Massively Overthinking: Do MMORPGs aspire to pro-social mechanics?
Massively OP reader and Patron Avaera has a thoughtful question for the team and readers this week. “I wish more virtual world games thought deeply about what impact they can have for the better,” he writes.
I posed Avaera’s question to the whole team for an intriguing Overthinking.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Sadly, I haven’t felt any strong, multiplayer gaming moments that felt like the developers were trying to focus on social gameplay. And it’s not like I wasn’t looking. I spent months trying to meet people in Japan through MMOs and didn’t get anywhere at all, from the Japanese (and Korean) Darkfall to ArcheAge, where I’d made some decent connections prior to launch. I tried moving to mobile gaming communities, especially Japanese mobile console gaming series Monster Hunter. Monster Hunter players seemed a bit more caring when they weren’t afraid of cross-culture communication, but again, I had the same issue as with MMOs: if I was unable to play due to work or travel, or invited people to do something simple like watch a movie or get dinner, things often fizzled out.
Even Pokemon Go largely hasn’t worked. While I’ve recently met up with some local players due to raids, the fact that raids are basically something we can only do once a day (because paying for additional raids and knowing that I’ve been bugged out of a raid ticket hasn’t inspired faith in Niantic) doesn’t help.
It’s difficult to engineer socialization in games I think. Simple gameplay revolving around group play with social tools seems like something really simple, but after experiencing two cultures’ gaming communities on a variety of platforms, it’s been hard.
Truth be told, the best experiences I’ve gotten may not have been because a game engineered the social experiences, but because they acted as a kind of environment. One of the few people who stayed in touch with me all these years was a fellow MMO player I just hit it off with. We just crossed our usual “leave RL out of conversations” limit and found another cool person who is/was capable of long term, long distance relationships. I feel like these kinds of people are rare in general, but perhaps MMOs under certain circumstances can offer more opportunities to gamers than other genres.
All that being said, man, single player game Undertale certainly was engineered to give you the feels. Strong narratives can do that, but I think its hard to pull off in an MMO.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I want to use my soapbox here to gently challenge the idea that MMOs are “on a trajectory away from massively social roleplay towards cliquish competitive skirmishing.” Old-school MMOs may have been wide-open sandboxes, but they were never kind or more about community or social roleplay; their content and power vacuums bred playerbases just as cliquish and competitive as any middle school scrum and often worse than any modern game. I concede that MMO design is more about “moment-to-moment fun” than it once was, but that’s also been a great equalizer – no longer can an uberguild blockade the rest of the server from accessing an entire dungeon, for example.
That said, all the game experiences that moved me in a fundamental way were instigated by players, not by developers, usually in the cracks between what the developers designed and what they let transpire, social or otherwise.
I do think there’s enormous potential for games to be a force for good in general, either a passive one (MMORPGs like Guild Wars 2, for example, normalizes a broad range of genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities effortlessly; Glitch removed gender and race from the equation altogether) or an active one (many games, like World of Warcraft and EVE Online and Shroud of the Avatar, fundraise heavily for charity). But I don’t think most MMORPGs even seek to fill this role in our lives at all, let alone do so with their mechanics, in spite of their lofty press releases. We’re not there yet. We’ve never been there. But maybe someday.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): One of the concepts I’ve found interesting – and one which seems to ring rather true to life, from experience – is that the more you force players to do something in an MMO, the more they’ll resent it. Force players to group in order to level up, and they’ll resent the inconvenience; force players to play an arbitrary number of levels in Class You Don’t Enjoy to play Class You Do, and they’ll resent the former; force players to socialize, and they’ll harbor a deep-seated resentment. The key word there, though, is force. Give players the tools to socialize but make it more organic, and people will flock to the option without needing much more incentive.
Case in point: City of Heroes. You could do almost everything in that game solo with little to no problem, but the game made grouping largely effortless and scaled almost endlessly, which meant that people would happily form groups to tool around and just do missions even though it was not strictly necessary. Final Fantasy XIV also does a good job, in my mind, since there’s so much stuff you can just queue up for as a group with or without other people; you have incentive to group up when you’re queueing even if it doesn’t necessarily benefit you, because it doesn’t hinder you and you aren’t forced to. (Of course, I’m also on the community’s main RP server, so that may be a function of location as much as mechanics.)
But I think that touches on the core problem of trying to engineer pro-social mechanics. Human beings are social creatures, but we also know when we’re being forced into doing something, and even doing stuff we would naturally be inclined to do can become less appealing when we feel that pressure on the back of our shoulders, so to speak. WHen it comes to social mechanics, the best thing to be done is to create mechanics to facilitate without forcing it, and let players take charge of making it a reality.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I look at it this way: If the developers set a good example and design their games to be more cooperative and feature more positive social features, then the community will follow (and the “right types” be attracted to it). I’m more than a little tired of games artificially dividing us into factions and siccing us on each other.
But there is hope. There are plenty of MMOs that feature systems, such as being able to teach skills or codependent crafting chains, that bind players together. Roleplaying, music, and group projects are wonderful in this regard as well. Setting a challenge before a community and then encouraging people to work together to overcome it has a binding, uplifting effect more often than not.
It’s really neat to see how communities crowdsource solutions, such as with Secret World Legends’ recent ARG, Lord of the Rings Online’s secret anniversary quest, and other similar promotions. It really is as simple as cutting it out with the everyone-for-themselves or us-versus-them mentalities and shifting design and events over to mutually beneficial, bonding, and positive activities. It just takes a little more thought and foresight.
Patron Avaera: For someone with a social anxiety disorder and who was going through deep depression as an adolescent about my sexuality, finding the right virtual world community saved my life: I was able to do things I never thought possible in the real world by trying an identity safely that was closer to the one I was struggling with and led me to an acceptance I don’t think I would have found otherwise. Other, more straightforward examples I can think of would be the torture quest in WoW that really made some uncomfortable points about what we are doing as characters most of the time, or the mentoring system in Allods that automatically matches a new player to a veteran for instant support and guidance, with tangible game rewards for making that human connection right away. Some things I’d love to see? An open world MMO where players have no nameplates or ability to understand each other, and it’s only through cooperative problem-solving with individuals you happen across that unlocks name recognition, emotes, and eventually mutually understood language. I think that would really explore what friendship and anonymity means.