The politics of game death

There’s an excellent piece in today’s New York Times Circuits Section, about the politics of death in online video games like Everquest. The question boils down to: When you die, what happens to your stuff? Because after all, people inside the games spend days or even months slowly making their characters more powerful and more wealthy. If you die suddenly, all sorts of creeps can instantly show up and loot your corpse. But then again, if you create a world where there is no cost in dying — i.e. you don’t lose any power or stuff — then death has no sting; anarchy breaks loose, as people recklessly attack one another just for the hell of it.

This has led game designers down some rather hilarious paths. My favorite anecdote is from Rodney Humble, a developer for Everquest:

Mr. Humble decided to make changes to EverQuest in 2001 after months of internal debate and at least one sleepless night. At 4 a.m. one wintry day, hours into a game session, his character died.

“I couldn’t log off because I needed to get back to my corpse before I logged off or else my corpse would decay and I would lose all my stuff,” Mr. Humble said. “That’s not fun. That’s when I decided, you know what, we’re going to modify this.”

So he changed the game, reducing the death penalty. Since Christmas 2001, EverQuest players have been able to spend days or even weeks taking their reincarnated characters on a “corpse run” back to the site of their death to recover magical items and weapons. Before, players had only hours.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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