Ethics in Studying Online Videogames

A story was posted yesterday on about a recent study published by a professor from Loyola University concerning social rules in the game City of Heroes/City of Villains. Dr. David Myers has been having a character named “Twixt” play in player vs. player zones for some time on three different servers in ways that go decidedly against how the majority of the player population plays the game. I have some real problems with the ethics of his experiment. I believe that the ethics of this paper should be the real issue, so here’s a look at some of them.

Myers states in his paper, Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt, that social rule-breaking (Garfinkeling) is easier to do in an MMO because it has “rules governing behavior” that are “objective and measurable and, most importantly, uniform” (pages 3-4). He’s correct in that MMOs have rules, but I think that he’s incorrect in two ways here. First, the rules are far from “objective and measurable and, most importantly, uniform”, they are enforced by humans inconsistently and only when reported by humans. Second, he ignored the social rules of the game, even the explicit ones, and only followed the mechanical rules. The rule the Twixt broke consistently was the first one listed in the City of Heroes Rules of Conduct: “While playing City of Heroes , you must respect the rights of others and their rights to play and enjoy the game.”

Other people’s right to enjoy the game is really what Myers was infringing on in how he played Twixt. He disrupted even structured social activities like “fight clubs”. Such activities are well within the bounds of comic book lore and set up, even if not officially by the creators of the game, as environments where heroes and villains mix freely (pages 8-9). When other players objected to his ruining their enjoyment of the game, Myers seems to not understand why they object. He simply tries to point out what happened and how it’s fair and legal. Not all objections were articulated well, but that’s the reality of MMOs. Somehow even getting kicked out of his supergroup didn’t get through to him, he laughed that the other player was upset at his behavior (page 13). One player tells him “thanks for ruining the game for me” (page 14) and, again, Myers doesn’t seem to understand this.

Part of the problem seems to be that Myers appears to only see how Twixt’s actions impact Twixt. He turns off Twixt’s communications channels because of all the hatred (page 14), not thinking about the fact that other people can’t turn off his intrusions into their experiences as easily. He does quote one forum post that explains much of the problem, but other than saying it’s interesting and less confrontational than usual, he still doesn’t seem to get it.

“Twixt seems totally unable to comprehend other players as real people, and plays his own solipsistic game deliberately making others miserable.

I truly believe he simply does not understand the feelings that lay behind people shouting and screaming at him in RV, and just continues to soldier on with his mission, wondering why the other Heroes aren’t helping him rid RV of the bad guys with a sincerity that can almost make you sympathise with him.” (page 15)

He also tells us, late in the paper as he’s discussing what his study found, that “the most important negative consequence of Twixt’s behavior in the eyes of other players, then, was not his failure to achieve game goals – Twixt’s opponents “failed” this test more often than he did — but his failure to garner and sustain social connections: the most repellent consequence of Twixt’s behavior was that it made him unlikable.” (pages 19-20) That his actions made Twixt unlikeable is not their “most important negative consequence… in the eyes of other players”, however, especially since Myers doesn’t seem to care that Twixt was unlikable. The most important consequence to the players involved was that he was impeding their fun. Myers doesn’t seem to be able to see past his own experience, as the forum poster observed (and as becomes evident very early in the paper). He doesn’t talk about his fellow players as if they are real people with real feelings, simply as if they are social constructs with which to play and try to elicit responses.

While it is common to view the internet as a place of anonymity, every avatar and every screen name has a person behind it (bots notwithstanding). I was horrified by Myers’ study. He adhered to absolutely no ethical standards while conducting this study and the implications of that are very scary. Ethical standards are there for a reason. They attempt to ensure that the subjects of a study are protected from undue harm. I know how I would have felt if I had encountered a player like Twixt while playing a game and the comments of his fellow players confirm that many of them felt emotional stress, possibly to a considerable degree, from what he was doing. It certainly seems like they were in no way protected from harm.

If you think about it, what Myers was doing as Twixt was akin to cyber bullying. His victims and many of the gamers now reading about this have called him a griefer, which is a gamer bully. Is it really ok for a professor of sociology to be bullying people, even if that wasn’t his original intention, just to see what happens?

Myers also published their screen and character names in his paper, another breech of ethics, which states that a subjects’ privacy must be protected. Just because they are online doesn’t make them not a part of a person’s identity. As the internet and gaming become ever more a part of our lives, our screen names and gamertags become ever more a part of our identities. They should be protected in such a study the same way a subject’s name would be.

I absolutely believe that sociologists should be studying MMOs and Virtual Worlds, they have the potential to yield all kinds of interesting information. I firmly believe, however, that the rules of ethics still need to apply. There are still real people at stake, even if the researcher never knows anything more about them than what their avatar looks like. Real people deserve to be treated ethically, even when they are participating virtually. I think Myers committed a huge breach of ethics with this study and I think that that’s the real issue that should be discussed about this paper.

- For more information on research ethics in the social sciences and humanities, check out the resources at


  1. Alan De Smet said,

    July 7, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Well said! Certainly more eloquent than my own arguments at Slashdot. It’s distressing how many Slashdotters subscribe to the idea, “the game is about heroes and villuans fighting, therefore winning at all costs within the confines of the rules as enforced by NCSoft is ethical. No other social contract or agreement can be recognized.” And people wonder why there is a stereotype of geeks having no social skills. *sigh*

  2. Scarybug said,

    July 8, 2009 at 9:20 am

    I was skeptical when I read the first few sentences of this post. Sometimes you do have to trick people to do psychological studies, but usually you’re paying those people for a study, and just telling them you’re studying something else.

    While maybe not violating any laws or constitutional rights. The players in an MMO are paying to play a social game. The gameplay in an MMO is less fun, IMO than in most single player games. The appeal of the MMO is the social and tactical interaction with real people. At the very least this guy should track down all of the players he griefed and pay their subscription fee for that month.

    What was the conclusion to the study? What was the hypothesis being tested? Did we learn that people play social games to be social, not to “win” at a game?

  3. Rosepixie said,

    July 8, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Alan, I’m glad you posted on Slashdot, even though you got shouted down. I gave up on Slashdot a long time ago. If he’d just been playing this way, not doing it as an actual academic study, I’d still say he was a bully, but not necessarily that he was unethical. The ethics problem comes in when it becomes a scientific study – those have to obey rules.

    Scarybug – I totally agree that sometimes you have to trick people in psychological studies. That’s how some of the most effective studies have been conducted, but there are still ethical ways to do that. I agree that him paying subscription fees would be a good move, but I doubt he has any hope of tracking all the people he affected down. He did this over a long period of time across multiple servers and while he appears to have chat logs, he admits to having turned those off sometimes and there are most likely people who never said anything to him.

    The conclusion of the study was basically “when you don’t play by the unspoken but accepted social rules, you get ostracized and hated, even if you’re playing by the actual game’s rules”. I have no idea what his hypothesis was, or if he even had one. He never states it throughout the paper, although he does state surprise at the reactions he got to his actions, so if he had one presumably the study refuted it. He doesn’t clearly point out that other people were playing to be social in the paper, just that he was playing to win rather than to socially interact with others. It’s pretty clearly there, but he never states it, which made me wonder how clearly he understood it at a few points (this gets back to his POV problem).

  4. cannonball said,

    July 12, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    hi pixie, wat i think ur missing is that the social “game” u talk about is not a game at all but just abunch of stuff that some , not all, made up. so if u were just walking down street, i could make up some stuff saying u walking down the street ruined my fun. a game has a set of rules everyone agrees with. if u dont agree w meyers rules, why should he have to agree w urs? u gonna bully him?

    sorry i typed bad

  5. Rosepixie said,

    July 13, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Cannonball, Dr. Myers doesn’t have to agree with me about what the rules are. But he does have to abide by the rules laid out for doing scientific studies if he’s going to do one. This was a study, not just some guy playing a game, and there are very specific rules at multiple levels stating what can and cannot be done in studies with human subjects. Bullying pretty clearly falls outside of those parameters.

    I would object to Dr. Myers being a bully in the game even if he wasn’t doing a study, but it wouldn’t be worth a blog post. He knew the social arrangements of the game, he knew how he was disrupting things when he broke up things like fight clubs. I still wouldn’t see how that’s acceptable since he could very well play the pillbox game in the zone without disrupting other people’s play. It’s possible to play a game without forcing everyone else to play it with you.

    The issue, here, however, is that this was supposed to be a study, and so his behavior becomes unethical. And that’s a bigger problem than just a bully in a game.

  6. Eva said,

    July 19, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    I was kind of floored by this whole paper. How does a professor of sociology get the idea that he has followed “all the rules” and miss the fact that he didn’t follow the basic mores of the community he was participating in? For a while I was almost convinced he was blatantly ignoring the obvious so that his paper would get more outcry and more attention. It rather makes me ill to think he’s seriously clueless.

    Rosepixie is totally on the nose about the ethics. I have no idea where Dr. Meyers went to school, but they apparently didn’t teach him how to treat his experiment subjects like people. Frankly I’d be concerned about what the man is teaching his own students.

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