What I Don’t Want To Hear About MMOs

By Richard A. Bartle

Brilliantly fun talk, with massive insight, which after some of the talks I’ve been to in the week and studies I’ve seen has rung true. Also drama when Twixt is in the crowd.


Worked on the area for 30 years, so have gone from nothing to hundreds of books and thousands of paper. Seen different fashions come and go, and now to explain the fashions that need to go.

Heard Before

Firstly I don’t want to hear things about MMOs is anything that I’ve already heard before. Main reasons it can happen are utter ignorance, or a passionate belief that virtual things are different when they investigate it.

Ignorance of existing research

An example of ignorance in The Guardian doing a piece on research where “players switch gender”. A followup article had the title “Sexual harassment is rife online. No wonder women swap gender.”. Screenshot also shows second life, not that it is in the study at all! Clearly important research that deserves a press release, but it merited a press release 16 years ago. Data in the paper matches the data on 1993 text MUDs – even the player quotes.

The data also was misleading – small sample size and “did at least once” change gender – even accidentally.

We also already know people change different gendered characters – both also answer to the effect of “I’m SO MALE” where “it’s a nice thing to look at all night” or “I’m SO FEMALE” – played as a guy to stop people hitting on them.

Both are lying!

That 40% figure matches the TEXT worlds so the visuals are not there at all, and there is nothing to look at. Kept excusing with “gameplay advantages” until graphics came along. The study didn’t take any of this into account.


Other researchers new to the field choose to not look at the existing research. If you are looking at a brand new area this is fine – such as the scale of worlds, or the rendering of graphics.

However, in other cases it’s simple uninformed arrogance. They think they’re the only one who can have that idea and they must be right because they thought of it. An analogy of films: the vocabulary is the same as it was 100 years ago. Cuts, linearity, frames – looking at colour or sound or dialogue it is different, but in general you can look at films 100 years ago. Same with the virtual worlds and MUDs. What was written about Lambdamoo really does apply to Second Life – awful lot of the practices in Second Life came from it. Some are different (currency/economy), but most are the same.

Reality Check

Older work can act as a reality check – example; why do fewer women play MMOs than men? Easy! Because of hypersexualised images of the female form put women off. If that were true why did the same proportion of female players is the same as text muds which ave no graphs 20 years ago? (was 5% – 20%). Would need to look at the data and draw a conclusion – even if there are different reasons (imagine as if possibly access to computers, or so forth, in the past caused the disproportions).

There was actually a reason if you read the feminist literature from back then that explained it. Lots of things which have happened in the past that are relevant.

Don’t Want to Hear Anything That Disrespects the Subject Matter

Example of using AI research to look cool but treating them if they were not worthy of research in and of themselves. Coming in and saying games are rubbish and still doing research in it are rubbish.

Games are older then any kind of literature, art, film, music – how do we know? Bears play games! They don’t paint!

Unless you’re a designer you should also play some MMOs some if you want to write about them.


Lack of the subject often manifests as over-generalisation (especially if you’re a government minister looking to ban games). Working on “videogames” does not automatically apply to MMOs. Social world research doesn’t automatically apply to game worlds. Facebook is not an MMO. No, really, it’s NOT. Nothing you can say will persuade me to think it is an MMO unless you change the meaning of MMO.

The reverse of all of these also applies, going from MMO research to other games.

Technical Terms

Lots of players and researchers use specialist technical terms. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes they are different; such as when a gamer says “immersion” this is not what a psychologist/psychiatrist means – gamer means the amount they interact with their in game their character (a dragon leaps out – say in text even). Psychologist means the persuasion that a virtual world be a real world (graphics, senses).

Terms can also shift in meaning – avatar (used to be characters), griefing, virtual worlds (changing from all online worlds to social worlds). Play the games gets to know the terms, but need to respect the subject matter.

Home Theories

Don’t want to hear how some idea from your home discipline can have MMOs shoehorned into it. MMO’s are not “third places” even if they have third places within them (social gathering spaces). Flow is not the reason people play MMO’s. If you were in flow for 4 hours a night, your brain would shrink up after 2 years 😉

Inside Knowledge

Sometimes established research doesn’t apply to MMOs. Example: literary criticism, researchers only judge the text. They don’t speak to the authors (because you influence the author, and the author can’t explain it since it is more clearly explained in the text of the book). Research is deliberately separated from practice (although literature research isn’t always avoiding authors and sometimes are just disappointed they don’t know as much about their book as the researchers do!).

Don’t do this! MMO designers read voraciously – this often includes research papers, they know a lot! Sometimes designers look at random interesting things. Some indeed will get hold of the proceedings for this conference and read your paper!

It’s pointless speculating why designers do things – you might as well ask them since they want to know more. If you’re influencing them anyway, you might as well! Especially helps if you read into something more then they worked on it.

Don’t Want To Hear Research That Is No Such Thing

Some respect the subject area too much and disrespect their academic discipline. If you want to design a game, go design a game. Don’t look for a research topic to hang it off. Serious games, you have a lot to answer for. You have to be serious about serious games, not serious about games, when you do that.

Retro-fitted research

Playing a game too much then needing to find some research on it. Many examples of this, or instance mid-1990’s had MUD questionnaires. Excuse to put it in the dissertation. Even today over-playing a game sometimes is tried to be tricked into being research.

Twixt example – a grief player, trying to justify it as research. Was waiting for people to get pissed off, and they got pissed off! Keeping playing a game for 8, 9 years and writing papers on it – it doesn’t come off as research. Either that or it was and your ethics are horrible – so you’ll be nailed to the wall by the ethics committee when you didn’t get permission.


Getting over-invested in something you get to see something from the side of the players. You have to separate the researcher and the player – instead should be using “this is what it is like”. What you mean instead is “I really want there to be” instead of “should”. Happens a lot working with minorities – seeing the world from that minority, and then saying things that don’t make sense. For instance research into the equality of women in games saying “there should be better representation”, and had games that included pro sports – which obviously isn’t the fault of the game designer. It might be the case but it is the wrong thing to say “should” – instead “if” and “then”. So “if you want more women to play games then you need to have more equal representations in games”. Makes it very ideological.

Lazy Scholarship

Don’t know how to research but do it anyway. Like extrapolating from 20 people to make statements for 20,000,000 people. Previous study about the female MOO players did only 32 in a survey.

Some MMO surveys have 30,000 respondents – and support things much better. 16 respondents does not compare. Going up and saying “we can get more results if we had more money” – that happens so many times. Some people already have that data, and what more it might show the data you have might not be all that good.

Spun-Out Research

If your research has N amounts of findings, release one paper, not N papers.


The notion that all research is of value. It only potentially of value, but not intrinsically valuable.

A big one is articles that split MMO players up into different types as if that were an end to the matter – if it isn’t used, it is not useful research.


Unlearned lessons is just coming from it being easier to think it is brand new.

Subject matter is from the experts in non-games colonising games.

Going native comes from experts in games reinventing the wheel.

Poor scholarship is from all of the above.

Two Directions

People trying to use MMOs to advance their own field, or pieple trying to use pick-and-mix research to advance MMOs.

The former use MMOs as a touchstone, the latter want better MMOs. The two sides have met but not bonded since they don’t share meaning. Also industry itself is informed (like the LBP people).

What I want

(Note: Richard Bartle put up much, much more informative explanations here since he ran out of time.)

Doubt anyone in this room can do this, but I want:

Want to hear about their foundations. The theoretical underpinnings (and of other games, not just MMOs). Want the mathematics behind them. Games are rulesets and execution, and we have mathematics that describe that.

Should have some formal methods that describes games and gameplay. Couldn’t even find the operational semantics for the rules of chess, let lone it’s gameplay. Need the mathematicians to describe this. Like Physics without the maths, or philosophy without language.


Digital games are researched for many different reasons, owever we’re currently building our structures on swampland. They could sink at any moment. If not anchored to science, then formalising the language like mathematics. Should have descriptions for games with computational mathematics.

When there is progress here and less assumption.


Q. From the researcher Twixt, saying Ethics board passed him.

Still thought it was wrong, and said it regardless even though knew that he might have been in the audience.

Q. So should it be a science?

Personally think that game design is an art, but what they are doing can still be described in mathematics. Are currently building this web but need the foundations first.

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