January 23, 2004

Time To Stop Playing Now?

by Andrew Stern · , 12:26 pm

Tim Wright, one of the developers of Online Caroline, poses a question that I think deserves a new discussion thread. With his permission, here’s his post:

Being partially responsible for this thread I thought I’d better chip in. When I talked about people stepping over the line I was thinking of behaviour such as:

a/A soldier in the British Army sending pictures of himself in full uniform, and then offering to kill Caroline’s boyfriend for her. Seriously.

b/A woman flaming Caroline about how sad and lame the site is and how only pathetic lonely old men would ever interact with it. Meanwhile on the same email account the woman’s husband is telling Caroline how unhappy he is in his marriage and how he’d like to run away but is too scared of his wife – who hits him regularly.

c/The man who tracks down *my* home address as a tech admin contact for one of the Caroline servers and comes peering through my letterbox at half-eight in the morning looking for Caroline.

d/The schoolboy who writes to Caroline to say ‘stay away from my Dad he has my mum and does not need you’.

e/The man who phones my office seriously worried that because he had complained to our (fictional) chief exec about our treatment of Caroline that we were about to send the boys round to turn over his place.

I could go on. I have tens of thousands of mails. Thousands of pictures and phone messages. These people are not acting. Well, I guess some are.

The key question is: how responsible should I feel as the author for these people and their responses. And how should I respond to these situations? Should I write back as Caroline and try and create a soft landing for everyone within the realms of the fiction. Or should I just come clean and say ‘this is a fiction, Caroline is not real, it’s time to stop playing now…’?

8 Responses to “Time To Stop Playing Now?”


  1. JJ86 Says:

    It makes you wonder if deep down inside, John Carmack feels responsible for the Columbine killings? There are a lot of neuroses in people’s minds that can be triggered by many different stimuli. It just so happens that people will always respond to things they perceive. A certain percentage will respond negatively. There is no way to predict or prevent a negative response even with something as seemingly harmless as Barney the Dinosaur.

  2. andrew Says:

    But the difference here is that Caroline is posing as real.

  3. JJ86 Says:

    Well that belies two questions:

    1. On the internet what content is assumed to be real? Is there a specific cue that determines this or is it based on common sense?

    2. If something on the internet is assumed real, what type of response is appropriate? Given the same situation on the internet as in RL, is the same response justified or even possible?

    K, that was four questions, but basically only two concepts :)

    I would think that because of the inacessibility of internet situations versus RL situations, that the internet seems much less real. I act differently on IRC than I would in RL. Therefore I take just about everything I read as borderline truth. It maintains a separate reality than RL.

    When Brandon Vedas OD’ed on drugs on IRC, did anyone take it seriously as they might in real life? In that situation what was the appropriate response given no real world info on ripper?

    http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1111/1836_306/101175956/p1/article.jhtml

  4. nick Says:

    When Brandon Vedas OD’ed on drugs on IRC, did anyone take it seriously as they might in real life?

    Yes, among other things, they provided the number for poison control and told him to call it. They looked up his domain registration information trying to find out what his phone number or name was so that someone could call his mother or an emergency number. (The information in the record was fake.) Given that there were several people online (diffusing responsibility), the others online did seem to react quite seriously.[*] One reasonable response was to try to find the real-world information associated with the person they only knew online.

    [*] In a typically idiotic error, journalism about the incident focused not on the reasonable respose of people online, but on one individual who, according to reporters, seemed to be egging on “Ripper” by repeatedly saying “Ripper is a gangster!!!” That individual was a bot.

  5. tim wright Says:

    I’m not sure it’s so clear cut this divide between when we’re ‘playing’ online and when we’re living out a real life (or RL as you call it – nice).

    In my experience, quite often people do start with the idea that they are playing a game online and maintain an air healthy skepticism about what they come across. But over time, things start to blur (if the game is good…) and we start lose site of where the chalk circle is that we drew in our heads as the zone in which to play.

    In the previous thread there seemed to be a perception that immersive games were only effective if they maintained their internal logic (their verite?) at EVERY turn, whatever the consequences in terms of the player’s behaviour and the effect on other people around the player.

    I feel very uneasy about this. Playgrounds needs barriers (or edges or fences or some way for players to step out of the game) – or perhaps some area in space and time akin to what kids in the UK called ‘homey’ where you become ‘safe’ and you take time out of the game.

    Perhaps RL *is* homey?!

    I’m also worried that if we don’t believe in anything fully that we see and experience online, what kind of training is this for RL (if play is some form of training whic I know a lot of you out of there don’t buy…).

    Do we go through RL assuming everyone is a liar and huxter and a gaemplayer until they prove otherwise?

    Must stop now – starting to sound like old moral fart ;-(

  6. andrew Says:

    Part of me feels like you should push this to its limits, that it’s really good and interesting to create those kinds of reactions in people. Look, it’s not like you’re brainwashing anyone to commit crimes or directing them to act out on other real people (in the case of the soldier). If people get a little worked up, and no harm is truly done in the end, then that’s okay. Besides, society will learn in time that computer-mediated characters (e.g., personas on websites) may very well in fact be fake, just as people pretty quickly learned to not trust TV advertisements that oh-so-earnestly act like they’re in the best interest of you the consumer.

    I think it’s great when entertainment/art provokes people, upsets their lives a little bit. People need to be provoked. The case of the unhappy marriage is not your fault, in fact “safe” characters like Caroline, one can argue, can even help bring issues to the surface in a relationship.

    The case of kid is more troubling, since kids can’t easily distinguish fiction from reality. That’s tougher to figure out how to avoid.

    You wrote: Playgrounds needs barriers (or edges or fences or some way for players to step out of the game)

    For most experiences, all you have to do is turn away from the screen, and you’ve stepped out of the game. IMO, that’s good enough. Now, if a game assaulted you in many other ways (phone calls, tons of email, emailing your friends, hacking into accounts, etc.) then maybe that’s going too far…

    Do we go through RL assuming everyone is a liar and huxter and a gaemplayer until they prove otherwise?

    If they’re online, well, yes…

  7. RPG Game Says:

    It might be good to post some explanations on his site like on Altarion so that people could take it less seriously. Then he’s not responsible for those people any more.

  8. Scott Rettberg Says:
    Travel, Identity, Blogging
    Last Thursday, in my Internet Writing

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