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.

“It seems to me we are living in a time when tribalism, intolerance, and lack of empathy are increasing, with online trolling, harassment and simple nastiness on the rise even before considering where real-world politics seems to be heading. Yet research continues to show that immersive virtual worlds (including MMOs) have significant potential to change us through the type of experiences they offer, with recent examples being that a VR out-of-body experience can reduce fear of death and that social exclusion in a game environment carries a negative effect on real-world emotions. Do you think any MMOs are already using this incredible power to change us as people through pro-social mechanics, activities or narratives? Can you think of any examples where you have been moved or changed by game experiences, for better or worse, and do you think this was a deliberate act by developers? As our genre continues on a trajectory away from massively social roleplay towards cliquish competitive skirmishing, are there any signs that there are still companies willing to test whether virtual world games can be more than just moment-to-moment fun or entertainment?”

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.

You made it sing, all right.

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.

We're going to need more booze.

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.

Your turn!

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35 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: Do MMORPGs aspire to pro-social mechanics?"

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Reader

All the modern MMOs that I have touched lack basic features. Features that I took for granted in older titles. I miss simple things like having a page to fill in information about my character. I miss social classes. Everything is overly solo oriented and feels more like a shared world, then a real MMORPG.

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Tia Nadiezja

Step 1: Keep paid moderators on the busiest social and newbie zones. Ban people who engage in racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic rhetoric.
Step 2: Come get me when someone’s actually doing that reliably in a major MMO, because we can’t actually address the rest of what’s talked about here until that stuff’s cleared out.

Weilan
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Weilan

Current MMOs can only survive if they are antisocial – log in, join the queue via the dungeon fighter, get grouped with random people, go through the dungeon without saying a world, go back to where you previously were and repeat.

If you actually had people sit in front of dungeons, begging others to invite them to a group, you’d have a lot less people playing your game.

Cadaver
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Cadaver

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

Journey is my favourite game that I never played. I would sign up for something like this in a heartbeat.

wandris
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wandris

Totally looking at it the wrong way. All the anger, insults, flames, hate, racism, degradations, and general nastiness boils down to one thing. Savagery. In the real world, this is unacceptable and usually leads to criminal acts. In the game world is just part of the consequence free landscape. People who act out are usually doing it from a place of deep frustration and rage. If even the online world becomes off limits as an outlet to this kind of behavior it will most likely come out somewhere else, where it may do actual harm.

I am not talking about harassment. People being targeted in campaigns of criminal harassment is a real thing, but it would be a mistake to paint the misdeeds we most often see in games as that. There are also many tools to deal with such problems.

The internet and games are the one actual place where life is truly equal and fair. You get a shield of anonymity and are not tied to anything but what you put out there. All people have an ugly side, to try to deny this or suppress this would be failing to accept the reality of human nature. A person who engages in nasty behavior online will have the chance to reflect on their actions and may avoid trouble in civilized society.

There is truth to be discovered in what we see, do and witness in gaming. Truth about people. I believe it would be a mistake to try and delude ourselves into creating a complete fantasy devoid of real meaning, even if we had a way to hide the ugly parts. This is the frontier of our time, a place where people can figure stuff out and learn. It might not always be pleasant or comfortable but I do not think it would be as much fun or meaningful if it was.

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Stropp

Except I don’t want to play with people who take out their rage and frustration on me.

Sure. I see your point that an MMO might be an outlet where someone can ‘safely’ vent their sociopathic tendencies rather than doing so in the real world, but I’d rather them see a therapist to work that out and not vent on other players. Attempting to ruin someone else’s fun because you are hurting is not acceptable at all.

And, in my experience, those who engage in nasty behaviour online never end up reflecting on that behaviour unless they experience consequences. Instead, they usually end up escalating, or attracting other, toxic, players into the game and making things worse.

I also agree that most, if not all, people have a dark or ugly side. In society we keep it hidden because of the consequences. But MMO games are social places too, and we need to keep in mind that those aren’t just pixels on a screen. There are real people with real feelings behind them and we need to be aware that actions in games have consequences in real life.

Fun and meaning don’t have to come from dealing with jerks.

wandris
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wandris

That’s the thing though you are not dealing with sociopathic tendencies, just regular people, and you are not forced to play or even directly interact with assholes. Even in a PVP/PK situation people are usually not acting outside of the boundaries set within the game, usually such a thing is not possible. There is a limit to how much things can escalate. Pixels on a screen are not real people, and actions in a game do not have consequences in real life. That is sort of the point.

In the most roundabout way you are interacting with others. Although if you take such aggression personally that is on you for treating it as more than just a game. Dealing with unpleasantness is usually as simple as blocking a person, switching the channel or turning off a particular chat. I am not saying that it is entirley right, but nothing is perfect. What you want is not necessarily what someone else wants. What you need is not what someone else needs. IF someone needs to be a jerk, better in an environment which none can actually get hurt or it could escalate into violence.

Personally I have rarely if ever engaged in misbehavior. On occasion though I have met savagery with savagery of my own, and that taught me something. Having a nasty exchange with someone sucks but in the end no real harm is done.

The discord in the online world seems to me to be a reflection of tensions in the real world. US political unrest, and perhaps issues in other parts of the world has elevated the level of anger in games in the last year or two. I would be surprised if there was any other explanation or if anyone who spends time in game has failed to notice. If a little discomfort is the price to pay for easing social tension in the real world even a little bit I do not think that is a bad thing, if anything it is a good thing. This is just a theory of course, perhaps people being raging jerks in games only emboldens them in their lives.

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rafael12104

IMO, devs are not social engineers. They care about social aspects of their game but only to the extent that they deliver a fun game. And devs involvement in such things varies on a huge and moving scale. Very few devs go into it thinking about the greater good. Mentoring players on what a real society should be is not on the agenda.

That doesn’t negate the good and important experience that Avaera benefited from. But in in my opinion, that is was a result of finding good people that play games. The good outnumber the bad no matter how much trolls would prove otherwise.

It all comes back to that, players. Great communities can sprout despite a lack of social tools. Sadly, the opposite is also true.

Reader
Sally Bowls

1) I would also take working on making fewer anti-social mechanics.

2) I strongly disagree with this being co-opted by implying social meaning grouping. Joining (worse forced grouping) a group for a raid, dungeon, battlegroup, world boss, rift with other people, none of whom speak and may not speak my language, does not make it “social.” And solo play can be “social” in the sense of societal – IMO a bunch of solo players, simultaneously working on a common goal for others (open AQ gate with cloth donations) feels much more social – or at least being part of a living soceity – than 4 other silent “people” (could be NPCs) runing dungeon#17 for the 114th time for rep.

3) It is harder to do the more M you put in your MMOs. Raph’s GDC talk on good forum communities was about keeping them small and homogenous. “Raiding”,”PvP” and “crafting” fora are going to be better than a general discussion forum.

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Paragon Lost

I’ve not felt a strong sense of pro-social game mechanics play or community since the text based mmorpg days. (shrugs)

hurbster
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hurbster

Jesus, those shoulders and neck…..sorry what was this article about again ?

Reader
Sally Bowls

“Social.” Nudge, nudge, wink wink.

Squire: Photography?
Man: Snap snap, grin grin, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more?
Squire: Holiday snaps, eh?
Man: They could be, they could be taken on holiday. Candid, you know, CANDID photography?

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Melissa McDonald

Ahnuld

51wBH1ObR+L._SX522_.jpg
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Fervor Bliss

There is always DearJane and others where it is yes, but most of what I see in MMO’s currently is wanting to make small groups for PvP. (Us vs Them)

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James Hicks

I believe designers can make conscious choices that strongly impact the social experience of players, and the businesses that operate MMOs can do the same by setting policies with regard to player interaction and consistently enforcing those policies.

By that I mean gameplay interactions that are mutually beneficial to players foster positive social experiences, and weeding out psychopaths who can’t or refuse to follow supportive rules of conduct is important to a fledgling community.

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life_isnt_just_dank_memes

I think that tribalism is the lowest common denominator when it comes to how game devs want players to interact. I’ve rarely seen a game that wants to push its players towards higher social interactions like symbiosis or government systems that reward being a law abiding citizen.

In BDO for example, I have been killed more afk riding my horse more than over a grind spot. Game devs are catering to people that don’t want a PvP experience but a troll experience. The thing I don’t think people get is that just because you can do that doesn’t mean you should. Ultimately I think devs are playing a joke on those people. I just respawn and go about my day.

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Melissa McDonald

last 2-3 years have mostly centered around the “sandbox” (which seems to mostly mean you have the ability to kick over someone else’s sandcastle) and “PvP” as a replacement for actual story, quest, and PvE content.

Small wonder we now debate about whether or not the social elements and teamwork are bereft. PvP does not a “good community” make.

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Jeremy Barnes

Yes, but the question is not relevant. Games are a business. They should provide an experience that is most like to retain and attract players with things that they find fun. to keep them subbed or paying money.

In my opinion, you don’t go the amusement park by yourself. MMOs would be served altering their course from trying to “provide content” to continuously be consumed by users. FFXIV just released an xpac and there was a conversation in a linkshell that it was “too short” and a couple people discussing that they “finished” the xpac which is a ridiculous statement as they had barely touched a great deal of the content.

Instead, MMOs should be actively supporting the “multiplayer” experience in a massively multiplayer world. Instead, we get a lot of massively multiplayer games that have “Single Player” experiences with a bunch of other people on the same server.

The focus should be on providing tools for players to socialize which is where the really great moments come from and buying into this false narrative that the “culture” is different. Most people, even the “I don’t have time to group”, “I’m anti-social”, ETC, people could benefit greatly if more attention was paid to ensuring playing with others more effective and rewarding to people who tend not to participate in the defining aspect of the genre.

I was, am and will be a proponent of “Group Finders”, but their implementation has not been innovated. Thing many of us overlooked were how the group finder severed the server community. Now most groups in group finder, rush through the dungeon as fast as possible without ever saying a word. We hated the grind in older games, but it promoted opportunities to have those great social moments. Those opportunities are gone now and no attention has been paid by the vast majority of developers on how to get those opportunities back.

If as much development time went into improving the social aspect of games as goes into other areas then it would be a great boon to us all in-game and out.

Reader
Sunken Visions

I love how people feel that the system has failed them, but unregulated social media is somehow their savior. Do you plan on living your life in a video game? Are you going to filter the world through your phone?

These systems do not do anything but perpetuate anxiety. Finding people that are willing to accept you does not teach you to deal with the ones that don’t. Life is pain, anyone that says otherwise is trying to sell you something.

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Sally Bowls

Are you going to filter the world through your phone?

A majority get their news from Facebook. So yes, like it or not, you and I will be living in a world where the politicians are elected by voters reacting to social media on their phone.

Sigh.

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flamethekid .

nothing wrong with escapism

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mysecretid

Life is more than pain. What you see, depends on where you look. And I’m selling nothing.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

Wesley was coming from a bad place at that time. He thought his true love had abandoned him for another.

He had an amazing turn around a few minutes later in the worst of all places, the Fire Swamp all because he found out it was not true.

Even after Flame Spurts, Lightning Sands, and the inevitable ROUS’es he had a positively glowing demeanor.

All thoughts of life as pain seemingly gone.

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Jeremy Barnes

Interestingly, through MMOs, I interacted with people I normally would have written off and avoided in real life. Mostly from EQ and DAOC I spent a lot of time on teamspeak, etc with people who had incredibly different political opinions from my own, from foreign countries, etc.

I had much more exposure to different cultures, ideas and ideologies through those MMO experiences than I did in real life where many of my friends…were just like me.

The shared goal of grouping with each other to achieve things in-game was the primary focus over many other differences. As time went on, we’d end up chatting about things that we disagreed on, but because of the shared experience and mutual benefit of assisting each other in advancing our characters, that discourse was much civil.

I do think MMOs are facing an issue of the pendulum having swung too far towards “Quality of Life” things such as quick travel, group finders, drop-in/out play, etc; I don’t believe that discounting them as an echo chamber is an appropriate criticism.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

While I like Princess Bride tons, I’m not sold on Wesley’s assessment of life.

miol
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miol

No one mentioned Ever, Jane?! o.O
I’m aghast! ;P

BTW: What happened to Venus Rising?

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schatzsucher
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Alex Malone

I think the only way that MMOs can change us, as human beings, is through the social interactions we have in game. I don’t think MMOs can change us through content alone.

I believe the main way the social interactions change us is by allowing us to shed most things that hold us back in real life situations. I don’t have to worry about my height, weight, hair, clothes or any of that other superficial stuff that people stress over irl. Its just my personality and my voice. This can be a very freeing experience.

For me personally, this is how I found my leadership skills. In real life, I had never enjoyed being the centre of attention in large group situations. So, I would be the group organiser / leader for small stuff but as soon as the group size reached 8/9/10, I would back off and let someone else lead.

LotRO brought me out of my shell. Within a few months I was leading raids and not long afterwards, the guild. I’ve loved leadership / power ever since! Having to talk to 23 other players for 3 hours straight whilst leading big raids, or running guild pvp nights etc, was all great and something that wouldn’t have happened in any other genre. Eventually organised meetups in real life for the guild, met my last girlfriend that way as well as people that I’m still friends with IRL 10 years later.

I do feel, however, that the genre as a whole has moved away from mechanics and designs that encourage us to be social in game. I also don’t see anything on the horizon to suggest that big developers want to move back to being social.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/06/518362255/feeling-lonely-too-much-time-on-social-media-may-be-why

Amazing that in this time of social media, we are becoming less social. More insulated, more likely to embed ourselves in our own little echo chamber.

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Robert Mann

Two very solid points here to the team at MOP:

1. No, it isn’t just gameplay design that has steered away from being social. Our culture has been shifted away from that idea, and gameplay elements followed that trend. Which is fine, and good business sense for the most part, but it does ignore those who want deeper social elements introduced with supporting game systems. Which 100% has not been something done. It isn’t about nostalgia, but rather an underserved portion of the potential audience for the genre.

2. Forcing people to do something they don’t like is counter-productive. The first time I quit WoW was due to this. That lasted a fair time, and when I returned I quickly found myself leaving again due to their… issues with respecting their customers. The point is, that we have a glut of MMOs that try to do everything, achieving at best being mediocre at all those things, and often trying to force players to do things that are not enjoyable to those players. (Attempts to force PvP participation being a HUGE issue for so many games, from achievements for events that otherwise are not PvP related to tangible buffs for characters or accounts in PvE from having PvP’d, to just content designed to force the issue. It is probably one of the most common forms of this outside grouping GO!GO!GO! crud.) If games were to aim for doing a few things very well, and avoiding the attempts to force things in games that otherwise aren’t really about that (see most MMOs trying to force ‘endgame’ upon casual players, or when raid focused players are given a reward to go join an RP event like a wedding *where 98% of the time they either afk or troll*) then we would likely all be better off, and the variety of games would likely have better retention (as players are playing a game focused on what they actually enjoy.) ***Some crossover of games by players to be expected, of course, as it might take a few games to satisfy different aspects of a given player.***

Zander
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Zander

Do you think any MMOs have significant potential to change us through pro-social mechanics, activities or narratives?

Absolutely. A few of my friends would have never been willing to get into voice chat if it weren’t for the fact that it was critical to easily achieve what they wanted through difficult content. People with preconceived or previously bad social experiences tend to make their own ultimatums and shut themselves out of achievement when they aren’t willing to even try. While no one should ever be forced, I think it’s important that people should be encouraged to always give others a chance. Sometimes they find out the people they meet are people they end up liking. You can always walk away but you have to try. “I can’t” or “I wont” just traps you or makes you quit.

On the flip side, being that many (myself included) use gaming as an escape. I can seen why people ‘hate people’. Gaming is a reflection of the world. One where we’re taught not to trust because we’ve proven we can’t be trusted. Add the mix of political, religious and ethical bullshit that is spewed everywhere we go, I don’t blame anyone for wanting to go solo. We can block out that which we don’t like and emerse ourselves to forget and enjoy another day.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

Should they? I think so. Avaera’s anonymous sandbox sounds like an interesting idea and one I’d be happy to play in. And for the record, playing mmos has helped me better understand issues of gender identity, sexuality, race and privilege.

Do MMO’s do so currently? I don’t know how much nowadays. MMO’s from the early days Asherons Call, Everquest, even Wow, fostered a much more communal environment. Now, you can pop onto a dungeon/raid finder, do your whatever, get your reward and be gone without even saying ‘Hi’ to your temporary teammates.

It does not help that there seems to be an underlying toxicity that has bubbled up more recently. GW2 map chat in Lions Arch is usually dead. I’ll see fifty people running around and any attempt to engage the channel in chatter is either met with silence OR eventually degrades into a discussion about politics, abortion, taxes, or some other issue that literally becomes a game of “Nu Uhn. Uh HUH!”

Secret World Legends had it last weekend at the opening. Obvious trolls who were there just to whack a hornets nest. Tatamount to children who think its funny to call strangers up and say ‘Poop.’ on the phone just to get a reaction.

It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like F2P so much anymore. The impetus for good behavior since general kindness does not seem to be enough, is gone in f2p as losing your account for bad behavior just means making up another account. Twenty dollars later and you can be right back being a bastard to people.

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Robert Mann

If $20… sadly most of the time it is $0, and the game is swarmed by them enough that nobody on that end has the energy to care.

Zander
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Zander

And for the record, playing mmos has helped me better understand issues of gender identity, sexuality, race and privilege.

This. I was less educated and therefor intolerant to diversity before MMO’s. Especially in the shooter scene where ignorance and bigotry tends to thrive more.

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flamethekid .

thats an effect of just meeting so many people. I have met tons of people from every corner in the world right in the comfort of my computer. I learned alot from all kinds of different people from rich people to poor people to people on the other side of the world to people who live close by it expands you view about things.

more people need to play mmo’s that has alot of social interactivity besides teaming to easy mode things in a game

wpDiscuz