stanford.jpg['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's take on gaming communities. One time he participated in a psychology experiment that colored his outlook on game rules, game communities, and the influence each has on the other - and here's some ensuing thoughts.]

The "Game Anthropologist" emphasizes game communities because a game is only as good as the community it spawns; not only are games more interesting because of their communities, but the communities that participate in a game and its network tells us a lot about the game.

This begs a question: "Which more strongly influences the other: the demands of game communities and players on the games that are created, or the games on the communities and players that play them?"

I have an anecdote on the matter.

At college I majored in one of the most overpopulated lib arts programs: psychology. At the rather large university I attended, requests for test subjects are frequent. One experiment I participated in involved a computer game a professor had designed.

I don't remember the mechanics perfectly. Participants were told they'd be playing a game and start with forty dollars, represented digitally in the game. The sum of money would increase or decrease in size depending on choices made during the game and upon the game's conclusion an assistant would present the participants with the cash equivalent of what they'd made during the game.

Each round, the players were required to give a certain amount of money to the other three players as they saw fit; the minimum amount was about five dollars. If players gave a lot of it to certain people, and everyone chose that route, everyone would get more money from the game, but if one person chose not to participate in that mechanic, that person would benefit at everyone else's expense. Each participant did this all alone by using a computer in a tiny room; we'd make our choices, and within a minute we'd find out how much each person gave to us each round.

I immediately saw the point of it. Would everyone, without human interaction, choose to do what it takes to benefit the group, or would people choose to look out for number one?

I chose to take the altruistic route, hoping people would catch on; my gaming habit made me immediately analyze the game's rules, and I naively assumed everyone else would do the same. It worked, for a little while; I gave a lot to one or two people and they started giving some back.

Before long, though, everyone started crystallizing and giving me the same amount. I couldn't budge them. I ended up with 17 bucks. Other people I had met had boasted of making twice that much, and I was only a little bitter as I later learned I had earned less than most of the other participants.

But the gamer and psychologist in me later thought that maybe the game wasn't revealing information about people; maybe it's just a game that is designed to encourage people to behave in a certain way. I thought that surely if everyone had been together in person, they'd have all cooperated to make the most amount of money together.

Maybe the game and experiment designer shared my hypothesis in the first place. The point is that I realized that the mechanics of a game have the potential to be as strong as any other context in culture as far as influencing the perceptions, beliefs, and behavior of a person. The well-known Stanford prison experiment shows us that when we agree to certain roles and strive to play them well, those roles can change us.

Money was involved in the game I played, but other games provide other forms of intrinsic motivation; we see the effects of role-playing on people in the games we play.

The long and short of it? The game makes the player. When we play games, we are at the outset making an agreement that we are going to do whatever the game tells us to. We can change our minds. We can find out beforehand what is in the game.

Yet once we sit down and press start or enter, we are promising to be someone we aren't, for a while. And we are doing it with the knowledge that we are doing it within the confines of the game. The game is law, and players choose to subscribe to that law.

"But," you may protest, "people change how games are played—the player changes the game." Sure they do! They do that with mods, and we often see communities invent and even enforce new contexts and rules.

In psychology, chicken/egg questions are common. Genetics vs. environment, emotion vs. action, behavior vs. belief. Which causes the other?

The common answer to all of these is that neither is the sole first cause—they both reinforce each other continually. This isn't a new or exciting conclusion. But for those of us playing and making and talking about games, it's something worth being reminded of. We keep purely blaming the players for being who they are, but consider this: don't game mechanics highly influence how we behave?

I mean, how can anyone who takes games seriously believe that the only factor that influences communities is that certain games simply attract certain audiences? Lots of adults want (or at least wanted) to play Halo 3 on Xbox Live.

Do immature people always choose Halo 3, or do the mechanics for matches and communication in Halo 3 provide an environment that makes it easier to treat people horribly? An MMO is an opposite environment complete with a monitoring system, a government if you will; this might explain why anyone who is gay or a woman feels more comfortable playing those games.

Our laws and most of our minds believe people have agency; abusive gamers should still be held responsible for their actions. Still, it is desirable for anyone who is producing, reviewing or discussing games to ask "What kind of community does this game foster?"

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Those interested in pursuing these kinds of concepts further should read Bill Fulton's recent Gamasutra feature named 'Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach', which has some good thoughts on similar topics.]