Bannings, in the case of an exploit or a grief player, seem cut and dried. If one abuses the system one will receive the same in return. When someone has done something wrong or has been a general nuisance, we are glad to see the player leave and applaud the banning. I’m as guilty of this as anyone and simply because I’m writing this doesn’t mean that I’ve changed my position. If Verant, OSI, or any other game company wants to ban a grief player or an exploiter I’m all for it. But that doesn’t mean my feelings aren’t akin to vigilantism. In those circumstances if I could ban the player myself I would and so would many others. This, however, is an attack against the player and in supporting it I’m ignoring any complaints the player may have about due process or being warned or whatever. The game company may have every ‘right’ (i.e. it isn’t a government and held to governmental standards) but that doesn’t make their actions ethical. In some cases, though, we think this type of action, ethical or not, is justified. Isn’t that what vigilantes think?

Let us consider the Mystere incident because that case is a lot less clear. Granted there’s a lot more to any banning than ever gets out to the public. For the purposes of this argument, however, lets assume that everything that was presented by both Mystere and John Smedley was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The banning was entirely motivated by some angry parent, Verant’s fear of watchdog organizations, and Mystere was innocent of everything save posting some explicit stories on websites that were not owned by Verant and had no warning about explicit content. Yet he was banned and seemingly without any recourse to getting his characters back. Characters he had spent many hours and many dollars building. Where are his rights in all this? Just let the buyer beware and leave it at that? One can be banned at any time for anything and the only choice is blind acceptance?

Raph Koster covered some of this in his essay “Declaring the Rights of Players.” This is more about the rights of the player as a consumer or even as a human being — a human being subject to the same misinterpretation of rules and regulations (especially rules and regulations that are not documented anywhere or if they are only in the vaguest of CYA terms) as anyone else. Shouldn’t we, at the very least, have an open forum to appeal to when we are banned? I have to admit that, with as popular as banning has become, I’m a bit apprehensive sometimes. I watch every word I say in the game, I make sure none of my movements can be construed as harassment, if I played EQ I’d watch every word I wrote on the net. I’m careful of what boards I post on. I’m careful of who I allow to use my account — even if I trust the person not to mess with my account I now have to be assured that this person will not be caught exploiting, grief playing, macroing, or doing anything else that might get him or her banned, lest the IP s/he uses be traced to my account and I be banned as well. Hell I’m not this careful in real life! But in the realm of MMORPGs I’m placed in the precarious position of not only having to follow rules that are written, but of having to follow rules that are unwritten and rules that might be written once someone gets banned for breaking one of these future rules. Something is really wrong here.

At first I didn’t pay much attention to the moans and groans of those that were banned. I know, probably more than anyone who doesn’t actually work in the game industry, that game companies cannot talk about accounts that are banned and that those do get banned rarely tell the entire truth about their involvement in the actions that got them banned. Probably 90% of all bannings are deserved, maybe even more. But what about those that are not deserved? What about the hapless player who allows a friend that he knows outside of the game to acess his account, unaware that his friend got that castle from duping and is about to be banned? Or the person who buys a duped item on ebay? Or the person who writes a story that some people find distasteful. What recourse do these people have? Not very much really. We’ve all heard stories about people who were banned for harassment or using scatalogical language, only to find out that the person was goaded into losing his cool when the GM arrived. Without logging features, no administrator can find out who was really at fault and the GM’s only recourse is to ban the person for what was witnessed. I’ve been summarily carted off to jail by a GM who misunderstood what I said and who I was talking to. Fortunately I kept my cool during the incident even though I was burning mad at the time. I can only imagine the reaction of someone much younger who is not used to trying to keep a calm head in a difficult situation. It’s all well and good to say that someone should not have reacted as they did — but I know that, at least in my case, it was the GM that precipitated the reaction and I never should have been carted off to jail in the first place. I cannot be the only person this has happened to.

As I continue to applaud the banning of those that I think actually deserve it, I find myself ignoring the complaints of those that don’t. Recently, it has begun to bother me simply because I don’t see the game companies doing anything to stop this trend of banning as a solution to problems. As a matter of fact, they seem to be moving in the opposite direction as they find they can ban anyone they like for anything they like and the players, for lack of time and monetary resources, have no choice but to accept this. The banned player is guilty until proven innocent and usually that innocence is unprovable and hence the player is left without recourse. Even if the innocence is proveable, there is usually no one to appeal to. If there is an appeal system and the verdict is still unfavorable to the player, the player is usually not provided with any sort of documentation, the steps that led to the decision to ban, who was responsible for the ban, what documentation or other ‘evidence’ was looked at that provided justification for the ban. Poof! There goes upwards of 2000 hours of game time, a few hundred dollars, and perhaps an avenue that provided one with an enjoyable past time and friends to share that past time with.

But the problems that banning is a solution to still exist and banning people doesn’t solve the problem. It just makes players fearful. It creates this us vs. them mentality between the players and the game companies when all anyone really wants to do is work together and have a great game and lots of fun. I see all the bashing Verant is taking over thier actions and it sort of makes me sick. Not because it isn’t deserved — it may well be. But because so many people love EQ and really hate the company that produces it. I wonder what could be accomplished if everyone worked together and the players and game companies actually treated each other with a modicum of respect. That isn’t going to happen, though, as long as the solution to problems encountered with the player base is the game company equivalent of “off with his head!”

I know this genre of entertainment is in its infancy. It won’t be forever and sooner or later the game companies are going to have take some responsibility for the way they treat their customers and how they solve problems specific to this industry. Sooner or later, they will ban someone who didn’t deserve it and has the time, money and resources to not only prove it but to take the game company to court. I also can’t help thinking that sooner or later, a court will tell a game company that, no, you cannot just summarily strip someone of a 3-year-old character without providing proof that the person screwed up. That proof will probably have to be a bit better than someone with the player’s game name posting on a non-game-company board.

Games should be created with logging features that c
prove or disprove a person’s actions in game. Avenues of redress should be opened for players whose accounts are banned. Customer service departments should grow to accommodate the fact that some accounts will have to be banned, that some people who do not deserve the banning will be caught in the loop, that these people need to be treated with respect, and that players are not guilty until proven innocent. Bugs need to be fixed and when a game company learns of a bug it needs to be addressed then — not three to six months after its been widely exploited. Other solutions need to be created by people who actually work in the industry — not some crazy ranter on a website. Even though these solutions might be time-consuming and costly, this is still a glaring problem that needs to be addressed. If we have to pay more for the games in order to have this problem addressed, then so be it. It is not the player’s responsibility to figure out what he might be banned or punished for or even to prove his innocence. I understand that it is hard to provide this kind of service, however that does not release the game company from the responsibility of trying to do so.