The Persistence of Reputation

Online communities often times face the compounded problems of prejudice, anonymity, audience, and perceived slight.  I like to think that our haven of MMO communities is a protective sea fortress in the sea of pejorative online calamity.  We are anonymous to a degree.  I might be a quasi-intelligent lesser primate for all you know.  I drop hints, here and there, about my life, but as far as you know I am building an artificial persona to lead you astray, dear reader.  Still, my posts and name have persistence.  You know me.

The same is true in our gaming genre built on communal interaction.  We might be “IRL” anonymous, but we really aren’t in an MMO.  We are just known by different names.

When I first started playing A Tale in the Desert, there was a big discussion on what names should be allowed in our little Egypt.  We had names with sexual innuendos, 20th century technologies, and even l33t speak (e.g., ]-[@xin8trrr).  The lead developer stepped in and said ‘anything goes.’  His MMO, he explained, was built squarely on the foundation of community.  If a person wanted an unpronounceable or ridiculous name, then that person would have more to overcome when trying to create the necessary social connections.

Things are not so different in a mainstream MMO, such as World of Warcraft of Lord of the Rings Online.  Guilds, players, and sometimes even areas (like the Prancing Pony) gain reputations.  With guild tags flying above our names, all it takes is one rotten apple spouting racial, sexist, or sexual obscenities in a pick-up-group to ruin the reputation of a reputable guild.  Sure the rotten apple might get booted, and the guild leaders might make public, persistent apologies.  But, the damage was done.

I think this is something most of us know.  When looking for a new guild or inviting new members, we are more careful in MMOs because something is immediately at stake. 

The effect compounds itself with the big brotherly punishment of exile.  One drunken tirade against a culture on public chat might cause a player’s entire reputation to vanish as his or her account is banned.  All the time and energy spent in creating a persistent online imago is stripped away because ultimately our games are a privilege.  And, the rules are simple ones we have known since pre-school:  play nice and play fair.

This post so far is pretty negative, but the negatives, in my humble opinion, are a good thing. It leads me to believe that our little gaming sub-culture stands above the uncouth hordes of gamers, if only a little.  It makes me believe that MMOs can be a breeding ground for social tolerance, friendships, and ultimately a real affect on those we game with because our reputations (and accounts) are vulnerably persistent.

this little light of mine

10 thoughts on “The Persistence of Reputation”

  1. While this is true (I’ve built up a reputation in Puzzle Pirates that I’m pleased with), it’s also true that the anonymity of the ‘net and alternate characters pull in the other direction. All in all, I think it’s a wash.

    That said, I do think that the persistence of MMOs does more for building a persona/reputation than a GamerTag will for the XBox, simply because it’s not spread across different games. True, there are players who use the same name in different MMOs, effectively carrying their reputation with them for those “in the know”, but even there, the persistence of MMOs *as a core design tenet of the genre* tends to make it carry a bit more weight.

    Nice article! It definitely reminds me of why I’ve taken to using the same name in different games; I have an “online gaming” reputation that I’d like to keep unsullied and positive. (Which also explains why some people are rather bothered by pretenders, and protective of their personas.)

    1. Alts do give a “clean slate” scenario, but then all the time and energy put into the “unclean slate”-character is gone. This is of course in the average vanilla Diku-MMO. In games like Guild Wars where PvP characters are run through the recycle mill every day, there is much less of a persistent reputation. But, still there are PvP “Heroes” in Guild Wars who are well known by their character name, which they keep for each character iteration.

  2. Most people I’ve met in my first 14 years of online gaming have been pretty nice.

    Early days yet though, I hesitate to make any sweeping judgment.

  3. People tend to hang out with people who are like them. This is pretty easy in MMOs. The type of person who plays LotRO, for example, fits within a pretty specific category: probably literate (many players have read the LotR books), geeky, fan of fantasy, not lower class (modern enough computer + internet connection takes money). Yes, there will be some variation in there, and you’ll run into some “undesirables”, but you mostly know what to expect from a majority of players.

    This isn’t to say that online spaces are free of biases and conflict. As pointed out, a drunken tirade can show someone’s true colors. Or, a name or the way the person costumes their character can tell you something about the person; I’m sure some people have seen the name “Psychochild” and formed opinions about the player behind that character. In LotRO, I find I’m put off by people who chat a lot but have their character set to anonymous.

    Finally, I think it’s interesting to point out how much of a reputation can be constructed. I’ve said many times before that I make a distinction between online “Psychochild” and offline “Brian”. I’m willing to be much more aggressive and confrontational as my online self than my conflict-avoiding offline self. Many people construct false identities, obscuring or misrepresenting offline gender is probably one of the more common. As always, a bit of skepticism usually helps.

    1. Yeah, that is true, I do surround myself with “betters” I guess both in LOTRO and my guilds. I brought up how Guild Wars PvP (especially like Random Arena) can become cesspool like, but I am reading a lot on the new randomLFG feature in WoW, and there seems to be tons of positive experiences going on… which further gives me hope.

    2. One need not be intentionally constructing a false persona, either. I tend to only briefly mention politics and religion since those are hotbutton topics, but I have some very clear preferences in both. They just aren’t usually relevant to online gaming, so why introduce points of contention? As such, it’s not that I’ve constructed a false persona, it’s more like I’ve only bothered to demonstrate part of my real character. Perhaps that’s splitting hairs, but I think it’s an important distinction; the difference between a constructed persona and a constructed wall around a true persona.

  4. Well, one of the very first things I do in all MMOs is turn off all player (and NPC) names, guild tags and every other onscreen visual indicator of identity. I hate the visual clutter. In most games, all public channels get disabled on the first day of play. I also have a “one strike and /ignore” rule.

    Consequently its rare that I even know the names of more than a handful of players other than those I get to know one-to-one. I rarely know the names of any guilds and almost never have any idea of what guilds are where in the pecking order. When i do learn this kind ofinformation it usually comes from forums.

    I much prefer to play in this bubble of enhanced anonymity. It makes the game world more immersive, to use that cliched term. Player characters become much more like people in our real world, who generally do not go around carrying huge signs announcing their names and club affiliations, but travel on mysterious business of their own.

    A few years back, however, when I was a much more active guild player, I did indeed see all the issues with reputation that you describe. It got very wearing and I am happy to be shot of it.

  5. The community of a game is what influences whether or not I play a game, and as such I strive myself to make sure that I’m a pretty agreeable person to be around.

    I generally don’t judge a guild based on the actions of one sole player and I certainly don’t hold it against the guild for having added them to their ranks. Everybody is different and everybody has their own opinions, it’s just the way that some people go about presenting those opinions that makes them unpleasant people.

    I think generally the people that we encounter in MMOs are direct reflections of the people that are behind the computer screen. It would take quite a bit of effort to create an entirely new persona for themselves and I really don’t think their efforts would be too successful (or productive) anyway, they are who they are and it’s impossible to change that, no matter how many acting lessons they took.

    In a way the reputation of a person in an MMO is just as important as their reputation “IRL” because just like IRL if they screw up and make enemies, they’ll have enemies. You can’t just hit the delete key and make people you don’t like go away.

  6. Based on my experiences with MMO players over the last 10 years, I’m not sure if I share your high hopes for the potential of MMOs as builders of friendliness and social tolerance. While players’ attitudes and behavior towards one another can be great within the specific subsets of the MMO communities they belong to, interaction between MMO players outside of those subsets can be as bad as in any other online activity.

    John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory ( states that a normal person, given anonymity and an audience, can become a “Total Fuckwad”. I find that this is even more true for an MMO than for other online games, since the former has greater potential for persistent reputations, as well as a greater audience. While the persistent reputation-part slightly reduces the anonymity-part, MMO players seem to not mind that their characters become infamous. Infamy is the second best thing to fame – even better than fame for some, and easier to achieve, and with an MMO they can get a little of both; they can remain anonymous behind the curtain, while they gain reputation through their characters.

    And ultimately, negative character reputations in MMOs don’t have a whole lot of impact, at least not in the larger games where there’s a huge amount of other players around – there are many players in WoW that I have done instances with, pvp’d with, or traded with, who I’ve never seen again in that game, for instance. There will also always be many players who are relatively new to the game. Even if you’ve got a negative reputation with some of the veteran players, it won’t spread to all the new players, and when those veteran players move on to a different game (as most do at some point or other), they take your reputation with them – unless you’ve managed to maintain the same reputation with the new players by yourself.

    It seems to me that as long as one doesn’t alienate one’s friends, guild-members and/or other regulars one interacts with, one can pretty much act however one wishes towards strangers in MMOs (and unfortunately many of the players do), without risking any other negative effects than a temporary ban for stepping over lines that the game-developers/operators have decided should be in place.

    I honestly don’t see this changing unless the anonymity of the player him/herself is removed or lessened somehow. *shrug*

  7. I learned quickly in EQ that reputation was important. I’ve carried that with me in all my online games and it has always served me well. I always end up in a great guild. I think in MMO’s you either play your class well or you don’t the rest lies in you ability to get along with others.

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