Have MMOs Made Me Antisocial?
I started playing my first MMO in late 2008. Until then it was the one genre that I had never tried. I initially considered buying World of Warcraft but when I found out there was a virtual version of Middle-Earth I chose to purchase The Lord of the Rings Online instead. Right from the outset I was hooked. My working pattern and domestic arrangements afforded me plenty of time to invest into this game and I did so willingly.
I can remember one particular evening when I grouped up with two other players who were all attempting the same quest as me. We chatted and got on well together. After successfully clearing our quests we decided to meet up again the following night. Needless to say we continued to group together for the next year or so. At this time the majority of LOTRO’s content required people to play collaboratively. It was not an alien concept but a simple fact of life. The prevailing philosophy of the time was that MMO were all about grouping. The key to advancement was teamwork.
At the time I found that most people were friendly and approachable, so levelling through the game was very much a shared experience. Joining a kinship only enhanced this further. It was also nice to log on to the game, say “hi” to people in kin chat and shoot the breeze. Between November 2008 and December 2009 was one of the most pleasant times I’ve spent gaming. There was always something to do and someone to help. I didn’t see LOTRO as a time sink but as a positive leisure activity.
After the release of Siege of Mirkwood in December 2009, something started to change for me. This was not only due to the LOTRO expansion becoming more solo friendly but also because I started to play other MMOs. In early 2010 I managed to progress through Star Trek Online without the need to belong to a guild. Grouping was done automatically and I noticed for the first time that there was no necessity to play collaboratively in a traditional sense. The chat channel was mainly a platform for flame wars with hardcore fans debating the finer points of the franchise. So I played on my own, ignoring others players and was happy to do so.
And so the rot set in. When LOTRO went free to play in October 2010, it embarked on a radical redevelopment of material. Pursuing the free market and the casual player meant ensuring that content was accessible in easy bite size chunks. Turbine then set about making all prior zones soloable over the next 18 months. From my perspective, people continued to play but unless it involved endgame raiding, grouping became less and less common. Even the kinship I was in became more solo orientated. The common link was the group chat and we still ran instances but most of the time everyone seemed to be doing their own thing.
The benefits of solo orientated gameplay are the same nowadays as they were five years ago. There’s no time wasted organising a group, ensuring that everyone is adequately equipped and briefed; nor is there any dependency on other people’s performance. You simply do what you want, when you want. As a result, expectations increase and tolerance decreases. But there are also some negative side effects. Because you do not need anyone else, it can impact upon your level of your involvement within your guild. There may be a decline in communication. There may also be a decrease in the willingness to help out. Requests are no longer be greeted by multiple volunteers. Everyone is too busy doing their own thing. Altruism is an inconvenience.
The automated grouping of players via dynamic content that we see in Guild Wars 2 and Rift, is easy and seamless. It is also devoid of any meaningful social interaction. Players can pursue their own individual goals and simply tap into the benefits of group participation, as and when they want. When done they can go about their business, without saying a word. It is a curious paradox that sees a server full of people, playing a social game, alone.
Now this situation does not affect everyone, nor am I stating that it is the default position of all players. RP servers or guild based around hardcore raiding, fly in the face of this social decline. I am sure both such parties would strongly argue that they still maintain very high levels of social interaction. Yet I don’t think they represent the majority of the MMO population. Such strong team based dynamics only serve specific niche groups. I also believe that the F2P business model has also contributed to general social decline, with the percentage increase of "problematic" players that join the community. That has a big impact upon how we all interact with each other.
When this issue of social decline is raised, it often provokes emotive and judgemental responses. The gaming genre is steeped in nostalgia. Rightly or wrongly, such perspectives seldom have any impact upon business decisions. Game developers want to keep players engaged and using their products. Should customers be denied access to content and the opportunity to advance due to subjective notions of social interaction? Well the logical answer is no. However this move towards a player base that is following its own personal path, is not without flaws. We often see in-game an increasing amount of people who seem ill equipped to interact socially with others, just as we do in real life. Tolerance, consideration, and patience are abstract concepts to some. Social commentators often talk about the decline in the sense of community in the real world. Do also MMOs reflect this?
I personally have contributed to this shift in MMO culture, especially so with LOTRO. I do tend to focus a lot more on my own gaming needs nowadays, rather than with others in my kin. I argue that I've played my part and done my share in the past. However I think the reality is that I no longer have a dependency on others, so the notion of community spirit is diminished. I’m not saying that this is a good thing and I do have pangs of guilt occasionally and endeavour to be helpful. Ultimately, all kins have givers and takers. I've just moved my position between the two ends of the spectrum in recent years, as have many others.
This beggars the question, was the social heyday of MMO's really ever driven by altruism or purely by necessity? Is this decline in the social aspect of the genre inevitable, or can it be stemmed? I cannot answer these questions and only the future will tell. I do on occasions bump into people in-game who are very civil and helpful. LOTRO does to a degree still seems to be a good example of this, although its crown has slipped in recent years. Yet because group content has been watered down within many games or relegated to an afterthought with many new products, the incentive to communicate and collaborate is greatly reduced.
Whether this all stems from developers just chasing a buck or whether this is a wider reflection of contemporary human nature, I'll let you decide. I do think that MMOs and even the internet itself have lost their capacity to impress. Simply being surrounded by other people online no longer gets the “wow” reaction it did a decade ago. We’re also sadly accepting of the fact that social platforms tend be a race to the bottom these days. It is assumed by default that all online communities will have a percentage of assholes. And then there is the ascendancy of the cult of the individual and “me” culture; these to have impacted upon the concept of social gaming.
For me my personal MMO journey has been a question of time and place. I wanted to be social when I started playing this genre and had the resources to do so. If a new MMO was released tomorrow that had old school grouping mechanics and time requirements, I know for a fact I would not play it. It would be incompatible with my current lifestyle and mindset. Perhaps age is also a factor in this conundrum; the idealism of youth versus the pragmatism of old age.
So is there a conclusion to this discussion? I’m not sure there’s a definitive one. Overall it seems a little unrealistic to blame the developers solely for the decline in social gaming. I think if we’re honest we have to concede that we actively contributed to this situation ourselves. When the move towards solo play started did we complain and lobby as much as we could have? Perhaps the golden age of collaborative play is just a myth. We grouped because we had no choice. Can the situation change? Yes but only if we make it financially viable to do so.