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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