: Social Experiments in Online Gaming

September 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

What if someone sat down to make an MMO that had a real political message about the way our countries are run, rather than just providing a world for people to quest in.

I had an argument a while back with Suzie Hunt from the site Girls Don’t Game, about whether GTA would make a good MMO game. The important thing to take from this is her argument, which was that this hypothetical GTA MMO would be a very negative place to spend the amounts of time usually associated with MMO play. Her argument got me thinking, do these virtual world’s we live in really need to be nice places to play in?

It’s pretty fair to say that most MMO worlds are utopian. Sure there might be vast battles raging, and the occasional racist comment from someone, but these battles serve to make the game world more interesting to inhabit, never posing much of a threat to the players, and the racist comments come from people that won’t exist in the world for much longer. There’s never really any danger to players aside from losing a little XP every now and again, but this is a good thing in most games, because punishing the player wouldn’t serve any purpose.

The closest MMO to this at the moment is Eve Online, where the developers have chosen to take a back seat to the game’s story, and just let it play out. There’s very little policing going on in that game, and the result is that there’s real tangible danger to existing in the Eve universe. Players can choose to run banks, set up companies providing assassinations, or just run guilds. Some very interesting stories have come out of the game as a result. Interestingly though, the game’s politics still revolve around democracy and a free market like most of the world today.

Some of the greatest pieces of literature of all time have revolved around societies that have completely fallen apart, where a totalitarian government seek to use every means at their disposal to control the population. Books like 1984 or A Handmaid’s Tale are interesting not because of the stories they tell about the people in these worlds, but because of the world they inhabit, and how this can serve as a warning to us in our everyday lives.

I’d love to see a developer create an MMO world that’s not pleasant to inhabit, that makes it’s players feel like they’re in constant danger from the government. It would have far more power than any one of these books ever written, and might just challenge people’s views on issues such as ID cards when they see the potential of where an increase in government control can lead.


The most difficult prospect facing anyone developing this idea further is creating this kind of world which people willingly inhabit even with all this danger. There’s no use making a game so unpleasant that people don’t want to spend time with it, such a game would be useless. As a result it makes sense for the player’s objective in such a world to revolve around rebellion, about trying to make the world a better place.

Perhaps you give a player the objective of getting some leaked documents – which show the government for what it really is – across town. You might give them the option of going on foot, but keeping out of the authorities line of sight. Maybe you allow them the use of an underground network of other rebels, but only if they’ve gotten themselves into this group previously. Maybe you give them a weapon, just to see them fail.

Potentially the most interesting thing you can do with such a setup is turning players into spies for the government. A common theme among books like 1984 is how it turns every stranger into a potential enemy that could destroy you at any moment. Accomplishing this in a game could have huge implications for how players interact with one another. Maybe you reward players who correctly identify and report other players working for the rebellion. How much harder would completing a quest be knowing that any one of the players walking the street might be following you?

Games have a unique place as a medium that can create an entire virtual world for people to inhabit. Thus far the worlds created haven’t deviated much from utopia’s, but there’s a real potential there to make the world play a much more central part in the experience, and maybe get across an important message at the same time.

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