Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 March, 2008

Dr. Richard Bartle, human being
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:45 AM

Over on Broken Toys, there’s a post about an article criticizing Richard Bartle. It’s a post that spawned more than 400 comments!

But, I don’t want to talk about capitalism or RMT or any of that this time. No, the more important lesson is how easy it is for someone to forget that there are real human beings on the other side of the network. It’s easy to throw around words intended to insult like “intrinsic Marxist” when you don’t acknowledge that the other person has feelings, too. This seems especially common when the target of criticism is considered a developer.

Now, I have to admit that I’m a big fan of Richard. I think Richard is perhaps the wisest and one of the smartest of the online developers. Richard also doesn’t clamor for the spotlight like some of the rest of us do; not to say he shies away from attention, but he’s mostly known for his work instead of for his ability at self-promotion. So, a post that is critical of his work or insight is likely to make me cranky.

But, let me share an anecdote to show the more human side of someone that Prokofy Neva is all too happy to tear into in an online forum. Richard did me the tremendous favor of going to London to meet and have dinner with me while I was there. My flights to the Eastern Hemisphere are usually defined by massive amounts of jet lag, and visiting with Richard helped me stay up a bit longer to get me on the “right” sleep schedule for the time zone. Having dinner and a throughly stimulating conversation about online games did help me stay awake longer and I experienced hardly any jet lag.

When I was leaving the U.K., Richard visited me in London for dinner again. I had another wonderful meal and conversation with him before flying back to the U.S. One interesting thing to note is that the accusation of being a Marxist really did irritate Richard; he’s had some bad experiences in his past with people claiming “property is oppression”. Richard is educated enough to know what Marxists are, knowing that it is not just a word to be thrown around at people that present an alternative viewpoint.

Of course, Richard took this whole situation in stride with his usual even temper and a touch of British stoicism. You can’t be an online game administrator without developing a thick skin as a purely defensive measure; people will be very insulting and will forget that it’s a human being with feelings on the other side of the internet reading their vitriolic diatribe.

So, the lesson here is twofold. Developers: understand that people are going to attack you savagely if you don’t agree with them. Your public position makes you a tempting target. Players: understand that we’re still human. Insults might get temporary attention from those of us developers that have short tempers, but it won’t convince us that you’re right and we’re wrong. So, try to keep it civil instead of attacking other people. Those that engage in personal attacks may be able to generate over 400 comments on a developer’s blog, but few people are going to take those arguments seriously.


  1. Sometimes I wonder if she realizes that she’s being treated as a dancing monkey in a suit, being tossed peanuts and poked with sticks so she’ll dance for our amusement.

    Part of me assumes that she must, or she wouldn’t keep dancing.

    Comment by Trevel — 21 March, 2008 @ 11:21 AM

  2. …the more important lesson is how easy it is for someone to forget that there are real human beings on the other side of the network.

    It goes both ways.

    Comment by Tim — 21 March, 2008 @ 1:08 PM

  3. … people will be very insulting and will forget that it’s a human being with feelings on the other side of the internet reading their vitriolic diatribe.

    People, specifically and especially Prokofy Neva, also forget that they can be sued for libel.

    Comment by Morgan Ramsay — 21 March, 2008 @ 5:14 PM

  4. When someone enters a car, he becomes another being. He’s now as big, as tough as everyone else. May he be 21 or 70, 110 lbs or 320 lbs, rich or poor, wise or dumb, educated or not, he becomes equal to everyone else, can cause the same damages, the perfect way to break usual social behaviors.

    You’re one step on the pedal away to cut someone, you’re safe to throw insults at them and you can yell for 10 minutes straight about how the last driver that almost hit you (or that you almost hit) is a moron.

    The web is the highway and a blog is your car. It may be physically safer, but there’s no cop on this road.

    Comment by Over00 — 22 March, 2008 @ 5:50 AM

  5. Aw, thanks for the words of support, Brian! (And this despite getting you soaked).

    I did customer service for MUD1 and MUD2 for 20 years, so am used to dealing with people who are passionate about virtual worlds. Almost always, disputes can be resolved through conversation; they’re so often based on misreadings of unintentionally ambiguous statements that it’s usually apparent early on what needs to be done to address an issue. It’s very time-consuming to exchange long emails or have in-world conversations with people to explain things, though, which means it doesn’t scale well for larger virtual worlds where you might have an entire guild to deal with, not just one person.

    Sometimes, though, there are people with whom rational debate is very, very difficult. This is not usually because they aren’t rational; rather, it’s because they refuse to accept that they could be mistaken. We had one player on British Legends (what MUD1 was called on CompuServe) who was very clever – she’d trained as a paediatric surgeon – but whose emotional growth was stuck at the level of a three-year-old. She found it very difficult to put herself into the position of other people, seeing things only from her own point of view. She had to work out what other people thought, rather than doing it automatically like most folk can, which made dealing with her a nightmare. Debate with her was tortuous and it took forever to get her to accept, say, that when player X picked up her treasure, he didn’t know she had logged off to check on her ill daughter, he didn’t know she would be back to claim it in 5 minutes, he wasn’t some kind of sick individual taking advantage of a mother’s love for her unwell child, he’d just come across some unguarded stuff lying on the ground, figured it was abandoned, and picked it up. As a customer service person, you have to deal with such individuals because it’s your job; as a player, though, you don’t – and most didn’t.

    The key to it is respect. If the players respect you, they’ll listen to what you say and disputes can be resolved much more smoothly. However, respect doesn’t come with the badge, it has to be earned. If you don’t respect the players, you won’t get their respect; if you don’t admit to your own mistakes, you can’t expect players to admit to theirs; if you’re inconsistent or tardy, you’re doing more harm than good; if you lose respect, you’ll have a much harder time regaining it than you had getting it in the first place (which itself was tough).

    With some people, though, it doesn’t matter how much you bend over backwards, they’re not going to listen. The point of no return is if your discussions just make things worse, rather than better; in other words, the more you say, the further you get away from a resolution, rather than the closer. Occasionally, you can reverse the process, but in customer service terms it’s not usually worth the mammoth effort involved, especially as there’s a strong probability that they’ll just flip again. This is kinda like where I am with Prok: nothing I can say will help, and there’s every chance it will make things worse. I’m not hurt by much by her ill-informed accusations per se, because I’ve come to expect it; what stings is when I see other people believing them. Still, it could be worse. My best course of action is simply not to respond to her.

    So yes, as you say, civility between developers and players should be practised on both sides of the equation. Sometimes, though, even with the best of intentions from both sides, the differences are irreconcilable and unfixable. Even then, it’s better to part agreeing to disagree than in acrimony, though.


    Comment by Richard Bartle — 22 March, 2008 @ 6:50 AM

  6. I feel you.

    It happens in all the fields of creative media, both from the consumers and developers.

    For developers sometimes it’s hard to get their egoes unattached from their work, because if it is a good developer, part of it’s soul goes into his creation, so any kind of attack/criticism on their work touches them on a personal level.

    And for consumers/critics it’s the human tendency to twist a criticism on a piece, to an ad hominem attack what creates tension.

    I come from the Art world, and i’m TA in a course where students propose their own projects, i’ve seen people cry, get into fist fights, friendships broken, it happens all the time. And all this happens face to face, so i guess it must be even worse in the virtual worlds, because as a previous poster said, internet is a highway with no cops. (also to add insult to the injury the teacher is currently on other country, so i’m alone, and i get my authority/respect questioned all the time).

    PD: *insert here the usual apology for broken second language english*

    Comment by Felipe Budinich — 22 March, 2008 @ 9:25 AM

  7. For what its worth Richard Bartle,

    I still think your a swell guy.

    Comment by Boon — 25 March, 2008 @ 8:14 AM

  8. I’m surprised that Mr. Bartle actually got irritated.

    I would think he’s no stranger to somebody being a twit on the internet. Is it really a big deal? I’d be thinking “LOL, piss off” if somebody called me a Marxist.

    I want to hear more about this ‘property is oppression’ incident that caused the comment thread dumbassery to hit a nerve.

    Comment by Spaz — 27 March, 2008 @ 7:45 AM

  9. I debated quite a while before jumping in on this. But I don’t like the way that people are put off from joining in the friendly exchange of ideas when someone ridicules the speaker of those ideas instead of addressing the ideas themselves.

    So to add to Brian’s comments, I met Richard a few years ago in Copenhagen, and I found him to be engaging, funny, sharp where sharpness is called for, and remarkably tolerant of ideas pitched intensely to him by a complete stranger while climbing up a stairwell. In short, yes, he’s human, and one who doesn’t deserve the description Prok gave of him.

    That doesn’t mean disagreeing with him on ideas is off-limits. I disagree with him on some things. But it’s important to note a couple of things:

    1. Hyperbole and gratuitous name-calling destroy any chance to have productive discussions about those disagreements. Those who engage in such hand-waving distractions don’t deserve direct attention/trackbacks/slashdots/etc. Good conversationalists should be promoted; bad conversationalists should be bypassed.

    2. There’s a difference between “is” and “ought.” And one key aspect of that difference between description and prescription is that those who express an “ought” have to earn the privilege of having that assertion taken seriously by demonstrating that they understand “is.” Conversely, those who fail to demonstrate that their perception of reality is accurate shouldn’t expect to have their statements of right and wrong given much weight. (And yes, that applies to me, too.)

    Which brings me to this Prok vs. Richard thing. It’s clear — and this is borne out by Designing Virtual Worlds — that Richard has been there, done that, and knows what he’s talking about. His descriptions of what “is” in virtual worlds are informed by broad experience and thoughtful understanding, both of which are documented in his various public comments about virtual worlds and game design. This means that when Richard expresses an “ought” statement, it’s worth taking seriously instead of being dismissed, especially by pouring derision on Richard himself. It might still be wrong, but an “ought” from someone who knows his “is” merits more consideration than Prok showed in the post that started all this.

    Meanwhile, we should suspect any “shoulds” proposed (or criticized) by someone whose view of “is” is so inaccurate as to think (for example) that gameworlds are socialistic when in fact they’re hyper-capitalistic. (Raph has more than once commented on the power-law distribution of wealth in gameworlds, which is a typical condition of unregulated capitalism.) The designers of gameworlds may intend for the economic activity in them to be regulated according to their various conceptions of fairness (some of which may be socialistic — I wouldn’t know or presume to guess), but the reality once people begin acting in those worlds in mass numbers — as Richard has accurately noted — is that the gamers who put in the most effort in these gameworlds accumulate the most stuff in them. And that’s pretty much the opposite of a socialistic economy, regardless of what any “game gods” may intend.

    So if someone doesn’t correctly perceive even this fundamental observation about game-based virtual worlds, where does that leave their criticisms of statements from better-informed observers about how such worlds “ought” to be?

    There’s a good discussion to be had on how the property rights of the creator of a (virtual) world may be in conflict with the restrictions on the rights of the state in our real world. If I build my own universe, under what conditions may I not enjoy full powers to control everything that happens inside that world? At what point of realism should my sovereign powers be taken from me within that world — by force, if necessary — in favor of the people who, to some degree, inhabit that world I created? Does it matter if the world in question is intended to be a rule-based game, or is meant to be a literary experience?

    That would be a fun discussion to have about virtual worlds, and perhaps even an enlightening one about how best to live in our own real world. But we’ll never get there when “oughts” on that subject from someone who knows what he’s talking about are dismissed in favor of mocking the speaker of those thoughts.

    Richard deserves better, if for no other reason than that he’s earned the privilege of being taken seriously.

    Comment by Bart 'Flatfingers' Stewart — 27 March, 2008 @ 1:48 PM

  10. Bart ‘Flatfingers’ Stewart wrote:
    That doesn’t mean disagreeing with him on ideas is off-limits.

    I certainly agree! At our last dinner in London, Richard and I had a vigorous discussion about what we think the future of virtual worlds is. We had a wonderful discussion about the topic where we had very different opinions; but, we were both willing to listen and provide counter-examples and challenge the other person. It was extremely thought-provoking, at least speaking for myself, and a very exciting conversation. This might be one of the things that frustrated me so much about this issue, because Richard does deserve much better than he got in that exchange.

    But, you are exactly right, Bart: there’s a world of difference between having a difference of opinion based on experience, and being flat-out wrong and resorting to base name-calling to taunt your opponent. I think part of the issue here is that people forget there’s another human being on the other side of the discussion when it’s not face-to-face; add this on top of some people’s inability to admit fault and you have a recipe for counter-productive arguments.

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 March, 2008 @ 12:11 AM

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