Brussels Sprouts, Presidents, Bartle and Tobold

You know how important someone is to a particular industry by the fuss they cause.

A few years ago a certain president who was the daddy of another certain president — do you like how I’m not being political here? — made the statement that he hated Brussels Sprouts. All of a sudden there was an outcry. A thunder was heard in the Heartland. The combined Brussels Sprout farmers of the USA rose up and delivered quite a lot of the ‘orrible little veggies to the White House. A big fuss over what was quite an innocent statement of culinary preference.

Now if I make the statement on this blog that I consider Brussels Sprouts to be hideous lumps of green putty that grow in Satan’s nether regions — which I do — it is unlikely that I will wake up tomorrow morning with several tons of the nasty things on my front doorstep. Nor will I likely be vilified by the Brussels Sprouts farmers of Australia and issued nasty threats. That might just be because I am considered somewhat less important of a commentator than president G.H.W. Bush.

So it’s interesting to read all the comments about Richard Bartle that have surfaced over his comments regarding the current state of MMO games, World of Warcraft, and Warhammer Online. A recent comment about Warhammer, "I’ve already played Warhammer. It was called World of Warcraft" while not really particularly helpful, or accurate, has garnered quite a bit of animosity around the traps.

Of course Richard Bartle was (one of?) the designers of the original Multi User Dungeon (MUD), the text based role playing adventures that are the grand-daddies of the modern MMO game. Since that time, Dr Bartle has spent a great deal of his academic career studying and commentating on the virtual world phenomenon. This of course makes him an authority, and subject to scrutiny.

And he’s received a lot of that recently with his ongoing commentaries on World of Warcraft. Much of it highly critical. Of course criticism is to be expected when you have a go at a phenomena like WoW, Warhammer, or Whatever in which a lot of people are emotionally invested.

When anonymous readers criticize they fall into one of three categories.

  1. The Rationalist,
  2. the Zealot, and
  3. the Troll.

The Rationalist usually writes well thought out responses to a post, and to other commenters on the thread. Sometimes these don’t appear to be well thought out, passion and bias for a subject can make an argument look odd, but at least they are trying. They don’t tend to start off by name calling.

The Zealot, aka the Fanboi, will tend to take the blogger to task for what they have written. The better ones will often have a good argument, but will tend to be one eyed ignoring the bloggers arguments all together. Often though the Zealot will attack the blogger personally, resort to name calling, and present straw-man arguments. The worst of these will attack quite viscously.

The Troll often comes across as a Zealot, but the motivation is different. They don’t tend to care about the topic, the only motive is to start a fuss. They can often come in on the side of the blogger, but will resort to the methods of the worst zealots in order to stir up trouble.

Tobold, and most of the other bloggers I read, fall into the first category, the Rationalist. But they are also passionate about their subject. You don’t end up with a blog career of more than a couple of months if you aren’t passionate about your subject and Tobold has been writing about the MMO subject for quite a few years now. That can lead to passionate words being used when posting, and if the issue is controversial the conversation will be inflamed. But a lot of that depends on how popular and authoritative the blogger is.

Tobold too is now finding out — maybe he knew already — his place in the MMO culture. In some of his recent posts, Public Figures and Public Figures – Part 2 he writes about the recent abuse that he has received from some of his readers, ironically in response to some of the comments he made about Bartle.

So now I’m a bit at a loss what to do. I could pull a "reverse Lum" and turn into "Tobold the Mad", with an angry rant blog, and not care about all the comments with foul language that would undoubtedly attract. But that isn’t really my style. I could write much less, or shut down the blog for a long period unless I’m out of the public eye and thus regain the ability to say what I think. Or I could shut down the blog completely and open a new one as "Dlobot", without telling anyone, and escape scrutiny that way. But I think the most rational is a mix in which I use the current summer MMORPG slump and holiday period to write less, try being myself without self-censorship, and wield a heavy banstick if that causes the language in the comments to deviate from my Terms of Service.

Honestly, I hope Tobold doesn’t let the negative comments affect him and keeps posting with the same frequency and quality that he has been. I enjoy reading his ongoing commentary, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything he writes, I respect that it’s written with thought and introspection. And frankly, I also like that Tobold’s blog is a good source of ideas for my blog when I’m having trouble coming up with my own.

Tobold, Richard Bartle, Scott Jennings (Lum), Raph Koster, and others have become an important commentators in the MMO world. You can tell that by the controversies over their words. What everyone, including the Zealots — forget the Trolls, they’re not interested anyway — need to realize is that commentators are as important in this field as they are in every other. They are representative of the culture in which they interact, and in no small way shape that culture with their conversation.

And the more voices in a conversation, the healthier it is.

Those voices don’t have to agree all the time. In fact, it’s better that they don’t. Strong cultures are made up of diverse viewpoints. Cultures where everyone is of the same opinion stagnate and fall away. The world of MMO games only benefits from the diversity of ideas and viewpoints that come from the individuals engaged in conversation.

Richard Bartle has done us all a favor with his comment comparing World of Warcraft with Warhammer. While it’s certainly controversial, and where I don’t really agree with it, it has stimulated a conversation. It’s made us think. And that’s important.

Tobolds response to Bartle has continued that conversation. For those of us who are rational, and for those of us who are zealots we have also been forced to think and perhaps even to have considered where we stand. And that’s also important. As long as we do it without resorting to abuse.

If a voice is silenced through an onslaught of vicious criticism, we have all lost.