The Changing Social Conventions In MMOs
In my early days of playing MMOs I never really gave much through to the social conventions that enforced the unwritten rules of behaviour we all abided by. Conscious thought that is though because, obviously, sub-conciously I was obeying every single convention and thriving as a result. I knew how to interact with others on the level that got me added to friends lists and invited back into groups. I knew how to get the items I needed without being branded a ninja-looter or a greedy player. I knew how to get players to help me with my quests without alienating them towards me. In fact, I pretty much knew how to do or get everything I needed to help me progress as an individual.
It’s quite odd really and, in a cynical way, one could almost say that I was pandering to others and being selfless only to gain something in return. That’s probably right but then it’s something we all do in our real lives and modern society. You don’t shout at strangers on the bus for accidentally bumping into you and you only humbly and politely ask someone to turn their stereo down on the train even though you want to throttle them until their eyes pop out of their head. Of course, not everyone obeys these social conventions but they are few and far between. We call them sociopaths.
Social conventions though aren’t always “good” things instead they merely dictate behaviour that we consider to be normal in our surroundings. A few thousand years ago, the Mayan’s considered brutal religious sacrifice to be socially acceptable whilst the ancient Romans thought it very normal to pretty much bang anything that moved. And let’s not even talk about the Spartans. However, these conventions, as perfectly normal as they were, are now deemed utterly obscene and are not something (most of us) observe.
MMORPGs are like little microcosms of worlds and it’s interesting to see how our social conventions are changing within them. Unlike in real life, where it might take decades for new acceptable behaviour patterns to emerge, in MMOs they are shifting in only a few years and can be heavily influenced by the God-creators that develop them. The whole recent Call to Arms rewards scheme for the random Dungeon Finder by Blizzard is a perfect example of a blatant attempt at obvious social engineering.
As has been discussed before, one of the biggest shifts (in my eyes) in MMO social convention was the concept of PUGs brought about by WoW. Somehow, for some utterly bizarre reason, the idea of grouping with completely strangers has become completely alien to almost every player even when this was a commonplace necessity in MMOs only a few years prior. Even stranger still is that if you took the very same members of a PUG and threw them into a random guild together, suddenly they would bond and treat each other with respect and dignity. It’s something that I’ve always found equally mind boggling and fascinating.
Conventions are changing yet again though, moving even further away from the concept of the PUG to the concept of instant grouping with just about anyone. You don’t even need to introduce yourself or queue or even utter a word when you’re together. It’s ultimate leap forward from the original idea of having to spend hours forming the perfect group in order complete a task, dungeon or quest. Instant gratification is the key word here.
So, with this in mind, what’s in store for the future social conventions of MMOs? Personally I think we’ll see two major progressions, the first and next stage being the complete removal of social interaction all together. BioWare is introducing AI companions with SW:TOR and I can see this being very popular with players as it will be the quickest and most convenient way possible to form a group. No doubt it will evolve with further games and become commonplace until, ironically, MMOs will go full circle and become single player games.
The stage after that though I strongly believe will be a return to the old-school social conventions of grouping and interaction and the complete removal of all forms of automated and convenience grouping. No AI companions, no public groups, no instant grouping, no dungeons finders, just a big freaking chat channel and a friends list. I’m giving it about five years before we see this swing back into fashion.
Personally I don’t have a strong opinion as to how or where the social conventions in MMO should head over the next few years, I just enjoy watching the trends change and our behavioural patterns alter accordingly. And I guess that’s why I like MMOs so much – because we’re all just tiny ants in one giant freaking virtual farm.