Paying it Forward in MMORPGs

Over the weekend, I finally watched a film that had been on my “to watch” list for the last few years: Pay It Forward. I had always shied away from seeing this movie because I had been told it had a sad ending. The film is an inspirational story of a small boy named Trevor McKinney who takes a social studies class assignment to heart and attempts to change the world by positively affecting those around him. The theory is this: find three people and do some kindness for them that enables them to change their lives. The only condition for this generosity is that the recipients must “pay it forward” and try to change the lives of three other people. In the movie, the determination of the boy to help others spreads like a fire and sets off a movement of people helping people.

The Pay It Forward Challenge


Six years ago something similar happened to me that has profound effect on me ever since. It was during the first few months of playing a new online game called EverQuest that I had the pleasure to meet two real-life brothers named Utarg and Grimblade on the Veeshan server. At the time, EverQuest was a harsh, unforgiving world where every ounce of progress was hard fought. My human paladin named Brontus was a newbie to MMORPGs and I was finding it very hard to survive with just my banded armor and minotaur axe in an increasingly challenging world. These brothers noticing that I was a fellow paladin befriended me and noticing my bland gear gave me a rare magical two handed called a Shiny Brass Halberd. This weapon was previously possessed by an infamous orc chieftain named Hagnis Shralok who had recently been terrorizing the good folk of Highpass Hold.

Naturally I was stunned by their generosity and blown away by the fact that I finally had a magical weapon. I remember their only condition was something like the following: “someday when this weapon is no longer of any use to you, please find someone like yourself, offer it to them and ask them to do the same”. (Back in those days you could actually trade items to other players after you had equipped them). I cheerfully accepted the weapon and since that day I’ve always tried to spread the philosophy of paying it forward in the online worlds that I’ve been a part of. On that day, after being moved by an act of compassion for me an online game became an online word.

During the early years of EverQuest I had the privilege to meet other like-minded folks who also believed in helping their fellow players. I recall the story of the player that used to give orc pawns fine steel weapons so that the unsuspecting newbie might find a great weapon when they looted the corpse of that orc. Other players would create their own events like treasure hunts and trivia contests and give away some nice magical gear. Unfortunately due to the mechanics of EverQuest you can no longer give non-quest NPCs items. Of course there were the beggars in the East Commonlands tunnel. I admit sometimes I fell for their hard luck stories about losing their corpses and would give them a nice weapon only to find them auctioning it off in the /auction channel a few minutes later. Just like the real world there is always some inherent risk in charity being wasted on those that don’t really need it.

Eventually my EQ experience become predictable. I joined a uberguild, did the raid thing and so on. Somehow, there was something missing as I felt I was just not having an impact on the world of Norrath. I decided to volunteer for the EverQuest Guide Program . Here finally I had found a home among caring, compassionate people who shared my enthusiasm for helping others. It was in the Guide Program that I felt I could really make a difference and in my own small way change the face of Norrath. In helping players by answering their petitions, resolving their issues, and producing live quests & events I felt empowered in ways far beyond what my EverQuest play character and contributing x amount of DPS for my uber guild could ever do. The wonderful thing about the EQ Guide Program was that it was a vehicle that enabled player-volunteers to give something back to the world of Norrath.

Not much is said publicly about the EverQuest Guide Program due to it’s rules of secrecy but I will say this: they are the true unsung heroes of EverQuest and the living embodiment of the “pay it forward” concept. Guides were rarely thanked by the players and the staff of SOE and often maligned by players for their inability (by design) to resolve their issues. Many of the Guides routinely worked 20+ hours per week answering petitions, resolving player disputes, doing player weddings, running quests (if we could find a GM to copy the quest chars). No one but the volunteers will ever comprehend the sacrifice and contribution they made for the citizens of Norrath. They were paid nothing for all their hard work except given a free monthly account.

For me online worlds are more then about having the most powerful class, being in a uberguild, having the very best loot. Online worlds are really about the exceptional people we meet and befriend along the way: the kind-hearted players that give advice, the role-players the bring the world to life, the selfless players that organize public events, the compassionate players that help strangers by grouping with them. Yes they are out there if you look hard enough. Sadly these unsung heroes don’t get much attention from the devs of most companies, yet without them most online communities would perish. Raph Koster’s inspirational article entitled A Story About A Tree poignantly relates how one such community was affected by the death of a player and shows us the power of one person to make a positive difference in many lives.

How then can we answer the challenge of Trevor in Pay it Forward and apply it to online words?

We first need to realize that the avatars we meet are people just like us. They are worthy of our respect and compassion no matter who they are in real life. We need to be more tolerant of others and challenge them to do better. Inside every bad player is a potential good player if only someone would take them under their wing and help them. We need to put away our own selfish desires every now and then and take the time to help complete strangers. We can do more to lead by example in-game and on discussion forums. We can be beacons of light in a world of negativity and darkness. We also need to urge gaming companies to create volunteer guide and councillor programs so that there are officially sanctioned ways where compassionate players can give something back to their communities. We need to do our part to request more official assistance and empowerment of player run quests, events and activities. Gamemasters also need to recognize players that make outstanding contributions to the community instead of just being punitive to offenders.

Online gaming is really all about community. We need to realize that it’s *we* that make up this community and take ownership of our responsibilities as members. Often we hear players complain about how static and predictable MMORPGs are with questions like: “Why can’t I change the world?” In truth, we can change the world because we are that world. Pay it forward.


Latest Comments

  1. ocie mills March 11, 2008