There are two statements frequently made with regard to MMOs that seem like linked clauses, but they’re not. “MMOs are social games” is a true statement. “Therefore, people should be grouped up at all times because otherwise it’s not social” is not. The phrasing isn’t always that direct, but the general sentiment seems to be that if you don’t like such-and-such tediously unpleasant social system, you shouldn’t really be playing MMOs because how is playing solo different from playing a single-player game?
In many ways, this is a bad-faith argument that’s obviously wrong on so many levels. But instead of just saying that and leaving it there, why not actually go into detail? Let’s give a broad sampling of the 10 sorts of social interactions that are at the core of MMOs. Not all of them may appeal to every sort of player, and not all of them necessarily even appear in every single game, but all of them form part of the social fabric. And there are a whole lot of ways that these games are social even without a dedicated content group.
1. Grouping up for content
Let’s just get this out of the way right away. Having a static group for Mythic+ runs in World of Warcraft is hardly the only way to have social interactions in the game, but it is still a way to do so. The problem is less about this existing and more when it becomes the predominant or only form of social interaction encouraged with one another, when players are expected to essentially evaluate everyone on the basis of “is this player going to help me clear this content.”
Also keep in mind that this is just as real a form of social interaction if you have part of a group instead of the full thing. If you have two friends in WoW whom you queue up for dungeons with? That’s still social interaction with other people.
2. The in-game economy
Some games do a better job of this than others, of course, but so long as there’s a way to sell things there’s still an in-game economy. Things like auction houses and better access to the economic systems definitely help matters, but there’s also something to be said for, say, Albion Online’s way of redistributing items sold to vendors to monsters in the world. The economy and items within the game are made or found by players, and thus it’s the people around you filling out the auction house.
This one doesn’t tend to get called out as social for some reason, which is odd because it’s kind of the most basic form of games in the first place. Our earliest games we learn, things like Candyland and War (the card game), are just two-player PvP with simple rules in place about who gets to win. Games like Overwatch are entirely reliant on PvP as a primary way of interacting socially.
And while you might not think this is necessarily a positive reaction, it still is a social one. How you treat other players when you fight them is a form of social interaction, and pointing and laughing as you stunlock and kill someone is interaction. And then you wonder why people don’t want to play Fortnite with you, presumably.
Without other people to interact with, roleplaying is really just a form of personally relevant fanfic. That’s not to denigrate the art (for one thing, it would make me a massive damn hypocrite), but it does mean that roleplaying by its very nature is social interaction. You can’t have one without the other.
In many ways, roleplaying could even be seen as one of the most pure forms of socializing possible in MMOs. You’re engaging with the game’s systems to put on a play in which the audience is also participating, including many cases wherein the audience is participating in a play about being the audience in a play. It’s a bit of a trip.
5. Economic PvP
Sure, you could declare war on another corporation in EVE Online and go in weapons hot. But you could also engage in economic PvP, which is an entirely different category from the economy and straightforward PvP. You might never actually meet your opponents in the arena of the economy as you try to shut someone out from a market, devalue someone’s goods, or otherwise engage in money-based fencing.
Sometimes your opponent might not have the reflexes to take you on in a straightforward fight. But you could still find yourself ensnared in a complex social web of buying, reselling, thrown money, and reclaimed assets that can wind up reshaping a game’s economics for years to come.
6. Social gathering
Talking with someone directly through the game is something that isn’t really possible with other titles. Sure, I can chat with friends through other means a lot of the time; I can always, say, tab over to a chat program if I have the urge to be social in a single-player title. But in an MMO it’s possible to just be in social chat channels and bond with people while doing stuff alone; you already have a foundation of getting to know one another because, well, you’re both playing the same game.
7. Advice and feedback
If I need to find something in Bloodstained, my options are to look around for it or… well, nothing. Just that. If I need to find an elite mark in Final Fantasy XIV, I can shout to see if anyone’s seen it, potentially finishing my search in seconds. Because more people than me are playing the game, we can all communicate about how to take on things that might be tricky or unclear.
8. Housing and decoration
This honestly isn’t just limited to housing. Housing is an automatically social venture; the whole reason people want large houses in FFXIV is to have more space for gathering and decoration, for example, since you can easily fit all of the utility items in the game into a much smaller space. But you also want to make your character look good because other people are going to see you, the equivalent of dressing up to impress when you have none of the real world’s physical restrictions.
To a certain extent, this does extend to gear peacocks who want everyone to be impressed with their cool outfits. But it also covers people who just want to assemble outfits and spaces for others to enjoy.
9. In-game events
Some in-game events are player-run and entirely rely upon other players gathering up and working together as a form of performative addition. Other events are developer-run, ranging from getting a lot of people to complete an overarching goal to just having several people in one place for the heck of it. And you know what? They’re both forms of social interaction just the same.
More to the point, some of these events are specifically meant to have a social presence responding to direct conditions of the game. I’m never going to forget the protests that were organized for the City of Heroes closure which took place within the game, players swarming to city hall to protest what was being done. Sure, it didn’t fix what was happening, but the fact that we all showed up was in and of itself an interaction to show that we were not alone.
10. Passive ambiance
Human beings, in many ways, are the most effective ways to generate completely unexpected encounters. You could run through zones in WoW and find one person desperately struggling against a group of enemies who you could help, or you could ignore them, or if you’re the opposite faction you could even help kill that player and laugh about it. (That last one does make you a jerk, though.) A few minutes later you could find yourself racing for objectives with someone else, and then a few minutes after that you could get a last-minute save from another player yourself.
Not all of these need to be extended outward. You can be taking on a FATE in FFXIV, slowly killing targets, only for another player to swoop in, help you clear, and then take off. The important part is that it’s a sign of the vitality of the very nature of being in a shared world.
Even when you’re alone, you’re still in the same space. And there’s a value in being alone when that’s true.