Massively Overthinking: Do MMORPGs aspire to pro-social mechanics?

Ironically, this is the sort of controversy you'd probably rather face from inside a hot tub.

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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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.


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.


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.

Loyal Patron

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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)


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

Melissa McDonald


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?

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)