Has Social Gaming Made Me Anti-Social?

In late 2008 I started playing my first MMO, The Lord of the Rings Online. I had previously played other game genres, but had never tried this one. I initially considered buying World of Warcraft, but when I found out there was a online version of Middle-Earth I made my choice accordingly. So I purchased a double pack of The Shadow of Angmar and The Mines of Moria, which was on special offer at the time. I still have the media today.

I was hooked right from the outset. My working pattern and domestic arrangements afforded me an ideal opportunity to invest time heavily into this game and I did so willingly. I can remember one particular evening where 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 and decided to meet up again the following night. Needless to say we then continued to group together for the next year or so.

Back then that the majority of the games 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 this was what MMO were all about. The key to advancement was teamwork. People were friendly and approachable. Playing, levelling through the game was a shared experience. So we had a lot of fun and happily sank hours of our leisure time into playing the game. Joining a kinship only enhanced that further. It was nice to log on, 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 have spent gaming. There was always something to do and someone to help.

Then round about the release of Siege of Mirkwood in December 2009, something started to change for me. This was partly due to the LOTRO expansion becoming more solo friendly, but also due to my exposure to other MMOs. I played  Star Trek Online in early 2010 and managed to  progress through the game without the need to belong to a guild. Grouping for an instance 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 usually just a the scene of an ongoing flame war 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.

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, most people started to pursue the game a lot more on their own. Grouping became less and less common.  Of course people talked in kin chat and on some levels it seemed to remain the same. However, the culture within LOTRO and many other games was evolving.

Now solo play certainly has it benefits. As a player there is no time wasted organising a group, ensuring that everyone adequately equipped and briefed or any dependency on other peoples performance. You simply do what you want, when you want. As a result, expectations increase and tolerance decreases. But there are side effects. Because you do not need anyone else, it can impact upon your levels of your involvement within your kin or guild per se. There may be a decline in  group chat . There may also a decrease in the willingness to help out. Requests for help may no longer be greeted by multiple volunteers. Everyone is too busy doing  their own thing. Altruism become an inconvenience.

Consider Rift and the forthcoming Guild Wars 2 and how they conveniently automate the grouping of players via dynamic content. It is easy and seamless, but very much devoid of any meaningful social interaction. Players can pursue their own individual goals and simply tap into the benefits of a group participation,  as and when they want. When done they can continue about their business, without a word. It is a curious paradox that sees a server full of people, playing a social game, alone.

Now I know that this situation does not affect everyone, nor am I stating that it is rife. 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 in the games that they play. Yet I don’t think they represent the majority of the MMO population any more. I think that such team based dynamics now serve specific niche groups. I would also pint out,  I am not advocating that this reduction in group content is necessarily a good thing. However, I do think it is a reality that we cannot ignore. It is prudent to note that F2P also contributes to general social decline, with the percentage increase of “problematic” players that join the community. That in itself has a big impact upon how we all deal with each other.

No let us not be overly sentimental or morally judgemental about this. People play MMOs for fun and one way or the other they are charged for that fun. Should a customer be denied access to content and the opportunity to advance their character 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, without a need for any dealings with others, is not without flaws. We often see in-game as we do in real life, an increasing amount of people who seem ill equipped to interact socially with others. Tolerance, consideration, and patience are abstract concepts for some. Commentators often talk about the decline in the sense of community in the real world. Do MMOs reflect that?

I personally have contributed to this shift in MMO culture. I do tend to focus a lot more on my own gaming needs nowadays, rather than 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 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 have noticed that I’ve 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 and helpful. LOTRO does to a degree still seems to be a good example of this, so its not all doom and gloom. Yet because group content has been watered down within many games or relegated to an after thought with many new products, the incentive to communicate and collaborate is greatly diminished. 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.

5 thoughts on “Has Social Gaming Made Me Anti-Social?

  1. Brian says:

    Great article. I have much the same unarticulated thoughts over the last few mmos. I thought the difficulty had gone down, but it is much more the implication of solobilty into games.

    “It is a curious paradox that sees a server full of people, playing a social game, alone”

    is so true! I myself am just as guilty. Well formed questions make me look at the ensuing GW2 release with open eyes. I knew unease when i was reading about how now u can run up, hit someones mob and get the same credit and loots….. Now it will be an entire zone of people grouping while solo…. Not to mention the dynamic content you alluded to above!

    Thank you for your thoughts. Definitely got me thinking. I’ve enjoyed my wake and bake alot more today too!

  2. Jim says:

    Disagree with Brian above. GW2′s rules lift that “Ugh, not another player!” feeling you get in other MMOs where extra tagging reduces loot/xp rewards. The past few betas have been a great experience: I actually wanted to PvE with lots of other people around, something I haven’t enjoyed since UO. And play together, we did; although there was little formal grouping, running along with complete strangers and coordinating combo attacks is desirable and became natural.

    I understand that this wasn’t and won’t be others’ experience; maybe it depends on server culture. That’s fine. Different strokes for different folks; but I don’t think the social aspect of MMOs has gone for good.

  3. Seanxxp says:

    I absolutely think what you say is indicative of a general trend in MMOs, but can only really say so anecdotally. As you rightly point out, there are a myriad of reasons for this, I believe.

    Firstly, it seems that developers would like players to feel that almost all of the game is available to them. That even alone, they can see most of the content. And honestly, I can see why this has happened. This is pure conjecture, but one would have to assume that many players of the 1st generation of MMOs are now more likely to have family lives, more work commitments, and less gaming time as a result. Perhaps this has, in part, led to the desire to see all parts of the game (or at least the vast majority) in quick and easy play sessions, with minimal social interaction.

    Perhaps this is a good thing for the genre. Maybe many who reminisce about 50 man raids, and such large social gatherings of the more or less over era of MMOs are merely those who were in a privileged enough position to be that plugged in to a games community to do something like that. And, as such, perhaps the current arrangement is better for the majority of players? Again, I don’t know for sure.

    I definitely think that the sheer mechanics of many MMOs no longer encourage any player interaction,for the most part. If you look back to SWG, at least pre-CU (I’m not sure about after that)then you had to find another player to interact with just to remove your death penalty. It wasn’t much, but it forced a small amount of interaction. Again, I’m not saying this is preferable, just stating that I think it would be risky to try something like that these days, and that says something.

    Ultimately, I’m not necessarily advocating a move to more enforced social interaction, but I do begin to wonder: at what point does it become sort of pointless these games even being multilayer? I’m not being inflammatory here, I ask it genuinely. I mean, why not implement a system where each player experiences a unique persistent world which only they occupy. They can have chat channels, and some sort of guild like system. However, group content is only experienced in separate instanced dungeons. We’re actually not that far away from that at this point judging by a lot of play styles. Whilst this would clearly still be mutiplayer, it would be another step a long a move away from grouping and social interaction. Yet, it feels sort of inevitable.

    Lastly, I agree with what you say about GW2. I’m very excited about it, but really for the most part I just feel like I’m hitting a mob next to somebody. Not interacting in any meaningful sense.

    Anyway, very interesting and thought provoking article.

  4. Geoffery says:

    I agree the teamwork part is getting hard to find. As a Lore-master in lotro its hard without a team sometimes. I play with my friends when I need a team. I have met some “civil people” I like to play with from time to time. Sadly it mostly soloing nowadays. Its a mmo game it needs to be alittle more social I understand the solo in some parts but its a mmo it needs more team work.
    (Geofferytarcan, Timmytarcan) in lotro

  5. Great post, Roger. As I think you know, I’ve blogged about fail groups in MMOs. These days, it’s so much more difficult to come across a group that actually works together to kill the thing (or whatever you need to do) than it is to find a group that trash talks other members… and to what end? I don’t understand that line of thinking, but it certainly discourages me from grouping – even when (theoretically) the group would help me move my game along. It’s really quite depressing.

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