Railing Against the Gods: The Unfortunate Metaphor of Virtual World Administrators

Metaphors are powerful tools.

Our minds instinctively grasp for metaphors as a way to more easily understand and classify novel situations.

But some metaphors are more deeply resonant than we may initially suspect.

Which can sometimes lead to unexpected and rather unfortunate consequences in the broader cultural context of online community development.

A multiuser 3d immersive virtual world is a metaphor for the physical world.  Users populate these worlds and form communities within them.  It is the role of the companies building such worlds to provide the technical scaffolding that allows users to explore predefined game experiences and goals, to create user-generated content, and to communicate with each other and build relationships.

And when something needs fixing, the employees of the companies running these virtual worlds log in as Administrators.

Administrators have technical abilities that mirror the powers of gods as imagined in the history of human culture.  They can move anywhere at will, manipulate anything in the world, or even change the laws of virtual nature.  And, perhaps most significantly, they have the ability to erase not only the existence of any user from the world, but to also erase the very existence of the world itself.  Flick a switch.  Lights out.

It’s common for Administrators to be referred to both by themselves and by members of the user community as “Game Gods.”  And in many of the software clients used to access different virtual worlds, there is an Administrator Access level that is usually called something like “Enable God Powers.”

At first, it may seem mildly amusing for administrators to be referred to as gods.  After all, it’s only a computer program, right?   People don’t really think of admins as deities.  It’s just a job.

But the danger lies in the powerful metaphor of the virtual world as a mirror of the physical.  Once we deeply embrace the metaphor of a physical world, our mind has a tendency to fill in the gaps.  Over time, the images on the screen become less of a picture to look at and more of a window into an environment that feels quite real.  Our brain treats it as a real place.  And that means users in a virtual world will naturally start to embrace deeply rooted cultural concepts that are familiar to them in the context of human culture in the physical world. 

Pantheons of gods are a recurring theme in human culture and mythology.  And these gods (particularly the Greek and Roman) were flawed beings who often made mistakes.  They spent their time visiting themselves upon human beings, wielding great powers that were often destructive and disruptive to the physical world, and discussing amongst themselves great secrets that were unknown to mere mortals.

Sound familiar?  The actions of “flawed gods” map very closely to the actions of many administrators in virtual worlds.  Which makes the metaphor of admins as gods something that online communities will tend to instinctively embrace on a subconscious level.

But it’s a lousy metaphor for building a healthy and productive relationship between virtual world administrators and online communities of users.

Human beings in ancient mythology railed against flawed gods.  Humans were playthings or pawns in incomprehensible games between competing deities.  At best, the relationship between humans and these gods was one of guarded suspicion.  At worst, it was antagonistic.

Administrators and developers need to cultivate a relationship with online communities of users based on trust, respect, transparent communication and cooperation. And since the best ideas for building successful virtual worlds usually come from the users, it’s in the best interest of all administrators to foster as much collaboration with users as possible.

So let’s get rid of any mention of gods in virtual worlds.  Such illusory concepts will only sow the seeds of discontent.  The truth of the matter is that users and admins are two parts of an essential ecosystem.

With no users inhabiting them, a virtual world will dry up and eventually be shut down.

With no admins fixing or developing things, a virtual world will stagnate and fall apart.

Users need admins as much as admins need users.  And it’s only by them working together that the successful future of virtual worlds will unfold.

“For this is the mark of a wise and upright man, not to rail against the gods in misfortune.”  -Aeschylus

-John “Pathfinder” Lester

About John Lester (Pathfinder)

John Lester is an expert in the educational use of virtual worlds and 3d simulations. His background is in neuroscience research and medical education, and he previously worked at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Linden Lab. John is currently the Chief Learning Officer at ReactionGrid Inc., helping clients develop new systems for immersive learning using web and mobile-based virtual world platforms.
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21 Responses to Railing Against the Gods: The Unfortunate Metaphor of Virtual World Administrators

  1. Angèle says:

    John, that was a very thoughtful article. I completely concur, too. Thank you for this piece. Excellent point.

  2. Very nice post Pathfinder. As any good anthro/sociologist would tell you, gods need worshippers or they fade away.

    “Yearning, keep them burning, keep them earning
    Someones got to pay for all these televisions
    There’s children singing, and church bells ringing,
    and people skipping merrily to work and dreaming
    and dreaming

    For maybe, you’ll wind up crazy, and when you’re drinking
    You may start thinking that you’re stupid and you’re lazy
    Well just keep earning, keep on yearning,
    and you will believe there are no gods and monsters
    gods and monsters

    So free of contradictions, no dereliction,
    There are no gods and monsters
    So useless and so pretty and so good
    So pretty and so good, gods and monsters

    Now have I got you watching, for all the gods and monsters
    There sitting, reclining in the back row of your mind
    I think thats what you’ll find
    Yes there are gods and monsters
    Yes there are gods and monsters
    Yes there are gods and monsters”

    - I Am Kloot, ‘Gods & Monsters’

  3. Nice. In narrative storytelling we hate the “deus ex machina” endings because they break the narrative flow, they break the reality that’s been established.

    Similarly, when the admins make troublesome interventions and decrees, it breaks the flow of the world.

    As I virtual world performance artist, I have in the past Read, Commented on, and Written Blog Posts on things that admins like Linden Lab have done that seem disruptive to the world. Over time I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of blogs that comment on Admin/Architecture/System/Policy issues… this is appropriate in that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

    Yet as I’ve come to realize, in spite of many wonderful artists, how dramatically the Admin-focused blog posts seem to outnumber the arts-focused blog posts, I wonder if being too vigilant doesn’t leave you with little time to exercise that freedom. My personal goal has become to stop talking and do as little thinking as possible about Admin issues, and try to focus on the work that brought me into these worlds in the first place, which for me, is the art.

  4. I’m fond of Promethean figures. Take knowledge from the gods and make life better for mere mortals.

    Thus, the kind folks who are using OpenSim, both on closed and open grids. Zeus then has to round up the Olympians and make life better below the mountain. It’s too late to craft thunderbolts, because Prometheus, Taliesin, and Bugs Bunny have long decamped :)

  5. The cooperative attitude of avatars and founders toward each other in InWorldz is one of the many aspects that I really value about this particular VR platform. An example. I was having problems with lag on the sim I am developing for Jeri Rajha (Miso ^^ has one, too). Elenia, one of the three founders, came to my sim immediately, found the rogue script, corrected it, and gave me a Phlox-compatible copy. I was astonished and very grateful. Customer support in “the other place” was never very good and is now non-existent.

  6. Pathfinder –

    What metaphors do you recommend instead?

    (I’ve been thinking: activities director on a cruise ship…)

    But the fundamental issue is one of power dynamics. Unless you’re running your own grid — and who has time, really? — you’re going to be a user with limited powers, and someone else out there will have the ability to shut you down at any time.

    People rail against Facebook and Google and Microsoft (well, maybe not Microsoft so much anymore) because those companies have power — no “God powers” metaphor required.

    Once the power dynamics change, so does the level of discontent. And that’s the *only* time the level of discontent changes.

    Folks don’t shake their fists and rebel against webhosting companies — they just post bad reviews and switch hosts. They don’t rebel against bad waiters — they just don’t leave a tip, then go to another restaurant next time. They used to get really upset about the phone company — now they just switch to another cellular carrier.

    So it’s not just absolute power, but absolute monopoly power that gets folks upset. National governments get more criticism than local ones, even though folks interact with the local governments more, because it’s much easier to switch cities than countries.

    I think admins could reduce in-grid tensions by doing the following:

    * Increase transparency. The less capricious a decision seems to be, the more people are willing to abide by it – even if they don’t personally agree with it.
    * Distribute power. Form resident mediation boards (nobody likes jury duty, so this will probably require some serious bribery), allow folks to vote on minor issues, allow folks to vent, etc…
    * Make it easier to leave. By making it easier to leave, it also makes it easier for people to stay. They don’t feel trapped. If they really don’t like something, they can go somewhere else, so they don’t get heated up as much.

  7. I like Pathfinder’s article… but can’t say as I agree. He brings up good points, but there’s a question of both validity and responsibility / blame.

    There are two uses of the word “god” I’ve seen in reference to game companies:

    1) Respectfully, regarding those in charge and deserving of respect because of accomplishments
    2) Disrespectfully, regarding those in charge and who act as arrogant gods

    I think it is in the second light that people often refer to admins who abuse their powers or– more likely the logical targets– managers that set up the policies admins are required to follow.

    As such, perhaps the term is correctly used. I dislike the use of the term, but my personal feelings are irrelevant. To be more specific… some Lofty Lunkheads act like they’re gods and lord it over their customers, quite similar to the ancient abusive gods spoken of in the article. They make their decisions without consideration of consequence or harm, wielding their “powers” according to whim rather than lasting good.

    In such environment, the term “god” is used sarcastically, to indicate their position, power and attitude. As such, I’d have to say it’s a fairly accurate description.

    When it comes to “sowing discontent”… I would present it’s not the customer use of a mere term that does so… but the activities of the company. If they want to avoid discontent, perhaps a little more respect for customer needs and welfare would be the best way to achieve greater satisfaction. Putting profit above customer needs is a sure path to minimized growth.

    I will again say, as many times in the past: we need to stop blaming the customer for the sins of the company.

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  11. Frans says:

    If we need a metaphor, I would suggest, steward or caretaker.

  12. I find the flawed gods metaphor useful and use it frequently in my blog. I admit to a bit of sarcasm when I use it, but it is a good tool for illustrating the distance, in power and accessibility, between the users/residents and the administrators/gods. We have almost all have had occasions where we feel like surfs, beholden to some almost unseen, all powerful royalty.

  13. Jessica Lyon says:

    Just wow.. Very VERY well written and very well grounded. If only the lessons in this post would be learned lessons by those who truly need it. Though I fear it may be a lost cause at this point.
    Thank you Pathfinder.

  14. can maybe do sharing in a quite easy way with the gods

    in addition to formal jira make a prayer wall. where ppl can just post a prayer for something they would like to get from their gods. then other ppl can come and pray as well, yes i would like to have that also

    give everyone 100% prayers. so if you pray for 2 things then they get 50% of ur prayers each. if pray for 4 things then 25% each. make so that u cant pray for more than 20 things at the same time, bc u just being greedy after that. like how many ponies does one person actual want for xmas (:

    can stop praying for things at anytime. so u can pray for something else that maybe comes up later that is now more a priority for u

    the gods then can look at the prayers and be in a better position to decide what is to get their blessings

    also can make more friendly status messages instead of techy ones. like “we are listening” “we thinking about it” “we going to try some stuff and see” “sorry no can do and heres why”. stuff like that. would be nice if the gods indicate in this kinda way as to where they maybe at on them. even if is to say no and heres why it not in our power to grant. sorry. pls pray for something else

    bc will be thousands of prayers then the gods not have time to hear them all bc they busy doing other godly things most of the time. i not get any priests to help them tho. bc priests have this habit of thinking they speak for the gods sometimes. so i would get some nuns to help. sisters of mercy quite good at herding penitents and pilgrims into groups so that their prayers become metaprayers. bc quite often the penitents all pretty much praying for the same thing just using dif tongues

    am being a bit cheeky with u here (: but i think a simple way of voting for things we would like would be a nice thing generally, and a barometer for hot issues. would help the communication between ourselves and the admins and coders of our worlds. or at least give them a better understanding of how we make be feeling or thinking at times

  15. Wolf Baginski says:

    One thing I wonder about in SL is the secret justice that surrounds the AR system. I’ve made a few Abuse Reports, most recently a Linden-run sandbox which had been filled the scripted garish boxes that were lagging the whole region. And always it is auto-acknowledged with the news that I will never hear of the consequences. I will never know if my report was inadequate, or in the wrong category, or even simply wrong. There’s no feedback, no chance to learn.

    To some extent I think that has fed the notorious vigilante groups. If there are no Police apparent, you might fall for all sorts of bad ideas. “Copybotters”? Nobody seems to officially say anything, and so a year ago we had the Redzone mess. How can i stop griefers? Enter the costumed All-American superhero who uses griefer weapons against griefers, and who sometimes thinks that everyone in site is part of a Mission Impossible team of griefers and copybotters in their virtual rubber masks. We shouldn’t trust such people, but is an alternative there which we can trust?

    I don’t know the words to use. But policing and the like can’t be arbitrary. We have to trust it, and I think that means we have to know what happens to the malefactors.

  16. Vaneeesa: “I wonder if being too vigilant doesn’t leave you with little time to exercise that freedom. My personal goal has become to stop talking and do as little thinking as possible about Admin issues, and try to focus on the work that brought me into these worlds in the first place, which for me, is the art.”

    Vaneeesa, I could not agree more. While there always needs to be a watchman to cry the approaching doom (and hopefully, there always shall be), I spent some seven years on Second Life, often blogging, commenting, “JIRA-ing”, and doing everything in my power to get Linden Lab to change their path. The results: zip. They continued to do what they wanted to do, continued to put profit above customer welfare, and as a result stopped growing, alienated thousands of customers, put OpenSim on the map by their abusive policies, and have resulted in a grid that despite all overly-optimistic statements and type… has been stagnant since October 2008.

    For myself, while I learned a great deal on SL about people and society, as well as a bare minimum of information about modeling 3D-words (I consider SL a grammar school for 3D designers)… I realize all the time I spent blogging and commenting– aside from the benefit of perhaps saving some people from making a very, very bad investment– did very little good at all. Our group finally threw up our hands in disgust and after seven years… left SL in November 2011 for more-sane pastures. As you state for yourself, I now spend my time in building, designing, creating, and not worrying about paying a ludicrous $350 a month for one sim (trust me, $50 for 45,000 prims is far less stressful). As a result we now have more than 20 beautiful lands where we don’t have to worry about destructive company policy– at all– and we just enjoy ourselves and engage in our creative endeavors.

    There’s a lot to be said for leaving the drama behind (and I don’t mean user drama, either). Sometimes the act of exercising freedom isn’t shouting out against oppressive tyranny… but simply leaving it for better places.

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  18. I like the idea that metaphors in the real world influence metaphors in the virtual world — that’s why in SL/OpenSim we don’t “host content” but “lease land”, for example. No wonder we also use the “god” metaphor to describe all-powerful users in a virtual environment.

    When reading your article, a lot of things came to my mind. The first, which you illustrate so clearly, is that the “virtual world gods” share so much of the attributes of the mythical Greek, Roman, or Norse gods. In fact, reading those sagas, we can easily see how “human” those “gods” are — they have the same emotions, aggressivity, and troubled minds as we humans, but they just happen to have superpowers. Indeed, the superheroes of contemporary comics are less troubled people than the mythical gods of the past. Even Jahwe self-proclaimed Himself as a “jealous god” and was fond of smiting down His creations when He was unpleased :)

    My point is that when I think of the word “god” I always think of a human being (in the sense of being subject to their emotions and internal conflicts) with superpowers. That describes 90% of system administrators I have met :)

    Maybe a better word would be “superhero”, since, at least in my mind (and I’m no huge reader of comics!), superheroes seem to be more reasonable when employing their powers, and at least make an effort to adhere to some ethics. Even if some superheroes have complex internal conflicts (say, Spiderman) they at least make a serious effort to stick to their own ethics and put all their efforts into benefitting beings as well as they can, and usually do not despair when they fail, but just try harder next time.

    So we need more “superheroes” as system/grid administrators and less “gods” :)

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