Online role-playing games are highly social environments in which players can enjoy vast virtual worlds, exert agency, and explore ideology, be it for reasons of (re)negotiating existing discourses in a virtual world (Henning 2017) or simply for the sake of escapism – positive or negative (Calleja 2010; Kaczmarek and Drazkowski 2014). Anyone willing to act in such worlds can find something to cherish, so long as the makeup of the game allows for it. In the face of longevity and the need of adapting to a market, online games often undergo drastic changes that may leave certain players behind. This essay analyses how structural changes can negatively affect players and their autonomy.
In writing about Kantian ethics, Keath elaborates on one central point being the “mutual respect for autonomy.” (2013, 458) In essence, it is important to respect others as autonomous agents, rather than only using them. In online games, the application is irreducibly complex, given the number of agents involved and affected to different degrees. One such example is Tibia, an online game that has thrived for 22 years. Over time, Tibia has managed to maintain a relatively stable player base, that has existed alongside a variety of drastic changes to the world and the mechanics. One of the reasons why Tibia achieves to enthral players for years, lies in its largely unrestrictive nature. The game offers a lot of freedom that can entertain anyone, from those that only want to own a house and chat to, players that wish to kill monsters and gain high levels. As such, the game can encapsulate many varieties of autonomy.
However, as of April 15th, Tibia enforces new prices for house rent (CipSoft GmbH 2019). Most likely due to inflation threatening the in-game economy, the monthly rent has gone up by a few thousand percent. Linderoth and Bennerstedt (2007) situate changes of player habits within the realm of social structures or game mechanics, causing players to discontinue the game or to vary their playstyle. The force of such drastic changes becomes obvious in terms of how this affects the player’s agency. Raising the rents by such a huge amount, influences how players will play the game. For those who merely play for the sake of owning a house, it means that they are now forced to work to keep their house. Those who play for gaining levels, on the other hand, it means to set aside more money for the rent than usual. Whereas the decision may have been for the good of the economy, it limits players in their usual autonomy as they either must adapt how they act in the game, quit the game, or sell their houses. In either case, enforcement now stands well above a great portion of the freedom once offered to the players.
In conclusion, the example of Tibia has demonstrated, structural changes can restrict players in their autonomy by driving them into particular playstyles. Despite the overall good for the game’s economy, the player’s autonomy is affected in such a way that they may no longer be able to enjoy Tibia and act in the way they used to. For the sake of longevity, it seems as though the overall good may be more important than the respect for the individual.
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