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