“Social Context in Massively-Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs): Ethical Questions in Shared Space”

By: Dr. Dorothy E. Warner & Mike Raitor

From: International Review of Information EthicsVol. 4 (12/2005) pp. 46-52.

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To better understand what ethical questions arise from Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs).

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Rhetorical Analysis

Because the paper isn’t actually answering questions, only raising them, it’s not a particularly hard thesis to prove.

“The complex organization of these social structures [i.e. online game worlds] raises ethical questions regarding players’ personal responsibility, behavior, and expectations of each other, as well as how conflict is managed.” (p. 47)

The paper does allude to some of these ethical questions, although it starts with a couple relatively benign examples of griefing from World of Warcraft or the now defunct Toontown Online.

“Intentional harassment of other players is called ‘griefing,’ which utilizes aspects of the game structure or physics in unintended ways to cause distress for other players.” (p. 47)

The examples from World of Warcraft include the “Corrupted Blood Incident“, in which a viral debuff that drains health allowed higher level players to spread this disease to low-level players.

“Many players took advantage of the circumstance as a griefing opportunity and began to intentionally infect other characters, and to ‘store’ the disease by infecting their pets.” (p. 48)

While the event only lasted a week, the reaction from the player community became an important case study. Wired wrote a piece about how this information could be used by terrorist cells, quoting one griefer who said, “People got really smart about figuring out how to cause the most damage to the largest number of people”, and wrote another about how it can be used by epidemiologists studying actual viral outbreaks. The article discusses neither of these.

What the article does explore are the real-world effects of certain rule-breaking video game behaviors. For example, Chinese gold-farming.

“Rural Chinese workers can earn a higher salary through gold-farming than through agriculture[…]” (p. 50)

The paper doesn’t explore other economic ramifications of online games, but presses the importance of studying them.

“These circumstances bring a new dimension to issues of inequity—through the economic implications of cross-over between real and virtual worlds, and through ethical questions regarding the disparate nature of relatively wealthy individuals in one culture paying a pittance for services performed by relatively poor individuals working in sweatshop conditions.” (p. 50)

It neglects, however, how virtual worlds can function as working economies, such as Eve Online, whose developers hired an economist (source from International Business Times). Nor does it extrapolate the gold-farming example into real-world money laundering, such as when Team Fortress 2 items were believed to be bought and sold to launder money. However, this essay doesn’t preclude the possibility of these actions; it just doesn’t say a whole lot.


The essay uses a few examples from 2005 (or prior) for how virtual worlds need to be studied for the ethical consequences to the real world. The paper doesn’t necessarily have another side to it, so it is raising awareness to the issue rather than arguing a side.

One could argue, however, that it focuses on only the negative side of virtual worlds, using griefing and exploitation of gold-farmers as its main examples, and is therefore warning (rather than informing) the readers. Although, I hesitate writing this much since the conclusion is relatively benign, simply stating:

“It is important that researchers continue to explore these ethical questions as MMOGs become more complex, so that we can address their possible implications in online and offline settings.” (p. 51)

Potential Uses


“Intentional harassment of other players is called ‘griefing,’ which utilizes aspects of the game structure or physics in unintended ways to cause distress for other players.” (p. 47)

The article gives an excellent working definition of griefing, which is sourced in many articles (here are just a few).

Online Gaming

“In these online game worlds, players gain and lose points, abilities, and resources to accomplish goals within the game.” (p. 47)

Another useful working definition, this one for “online game worlds”.


featured image “Ethics and Morals: Timeless and Universal?” by Stephen Wu licensed under Creative Commons Attribution NonCommerical NoDerivatives 2.0



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