MMOs Were Originally Designed to Be Shared Social Experiences

by Wolfshead on February 9, 2011

Most MMO enthusiasts have noticed a sharp decline in the quality of the WoW community of late. Cursing, nastiness, bullying and other forms of rudeness have now become endemic in Azeroth. MMO commentators and even rank and file MMO players are finally realizing how serious this problem is. I’ve been passionately waving a red flag for years now to no avail.

The fact is that MMO companies have long neglected to design the need for player interdependence into their game worlds. When players don’t need each other it breeds anti-social behavior and it results in the devaluation of other players. Players become nothing more than advanced NPCs.

For some reason, the masters of the MMO universe just assumed that the community — much like oxygen in the real world — would always be there. They were wrong.

Some people are trying to rewrite history of MMOs and asserting that requiring community as part of the design was some kind of accident. I do not agree. Community and socialization were always the entire point of MMORPGs back then. With the advent of the Internet, the transition from single-player computer game to virtual world was predicated on the assumption that players would naturally want to have shared online experiences in a group.

What happened?

We Were Meant to Play Together

Player interdependence was in fact the foundation for the entire MMO design ethos including classes, groups, guilds, encounters and more. Everything was designed around this premise. The reason that the environment was so dangerous and unforgiving in a virtual world like EverQuest is that it created a natural need for players to band together to overcome shared adversity.

Player interdependence and the socialization that resulted was the glue the elevated almost all aspects of virtual world design into a new kind of synergistic experience.

I’ve used this analogy before but as a child growing up in the frozen tundra of Canada, I would always notice when there was a major snow storm that suddenly everyone in my sleepy Ontario town would pull together and help each other.  Those not so friendly neighbors that we never spoke to would become instant good friends. People would smile at each other as we all helped each other to dig out from the snowstorm. We bonded through shared adversity. It was magical.

At one time, MMOs had the same power to create that kind of community magic.

We as humans were not created to be alone. We were made to be social. It is our mastery of social skills such as the ability to love, to nurture, to trust, to cooperate and expect reciprocity which has made us successful and helped us to conquer disease, famine and almost everything else that this world has thrown at us.

Why then have massively multi-player online games become so anti-social?

The Solo Problem

Much of the current anti-social nature of MMOs lies in the fact that the current design paradigm deems that a successful MMO should be solo friendly. MMOs are trying to cast a big net to catch all of the fish in the ocean. It wasn’t always this way.

Soloing was never actually intended in MMOs. After all, what would be the point of a person becoming part of a virtual world full of thousands of people if they had no intention of ever interacting with their fellow players?

There are both good and bad forms of emergent player behavior. This is going to get me in trouble again but here goes: soloing is an aberrant emergent behavior and I feel it’s at the root of most of the problems in today’s MMOs as companies are now actively trying to pander to these people in order to make money at the expense of the greater good.

A possible analogy to promoting socialization can be found in the college and university system. Students in their first year are encouraged to live on campus. Why? So they can partake of the social life and experience the fullness of the campus lifestyle. It’s also important for young adults to start the process of becoming independent and they need to be away from the influence of their parents and have a chance to be with their classmates.

MMOs are similar in that their original purpose was for players to experience the virtual world together. So it is perfectly natural and valid that MMO developers should be encouraging people to socialize and cooperate in online virtual worlds.

Narcissus and the God of War Syndrome

Another reason for the decline in civility is that game developers have become enthralled with their own egos. Instead of creating a stage for the players to perform on, they would have us worship their creations. They have forgotten that they are here to serve and not to be served. What do I mean by this?

A symptom of this syndrome is that today MMOs feel more and more like single player games than they do multi-player online worlds. The reason is that quest designers have been unable to resist the temptation to “tell stories” and recreate the epic story of the popular God of War video game. The result is you have MMOs being transformed into single-player games complete with phasing and cutscenes.

Since controlling the environment for a single player is far easier than managing a living, breathing virtual world quest designers have slowly but surely become little tin pot dictators. They love their new found power and are unwilling to hand it back to the players.

This new emphasis on the single player has eroded the multi-player facet of MMOs and devalued socialization. Is the trade off really worth it?

The MMO Gentleman’s Club

I am not completely unsympathetic to the person that wishes to mind her own business and be left alone in a MMO. I personally do it far more than I would like.

I’m a big fan of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series that was produced by the BBC and PBS some years ago. Every now and then both Holmes and Watson would visit Sherlock’s brother Mycroft at an exclusive gentleman’s club called the Diogenes Club.

The bizarre thing about this club was that talking was strictly prohibited. These refined British upper class gentlemen would go there to seek peace and quiet and amidst the hustle and bustle of Victorian London. It was there they were unshackled from their ordinary lives and used the respite to smoke pipes, read newspapers and even fall asleep in big leather chairs.

It occurred to me this has become what many solo gamers find appealing about MMOs. They are just places where they can go to relax, unwind and not talk with anyone.

But what happens when the majority of people in a virtual world are escaping to such a silent club?

We’ve Reached the Tipping Point

It seems to me that people who solo by choice want all the benefits of being part of a living, breathing virtual world but they don’t want to do any of the heavy lifting such as actually interacting and cooperating with fellow players or contributing to the community. Good communities take work and everyone benefits from it. Bad communities take little work and everyone suffers from it.

While I agree with the notion that virtual worlds should be open to players that like to solo, it can cause serious problems when too many players find soloing too attractive and disregard grouping altogether.

When there is no need to socialize, the ability to socialize becomes a useless skill and then soon after people themselves become increasingly marginalized. When people become devalued the result is the average anti-social MMO community. We have now reached this dangerous tipping point. We’ve withdrawn so much currency from this cache of goodwill that we are in a deficit situation.

The problem is exacerbated when this kind of gameplay is actually encouraged by MMO companies so they can attract more subscribers.

Alone Together?

We’ve all seen it: a group of teenagers in a shopping mall or waiting for a bus. All of them are either listening to their iPods or fiddling with their smart phones. Nobody is communicating with each other. Sound familiar?

MMOs and virtual worlds were supposed to connect us and promote socialization but somehow they’re becoming more anti-social all the time. We can see this trend occurring in social media as well. A recent Guardian article ponders this very question. Paul Harris mentions an upcoming book on this subject from MIT professor Sherry Turkle called Alone Together:

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

This sounds eerily similar to what the MMO community has become — a collection of self-interested and self-absorbed people all going about their business with no need of anyone else.

Ask Not What Your MMO Can Do For You…

Part of the problem is that MMO developers don’t require much of anything from players anymore. Very little is expected of them. The player pays his monthly fee and essentially shows up waiting to be entertained. Players are the victims of low expectations from the developers.

Free from any social or moral requirements in a virtual world, many players end up behaving in a mercenary fashion. They do as they please because they can. There is no social order.

If players are to truly ever take ownership of their worlds and communities than they need to be given the tools to govern. If players can vote on threads in the official WoW forums then why can’t they vote on chat privileges for players in-game?

If players were given even the slightest ability to police their own servers I wager that communities would be cleaned up in no time.

Good Design Equals Good Community

Since it’s only natural to for players to follow the path of least resistance it’s up to MMO designers to counteract this and create game mechanics that require cooperation.

Case in point: in the good old days of MMOs like EverQuest, the harshness of the environment and the need for player cooperation naturally regulated the community. Players that developed bad reputations could not join guilds and were rightly outcast. They either learned to be civil or they played a necromancer. In fact many necromancers were infamous anti-social misfits.

A good virtual world citizen should be rewarded and valued. Currently they are not, as there are few if any incentives for being a good person in a MMO. Even having some small benefit for a /wave or /smile emote used by players on other players could trigger a viral “pay it forward” revolution and help to build communities.

Design By Spreadsheet

Another problem that contributes to the current phenomena of dysfunctional MMO communities is that online worlds are crafted more by using metrics and targeting demographics than a cohesive vision for a virtual world. It’s design by spreadsheet. Content has become compartmentalized and created for specific demographics.

Instead of players having to adjust to the virtual world, virtual worlds now have to adjust to the wants and needs of players. Nobody has to conform, rise to the occasion or meet any standards; instead the MMO meets them where they are. Without a need for some kind of transformation, personal growth and investment, you have a rabble of selfish anti-social players. Ask them what they think of “community” and they probably wouldn’t even understand what it means.

Creating a good community in a MMO is actually very easy. What is lacking is courage and the will to do so. Sadly most MMO companies in their myopic lust for profits would rather have more subscribers than have a good community.

Too Many Conclusions and Not Enough Time

To quote the famous TV show Cheers: do you want to walk into a pub where everybody knows your name? Or do you want to walk into a pub and drink alone?

Part of what drives me to keep writing about MMOs and virtual worlds is that I’m on a crusade to bring back the good community experience that once existed. Almost all of my articles in some way deal with the lack of community and its ramifications. I believe that the concept of a good MMO community is one that is worth fighting for.

As I stated in an article a couple years ago, I believe that community is a commodity in a MMO. The quality of people you play with are just as important as the quality of the artwork, the sound, the story et al. It’s just a shame that the notion of community has been relegated to the so-called “endgame” in MMOs. The problem is that you can’t suddenly expect socially inept players to suddenly change once they reach level 85 and start becoming socially adept now that they need a group and guild to progress.

The truth is that the real high level game in virtual worlds is not raiding; rather it’s the social game that makes raiding possible. The developers at Blizzard will readily admit this. It is a game that we all know how to play at its most basic level but it requires a high level of skill to absolutely master. The rewards to those that can play this game well are friendship, camaraderie, great memories and yes even character advancement; all those wonderful and seemingly intangible things that attracted me and many others to this genre in the first place.

This is perhaps why most MMOs today don’t require grouping because having even basic social skills is too much of a barrier to entry. And barriers to entry mean fewer profits.

You can only keep burning the furniture in your house to keep warm for so long; eventually there will be no house left. Likewise, you can only keep removing the need for player interdependence in your MMO before you have no MMO community left.

MMO companies need to stop worrying so much about the “game” and start focusing on building up the quality of their community. Because as it stands the bad community is starting to drive subscribers away and it’s actually costing them money to keep ignoring this festering wound.

Ultimately, virtual worlds are all about people. When you are managing the nightly participatory entertainment of 12 million people you have a tremendous responsibility to create an environment that ensures that the community is civil. You have a direct responsibility to your paying customers to ensure that their online experience is not ruined by other players.

The creator must take full responsibility for his creation. Players are that creation and are constantly being molded by the developers. In the end, MMO companies get the communities they deserve.

-Wolfshead

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