Broken Toys

I know you were all just waiting on pins and needles for my opinion of the ex-volunteer lawsuit.

I’m not going to go into whether or not there’s legal grounds for the ex-vols to sue Origin, nor am I going to analyze the impact of this lawsuit on the MMOG community. Instead, I think it’s relevant to look at Origin’s volunteer program itself, to see what would cause some of its staunchest defenders to turn around and do their damndest to destroy it.

Ten years ago, I was suicidal.

Now, obviously, I wasn’t terribly effective about it. Otherwise this really would be “The Rantings of Myschyf the Mad”. But for a good many years it was an obsession that danced around the back of my brain, I suppose a mirror for the alienation from all that I felt. I would mull over the pornography of death… catalogs of rifles, true-crime stories, police reports… and fantasize about how fragile everything… how fragile I really was. Hold up your arm, and realize how little connects it to the rest of you. After all, we were all just bags of tissue and liquids. There wasn’t anything remotely resembling a soul, nothing holy that required any special effort to save. Just parts. Lots of parts. Parts that could be broken.

Broken toys.

And when you have a broken toy, that is just a bag of parts, no special value, really, you don’t worry about repairing it. You just keep on playing with the broken toy.

We are all broken toys. There is no factory that we can be sent to for repairs, although many diligently try, whether through psychiatry, religion, self-medication, whatever. But you don’t fix a broken toy. It just sits there, mocking in its fragility, in the chest with all the other broken toys.

“OK, Lum, you’re depressing the hell out of me, but what exactly is your point?

Just this: many of us, many broken toys, are attracted to escape. Escape hatches, not coincidentally, happen to be what MMOG developers are diligently crafting. Escape hatches attract those in need of escape.

Those most in need of escape cling to the escape hatch the tightest. They wind up, in many cases, as volunteers to help others escape, as well. After all, they’ve spent the most time there, they know everything there is to know about the game itself. It’s time to move, if not on, up. And joining the volunteer program offers the seductive allure of being part of something – part of the game that you’ve already spent entirely too much of your time on, and by God, this way you can leverage that. You can help others, and maybe help yourself as well.

I disagree with Myschyf on there being no altruists in gaming or in life in general. For one thing, I grew out of my suicidal fascinations by discovering the altruistic parts of myself. When I helped others, I found parts of myself that did not deserve to die. Maybe altruism is inherently selfish, but that does not make it any less noble. Helping others is good. Helping others makes one good. It’s not a bad way to start crawling out of the escape hatch.

And most in UO’s volunteer program really do serve – serve – with the aim of helping others. Despite taking an unbeliveable amount of abuse from nimrods who just discovered that they could type the word “fuck” on their PC and Daddy would never find out, to breaking up fights between drama queens who insist that their school of roleplaying kung fu is superior, to people who just don’t understand that having a specially colored robe does not necessarily mean that you can override house placement rules.

Unfortunately, for some, volunteering does not take the form of crawling up from the escape hatch, but retreating further inside.

Inside the cliques, the power schemes, the mindless paperwork, the jockeying for the attention of the barely adult GMs that supposedly oversee them, the whispering campaigns, the scandals, the transcontinental sexual liasons. All over a game – a community – an escape hatch.

We used to chronicle some of the worst offenses commited by little tinpot Sosarian dictators here on occasion. Around the beginning of the year, we stopped. Why?

Well, for one thing, it got better. Gordon Walton, head of customer service, and Jessica Mulligan, at the time head of the volunteer programs, were both hired by Origin in the fall of last year, and set the cleanup of the volunteer program as one of their highest priorities. They enforced guidelines for conduct, standards of behavior, and logging of who did what on which shift. It helped some.

For another thing, it went underground. Both because of the directives to clean up conduct from the top, and an awareness that those awful “rant sites” were watching, people got somewhat more circumspect with their misconduct. No more did GMs treat #uo-council as their personal harem, at least not openly. Favoritism still went on, mind you – the fact that the vast majority of senior volunteers were female is no coincidence – but it just wasn’t as blatant.

And most importantly, I didn’t want to deal with it any more. I had reached the capacity of my limit to care. I had spent hours on the phone with current and ex-volunteers who yearned for someone to care. Absolution. Deprogramming. I don’t know. They wanted someone to tell them there was a world beyond the volunteer program, that they could have friends outside of an IRC channel, that… that they could exist.

You might think I’m talking about a cult, instead of a customer service organization, and I’m not sure you’d be all that off. Cults are also popular escape hatches, after all. They reassure you that you’re not in fact a broken toy, that you have a purpose and a reason to be.

In any event, another sea change in the volunteer program took place later this year. For whatever reason – internal shakeups at Origin, disgust with the conduct of some, phases of the moon, whatever – the folks at Origin who were tasked with actually dealing with the counselors discovered they didn’t like them very much. The lack of respect for their charges began to seep from every email, every conference. “Here is what you will do. You will do this or leave.” “No, we won’t tell you why this happens. You don’t have a need to know why.” “We’re taking this power away from you now. We’re not telling you why.” “You no longer can have a free account. We can’t tell you why.”

To players this may not come as much of a surprise, since Origin’s position as one of the most communicative MMOG developers only shows how little communication actually happens in this industry – but to many volunteers it was a betrayal. They had joined the program to be on the inside, to have the knowledge and access that others were not privy to, and now they were denied this – they were just as in the dark as those they purportedly were over. They no longer were special.

Thus the rage began. The thought I hear expressed, time and again, talking to ex-volunteers involved in the current suit and from others, is that Origin ignored them. Origin wouldn’t listen to them. Origin wouldn’t acknowledge them.

Origin treated them as broken toys.

So we have this lawsuit. I don’t think it’s about money – money that would go more to lining lawyers’ pockets than anything else – but about something else entirely.

Lawsuits are, more and more, the accepted means of bludgeoning corporations and companies. My last employer, who was truly slime that oozed across the earth, used to brag about the number of lawsuits he had collected in his bottom desk drawer. Money – and suborning the judicial branch of government to beat it out of others – is the reagents, the magic spells of this world. It’s the way to strike back. To demand that you be paid attention to. To speak in a voice that is not ignored.

Whether or not the lawsuit is credible – whether or not it has any chance of success whatsoever – is irrelevant. Whether or not the litigants are in the right or in the wrong is meaningless. They have spoken. The industry is listening.

Will Origin still have a volunteer program in six months? Will other companies dare to make their own? I don’t know. The magic eight-ball is saying “Signs point to ‘NO'” at this point, and I don’t feel confident enough to contradict it.

But I can only wonder if, if some people sat down in a room and simply talked to each other for a half an hour, if all this could have been avoided. If someone could have taken the trouble to listen to someone they particularly didn’t want to. If.

Because, god damn it all to hell, every single fucking person involved in Ultima Online and Everquest and Asheron’s Call and Shadowbane and Anarchy Online and My Little Pony MUD and every other fucking online game has a voice. They have a purpose. They are human beings deserving of basic respect and courtesy. They are not merely for you, you executives and game masters and volunteer coordinators and SLCs and ASRCs and MHHRPDQs to post “funny stories” about on your company blackboards. They are not merely grist for your gossip mill. They are your fucking customers. They are paying your goddamn fucking salary.

If you cannot take anything else from the flaming hell that the experience that the UO Volunteer Program is rapidly becoming, then take that. Every single fucking person you deal with on a daily basis is deserving of respect and common courtesy, no matter how much you feel superior over them.

Even the ones who do your work for you, for free, because they are so ungodly codependent that they don’t know any other way to help.

Do I support the UO ex-Volunteer lawsuit? Of course not. It’s a massive Mongolian clusterfuck. And it’s truly sad that, for some, the only recourse they have to being heard is in screaming so loudly that the pillars of the world they used to live in threaten to topple.

Because in the end, we’re all broken toys. We are all the same. No special robe, no acronym by your name, no 3l33t access changes this. We all yearn for a connection to a world that rejects us.

We all want something remotely resembling a soul, something holy that can be saved. Because we all suspect, in the back of our mind where we fear to look, that we’re just parts. Lots of parts. Parts that could be broken.

Broken toys.