The Soapbox: No, forced grouping in MMOs isn’t ‘social’

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    
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The Soapbox: No, forced grouping in MMOs isn’t ‘social’

Thinking back to high school, I’m awash in memories of the many deep, meaningful relationships that spawned as a result of being forced to work on group projects with people I didn’t chose to work with. We grew into a tightly knit group of friends, whose coordination and collaboration was unparalleled. Everyone did the work without cajoling or ego. It was truly a paradise!

It’s also total bullshit. I think back on the group projects I worked on in high school and reach for a drink – either metaphorical or literal. I can’t think of a single time when being forced into a group project actually resulted in anything more meaningful than a deep sigh when we were finally through the project with an acceptable grade. Things were a little better in college, with the major difference being that the “acceptable grade” bar was considerably higher.

My experience isn’t unique. Group projects in high school, college, and now professionally are met by nearly everyone with trepidation and side-eyes. They breed animosity for others as much as appreciation. There are times when group work has led to friendships, but when you think of the number of friends you made from forced grouping situations versus the number of people you’ve been forced to group with… well, that’s a gamble of long odds.

It’s ridiculous that we’ve turned this expectation on its head in our games. Way too many MMO players devoutly defend the idea that forced grouping in MMOs actually leads to social relationships. Some of us are so blindly committed to this wishful thinking that we vigorously assert that forced grouping is the only metric to measure sociability in a game. There’s simply no other way to be social in games, so this line of thinking goes.

In fact, gamers so often use forced grouping as a stand-in for sociability that as a community, we don’t really understand what we are looking for when it comes to social activities in MMOs. So let’s hash it out: What makes a social activity in an MMO?

Defining social

I’m going to define social using the dictionary.com definition: “relating to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations: a social club; seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; friendly; sociable; gregarious.” Extrapolating on this definition, I’m going to define social for our purposes as the creation of meaningful interactions and relationships. We already have an issue with forced grouping as “social.” Groups that are forced together rarely form with the goal of friendly companionship or relations.

Forced groups are good at one thing, and being social ain’t it

Forced groups are pretty good at achieving goals. This study from 2009 argues that “students seemed to focus more on completing a task for a than seeing group projects as part of developing community to enhance learning.” Another study supports that, remarking that generally speaking, participants felt that the group work overall contributed positively to their performance. Forced grouping is effective to achieve a goal together – completing a dungeon or doing a raid, for example.

This matches with what we see in MMOs. A forced group is exceptionally suited to achieving a goal like completing group content. But it’s not very effective at making friends or any sort of lasting relationship. When we consider the number of times we’ve run dungeons with people and the number of meaningful relationships we’ve developed out of those dungeons runs, the number is so small that it’s devoid of any real meaning. It’s not that it doesn’t happen; it’s just that you are more likely to be eaten by a grüe while lounging on your couch than to make a friend from a random dungeon run.

I couldn’t find any research to suggest that forced grouping has a statistically significant causal relationship to development of social groups (Stockholm syndrome notwithstanding).

Social ambiance

One of the defining characteristics of MMOs – and why I prefer MMOs over other games – is the social ambiance. MMOs have a vibrancy that single player games can’t match. That vibrancy sometimes results in an eye-roll, or a block, but for the most part it’s a pleasant, vivid backdrop of sociality. It’s people quietly (or not so quietly) enjoying the companionship of others in the open world.

When you think about how you meet new people or make new friends in meatspace, you rarely say, “I was forced to do this group project and we became besties at work/school.” You meet people and make new friends by going to a party, hanging out at the bar or coffee shop. You attend events or meetups. Your goal in these situations is nothing more complicated than “be social.”

Even playing non-video games in meatspace is different. We might join an intramural sports team to meet people. But we interact with the same people each and every game. You get the opportunity to build the relationship with the team.

Intramural sports teams are actually closer in function to our guilds. Guilds allow us to interact with the same people over and over again, giving more chances to develop meaningful relationships and have meaningful interactions. In forced grouping in MMOs, most people who group with you will never interact with again, unless you’re drawing from a guild or a very small server. You have that single 20-30 minutes to make a meaningful relationship, while also trying to achieve the stated goal of the group: to complete the dungeon. And that assumes it even makes sense for you to try to make a connection. Even if you really enjoyed running a dungeon with someone from another realm, does it make sense to try to connect, knowing all the barriers there for you to actually play together again?

The line gets a lot fuzzier when you start to factor in guilds and the social dynamism there. You might hate the Oculus dungeon in WoW with the white-hot passion a thousand suns, but you still jump in to help a guildie. The dynamic at that point changes as it’s not as forced now and your motive isn’t just, “Ugh, I have to do this with a rando group because this game forces me to.” Instead, it becomes, “Oh, I really hate this place, but I’m going to help out this guildie.”

But even achieving that dynamic in guilds is somewhat compulsory – and it’s largely a crapshoot as to whether you’ll find a good guild (which is probably a topic all on its own). You blindly apply to a guild based on a single paragraph, or you accept a tell from someone. Finding a place that fits your social wants is seven parts luck to three parts intuition and zero parts empirical data.

If we truly want to increase the sociability of MMOs, developers need to create the space in the game for this to happen. Many older MMOs did this well: Games like Star Wars Galaxies have cantinas that primarily functioned as a place to buff, heal, and socialize. Anarchy Online had the same thing; people were always hanging out in the bar Athens. Anarchy Online had guild cities, and a guild headquarters with bars, meeting rooms, bed rooms — the whole nine yards. Housing in Final Fantasy XIV is a huge social point with no other goal outside social status.

Imagine if MMO developers put half the effort they use trying to balance combat into helping people make connections and build relationships in their games. Even something as simple as advertising an event whose only purpose was to let people meet each other and build relationships. How would that change the social landscape of the game?

What I’m not saying

I’m not saying forced grouping is bad. I’m not saying forced grouping shouldn’t be in games. Dungeon content is probably my favorite type of content in MMOs, and I don’t mind grouping to accomplish it. But it’s just not rational to declare that forced grouping content is an activity that engenders sociability when we can plainly see – both anecdotally and through research – that it’s just not true. As an activity measured on social outcomes, forced grouping fails abysmally. You just aren’t likely, now or ever, to develop any kind of meaningful relationship from forced group content.

Fortnite and AQ3D are touting the success of things like in-game concerts. These are activities with no purpose in game other than to be social and hang out, and that’s where MMORPGs should focus too. It’s increasingly baffling that we continue to insist the forced group content is the One True Way to be social in games and eschew any attempts to shift away from that dynamic.

And on that note, I have a glass of Synthehol waiting for me in Ten Forward. Until next time, friends.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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HawkeWar

I’m in your raid….stealing your aggro.

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Rndomuser

Thank you for such article. The “forced grouping” definitely isn’t the social activity for many people, especially for me. Every time I went into dungeon with random people I felt like doing annoying job where other people will be judging my performance and potentially annoying me with their suggestions or where other people will not perform well and force the group to waste more time than needed on this annoying activity. I have never added any person from a dungeon run to my friend’s list, only to ignore list if they were trying to abuse me by saying how bad I was (I am aware that I cannot perform as well as some other players, there is no need to tell me about it at any time) or by being bad themselves.
It is very disappointing that many developers and many players cannot comprehend the fact that not all people enjoy doing this and keep on pushing forced grouping through gameplay design.

Especially the very narrow-minded people who keep saying nonsense like “if you do not like forced grouping – why play MMORPGs at all”. Plenty of other people still enjoy socializing in MMORPGs, just in a different way, such as socializing in capital cities or guild housing or player events, or just by being a part of the living world and observing other players. And even though they may not like forced grouping, what they do is still “socializing” and this still happening in modern games even with LFG tools (I saw some ridiculous comment like “LFG tools destroyed socializing”, which is a complete nonsense – LFG tools actually save people time so they can finish “in-game job” of “grinding dungeon” faster and get back to socializing outside of dungeons and spend more time on such socializing). And people who socialize through such activities outside of dungeons are actually more important than people who only socialize by running dungeons or grinding group quests because they will keep socializing long after the latest patch was released (some do not care how quickly new dungeons are released and will keep paying sub fee just to hang out with friends or do some PvP in open world or some duels or some casual RP) and they will most likely keep spending money on cosmetic items. And personally I would like to see more of such casual socializing people and less people who are just obsessed with dungeons or raids or group quests. Even when it comes to watching streamers – I only enjoy watching MMORPG streamers who do not grind hardest dungeons and the most enjoyable MMORPG streamers for me are the ones who are either new to the game and still leveling up or the ones who RP (which is extremely rare to find on streams) or do casual world PvP in non-instanced world areas.

P.S: Whoa, that was a lot of text 0_O

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R'nageo

It’s a nice comparison. See, when I play MMOs, I’m at my most social when I’m not doing group content. If I’m crafting, gathering, grinding, or just goofing around, I’m engaged at the same time in guild chat and talking about any and everything. And sometimes that leads to helping friends with content and we have a good time, often using voice chat on discord to talk while playing.

However, when I’m doing group content with random grouping, if I’m trying to be social the most likely outcome is a chat line of “Hey have you heard about WWWWWWWW111111” while I wonder why my character is stuck in the fire not using any attacks. Either that or I’m too far from the rest of the group to help because I was typing and not moving and I get everyone angry at me.

Socializing nowadays in games happens in downtime or outside of the game itself through 3rd party tools.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

“if I’m trying to be social the most likely outcome is a chat line of ‘Hey have you heard about WWWWWWWW111111′”

Feeling very seen rn. :D

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Brazen Bondar

Late to the party, but I did scroll and read. I always think it’s interesting when people ask if you don’t want to be forced in a group why do you play an MMO? The answer seems mind boggling simple to me: I want to be in a living world with other people. I can talk with them or not. I can see people doing interesting things and group with them or not. I can RP or not. I can go to a party and hang even if I don’t like the music they play. I joined the guild I’m in now because I saw them at a holiday social event and they seemed to be having a good time. I don’t care that they run operations or flashpoints. They just seemed like nice people. TSW had a great community because people did social stuff…and it wasn’t all RP. The fashion shows were pretty legendary. The dance lines in Agartha would always draw a chuckle. We had fun…and ran dungeons too, but mostly it was about the fun. That’s why I choose MMO over single player games. I mostly like people….

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Robert Mann

Thank you.

Even unforced grouping isn’t inherently social. It depends upon the goals of the people involved, and the stresses introduced by the activities involved. Just sitting and chatting is an activity, as much as dungeons and raids are activities.

So the trick here is that the activity can be anything, but the stress involved is what makes or breaks a social experience. You cannot interact with others when you are too busy doing something else. IE classic group content where you need to focus on the combat.

Also the people involved have to have a goal of being social. You can set up any type of content, but if people don’t want to interact they won’t.

You can have all sorts of levels of social content, but if the entire goal of the game is “Rush to level, run more content for gear, keep on that treadmill!” then the game will NOT have much social interaction. There will be some light discussion between people, and occasionally (very rarely) a deeper bond will form. That deeper bond is people purposefully stepping out of the game, and forcing social interaction where it is otherwise abnormal. The light chatter is… boredom -or- planning for the content. Because you’ve all done this fight fifteen times, or you haven’t beaten it, or you want to improve on something in the fight. Which isn’t social so much as self-interest in a group setting.

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Vunak

Oldschool FFXI proves otherwise.

Your using studies that aren’t equatable to how MMOs work. College course work and MMO interactions are like comparing apples to oranges.

Forced grouping itself doesn’t immediately increase social interactions. We see that in WoW or other similar games where “forced grouping” is a queue button that places you in an automated group with people you will never again in your life see. There is a massive disconnect of emotional attachment for the people you are playing with. You wouldn’t even notice if those players were replaced with NPCs.

But in a game like FFXI where grouping is at the center of the entire games core. You are constantly seeing the same people over and over again to continue to progress it not only makes it more crucial to communicate with people, but to communicate civily because a bad reputation could bar you from much of the games content.

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traja

This I think mostly comes down to the size of the community. Private servers for example tend to have a different atmosphere to them simply because there are usually fewer people involved. It’s the same difference as walking around in a large city compared to a small town.

If you think about it there is really not much of a difference to leveling slowly in a group old school MMO style and leveling quickly solo but doing a lot of group content in end game. Both “force” pickup groups but modern MMOs tend to have mega servers and cross realm tech that makes the community too large to keep seeing the same players over and over.

Also another question is if this topic is even related to recognizing people and acting civil. I think it is more about forming actual friendships and neither style really fosters that very well.

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Fenrir Wolf

I remember playing FF XI. It was a genuinely miserable little experience.

I stuck with it largely because it was pretty and I liked Final Fantasy lore, but no one I knew of actually enjoyed how the game played. It was horribly restricted based upon race stats too (always a tremendously bad idea, race should be cosmetic and lore-focused). It just wasn’t fun. I can’t really remember anyone I tried it with ever thinking of it as such. They were just there for the lore, the pretty aesthetics, and the Final Fantasy world.

The groups I frequented much preferred Ultima Online. I remember how some of them described FF XI’s mining as an exercise in getting very traumatised by video games as whenever a node popped up everyone would jump on it and it would lead to fraying nerves and hot tempers. It wasn’t a good time. There was a lot of reminiscing about how fun it was to sit around in a mine with other miners and just chat whilst mining.

So no, I can’t agree. If anything, FF XI proves it.

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Vunak

Considering FFXI is still going today. Has private servers running that rival populations on modern MMOs. Has more running servers than modern MMOs with a population to match. I would say your miserable experience is pretty secluded to your group.

But to each their own. That doesn’t really prove anything other than you and your friends didn’t enjoy the game. Not that grouping can foster relationships between people.

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Dean Greenhoe

My sentiments exactly.

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Utakata

Thank you for saying what needs to be said, Mr. Andy. Not sure it’ll persuade readers who have already made their minds on this despite, the evidence supporting your position. But it still needed to be said. /bows

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Castagere Shaikura

Reading some of the replies here crack me up. My first MMO Anarchy Online in 2001 was all about being social. Every city zone or major hub had night clubs and bars everywhere and players back then used them to hang out and meet new players. Today you go to any major hub and you see none of that. Today players only think of social as running group content to get new gear and when it’s done see ya later. And the LFG tool also killed social in modern MMOs. The tool was made mostly because people were too lazy to get to know others by talking to them first. People like to say it was to get the right people for the group but it really means hows your DPS. If its to low kick. No need to talk. Look at ESO the world is loaded with inns and no one ever goes in them unless a quest sends them there. And whatever happened to role players? AO used to be filled with them.

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Bruno Brito

If i well recall, AO didn’t force you into grouping. Which is the main problem we’re talking here.

I’m all for social activities, zones, etc etc. I just think they can coexist with self-sufficiency.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

LFG was created so that the act of forming a group didn’t take longer than the actual content the group was looking to complete. It also aids the socially impared in experiencing group content.

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Castagere Shaikura

And it killed the art of conversation. If you are socially impaired why would you play an MMO?

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

It didn’t kill the art of conversation if all it did was allow socially impaired people to play too. It’s not like anti-LFG people were talking to them or inviting them to parties before LFG. All the same social people are still there.

Andy’s piece covered a few of the reasons why people who aren’t super extroverted still love the “alone together” feel and ambient sociability of MMOs. It’s not a stretch; this is why people laze on the beach and mall-sit and people-watch even when they aren’t partying hard with everyone in sight.

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Bruno Brito

If you are socially impaired why would you play an MMO?

Oof. That’s a terrible thought to have.

Alyn
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Alyn

Thought provoking article Andy. I most likely won’t be interested in an mmo that doesn’t utilize both solo and cooperative content. MMORPG,does connote both images. An artful well made mmo easily flows between the need for solo and the need for the use of groups. I have stated this before.

If I begin to play an mmo designed for that “old school” gotta find a group as soon as I leave the safe confines of my village, lo and behold I run into a bunch of folks in the same boat. We create or join a guild. YAAAY, even better. We create our very own Discord channel and man oh man we have ourselves some laughs. Now, we are ready to venture off into the dangerous world MMOville! This continues for some time and we grow our gaming community. The problem is now we are at different places in the mmo. Why? Well Othella, (game nick), just had a baby and she can’t be on quite as much and she was the healer. Othar, just got a promotion and needs to relocate to Bigtown City some 1000 miles away and he was one of the best utility players we have ever seen. RockoTaco broke his arm and will be out of action for a couple of weeks and yeah dude is our tank. What the heck do we do now? The newbies aren’t high enough level for that dungeon, Blessed Eyes of Death! We’re doomed until we can recruit or PuG!

I haven’t even gotten into the problem of farming mats and how long that will slow the leveling process down as we travel through the dangerous zones we are NOT equipped or designed well enough to solo, because yeah “old school”. Yes, I realize we do have a few gaps. LOL, of course, however the point here is design of a well made mmo needs to take into consideration that most folks that play mmo are a bit older now and real life does factor into the amount of time one might put into the leveling/grouping process. You can and should utilize both play styles as well as the RPG element. Is there a strong story? What part does your character play in that story? Grouping up is a blast and I totally love it! However, there is crafting and gathering and building that are equally important in an artful mmo.

I am currently well into Final Fantasy 14, it’s not perfect, however it does make a very nice effort of utilizing many play styles. The Main Story Quests are done solo, with many a solo instanced challenge. MSQ’s also have their dungeons and trials where cooperation and knowledge of how to play your job/class is learned along the way. Crafting is a behemoth that invites you to create and make a pretty good living with what you make and sell. Harvesting/gathering are of course hand in hand with crafting in FF14. These tasks are done mostly solo and are well designed for that. I completed several map searches in a group of eight last night, and made money doing that with my FC friends. There is something going on for groups every evening in my FC thus, yeah grouping is important.

Balance. MMORPG should be as balanced to welcome as many play styles as possible. The game should be beautiful. Yeah, for me that is important. The story needs depth and breadth to “pull” me into the conflict and solutions. I want to feel as though I am earning my titles through my journeys both alone and with comrades! Meaningful words:

“A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when, in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.” Rudolf Steiner