Massively Overthinking: Showing up vs. showing off in MMOs


Last week’s Daily Grind about ambient sociability got a lot of MMO gamers talking about that desire to have people around, even if they weren’t grouped up for monster-bashing. But once the thread had runs its course, blogger and MOP reader Serrenity did some self-reflection on why it is we really want other people around so dang much.

“Is there a difference between wanting to celebrate or enjoy your accomplishments with other people and just ‘showing off’? I was thinking about in terms of Minecraft, which I LOVE, but knowing that no one can ever actually enjoy what I create with me leaves me feeling kinda lonely. It’s not that I want to show off what I created (that might be part of it) but really I want someone to enjoy it with me, not be jealous of what I created/accomplished.”

The question then for Overthinking this week is multilayered: Do you get that lonely feeling in underpopulated MMOs and offline games that makes you crave ambient sociability? And if so, for you is it more because you want to share experiences with other people or because you want a baseline for comparison – or something else altogether?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m totally on the same page as Serrenity. It’s why I don’t get around to a lot of the AAA single player games or end up not finishing them. There are lots of online multiplayer games I’d be down for, but few of my friends have the time or desire to play them. Sorry Sea of Thieves and Asheron’s Call emulator!

In fact, in my current work environment, I’m finding it harder to stray from Pokemon Go. Not because it’s a great game, as I still feel Walking Dead Our World is much more MMO-ish in lots of good ways, but because it’s the only game that physically lets me meet new meatspace players easily and gives me some online multi-player opportunities.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): What Serrenity is describing happens to me a lot – honestly, that desire for connection is what used to drive me to mod in games like The Sims and Elder Scrolls with huge modding communities. It’s also one of the things that drives me to continue blogging! It’s that meta flowing around the games that has always attracted me almost more than the games themselves – that is my ambient sociability in games that don’t provide true online multiplayer of some sort.

So in those types of situations, I never think of it as showing off, and nobody else should either. I always thought of it as exchanging ideas with people who are in my same boat. I suppose I do want other people to see what I’ve made, but not so much for self-aggrandizement as for validation that what I’m working on is valuable or wanted, maybe, or at least just worthwhile to somebody beyond my own PC. And sometimes I’m just making stuff for myself and if other people like it, then even better.

Loneliness can definitely sneak up on me in underpopulated MMOs too. It’s one of the things that turns me away from most of the Star Wars Galaxies emus I’ve sampled; they just don’t have enough people to turn the machine and make it all feel like a simulation. I don’t necessarily need to be grouped with other people all or even some of the time; the ambient, semi-formless combat activities of something like Guild Wars 2, or the economic interactions of SWGL, are frequently more than good enough for me. I’ve always been a banksitter, too: Sometimes I just need to sit there and let the chatter at the local bank in whatever MMO wash over me to feel like I’m part of something bigger.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Ooo, what a juicy Overthinking topic. Thanks to Serrenity for the brain food!

So, to touch on the first question: Yes, I absolutely get lonely in an underpopulated MMO. The final waning weeks — well, months actually, if I’m genuinely honest with myself — of WildStar saw the main hub cities completely empty, which combined with the lack of major updates to cause me to mentally say goodbye to the game well before NCSoft formally closed the curtain. Even if I’m not interested in joining the shout/public broadcast channel, having lots of folks milling about doing their thing absolutely makes me feel like I’m part of an active world.

I guess that, ultimately, is why I like that sense of ambient or passive sociability: I like knowing that there’s lots of folks doing lots of things around me and that I can maybe get to where they are at some time. Or maybe I can even make some new friends, in a perfect digital world. Just simply being counted among the group of adventurers is pretty reassuring to me. Besides, every now and again you just gotta take a moment to people watch, which was incidentally one of my all-time favorite pastimes in City of Heroes.

You look very cold, ma'am.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Here’s the funny thing – the MMO where I’ve felt the sting of lacking ambient socializing the most, historically, has been World of Warcraft, a game that is certainly not lacking in player count (even now), but one in which it just feels more lonesome even when I know there are theoretically other players out there. So the underpopulation angle doesn’t seem to be the main issue, here.

Regardless, ambient sociability is one of those things that I think is wildly underappreciated by certain vocal segments of the MMO fandom. The point isn’t that you should need to be grouped up with people to do anything but that you exist in a world with other people, a world in which you create a certain amount of dynamic content for your fellow players on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s as simple as just doing things out in the world in Final Fantasy XIV and having a high-level player toss Regen on me for no reason; a momentary exchange of waves and then we’re both on our way to what we were doing before.

Players naturally want to show off the things that they made, which is why housing in particular is something that’s so frequently seen as a more social feature. If I build something great in Minecraft on my own computer, no one else can experience it, and part of the fun of these things is that experience aspect. By contrast, if I’m particularly pleased with a costume I assembled in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, I can just show it off in screenshots; the experience is of looking at it, not exploring it and personally admiring the aspects provided.

I don’t think games designed without ambient sociability are worse than those with it, but I do feel that things like housing and player-built structures really benefit more from having that shared feeling. It’s the same impulse I’ve always had to show off the thing I just made, whether it be in LEGO bricks or with a housing plot.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Instantly my mind went to achievements — yes, those overused and seemingly pointless milestone markers of our “progress.” Yet I feel that they actually hold some purpose in a multiplayer social environment when other people in your circle or guild are informed as to your latest achievement. For me, it’s not about bragging or trying to garner compliments (or the gratuitous “grats”) but rather wanting the game to share what my friends and I are up to. It’s like little reminders that others are also out there adventuring, even though I can’t currently see them, or they me.

And it’s even more fun to have a housing plot or some other creative endeavor that you can share and has persistence. When my son made a house in Minecraft, his first impulse was to drag me into the room to check it out with him. It’s rarely fun to make something and then hoard it to yourself; creativity is best expressed with others.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Fenrir Wolf

It’s interesting how autism doesn’t really enter into this equation. I’m happy with my hermitic experience, all I truly require in regards to interaction is my partner.

I’d be happy to play an MMO where my partner and I are the only human players. That’s how I played Phantasy Star Portable. What I find in MMOs is that, unless i’m out there roleplaying, I prefer to not draw too much attention to myself.

I remember that in the short time I gave Wildstar a go (almost purely because of the exploration path), I kept transmuting the very first outfit the player is given as it was understated, humble, subdued, and well designed.

I really don’t like big, flashy armour. Nor do I enjoy being the winner in any situation. My partner has called me out on being a bad winner; not because I’m a bad sport, but because I’m too concerned with making others feel bad that I can’t enjoy it. I’m a big bloody puppy dog. I can’t help it.

Even in regards to housing, it’s more of a creative endeavour I share with my partner rather than something I show off to other people.

The only time I ever show off is if I’m roleplaying, but then only because it might be a part of the character’s personality.

At the end of the day, it’s a hierarchical thing, yes? It’s like having the biggest house or the fastest car, it’s about being better than others. I’ve never felt this. I don’t even know what it’s like to feel this. So to say it does nothing for me is an understatement. The appeal is… as thoroughly alien to me, I suppose, as I am to neurotypicals.

I know I’m not entirely immune to it but there’s a lot about human hierarchy that I’ll simply never understand. It’s a video game, it’s about having fun or enjoying escapism. That’s all it’ll ever be for me.

Which, conversely, is why I’m also not even slightly taken in by shiny “cheevos” or collectables.

I’d rather just explore and enjoy being my character.

What I suppose I’m trying to say is that I’m not goal-oriented, nor am I interested in illustrating to others that I have reached goals they have not. For me, it’s just about me and my character, wandering the world and living the narrative.


“Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called Happiness; it has no taste.”

Showing off is best when shared. I’ve got screenshots.

Fenrir Wolf

That’s a piquantly neurotypical perspective that lacks the deeply introspective, richly detailed inner self enjoyed by autism.

I could weave a similarly eloquent quote regarding rumination, imagination, and so on but it would only serve to further illustrate the differences in perspective and be an unnecessary effort in trying to look more clever than I actually am.

Put simply: Autists dream, ruminate, and originate; Neurotypicals have social circles, friends lists, and thumb-ups. Two very different life experiences entirely separated from one another.

It is whether the focus is on the inner or outer self. Though I find to grow the outer self’s influence requires tools I don’t have.

It’s just unfortunate that neurotypicals tend to malign our means. Though as I understand it? It seems introverts have the same issues with extroverts, so these two groups of words might be synonymous.

Well, at least to some measurable quotient.

The point is though is that, for whatever reason, the neurotypical perspective carries the pathological weight of “normal” as though it were some default-state, an innately, naturally superior way of being. Which for the unaffiliated is a fairly raw deal, as the opposite of normal is subhuman troglodyte.

I socialise therefore I am, thus those that do not socialise are not.

As I said, a piquantly neurotypical perspective.

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Happiness requires no taste. It is a simply a state to be.

Rick Mills

So glad to see a counterpoint to the “forced grouping” people who demand to know why I play an MMO if I don’t want to always be in a group. There really is an intelligent answer to brute force questions :)

IronSalamander8 .

Being able to solo, even if you enjoy grouping, is something I like to see in an MMO. Sometimes you just want to be alone while you play or you may just want to get something done in a hurry by yourself before leaving for work or have other reasons. I like to mix it up. I can’t stand being forced to group in a game, but don’t have an issue with group activities either.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

I don’t mind *some* forced group activities. But it definitely needs to be a light touch kind of situation. Like I don’t mind having the main story take me into a dungeon group every now and again, or having some world-y bosses require 2 or more people to take down. I think FFXIV actually skews too far into the “Dungeon all the things!” and would like to see it slide back a bit.

IronSalamander8 .

FF14 indeed has too many dungeons and raids required for the MSQ. I wish they were optional or bonuses instead.

Fenrir Wolf


I don’t think that forced is healthy in any situation. Consider the word: force.

Why should one force another? Why should another be forced to do what one wants in any scenario? And if it is true that a compulsion of some kind is being employed to impair will, that would be distastefully unethical.

No one should ever feel forced in any situation. Especially not in a form of entertainment.

I will say this: It’s a video game, not a cult.

Fenrir Wolf

Agreed. Really not a fan of forced grouping. And that’s all I have to say about that! Though I’m not a fan of forced anything so… I guess I agree with that, too!

Not much to say other than that I agree a lot.


I show up to show off so to speak. That is, I am just there to play a game with myself and others. But it would be awful boring if I didn’t show my character’s story on their sleeves. This is why I enjoyed City of Heroes and WoW’s Transmog system do much that gave me great freedoms to do so. And add some spice to the pigtails, so to speak. <3

Fenrir Wolf

It’s interesting that you bring up the heroic titles! May I borrow the soapbox for a bit?

I like those games! Can you guess why? I’m not lording anything over anyone and this makes me feel at ease.

I’m a big baby. I know, I know. This is a thing. Everyone tells me this.

In a superhero game I can fashion any sort of character I want without feeling as though I have the ability to exercise something I have that another does not. In an MMO where the cosmetics are locked behind time investments I feel less comfortable because not everyone has the time to invest.

So I just don’t do it.

DC Universe Online had a system like that which is why I could never get along with it. Thankfully, in most other superhero games the clothes are easily obtained. I was amazed in Champions Online how common the drop rates were for rare costume items, and I could only feel as though that was intentional. The rest were either given away with the game or in very affordable cash shop costume packs.

Honestly, now that I think about it, it’s this selfsame generosity that might’ve been Champions Online’s undoing. I did enjoy it, though. It was so easy to just… be around people as a character.

I’ve expressed around other articles (maybe here?) that I like to live the narrative. That’s important for me, it’s all about imagination and escapism. I really dig having a character and writing for them, I want to know how they’d think, talk, eat, sleep, and what various personality quirks they’d have. Asking the BIG questions like how does a seemingly very masculine, male charr scrapper embrace their feminine side?

My favourite character I’ve already mentioned, though. The werebear clockpunk pirate who started out as a meme/joke character, and evolved into something far more meaningful. I was delighted by that. His series of Very Unfortunate Events that all lead to remarkable life improvements, that has interesting impacts on a person’s perceptions. Such as, perhaps, a cavalier attitude toward danger because somehow it keeps working out.

I like stories. Even silly stories. Sometimes especially silly stories because they can be the ones with especially hidden meaning, that aren’t trying to be opaquely clever.

I also like very personal stories. Saving the world is such a tired cliche, sometimes I just want to solve the mystery of some artfully ‘alf-inched item or other.

Roleplaying is really one of the few times I really let other people in. So I can understand your perspective. Whilst I don’t share the love for World of Warcraft for very specifically me reasons that I wouldn’t expect everyone to understand, I do like expression.

It’s not about showing off, though. I never want to show off. I want to put on a show!

Bona to vada, loves! Prepare the stage! And all that.

IronSalamander8 .

For me I love solo experience, I’m a bit of loner in RL which is why my job as CMM programmer/CNC QC lab tech is nice as I don’t have to interact with too many people during my work day. I play Minecraft and Creativerse almost exclusively by myself and single player FPS campaigns are an especial love of mine.

That being said, I did meet some good folks in EQ1 and playing online games with friends makes it far more enjoyable, most MMOs have lackluster systems that try to get you to grind that Skinner box so hanging out with friends, both old and new make the games MUCH more fun to play. Even in WoT my clan did silly stuff like have leichttraktor races, and some of our banter while raiding in SWTOR were far more enjoyable than the buggy messes that EC was.

One thing I do miss from EQ1 and CoH was how I met so many people there that became friends just from helping out or needing help with things. I haven’t had that experience as much in other games since then. I love being able to solo but sometimes I feel like I am the only actual player in some of the newer ones, everyone else may as well be bots at times.


Part of the reason I quit Skyrim was I needed that ambient social chatter, playing ESO again.

Jim Bergevin Jr

I think the only time I’ve every felt lonely in an MMO is when I needed to get some required group content done, but couldn’t get enough people together to do it. The World Bosses in SWTOR (back when I was playing) sticks out in my mind the most. Like I said in the previous piece about the social aspects, I don’t need other people in an MMO to enjoy it or make it worthwhile to me.

I rarely do much with housing or crafting in any MMO that I have played that has it. In SWTOR the housing is simply a convenience for me to plop down the things I need quick access to without having to run around one of the fleets or a zone to find them (mail, storage, GM, etc.). I think the only housing I have actually put any thought into has been MapleStory 2. I build up my home for my own enjoyment, I really don’t care if anyone else sees it or not.

I think this comes from the fact that I don’t need my experiences or accomplishments to be validated by anyone else, least of all a bunch of strangers behind an online avatar in a game. I don’t need anyone else around to enjoy the experience of being in a virtual world. While it’s cool to see and interact with others in an MMO, or other game with multiplayer experiences, it’s not the make or break thing for me for a game (unless it’s a competitive game like Heroes of the Storm or Rocket League, naturally). Heck, I guess that makes sense when I would be perfectly content to sit in a rocking chair on the front porch of my mountainside cabin and only see the wonders of the world around me without another soul around.


Since we talked on housing on another topic, its a bit like wanting to call a friend in your house. You enjoy your house decently when alone but want people there too else you will feel lonely and maybe even start to feel your decoration doesnt matter and start to take care less the decorative aspect of it. Same goes for your ingame house. I have setup my house in such a way in Shroud of the Avatar someone can enter and visit it – just cant use my chests – they can actually even craft their things there. Being part of a gaming community can be often part of an actual community “simulation” based on different background. That said, I still think ambient sociability isnt enough on mmos – you want at least a small group of friends. We all got stories of mediocre games we played in the past but they really clicked with us due to the group of the people we met there while, initially, checking them out

Fenrir Wolf

Ah, make house show pretty! That’s what we call it.

Yes, yes. I’ve observed that. I don’t quite understand that, either. I find that pretty and overly decorated gets in the way of organisation, when ultimately you can make your organised home look appreciably personal if you go about it right. Just, perhaps, not “pretty.” Pretty is a very ephemeral, subjective concept. Like feng shui! Unless I’m so entirely misunderstanding the concept of feng shui.

Which leads into an interesting revelation. By having homogenised social constructs the standards of make house show pretty can be Universalised into an anti-cultural, impersonal state that contains traits to please all viewers. So, as such, there’s nothing personal in the decoration of this approach.

That makes sense given everything I’ve seen. And this conveys greater understanding of the appeal of those home makeover shows, since the “pretty” is a homogenised, normalised, accepted factor that has nothing to do with an individual’s tastes.

Therefore, to successfully commit to make house show pretty, you have to understand all of the relevant social mores!

I get it!

I mean, I’ll never be able to do it, because I don’t have the tools to be able to discover what those are, nor will I ever understand how to properly homogenise, and nor do I actually want to in the first place. Still, I think I actually get it, now.


Actually I think house making is quite personal, just obviously some peoples taste will fully to partially alligned. In that house, in Shroud of the Avatar, it also gives me many options. For example I chose to make it a stone house, the default is looking like old village houses. That is because I like stone houses which is something personal. Also what looks pretty is another very personal thing. I like having carpets for example, some people hate them. Also I like to combine functionality with looking good, its why I got all crafting stations in the basement except cooking and butchering stations which I assigned in a room I got as “kitchen” in that house. Generally a good housing system is one that gives you a lot of customization tools to express your Personal creativity – its not homogenised because if you ask 10 people decorate a house in the way they love the most, you will see 10 different decorations, they may happen to have a couple common points, but generally will be very different