A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Thursday, April 28, 2005

On Ethics and EverQuest

There is a new trend developing in the online gaming world: The sanctioned buying and selling of in-game items for real-world money. It was perhaps initiated by Microsoft’s announcement that “microtransactions” will soon be available for the XBox2; gamers can upgrade the gear they use in XBox2 games via the purchasing power of their credit cards. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) – creator of my beloved EverQuest II – has recently decided to follow suit, albeit only on a few select EQ II servers.

Riding a Griffon By the Qeynos Aquaduct Posted by Hello

Now, let’s be perfectly clear: There has always been a “black market” for EQII coin, items, and characters. There’s an entire company called IGE that is based around acquiring and then selling this in-game loot, and there are hundreds of private individuals who sell virtual gold pieces or high-level characters on eBay. But SOE has always opposed this practice, even going so far as to ban the accounts of players found participating in this “secondary market”. Over 700 of the very worst offenders were banned from EQ II just a couple weeks ago, in fact.

So why the sudden about-face?

Well, in SOE’s defense, they are facing a nearly impossible task trying to stop the sale of virtual goods for real cash. As an enthusiastic player of the game I can tell you first hand that it is very, very difficult to track the movements of in-game coin and items, and harder yet to prove that an illegal sale has taken place when such things are transferred between characters (people give each other items and money in-game all the time, and most of it is perfectly legitimate). But by setting up servers where this kind of play is legal, SOE hopes to control it: Those who want to buy and sell virtual coin, items, and characters will find it cheaper and easier to simply play on one of the Station Exchange servers rather than make illegal transactions with IGE or an eBayer on a regular server. Or that’s how the theory works, anyway.

I remain unconvinced it’s a good idea.

A Quest NPC in Nektulos Forest Posted by Hello

My problem with it isn’t that SOE wants a new revenue source, or that they are trying to beat IGE at their own game. I’m fine with both of those things. It’s the ethical aspect of all this that bothers me. On the EQ II forums discussion about all this has been, shall we say, spirited, and one poster asked what were the exact objections (both ethical and practical). I answered thusly:

Purchasing in-game items, coin, and characters with out-of-game money lowers the value of those things. A 50th level character is no longer someone who spent months mastering his class and learning about the world of Norrath; now he is just as likely to be someone who knows little or nothing about the game but had an extra $500 in his wallet. People who do not have that kind of money to spend - college students, those on disability, people supporting a family, whatever - can't compete. The game stops being about who devotes time and energy to it. It stops being about who is skilled and dedicated. It stops being about community and adventure and fun.

It instead becomes about who has the most RL cash to spend. It becomes about the things one has instead of the adventures and fun one had getting them.

As the game is now, when I see a 45th level Warden with the "Lore Seeker" title I know there's a serious, dedicated player on the other end of that character. Someone I might go to for advice, someone who I respect for their ability to play well and advance. But if characters and equipment and money can be purchased, that's no longer true. I'd be just as likely to be looking at an ignorant newbie who happens to have a high-limit credit card.

Those are the concrete reasons. The abstract ones are a little harder to explain - especially to someone who doesn't seem to see them at all - but I'll try:

Sportsmanship matters. What would football be like if anyone off the street could buy magic pads and cleats that made them run and hit better than Tyrell Owens? What would chess be like if you could purchase skill on eBay to surpass Bobby Fischer's? What would baseball be like if starting as pitcher for the Yankees was a matter of cash-on-hand instead of talent and dedication? Would any of those games even be the same? Would they be exciting to play or entertaining to watch? Not for me they wouldn't, and not for millions of others.

Tyrell Owens is amazing because of what he can do, and because his ability is the result of superb talent and long years of hard work. 1000 carbon copies of Tyrell Owens who simply purchased their skills would be far less impressive. They would, in fact, totally cheapen something that had been pretty awesome.

I'm not sure if this kind of thing can be taught. By early adulthood, one has either developed a sense sportsmanship, a love of the game, a sense of fair play, and a desire for honorable competition or one has not; if you don't see acquiring in-game advantages with out-of-game money as cheating then I doubt all the explanations in the world will sway your opinion. You're not a gamer, you're just someone who likes blowing shit up on your computer screen.

I think that purchasing coin and items and characters is flat-out cheating, and if it ever expands beyond the specified cheating-allowed servers I'll leave. Instantly and without looking back. I have no desire at all to play in a world where wealth trumps dedication and talent and hard-won skill (and for the record, I myself have plenty of money with which I could purchase characters or items). It's just not any fun that way, and the kind of people such gaming would attract are not the type I want to play with.

The ethics here are pretty simple; if you have difficulty grasping them I'm fairly certain the problem is with your ability to understand and not our ability to explain.

As it stands now, SOE is going to limit Station Exchange to one or two new servers that will be going online in June. As long as it stays there I have no complaints; if others want to buy their way through the game (essentially paying someone else to play part or most of the game for them) they’re welcome to do so as long as they do it over there. It’s none of my business what people choose to do in the privacy of their own homes … or their own servers.

A Minotaur in the Crypt of Betrayal Posted by Hello

If it starts to spread to existing servers, however, I’ll find a new game to play. EverQuest II has some serious competition coming out in the next couple years from Vanguard and Dungeons & Dragons Online. I love EQ II and would loathe having to leave, but if it becomes a choice between personal ethics and my favorite game, ethics will win out.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Note: I had originally stated that microtransactions were coming for the PS2; that was in error. They will be a feature of the Xbox2.


(All screen shots courtesy of guild Britannic Lore, Oggok server)


Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Earth First! Then Prison.

William Cottrell was sentenced to over eight years in prison today for his part in the firebombing of SUV dealerships in California. I’m really, really happy about this one; I despise left-wing fanatics like Cottrell every bit as much as I despise right-wing fanatics like Eric Rudolph. Of course Rudolph’s crimes are much more serious – luckily no one died in the SUV bombings – and thusly Cottrell’s punishment is considerably less.

Firebombed SUVs (AP Photo) Posted by Hello

But eight years is still a goodly chunk of one’s life, especially in federal prison. He will suffer there; it is a place unlikely to be friendly to a soft young man who studies physics at Caltech. And with federal crimes you serve the entire sentence … there is no early parole or time off for good behavior.

Perhaps it might seem strange coming from me, but I think there are some good arguments against SUVs. They are gas-greedy and unnecessary for the average person; owning one is usually more of a status symbol or image thing (“Look at me, I’m ready for anything in this!”) than it is a matter of practicality. I don’t think they should be outlawed or anything, I’m just saying that some of the environmental arguments against them have merit. If you need one for the safety of your kids or because you really do drive off-road a lot, then fine. But if you have one just because it’s trendy I believe you are on shaky ethical ground (gas prices being what they are, your financial ground probably ain’t too solid either). And no one who owns one should dare call themselves an environmentalist; those who pontificate about how we must “protect the planet” while driving themselves or their family around in an SUV are guilty of rank hypocrisy. I find their position laughable at best.

In any case, justice was served today with the handing down of Cottrell’s sentence. Like Eric Rudolph, he will pay the price for his fanaticism and the misery it brought to many lives. A lesson here, I think: Radicals are the enemy of us all – be they from the left, right, or any other political extreme – and we do well to deal with them harshly.



Friday, April 15, 2005

Friday Caption Contest

Every Friday I'm going to post a funny, weird, or surprising picture. Feel free to think of an amusing caption and leave it in the comments.

"Now all I need are 12 giant slices of rye bread and a big jar of mustard." Posted by Hello

And for those who might misconstrue what's actually happening here, that tiger was raised with piglets. They're not actually food, so all you Smiths fans can put away your "Meat is Murder!" signs.



Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Liberty Dog

Shane Moore is blogging again, with a brand-spankin' new site called Liberty Dog. Note that he doesn't call himself Shane Moore, he calls himself S. Michael Moore ... but every time I write Michael Moore I'm filled with the urge to strangle every member of the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, so we're going with Shane here at The Zoo.

Anyway, go give Liberty Dog a look-see. The "Blogs of Note" section on the sidebar needs to be updated anyway, so I'll probably have a permalink to his site by the end of the week.

Welcome back, Shane.



Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Jim Hake Goes to Lebanon

I got an e-mail this morning from Jim Hake – as did, I’m assuming, all the bloggers who support Spirit of America – asking for help with their mission in Lebanon:

I'm in Beirut, Lebanon to kick off a project to support the
pro-democracy demonstrators at the "tent city" in Martyrs' Square. Their goals are independence (i.e., Syria out of Lebanon) and free and fair elections. The tent city demonstrators are the center of gravity for Lebanon's pro-democracy movement. They are leading the charge. They put together the massive demonstrations 3 weeks ago. As they go, so goes Lebanon's independence. And so goes a great opportunity for democratic transformation of the Middle East and Arab world.

They need our help to sustain their struggle. Our project is raising
support for them (food, shelter, water, etc.) While I'm here we're
looking into other things to help (e.g., Internet access at tent city)
People can go here to help:

SoA Lebanon Project

100% of all donations go directly to the things that will help the pro-democracy demonstrators.

Syria is publicly acting like it is playing nice and withdrawing.
Behind the scenes they are destabilizing the country, delaying the
elections and intimidating the opposition. The good guys in Lebanon need our support.

Please blog and help get the word out. This message is posted on our blog at:

SoA Blog



Like the Iraqis and the Afganis, the Lebanese are going to have to work to build their Democracy. But we can help with advice, and with money and materials when they are needed and deserved. I’m going to give Jim’s new program in Lebanon a few bucks out of my wallet … I urge you to do the same.

All of the recent anti-Syrian activity in Lebanon has me thinking: Is it premature to say that President Bush’s strategy seems to be working? That after free elections in Afganistan and Iraq, the citizens of other Middle Eastern nations are now waking up to the fact that they don’t have to live under the thumb of dictators? Many right-leaning organizations are saying exactly that; the prediction that removing the region's two worst regimes (Saddam and the Taliban) is now leading to popular uprisings in nearby nations against similar tyrannies.

It might be a little early yet to make such a claim, but I certainly like the way things are going. The overall situation is definitely changing for the better, and I doubt that the Lebanease would have had the courage to stand up to Syria if they hadn’t just watched the Afganis and the Iraqis vote (and if they hadn’t seen a thug much tougher than Assad humbled before all the world).

Raise a glass to the people of Lebanon next time you’re at the dinner table or your favorite bar. And if you’ve got a extra $10, $20, or $50 bill in your wallet, send it to Jim Hake.



Friday, April 01, 2005

Camping Photos!

Back in February we had our fifth annual cold-weather camping trip to Ginney Springs, FL. The people I take this vacation with I've known for a very long time ... some of them for more than 25 years. When I talk about my friends, these are not the people I mean. The people I met in college and the ones I game with are my firends; the folks in these photos are family.

Here is our camp site. Note the preponderance of pick-ups and SUVs. We hate the Earth!

The Campsite Posted by Hello

By the time we got to high school, this group had three Chris's, a Greg, and a Craig. Thusly we started calling each other by out last names - a habit that continues to this day - or simply by the universally acceptable "Hey, asshole." Here is a picture of Chris T (6'6", 240+ lbs, nicest guy you'll ever meet) and me (5'8", 175 lbs, rapacious smartass). Chris B (5'10", 190 lbs, likes to shoot animals with guns and hang their heads on his wall) is shown between us as an example of a more normally-sized male human.

Chris T, Chris B, and Sandor Posted by Hello

We did a funny face series of photos, but the girls wouldn't participate. Here is a picture of them looking cute instead. Courtney is Ed's wife, Tina is Chris O's girlfriend, Tara is Matt's wife, and Jen is Chris B's fiancee. I figure the lot of us guys must have winning personalities for such lovely women to tolerate our hideous, troll-like appearances.

Courtney, Tina, Tara, and Jen Posted by Hello

Chris B's funny face picture. The safety glasses and trucker cap really sell it.

Funny Face Chris B Posted by Hello

Ed managed to roll his eyes back into his head for his attempt, which deserves a commendation for effort. We usually have to hit him over the head with something heavy to get that effect.

Funny Face Ed Posted by Hello

Matt got his fingers involved. I shudder to think what those grubby little nose-pickers of his had been touching all day. We probably should have given him a tetanus shot.

Funny Face Matt Posted by Hello

A minimal effort from Chris O. He's just not passionate about making funny faces for the camera. I don't know what's wrong with him.

Funny Face Chris O Posted by Hello

And lastly me. I would like to assure all of my younger readers that your Mom is not lying; my face got stuck like this forever. Now hideously disfigured, I must roam the Earth lamenting my foolhardy face-making. Always listen to your Mom!

Funny Face Sandor Posted by Hello

On Monday I'll have a post with some really neat historical photos (which are of a much more serious nature). Have a fun weekend, all, and stay safe.