Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Re-thinking the lineage court case

Have you seen this?

Craig Smallwood, the plaintiff, claims NCsoft of South Korea should pay unspecified monetary damages because of the addictive nature of the game. Smallwood claims to have played Lineage II for 20,000 hours between 2004 and 2009. Among other things, he alleges he would not have begun playing if he was aware “that he would become addicted to the game.

Now clearkly, the internet world is awash with people saying “what a dumbass, its not like they forced him to play!” and “thats like suing mcdonalds for being fat”. But it may not be…

Is he addicted? This is 10 hours a day for 5 years. That’s pretty heavy usage, when holding down a job too. That’s getting home at 6pm, and playing to 4AM every day 365 days a year (ok, more time available on weekends, but still…).you bet he is. But the big question is are NCSoft to blame? People talk in glowing terms about ‘addicting gameplay’ (grates teeth… we say ADDICTIVE), it would be a brave defence lawyer that tried to argue that making a game addictive was not a core element of MMO design. The entire business model relies on you coming back every month to pay again.

Ok, so that’s fair enough, making a product good enough to encourage replay is fine, hardly criminal. However there is something magical about an MMO that *may* mean that courts take this stuff seriously:

They know how addicted he is.

They know in exact detail that account X logs on 10 hours a day for 5 years**. If it’s a micro-payment MMO, then KNOW that one guy has spend >$50,0000 a year (or whatever). This is totally different to the store that sells alcohol to an alcoholic for cash, they don’t know how much he drinks.

I don’t think the case has merit, and I agree with a lot of the criticism of it, but in these days where companies show adverts to test-subjects inside MRI scanners, and people get better every year at crafting more elegant skinner-boxes dressed up as facebook games, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see judges mandate that all MMO games need to have systems in place to prevent people getting this bad. The industry will complain it’s being held to a higher standard than alcohol or other addictive pruchases, btu I suspect the court system will argue that only the games industry has the technical capability to regulate against true addiction. Addiction isn’t a topic for mockery. I’ve known people addicted to heroin (scary stuff), I’ve known people who used to smoke now and then, casually, and clearly just didn’t have whatever gene makes nicotine addictive. I’ve drunk a hell of a lot in my youth, but bounced out of it before sliding into addiction, as various friends did. Something that you personally can take or leave is another persons crippling addiction, and we shouldn’t dismiss them as idiots because we don’t share the exact genetic makeup that gives us that same vulnerability.

It’s an interesting story to follow, in any case.

(don’t yell at me. I’m not saying that NCSoft are guilty, or the guy should win. I’m saying there are real issues here, and the industry needs to look at them sensibly)

**I know it could be a shared account, but it could still raise a flag. If its the same character being used, without logging in or out, it’s pretty safe to say the same person is behind the keyboard.

10 thoughts on Re-thinking the lineage court case

  1. And I still think that getting addicted is purely the fault of the individual, as long as NCSoft is not sending out Ninjas to inject drugs into people while they are asleep. People should just take responsibility for fucking their own lives up.

    Are MMORPGs designed to be addictive? Hell yes, and I could not care less. I played thousands of hours of WoW (about two thousand total since its release, I would estimate), and at some point 15 months ago, I quit. Why? Because I wanted to quit, therefore I did it.

    I still wonder how Lineage 2 can be considered addictive though. It is decidedly less entertaining than going to work, even when I have to do chores.

  2. They would just start using different accounts
    Maybe even anonynising proxies and virtual machines

    Addict is addict, he would find a way to became addicted.
    And would do it *before* realising he has a problem

    Really, thouse who do not want spending 10 hour a day, they just try turn-based games like PBEM or like UrbanDead

  3. If the plaintiff was to become successful in any way I see in this a fine way to get an indie developer into nice trouble … Even if he doesn’t win just making it to trial would be a mess for a 1 man team.

    What if you replace Lineage 2 for say Golemizer … Should I start banning immediately people that I judge have played a bit too much?

    I doubt this will get anywhere but that’s still not the kind of news I like reading about.

  4. One small nitpick:
    “They know in exact detail that account X logs on 10 hours a day for 5 years”

    Do you know whether they’ve really crunched the numbers to know this? I agree that they have logs which could show this, but have they really looked through the data? You said this is totally different from a store that sells alcohol to an alcoholic but I don’t see how. If the store looks through their records and finds that they’ve sold a bottle of vodka to the same guy every 2 days for 5 years, that’s the same red flag isn’t it?

    I agree with Arioch, this is going to be hard to fix. How do you *prevent* someone from playing a game? Easier if you require a credit card, but what about free-to-play?

    It is also difficult because everyone wants the same gameplay, so you can’t just remove the addictive elements and make the game less fun without hurting the non-addicted players

  5. yes it would be an absolute nightmare, and no I don’t think it would be a good idea. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. What I’m pointing out, is that at some point, someone in this court case will say “There was no way we could have forseen this” and someone techy will point out “oh rly?”

    Paying cash in a bar or store for alcohol is very hard to keep eyes on. You can only pay one company for your MMO account though, so its way easier to spot.

    (Once again, not saying they should be looking for it, but I fully expect people to ask why they are not)

  6. Yeah saying that they couldn’t trace the playing time wouldn’t hold for long.

    And if by any chance NCsoft would be found responsible for monitoring the playing time of their players (to prevent “addiction”) I’m sure we could start seeing things like “Warning. This game may ruin your life.” on services like Steam for single-player games as they also clearly have a way to monitor play time even for “offline” games.

    Of course that’s just speculation but we do see some crazy stuff coming out of courthouses from time to time …

  7. The major battle-ground in the war between purveyors of “addictive” entertainment and their customer/victims is not, of course, computer gaming, but the “old” kind of gaming, gambling. Slot machines, in particular; those things are now so finely psychologically optimised that they’ll need full immersive VR or a direct brain connection or something in order to suck money out of people any better.

    I don’t know where to draw the line, here. There’ll always be someone who blows the family rent and grocery budget on some damn thing that most people just do briefly for fun and then go on with their lives. But yes, online-game companies can see what their players are doing even more easily than casinos can, so it wouldn’t be difficult for them to, at the very least, send disturbingly-dedicated players in-game messages with info about addiction help-lines, etc.

  8. The addictive nature of games isn’t something to be dismissed lightly. With psychologists on board, there is huge potential to use game addiction for evil. More and more sophisticated techniques for creating addictive experiences will be developed. Games like Farmville are evidence that this is the direction many developers are heading and it will get worse.

    I’m starting to suspect that I suffer from some form of electronic addiction in that I know that it is harming me but find it incredibly difficult to stop and it isn’t clear what one can actually do about it, short of cutting off from technology completely and going to live in a wood somewhere…

  9. This case illustrates how important it is to distinguish between guilt and responsibility.

    Imagine you’ve had an accident – someone has just run run you over with their car. You’re injured and the driver is guilty. They will pay damages, or even go to jail, depending on circumstances. But the driver is not responsible for your health. That’s a job for qualified medical staff.

    Also, it is generally assumed that when there is something you can do to reduce a risk of some kind at a reasonably low inconvenience, it’s your responsibility to do it. Even if you have the green light and the car is speeding at 200 km/h, jumping right in front of it when you could just let it pass is plain stupid. You should know better. In other words, it’s your responsibility to “look left, then right, then left again” in order to make sure your path is clear (though it’s still not your guilt if the car sends you to the morgue!).

    You may or may not have pity for would-be victims, but even if you don’t, you may still be better off protecting them. For example, heavy drug abuse is a burden on the society in terms of lost labour, disruption to local neighbourhoods, treatment costs and even physical danger to the non-addicted. Hence most countries take an aggressive stance on combating it. Some argue these policies actually make things worse, but the point is – the society is better off trying to do reduce the impact of dangers like drugs actively, rather than relying on everybody’s individual sense of personal responsibility.

    Hence, firearms have safety triggers, cigarette packs have warning signs, every beer can and wine bottle has a label giving you the alcohol content, and my homeland’s constitution says ethnic hatred is illegal. Oh, and there is also a speed limit in your town, because – in a dense urban area – traveling at no more than 50 km/h (or 30 mph, or whatever) is a reasonably low inconvenience for the driver and passengers, but a major safety measure for everybody.

    On top of that, not all game developers are exactly innocent. Instant gratification, intermittent rewards, microtransactions – these are just a few examples of gameplay dynamics that also work as exploits on our innate conditioning. MMOs and social games take it one step further by taking advantage of social norms. I don’t play WoW, but many of my friends do, and they share a common story: “I’m bored, it’s not even fun anymore, but my guild relies on me”. In traditional multiplayer games, when your friends switch to a new one, you switch with them. In MMOs, the game ancourages you to find new friends. Farmville makes you dependent on people who are not even your friends at all.

    Even if the outcome of trials like Smallwood’s is that developers are not guilty of making someone addicted, the conclusion may still be that game developers are responsible for making sure people don’t hurt themselves while playing. As a designer, I think we should embrace this conclusion and try to work out which game mechanics are safer than others while still being fun. It’s actually in our best interest. From a layman’s point of view, and particularly that of a lawmaker, the easiest solution would be to set up the same kind of rules that apply to traditional addictions. These include: not making a product available to minors; making it illegal to provide a product without a licence; making it illegale to provide a product at all. Do you want any of that?

    Games should be pleasure, but not a guilty one.

  10. I read an article on the other week while looking through their history on the Top x Ways games are getting people addicted. According to the article, Blizzard brought in a behavioural scientist to work out the exact way to get people addicted to MMOs. The same methods are used in the facebook games that get people addicted. This isn’t done by accident, but by design. Game producers are in the market to make money, so having an addictive game is good for them.

    If a game is addicting because a player is having lots of fun playing it, and the purpose of games is to have fun, and the producers are making money making games that are loads of fun, I see that as a Good Thing. I’m a Gamer. I love games, and some games I’m still playing after 15 years. Sure, I’m addicted to games in general, and I’ve even gotten addicted to some MMOs, but the responsibility is on me, as a player, to know when to put the game down and take care of life. I can’t blame the game producers for giving me exactly what I asked for: something that is fun and I can spend loads of hours playing. Addicting is what I want in a game.

    On the other hand, there are dirty tricks that game makers use to get people to keep playing long after it has stopped becoming fun. MMOs depend on this in order to keep their subscribers because any other method will result in a financial failure. Quite simply, without the cheap & easy addictive methods, the alternative would be so costly that the monthly subscription would not be able to keep up. 6 months of development time for something players will be finished playing in a week.

    In summary, yeah, the addictive elements suck, but damned if I’m not going to spend the next week camping a dungeon raiding it nightly for the 1 in 25 chance that I’ll get that new armour that reduces damage by another 0.5%. MMOs have us good, and we enjoy it. Much like a casino, if you know how to moderate and have self-control, you can have a real fun time, even if you do end up with empty pockets.

    I’m against forcing MMO companies (and other companies in general) to be the one regulating the behaviours of their customers. If they want to, fine, but they shouldn’t be forced. Just because one guy may have spent 50,000 that he couldn’t afford should stop the other guy who does have 50,000 to blow on an MMO from being able to.

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