to live is to game
Reading Time: 8 minutes one of many game shelves at casa cas
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, we’ve been circling around the topic of how authoritarians approach problems and try to solve them. Their utter inability to solve their problems — or even really to accurately identify them — boils down to a mistake in focus. They’re approaching their situations completely backward, thus dooming their attempts to fix anything. Today, let me show you how I figured that out for myself on a roleplaying game.

to live is to game
one of the many gaming bookshelves at casa cas

(Years ago, I briefly discussed today’s anecdote in Victim Culture. The games I’m talking about here are MUDs — Multi-User Dungeons/Domains. They’re like MMOs, just in text format. Anyone remember the 80s classics “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” or “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“? It’s like that, crossed with World of Warcraft.)

Long Long Ago, In A RPG Far Far Away…

Many moons ago, I staffed a niche fantasy roleplaying game online.

For anyone keeping track, this story takes place years before the big Tolkien-themed game I later staffed. This one was much smaller and based on a tabletop roleplaying game that I doubt more than 1% of gamers have ever even heard of in their lives, much less played. The playerbase, therefore, was small and tight-knit and there weren’t a zillion admins floating around at all hours like some games have.

Also notably, this game required full roleplay immersion at all times. It permitted no out of character chatter without good reason and whatever you did while there was to be taken as an in-character action. So if a character, say, stabbed a stray dog to death ingame, the area’s characters would be talking about it in horror — as if it’d really happened in a real-world neighborhood — and alerting the local constabulary to a possible danger in their midst.

However, our gameworld was quite large — which meant that players could wander around a lot in it without admins’ awareness of every move they made. And that meant that if they did do something off-limits, it’d be very difficult for admins to notice it happening. Of course, we could check this stuff in the game logs — but the game usually kept us way too busy to do that.

My “job” there, if one could call it that, was almost completely hands-off; I built stuff on another port of the game for its leader to transfer to the “live” port. I didn’t interface at all with the playerbase — though I often chatted with the admins who did, like Leaf.

Leaf Notices Something Odd.

One day, Leaf mentioned she’d been going through a particular player’s logs.

Thaldor the Cozener had started his current character about a month previously. He didn’t hold a high-ranking role in any way, but somehow his character seemed to have gotten stupidly stinky rich in his brief time with us. Leaf wanted to know how he’d done that, because this game (and its inspiration) are both infamous in hardcore nerd circles for slow-burn character development. We didn’t want players advancing that quickly — especially if he was exploiting bugs or something to do it.

Almost immediately, Leaf discovered that yes, Thaldor the Opportunistic was indeed advancing through bug exploitation.

See, he’d discovered that some non-player characters (NPCs, all the “people” in the game who are powered by code, not human beings) had been set up incorrectly by some anonymous builder years ago. Their damage and hit points were crazy low. So instead of being powerhouses, these guard NPCs were utter weaklings — even my real-life self could have knocked them out! In addition, they wore very expensive armor and had no clan affiliation — so none of the other guard NPCs would hear their calls for help and join the fight.

Seriously, it’s like someone had set up a situation specifically to benefit cheaters.

A Regular Thing.

So Thaldor the Jackroller would log in, then immediately check to see if the game had reset (through crashes or intentional reboots — we had an ingame command that gave such statistics to anyone who asked). If the game had indeed reset, then he would bop off to murder these NPCs, loot their armor, and sell it to other NPC shop owners.

All in all, Thaldor the Conjob performed this stunt every few days. He was now one of the richest characters in the game.

Leaf didn’t think he’d come up with this plan on his own. He seemed to have zeroed in on these particular guard NPCs without experimenting on any others.

However he’d found out about this bug, he’d made tens of thousands of coins in just weeks in a game where the average character might see 10-20 coins a month. Leaf immediately suspected that this error had gone into the game when it had first started years earlier. Suddenly, she wondered how many other people had gotten rich this way.

Dealing With a Cheater.

Obviously, our game had rules requiring the reporting of bugs. What Leaf had found definitely counted as a reportable bug. But Thaldor the Sneak hadn’t reported it. Whoever had told him about the bug hadn’t either — and so on down the line.

I asked Leaf what she’d done about it. Had she banned the player?

No, she told me. She’d just gone and quietly reset the NPCs to have the correct stats and affiliation tags, and of course she’d double-checked other NPCs as well to make sure theirs were set correctly. She’d rebalanced dozens of them along the way.

So the next time Thaldor the Terminally-Surprised performed his stunt, of course, he got destroyed almost instantly. You could probably have felt the admins’ karma boner from upper orbit that day.

Oh, and the game was permadeath — which means it allowed no respawn, resurrections, or whatever else games do these days if a character died ingame. Once a character died, that was it (barring system snafus, which we usually allowed). The player needed to make a new character from scratch — and the new one could have no association or links with the previous one.

That, at least, admins could ensure easily.

How Dare She!

As you might guess, Thaldor the Now-Pining-For-the-Fjords got  very sore with Leaf, of course. But she had remarkably little sympathy for him.

In a strange way, she actually felt grateful that he’d inadvertently revealed a problem that needed to be fixed, and her way of thanking him was not banning his entire account from the game.

Leaf arranged for the disposal of the fortune this guy had cheated to get, reducing it to a more reasonable amount for the petty crook he’d actually been approved to play originally, and set up an interesting plot for some other characters to play around finding it.

Otherwise, though, she didn’t do anything to the player. He had lost his character, and to her that seemed like plenty. Making him start over and play by the rules this time felt fair to her.

(He stayed on as a player, too, incidentally — we kept him under scrutiny for a bit, but he seemed to have learned his lesson.)

Since I was just a builder, I had no input on such decisions. Really, that was probably for the best. As fresh off my deconversion as I was at that time, I still bore the wounds of authoritarianism in my psyche — and that is the worst kind of admin to have ruling in cases like this one.

A 180-Degree Shift.

That said, that whole incident changed my entire perspective about all kinds of stuff. It was a downright dizzying experience.

I hadn’t even imagined such a response to a cheater in any game. Leaf had focused on the system that’d inadvertently presented a golden opportunity for cheating, and addressed that instead of beating up on the player who’d taken advantage of that opportunity. It’s not like she could punish every single cheater — our game logs didn’t even go back that far. So she saw little point in shooting the messenger.

After that, I began to see game cheaters in a very different light — and to start seeking ways to prevent cheating that didn’t involve putting players on an honor system. An honor system only works as long as there’s some tangible way to deal with problem children in the system. If there isn’t a way to address them consistently, then the game needs to make honor systems irrelevant.

(Here, for example, we have the ROE. It works in the context of our commentariat because we can address rulebreakers easily and consistently. In an online game like that, though, an ROE is as reliable as a preacher’s promise.)

Reinforcing Lessons.

Years and years later, a huge fiasco broke out in another game I staffed — the Tolkien-themed one, in fact.

Weeks earlier, one of the leading roleplay admins, John, had decided to start a super-secret elite roleplaying group in the game — sorta like superheroes. They’d be soooo super-secret and soooo elite! John had discussed the group only with a few select admins (myself included) and some skilled roleplayers in the game who he thought would be good fits.

The first thing I thought at the time I heard about it: You are never gonna keep this one secret, fam.

In a small tabletop game, sure, a gamemaster can keep all kinds of secrets. But in a big online venue, players gossip constantly with each other. No way, no how would all of them keep John’s big secret.

And they didn’t.

Someone blabbed. By the time I heard about the plot, it’d already leaked.

We never found out who’d leaked it, though we had our suspicions.

Game Administration: Lesson Zero.

To their credit, the players tried to keep John from finding out it’d leaked (they knew he’d be upset), but then some rando went up to him one day and asked to be part of it.

John’s plot was already well underway when I first heard about it, but if I’d known in advance what he planned to do, I’d have told him to craft his plots with offline chatter in mind. Once it did leak, I suggested he roll with it. The playerbase already roleplayed around a lot of other known secrets — what was one more? All we asked was that they play the game as if they didn’t know, and for the most part everyone did that.

But John was devastated. He withdrew the entire plot.

For years afterward, I’d hear various players sighing over what could have been. All of them knew why the plot had been withdrawn, and none of them would ever volunteer the source of the initial leak. I never held that reticence against them, either.

Unfortunately, John never learned the lesson that sad episode should have taught him:

The system itself needs to nurture and foster the game its admins actually want to run. Lots of disciplinary problems and constant dramas/scandals indicate serious problems with the system’s design.

Predators and Prey.

Game admins can’t just rely on their players to play honestly just because that is the right thing to do. A system that works like that creates nothing but predators and prey; the people who honor toothless requests to behave will inevitably get victimized by those who do not. The system won’t stop any of it from happening.

In such a game, the admins will be worked to the bone poring over logs and punishing wrongdoers — if and when they find out wrongdoing has occurred at all, of course, and if they care about stopping it in the first place. On the rare occasions that a wrongdoer is caught and punished, that doesn’t deter the others; they know their chances of being caught and punished are very slim anyway.

No, it’s way easier to prevent wrongdoing by altering the system itself to be extremely unfriendly to wrongdoing in the first place.

And the day I realized this truth, my game administration skills grew by leaps and bounds.

Years and years later, that growth would come in handy when I began wondering why big authoritarian Christian denominations kept exploding with horrific scandals.

As it turns out, real-world systems have a lot in common with gaming systems. Man alive! Who’d’a thunk?

NEXT UP: The measure of a woman.

Please Support What I Do!

Come join us on FacebookTumblrPinterestTwitter, and our forum at! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures. About 99% of my insta consists of Bother being adorable.)

Also please check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview

If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! This blog exists because of readers’ support, and I appreciate every single bit of it.

Avatar photo

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...