Social morals, or social etiquette to a lesser extent, play an important role in MMORPGs. Most people never realise it – some even downright deny it – but almost everything we do in a MMO revolves around the game world society and interacting with others. Even if you only solo, eventually you will buy something from the Auction House or bump into another player doing the same quest as you at the same time.
Most human beings live by a moral code and conform to the spoken and unspoken rules of society without thinking about them or questioning it. MMORPGs are fabricated worlds with very little real life influence so the rules of society are a lot easier to bend. People can say nasty thing, act like jerks and generally screw people over without having to face any real world consequences. Insult an Orc in World of Warcraft and he might type something back on his keyboard. Insult someone in real life and they might punch you in the face.
Ironically though, this lack of consequences doesn’t stop the majority of players from following a code and acting on their social morals. It also doesn’t diminish socialising and social morals within the game and they become exceedingly more important the more you play. If you’re in a group in an instance, there is actually technically nothing stopping anyone from rolling on an item you need just to spite you. Same goes for raids. Even with DKP systems, there is no game play mechanic which automatically assigns your share of the loot to you depending on performance – you are the mercy of the social morals of the guild leader to distribute the loot according to an agreed measure. If they decide to bugger off with the loot, well that’s their choice and it may result in negative peer pressure but it’s still entirely possible.
Social morals and etiquette were particularly important in older MMORPGs like Everquest where they didn’t have any sort of loot mechanics or target tagging. Ninja looting was a commonly used term (I even had a friend who specialised in it) and the only thing that prevented it was the social code that people conformed to. Same goes to Need Before Greed looting (most groups used to decide on a loot method before they set out and then expect everyone to stick to it), camping, raid loot and even forming groups that lasted a set amount of time to make it worthwhile.
MMORPGs require society and social interaction. Every player is at the mercy of the social morals of others and every player helps enforce the expected code of conduct through peer pressure. The bottom line is that there are no mechanical systems that control the entire game for us and really, if there was, who would honestly want it? Part of the point of MMORPGs is there society and interaction with others. It’s whats them fun, fascinating and sometimes frustrating.