Higher-Order Fun

Game Design & Game Programming

Religion in MMOs: Proposal of an Experiment

Here’s an experiment idea:

It’s common in RPGs to have some sort of religion system, generally with a multitude of deities which are more-or-less at peace with one another, and whose followers typically do not try to murder each other at the first opportunity. Sometimes, you can offer donations to churches to get some bonuses, to karma or luck or whichever is applicable. Knowing the right time to pray is even a key gameplay element in Nethack.

This sort of behavior is, of course, also observed in the real world – people will often pray and make donations seeking to get something in exchange. The difference is that, in the game world, they actually get something out of it. But they don’t have to.

Consider an MMORPG with a religion system (whether it’s monotheistic or polytheistic is not important), and a series of temples spread around the world. Players can visit those temples, and consult a list of services that the temple can perform, along with their costs. Perhaps a player can get a 5% extra to-hit bonus for a donation of 100 gold. For 500 gold, he will get a +5% bonus chance to find rare items… Or so the temple claims. The player spends his hard-earned coin, and the game says something along the lines of “you feel lucky”. And nothing changes.

How many people would believe that? Would anyone conduct a systematic, scientific in-game research to evaluate how much of a difference said donations would provide? Even if some “skeptic” told other players that it’s a hoax, would they believe it? Perhaps they’ve donated once, and found a very rare item afterwards. Their minds would be making connections. What if this “truth” is spread in forums, FAQs and wikis… perhaps in the game manual itself? After months investing money in those things, wouldn’t the player feel even more compelled to believe that he wasn’t being cheated all along?

The idea could be developed further and let players take on the role of priests, although a mechanic would have to be designed to allow them to mess with the system without easily exposing its truth. For example, perhaps there’s a holy book defining how those bonuses work, in a cryptic (and possibly self-contradicting way) and leave it to the priests to interpret it and write the list of services. Temples that offered so much that it was visible that it didn’t work would lost trust, and temples that offered too little wouldn’t be able to compete. Some form of selection would eventually choose the best religion.

To my knowledge, no game has ever implemented such a system (if you know of one, please mention it on the comments). If it works as intended, analysis of player’s reactions to the system (and to the discovery that it was all their imaginations, if the developers ever decided to Word of God (pun unintended) it) could be very enlightening. Would that change how they perceive religion in the real world? Would such a study have any impact on understanding the psychology of belief? Perhaps not. But, if nothing else, it would be an interesting topic to bring up in a religion discussion.

10 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. iko

     /  2011-06-19

    You should take a look at a mud called Achaea.
    The game has so many player-run organizations, and of those quite a few of the big ones are churches / orders that are run by players, and linked to a deity. Deities are, too, played by former players who have ‘ascended’ (i.e. became ‘admins’).

    Players can offer money or kills at every deity’s shrine; “Priests” of these deities can use the deities’ shrines powers, such as granting bonuses, buffs, even dealing damage against non-believers.

    Since the ‘churches’ are player-run, there’s the obvious aspects of corruption, scheming, intrigue and drama that comes from… you know, players.

    All that wrapped up in a system that has politics, crime, drugs, hired assassins – all player-run.
    There’s even holy crusaders! And a pope! :B

  2. Like I said, the way you put it, I can’t imagine how it would work.

    Let’s imagine they implement it on WoW.

    If it’s a too small percent and a too small value to pay, it just doesn’t matter – the player just won’t really care if it works or not.

    So, let’s imagine there is a decent percent and a decent value, so they CARE.

    MMO players can be scary. The moment they think “hey, this is odd, I don’t think this is working”, they would just… test it. And since you can write add-ons for WoW, this probably could be done in a semi automated way.

    And then let’s say eventually players DO discover the trick. Would this make them think about religion? About what a neat trick this is?

    No, they would be just awfully angry – perhaps even leaving the game. No player likes to feel tricked by a game. Taking this in consideration, I don’t think any developer would feel like implementing this in a game.

    iko proposed an interesting alternative – if churches are run solely by players, the tricks and corruption are the player’s fault, not the game developer’s. Perhaps this is a more interesting – and more realistic – way of having religion in a MMO.

    But take in consideration this is a MUD – its players are probably much more used to complex player interactions than the usual MMO player…

  3. Also, I DO have a character on Achaea… let me check this game again… :p

  4. iko

     /  2011-06-19

    Hahaha, if you have a character in Achaea, go to Cyrene and read the books about bards in the city Library. I wrote a lot of those myself :B

  5. Hindo

     /  2011-06-22

    Cindy Dalfovo: Like I said, the way you put it, I can’t imagine how it would work.Let’s imagine they implement it on WoW.If it’s a too small percent and a too small value to pay, it just doesn’t matter – the player just won’t really care if it works or not.So, let’s imagine there is a decent percent and a decent value, so they CARE.MMO players can be scary. The moment they think “hey, this is odd, I don’t think this is working”, they would just… test it. And since you can write add-ons for WoW, this probably could be done in a semi automated way.And then let’s say eventually players DO discover the trick.Would this make them think about religion? About what a neat trick this is?No, they would be just awfully angry – perhaps even leaving the game. No player likes to feel tricked by a game. Taking this in consideration, I don’t think any developer would feel like implementing this in a game.iko proposed an interesting alternative – if churches are run solely by players, the tricks and corruption are the player’s fault, not the game developer’s. Perhaps this is a more interesting – and more realistic – way of having religion in a MMO.But take in consideration this is a MUD – its players are probably much more used to complex player interactions than the usual MMO player…

    You missed his point. He doesn’t want to show that organized religion is “corrupted”. We are pretty much sure of that.

    He basically said:

    – Real life religion has no observable benefits
    – Religion in video game are biased because most of the time they DO bring concrete immediate advantages
    – MMO player tend to be very pragmatic and reward oriented
    – What would happen if they were faced with religions bringing “fake” rewards ?

    Faith, belief, religion are very sensitive subject IRL.
    Creating a blatantly false religion in a MMO to see how people cognitive biais lead them to believe it anyway is quite interesting.

    I wouldn’t be so sure the trick could be reviled this easily: talents broken for months, items and bonus bringing no effects are a common thing but sometimes nobody notice.
    Many times in my gamer’s life, I talked with a friend and realize he or I had the wrong idea about a game mechanism. As we were both “dead sure” of our interpretation we had to test it out. Except that sometime you can’t test empirically because you don’t have the formulas nor receive numeric results.

    Let’s say a 1% increase to rare drop rate for a donation to the virtual church. How are you going to prove the 1% bonus is a fake ? (Spoiler: you can’t)

  6. There’s something kind of like this in the MUD HellMOO. There aren’t different religions, but the players do have a command that allows them to pray to whatever god they choose. That prayer is sent to all the admins, who usually laugh at and/or ignore it, but occasionally do something to the player that answers their prayer, but in a way they wouldn’t have wanted it answered. See the “Jackass Genie” trope:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/JackassGenie

    The documentation for that command reads:

    Help on Prayer:
    ———————————-
    At any time, you can pray to , then enter a single line to beseech the god of your choice with an annoying request.

    We do not recommend this. At all.

    Seriously. It’s just like real life — never pray. You don’t know WHAT MIGHT BE LISTENING. Or what they’re going to do to you. Sure, you might get what you asked for. Or you might get it in a form you never intended, twisted into a terrible curse. Or you might get randomly hurled into low earth orbit. Or catch fire. Or be struck by lightning. Or nothing might happen at all.

    Whatever the result, you were probably better off solving your problems on your own.

  7. Tom

     /  2011-06-23

    In MMO’s you sadly have fairly easy way to check it. Everything you do must obviously reflect in your stats. You put on some shirt, your ac changes.. you increase your luck – YOUR LUCK ATTRIBUTE CHANGES. If it doesent, you have 100 players screaming BUG.

    If you say it does not show, it simply happens.. I guess you have few that will try it out few times, but generally if there is no change in stats, it’s obviously broken.

    If you show an increase in stats, claim that it affects certain probabilities and then it does not, it is simply a lie by the game creator. It’s just cruel and pointless and goes against their credibility, not making fun of idiots who believe unfounded claims. So good idea, but not very well implementable, if you want to sustain some sort of overview of player stats and tell your players that it reflects something reliable.

  8. jianghu

     /  2013-09-27

    wuxia eg. “heaven sword and dragon sabre” has similarly mechaniced factioning in the wulin/martial community. such perspectives can, i think, greatly enrich the western fantasy genre.

  9. 22June 1, 2012 at 10:43 pm24fI’d have to say Sonic Free Riders because he clalrey stated in his review that he felt nauseous and sick after playing. And even more than that, he had to physically get his whole body involved with it, which makes the irony much worse. All Mindjack did was screw up a concept in every conceivable way, but it didn’t hurt him like Sonic did.So yeah, Sonic Free Riders is hazardous to your health, while Mindjack is bad, but hilarious to experience, especially if you’re watching somebody else play it!c8

  10. Peacetype

     /  2017-05-07

    In Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past there is a wishing fountain in the middle of a lake. When you throw money in the fountain a message appears talking about the donation increasing your fortune and it give you a prediction about your luck today. It might say that today you will have a little luck, or big trouble, etc.

    When I played the game as a kid I remember throwing money in and wondering what effect the message had on gameplay. When it said that I would have “big trouble” I would keep throwing money in until I got a more favorable prediction. Yet I never noticed anything different in the gameplay, so eventually I stopped spending money.

    It wasn’t until I read the player’s guide that I discovered that if you keep throwing in money eventually a fairy will emerge and give you a significant power-up. So in regards to your question, the vague insinuation of a benefit without any tangible proof was not enough for me to donate more than a few times. But I’m sure there were some players who continued to donate and eventually were surprised to find that there was an actual reward for their investment.

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