Massively Overthinking: Competition vs. community in MMOs


Quantic Foundry, the games research group we’ve been tracking ever since it posted its original Gamer Motivation Model, has a new piece out this month on competition and community.

Dr Nick Yee (yes that Nick Yee) explains that one of the things his team’s survey and resulting model have demonstrated is that commonly held assumptions about the “spectrum” of MMO players — that is, “warm, fuzzy, social care bears on one end” and “cold, anti-social, competitive griefers” on the other — are wrong. In fact, he argues, the model shows that competition is not the opposite of community; on the contrary, “there is a strong positive correlation between competition and community,” disassociated from the gender and age of the respondents. This is the kind of stuff a lot of our readers are going to love, especially since the researchers are smashing related assumptions (like that ganking is PvP or that competition necessitates conflict).

So for this week’s Overthinking, I sent the summary of the research to our writers and asked them to discuss whether Yee’s results match their experiences when it comes to community and competition.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): It very much matches my own experience as a PvP player in my glory days. Most of the people I felt close to were people I was PvPing with. There are exceptions of course, and the person from my MMO time that I am closest to actually started out as a PvE partner, but PvP led to many moments that helped me and other players find respect for each other, even when we were in-game enemies.

That being said, I think one thing Dr. Yee’s team doesn’t discuss is motivation behind activities. Ganking is a prime example I’d love for them to explore. One slightly sneaky thing my WoW guild and I would do is coordinate with an opposite faction guild before going out to gank. We’d pick a location and time, and one side would kind of start the fight, while the other would be there to “save” people from their faction. This kind of escalation– where two people fighting over a spawn ends up with multiple guilds getting involved– can happen naturally, but our server had balance issues, and we wanted people to know which guilds they could count on when real ganking happened. It was a high conflict situation, especially if we did this in a popular questing area, but true competition was low, as we didn’t have scores or in-game rewards (most of the time).

There are obviously people who enjoy being all powerful and easily killing opponents (and yes, if you’re having a bad day, it’s really satisfying to be the boot instead of the face), but I’m sure there are other factors. How much of the decline of MMO world PvP is because of higher reward availability in instanced settings? How much of it is due to the presence of a score board? What about clear win conditions? Especially with Crowfall coming out, it’ll be interesting to see how MMO PvP evolves as people try to structure it more. Will higher competition mean we see more MOBA/FPS-like toxicity? Is high conflict with low competition not appeal to modern gamers? Especially for an old school MMOer like me, I’m really curious about these things.

science, together, fun

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): As an EVE Online player, I find the comments on competition actually improving community and social play pretty consistent with my experiences. In games with higher levels of competitive gameplay, players are very strongly encouraged to work together for mutual benefit and competitive advantage, and that naturally leads to more tightly-knit communities. I’ve run guilds in several MMOs and even ran a hardcore raiding guild in WoW with Tina for a few years that got pretty close, but none of them ever felt quite as cohesive as the small EVE Online corp I ran as a faction warfare militia and later a wormhole expedition corp. There’s something about having to co-operate to succeed at PvP, having to rely on each other for logistics, and having watch each other’s backs every day in the face of shared enemies that builds really strong communities. Any one of my corpmates could have stolen from us, griefed us, or otherwise betrayed us, and the fact that they chose not to do so created an implicit trust over time.

There’s been a trend in recent years toward making all MMOs super solo-friendly because it just makes business sense to appeal to the widest possible audience, but I personally think that detracts from what makes an MMO special. We now have games populated by countless individuals who don’t need to rely on each other for anything, and then we wonder why they don’t form as cohesive communities as the hard-as-nails MMOs of old that required groups to do most of the content. We wonder why players are abusive to each other in chat and only interested in doing something if it benefits themselves, but the gameplay doesn’t give them any reason to care about other players or their social status on the server. A large proportion of EVE Online’s playerbase is part of at least one cohesive community or corp/alliance with a unified identity and culture, and I believe it’s because most of EVE’s high-end gameplay is naturally inaccessible to a solo player — it involves PvP or highly competitive gameplay and that means you really need to be in a group to compete.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The formal findings don’t surprise me at all, both from logic and experience. One of the things I learned from hanging out with gankers way back in Ultima Online is that they crave social situations, they crave attention, but their sadistic streak made it more fun for them to crash other people’s parties — in groups because they could make more fireworks in cohesive units — than throw their own. I hesitate to agree that it’s “community” in the broadest sense of the word (is the Mafia a “community”?), and those groups were so trust-challenged that they imploded every other day, but they’re absolutely social.

Likewise, I’ve found that some of the most anti-social, or anti-community, players hide in plain sight in PvE and roleplaying communities — it’s perfectly possible to be insanely competitive and anti-social within even a non-aggressive social community. And as someone who enjoys economic PvP, I also know that competition and conflict don’t even require a direct social interface, which is weird when you think about it. We all fall on overlapping axes with our preferences and habits, not a simplistic spectrum, just as in the real world.

I’m excited to see this work published, honestly, and happy to see Bartle exonerated in his own way, since while he designed the Bartle taxonomy, it was incorrectly applied in the original test that everyone knows and game designers have referred to forever. By attempting to disentangle playstyles from each other, Yee and his colleagues have refreshed the player template for a new generation of game designers and online titles.

Now, if they’ll only listen, because I’d really love another virtual world sandbox with competitive PvP that doesn’t become a gankbox in five seconds.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I was always curious if the groups of anti-social PvPers and griefers were outliers or if that was how the majority of hardcore PvPers were. I didn’t buy the assertion that good PvPers were terrible people. I learned a lot about PvP and its community from Ed “Taugrim” Park, who is one of the friendliest and social people I know. And many of the PvPers I’ve met since then have always been great people. They like competition, even in verbal arguments, but they have almost always been able to set that aside after the discussion was done. It’s always the outliers in the competitive community that appeared to be the toxic people.

Dr. Yee mentioned Bartle’s paper about the four types of MMO players, and it’s always been my assertion that the “Killer” type was always a competitor versus a griefer as some sites have labeled it. I was also uncertain if the quadrantal diagram that’s often depicted with the Bartle test was accurate. (Although if you take a look at that chart the way it was originally depicted, Killer and Socializers are not in opposing sectors as Yee mentioned in his post.) I also believe that the vast majority of people would float somewhere in the middle of the chart anyway, and very few are actually polarized.

I do think it’s interesting that Yee’s post postulated that competition and community are aligned and load into a single social factor. Anecdotally, I’ve not seen a direct correlation, but he does have the data to at least show that one might feed off the other. In the end, I think that it’s important for game designers to pay attention to the realities of the gaming community, and as Yee’s post insinuates, social and competitive design should be molded together and not seen as opposite and opposing facets of game design.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Honestly, I think making any concise little boxes with labels to toss people in just doesn’t work. There can be trends of a sort, but people are much more than any one element and most certainly cannot be accurately defined by one specific element. I’ve seen plenty of carebear griefers and plenty of warm, fuzzy, social competitive folks.

As I see it, community pretty much is the act of working together for a goal. Working together for a competitive goal can really band people together because they need one another to succeed. And let’s face it, doing something better than <insert opponent here> and winning is a pretty integral part of the psyche. Having played and coached soccer for many many years, I’ve participated in my share of competition, and it definitely fostered community. It’s a given that you simply can’t succeed by yourself on the team, you need the whole team. This makes you work together. Then again, not everything is team based, but that doesn’t negate the competition factor. Your opponent that you are trying to best doesn’t even have to be another person or group, but can be yourself. The drive to improve is by definition competitive. And we tend to want to progress and improve. The times that competition sucks in all respects is when there is no contest — when contestants are severely outmatched.

In MMOs, I’ve seen competition give rise to community in adventuring, crafting, and yes, even roleplay. I like what Yee has to say about conflict being structured yielding the better results. Sports have rules, and working within those rules is how people bind together. If things are a free-for-all anything goes, why would people work together? And why would they ever care what others do or think? So then conflict and competition need to have structure to it in order to foster community. Without structure, there’s no community.

I guess this is sought.

Patron Archebius: In some ways, Quantic Foundry’s study matches up very well with my own experiences. Some of the most competitive people I know are also excited by raiding and building and other big group activities. My friends who excel at team-based games like Overwatch or League of Legends are all good at communicating with each other, and enjoy hanging out in real life. Competition, in many games, is an inherently social proposition, and encourages socializing and stronger communities. Even in games where ganking is still possible (EVE or WoW PvP servers, for example), most players quickly align with groups that can protect them and give them access to higher levels of competitive play.

But, I would say that there’s another level to this that Quantic doesn’t touch on – everything, including crushing people into the dust, is better with friends. Just because competitive players also tend to like socializing does not make them warm and fuzzy. In fact, my experience shows the opposite: the more tightly knit a group is, the more likely they are to ignore or even be hostile to outsiders.

The most competitive person I know greatly enjoyed being in a guild in WoW. His fondest memory is of them camping the enemy capital for days on end, standing on corpses and killing all the NPCs, until the devs finally had to intervene and ask them to leave. He is a very social person, but I’m still not sure his type of competitive play is great for the community as a whole.

Your turn!

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As someone who grew up with bullies and has some limited experience with gangs, I’d like to point out that ganking can be used in an entirely gang mentality way. Examples:

1. The op-player waits for you to rez and offers to “guard” you while you quest there for a fee. Racketeering / Protection racket.

2. In games where the op-player can take your stuff, they can ransom it back to you.

3. The op-player notices you’re a low-level and offers to train you for PvP if you join their guild. Classic gang recruiting trick. Bullies on school playgrounds who were grumpy so they had no friends would often bully themselves a friend this way.

If there is a reason some of us will NOT ever PvP it’s that we actually DO understand the subtext and are disgusted by it. It’s not that we’re disgusted with YOU, we don’t like the actions and their implications. So why not just have ganking-possible (nonconsensual PvP allowed in some cases), and ganking impossible games and we can just stop shouting at each other in forums.


I’m not sure why this is such a big issue. There are two kinds of fantasy mmorpg players, those who like to PvP and those who don’t. If you don’t like it, then you should stay away from WoW because it isn’t at all optional.

Eventually you will wander into an open pvp area, wonder what the achievement was you just got, and while you’re looking at it, someone will gank you in less than a minute. WoW even broadcasts the achievement in chat to ensure that any experienced PvP players nearby know there is fresh meat. Basically WoW has a setting accessed by right clicking your health bar to “disable” PvP, but certain undocumented actions (you have to search the forums to find the list and hope it is current) can flag you to be attack able by Horde/Alliance players of the opposing faction.

The part I don’t get is, two of my friends and I have had incredibly simple refunds, processed within minutes of pointing this out to WoW’s GM’s and we moved on. So how come it’s not just standard to list a game as consensual PvP or non-consensual PvP? What’s the point of hiding this factoid in the forums and making so many people get refunds? I’d think the overhead alone would make it simpler to just tell the people signing up that hey, this is how it is, take it or leave it, and people could either risk it or not, according to how they prefer.

It’s deceptive to list WoW as “PvP optional”, because it isn’t. Another game, Black Desert also has this kind of mutable PvP setting, but if you read abut that game it’s very clear whether you are flagged for PvP and how it can happen. So why do the stealth thing in WoW? It just leads to refunds, and extra pre-sales overhead as the non-PvP / questing-preferred players write to ask about whether ganking is possible or not. Inefficient.


Well, yeah, kinda obvious. If you remove from the definition of PvP the aspects most people consider anti-social what remain are the social elements of PvP.

BTW, like others already posted, Killer and Socializer aren’t opposite in the Bartle classification; the actual opposite of Killer is Explorer (i.e., someone that prefers interacting with the game world rather than with other players and that doesn’t need to dominate what he interacts).


I don’t contest the point being made, i just don’t see the relevance, other than “hey pve guy, don’t be afraid to join pvp, it’s not that scary in here”.


Oh, nice topic! Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for you guys, I don’t have much time as I’m just checking in from work.

I have never equated competition with conflict. It isn’t always a zero sum game. And even when it is, it doesn’t mean that it is “more” anti-social, lol.

I find that in MMORPGs the competitive spectrum is not as dominant as those that love PvP and those hate PvP make it out to be. Nor is it limited to PvP. And beyond that, how you play and who you play with defines the conflict.

Way to go doc. A study that validates my view point makes yours a valid study. Lol

Robert Mann

Yeah, the assumptions they started with are wrong according to their own little 2×2 graph. My bet: The vast majority of PvE focused players would be happy with a game where you had some low competition and some medium competition activities, with low to medium conflict. A few high competition ones could even be thrown in, but it isn’t needed for many.

By things like medium competition, I mean things like having contests and the like with some benefits to those who do very well, but where the rewards and accolades aren’t really skewed like most MMOs. Additionally, adding elements of having those who are very successful helping those who aren’t learn and/or succeed in that part of gameplay (as part of the higher rewards, or they can decline for a standard reward level with a tiny bit of extra coin, maybe.) Basically medium competition being where there is some competition, there’s also cooperation and reason to care about the other players.

The entire problem is that these people keep coming back to PvP and PvE as they stand, without any further thought.

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PvP is only half the equation though. The strongest community feeling I’ve found in PvE was in raid guilds with a competitive mindset. Granted, I never RP’d, but no casual non-RP guild had as much a sense of community as the raiders I played with.

I think it all boils down to being driven. You’ll never see great community in (sub)games where players log on for 20 mins to “just have fun”. There’s no passion there, no drive to achieve something in the game world. Nothing to band together or even socially interact for. As a result, there’s often a really relaxed atmosphere, but you don’t feel very attached to anything or anyone.

A sense of community can only exist where people really care, about the game, the people and the things that happen in it. Which, from what I’ve seen, is rarely the case in gameplay where neither competition nor conflict is present.

Edit: That started as a reply to Leiloni (hence the first paragraph)


I agree with the last part. Community occurs when people care enough about something to put in the effort to form a community.

I am sure that PvE groups can have a sense of community as well. I don’t think it’s just a PvP thing. I think it’s more about where your gameplay focus is. I’ve definitely done a lot of difficult and competitive endgame PVE simply because I find it fun. But for me my focus has always been on PvP so in those games my PvE groups have been static groups that I only use for the content, and my community has been my PvP guildies. So I think for someone who does mostly PvE content all night likely forms closer community bonds with their PVE guildies and community. It’s where you decide to put in the effort.

But yes it absolutely needs a driving force behind it such as competition or conflict, because otherwise it’s harder to get people to form the bonds with people. That takes work and humans form relationships of any kind through a strong need for something in their lives. Relationships are only sustained via hard work and constant interaction, so there needs to be a driving force behind that which is true in games as well as real life.

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Esoteric Coyote

That makes sense to me. Community motivates me to stay active and competitive, so I can continue to do content with the group. When the group is lax or casual, I tend to wander off because I feel I’m the only one trying. If the group is extremely competitive, I can’t keep up and get push out. Finding the balanced group is hard.

I have two examples. Last group I played WoW with just wanted to have fun and the dungeons in WoW these days are kind of long and with people goofing off constantly it drags out a run that can take 45 minutes to over an hour. And the dungeo rewards were effing terrible this time around. It was a huge waste of everyone’s time for little reward, even little xp. But hey it was fun right?

The second is a old raid team I was part of. Pretty competitive raiding guild because they were in the top 20 NA guilds. We had three strength plate players. Me and two others. One of the plate wearers rolled on every piece of loot just to prevent us from getting it and doing comparable dps, he had to be number one. Both me and the other would also roll on everything and trade pieces to each other just to stop this guy. Brought it up with some of guild mods, but I got called a loot skank. This guild was too competitive and unfriendly for me.

Robert Mann

In response to the second guild, unfriendly certainly. Competitive in the one jerk, sure. But most importantly, STUPID. Because allowing such behavior (where a person rolls on gear they don’t need) is not only going to constantly lose them members, but because it harms their own progress. Any insults they presented to you should be considered a badge of honor. :)


Much of this talks about PVPers being cold and antisocial, but as a primarily PvE player I don’t see how the opposite could be assumed – that PVErs are “warm, fuzzy, social care bears.” Most PVErs I meet are jerks, just like PVPers.

And man, do I hate that “care bear” terminology.

Bryan Correll

Yeah, but everybody’s a jerk. You, me, this jerk. That’s my philosophy.
– Bender B. Rodriguez


Some people are nice, some are jerks. That’s true for people in general regardless of what type of gameplay they prefer. I’m tired of people making assumptions about an entire group of people simply because they dislike the activity they engage in.

Robert Mann

Yep. Sadly until game design provides reasons to specifically avoid being a jerk, most people will be selfish jerks. If/when game design moves on, half the current jerks will remain jerks as they are really jerks looking to be jerkish… and the other half will lose that motivation to be a jerk as jerkwad behavior no longer gains them anything.

*P.S. I think I win for sentence with the most use of jerk without conflation!*


As a PvPer I’ve always known this and we as a community in general have been trying to tell people this (all over the internet not just here) but PvEers never want to listen. They’d rather believe we’re all evil psychopaths who kill lowbies all day. The communities and people I’ve met in PvP have been the best, most fun, and closest I’ve had. It’s a big reason why PvP is so fun for me (and I do enjoy competition as well obviously). Glad people are at least listening to this guy on the topic. Some good comments in the article as well.

Robert Mann

Yeah, there’s good and bad people in both types of gameplay. The thing is, PvP isn’t the only means to these goals, it is merely all that these people looked at. PvE doesn’t have to be eye-bleedingly boring either, and having aspects of conflict and challenge within it has been done plenty before.

We need developers who are looking beyond the status quo of PvE and PvP content to bring other gameplay modes forward soon, as honestly there’s plenty of room for some fresh ideas (and where the old ones are good and should be kept, that doesn’t mean they are or should be the only things around.)


While I agree that I’ve met a lot of PvP players who were not psychokillers of lowbies, and were warm caring team players (the leader of my guild in EQ2 was one of these but he never pushed anyone to PvP, or even asked them to try it), I think you’re wasting your time trying to tell PvE’ers anything they don’t want to hear.

The basic problem started when we moved from offline RP games to online MMOs with graphics that equal the PC games, and then got even better. Pick up an old copy of The Bard (PC) to see the difference, or play the Baldur’s Gate set. There are old games websites that sell these in patched form for modern players. Compare the complexity and size of the worlds. IMO one of the best innovations of MMO’s is crafting, but that is being dumbed down in every game now. Loss of immersion.

The ones who were playing those games for decades before MMO’s went graphic had a hard time adjusting to PvP and some even had trouble adjusting to Raiding because it was so much more restrictive about character development. And then game designers stopped designing large worlds for offline gaming entirely in favor or online and esports games. The younger generations just thought this was natural, but many of the old guard did not.

That said, there was a minority of laplinked (remember that word?) PvP players even before the internet made mmo’s possible, forming the first playerbase to embrace PvP online (hence the WoW mutable PvP settings). However this difference can be expressed thusly: Girls and geeks play D&D hardcovers, and boys and soldiers play Warhammer. In old gamer terms what happens on most forums today would have been called “rules lawyering” and the players would’ve been punished.

The word I haven’t heard much lately is “immersion” — playing a complex game that’s somewhat believable with some suspension of disbelief. So for a few hours you really live the life of an elf in a fantasy playground. If a PvPer can break in on that because you walked into a PvP zone and didn’t get warnings or didn’t understand them, it breaks the _immersion_. But I rarely see that word mentioned on forums anymore.

On a practical level, in games like WoW where travel is painful until you figure it out, it can be a forever-logoff situation for a new player to be ganked because now the travel is daunting to get back on track in questing, leveling, or finding crafting materials.