The Changing Social Conventions In MMOs

Social Conventions

The red stick figure was shot soon after bucking the social convention

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.

-Gordon

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14 Comments

  1. Wakela says:

    You mention that BioWare is introducing AI companions. GW has had them forever. That was one of the things about GW that I really didn’t like too much. There was very little social interaction. Once you left the posts, all the wild areas were instances. So you could literally play for hours without seeing someone unless you went into town to turn in a quest or go to the vendor.

    I also think one of the things that affects the social dynamics in MMOs are the server merges. Each server is like its own thriving community. But more and more MMOs are turning towards merging these communities together without the players having a say in the matter. And of course, this causes a sort of dominant/subordinant scenario onto the players. Because the people who were already on server A don’t want server B people coming to play in their proverbial sandbox. And since the new combined server retains the name of server A, they feel that they have every right to do what they want to those from server B.

    This is not always the case. However, I have seen it happen through countless games. You will hear, “ohhh… you’re from THAT server…” So its easier to not even get into a conversation where that might come up just in case.

    Just my 2 copper.

  2. Max says:

    It wont go back to chat rooms. What is much more likely is that social network elements will be introduced (long overdue).

  3. vortal says:

    I prefer the old ways, of going on a chat channel and asking for help, people will respond and you will be on your way with a new group of people you can consider to be friends. It is easier with a guild, but it is basically the same thing. I think this kind of grouping helps build strong communities, it allows everyone to be friends with each other on the server. I find PUGs to be okay alternative for these loners, but it looses some sense of communities you got from your server. The old days when the alliance would gank us, and we (da Horde) would gank them back.

  4. Klepsacovic says:

    “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.”
    That’s the key to why pre-cross-server we acted a bit differently: These were potential guild members. I’ve found a couple guilds just by invites from groups I was in. Well, not since LFD, but in vanilla and BC running PUGs was a way to find guild members. It’s stupid that that practice has died, since it was efficient: we get loot, xp, rep, badges, or whatever else we’re after, and we simultaneously are doing a test run with potential applicants with both guild and player able to evaluate the other in something somewhat close to a natural setting (not quite a raid, but more than a generic website app).

  5. Azuriel says:

    Well, two things. One:

    Of course, not everyone obeys these social conventions but they are few and far between. We call them sociopaths.

    Err… no. I don’t think trolls are sociopaths, I don’t think ninja looters are sociopaths, I don’t think people who are used to Skull = Fear, Star = Sheep, etc, are sociopaths. It may be a matter of semantics, but I think there is a difference between people with different/contrary social conventions, and those persons with a physiological/psychological inability to even grasp the concept.

    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.

    I think you would have seen what you see today had the prior design been “do heroics with random people every single day.” It is not so much people becoming antisocial or abandoning their social mores, but rather people getting wore down by attrition. How many of us have helped other people in LFD group with advice, etc? I know I did… at first. But after a few months of that it dawned on me that unless I was committed to giving of myself until I was sucked dry, a soulless husk of a man, that I could not teach everyone. So I stopped.

    The randomness and “you will never ever see this person again” is also a factor. Toss those random people in a guild, and they will indeed behave better. But they do so because the investment of social capital has the possibility of returns. If you help Bob out, he may run your alt through Wailing Caverns. If you help out Tim the 4k DPS in heroics, you are just as likely to get stuck with Tom the 4k DPS in the next run, followed by Jim the 4k DPS, etc etc. Unlike other posters, I don’t think the solution is making LFD server-specific. The most efficient solution is for Blizzard to make tutorials, and have said tutorials be a requirement for unlocking LFD.

    LFD doesn’t need to be social – there are plenty of other social activities to get your “social” fix. What needs to change is who teaches players how to group effectively and do their jobs. Previously it was other guildies/friends, and now it’s LFD strangers.

    • I think you would have seen what you see today had the prior design been “do heroics with random people every single day.” It is not so much people becoming antisocial or abandoning their social mores, but rather people getting wore down by attrition.

      I play a lot of DDO currently, and about 75% of the time I get online this is essentially what I do: run group quests at a high level of difficulty with strangers. And while there’s still a non-zero number of jackasses, people talk, joke, even stick around for more than one quest. Heck, I recently met someone who used to play basketball at my alma mater when I attended just from chatting.

      So, unless you’re going to argue that a bunch of D&D nerds are more social than WoW players, I think this theory about attrition is invalid. A much more likely explanation is what you said later: most people see little profit in “playing nice” with people they may never run into again and who have very little effect on their play experience in the future. Given that the main difference is the cross-server nature of the WoW LFD system, that seems to be the likely culprit to me.

      • Azuriel says:

        So, unless you’re going to argue that a bunch of D&D nerds are more social than WoW players, [...]

        As a former D&D player who would still be playing if my group didn’t scatter to the four winds after college, I would indeed argue exactly that: D&D, by design, is more social. Indeed, paper D&D does not even exist without other people.

        That said, I do admit that perhaps it could be less about the intrinsic game design, and more about fostering expectations throughout the gameplay experience. For example, grouping is discouraged in WoW, as Tobold recently points out, and you basically do indeed play a single-player game up until 85 where you are smacked in the face with grouping. Making grouping be required to level would be bad, but perhaps giving Recruit-A-Friend-esque levels of bonus XP would be about right to incentivise grouping. I dunno.

      • SmakenDahed says:

        Disposable companions from the almighty pellet dispenser that is the Dungeon Finder.

        Putting on my evil hat (has spikes on the inside):
        Chances are I won’t know you or notice you unless you’re doing bad because then you’re wasting *my* time. All I want are my valor points or maybe a shot at that drake or some drop, then I’m out. And I’m going to bail on you as soon as I get it. I don’t care because you’re not people, you’re a means to my ends. All I have to do is push that little green button again and off I go.

        /evil hat off

        I wonder what would happen if Blizzard pulled in the DF and left it within the server only? Accountability? Maybe.

        I server transfered right before the start of Cata and I’m on a High (sometimes Full) population server. I don’t feel I meet anyone outside of the folks in my guild. I don’t need to. It sort of makes me sad but on the other hand, I don’t have to spend an hour trying to build a group.. unless I’m playing my Hunter. hehe

  6. Bhagpuss says:

    Good piece.

    Of course, what we’ll get is everything. Nothing ever goes away and all the systems that have been tried so far will continue to be used, often in the same games at the same time.

  7. Stabs says:

    I think since WoW achieved a one-game-fits-all perfect storm in 2004-5 competitors have been trying to do the same thing.

    There’s huge scope for greater diversity. I think we’ll see games go through another innovative period in about 3 years time. Intelligent analysis of the industry now should conclude that WoW is faltering but many new rivals lack traction or are essentially just more WoW in different clothes.

    I think we’ll see games designed for subsets of the MMO community, not on shoestring budgets like Darkfall but reasonably well produced.

    I think in particular WoW has sacrificed it’s old guard on the pillar of newbie-friendliness. A game for those old guard with modern production values would be very attractive. Some of the old guard have even gone back to the EQ 99 servers just to have a taste of old fashioned elements of difficulty, challenge, slow leveling, forced socialisation to overcome adversity. That’s where the market gap is right now.

    Oddly, despite hugely prefering MMOs to single player games I’m really looking forward to Diablo 3. The reason is there’s no better pve challenge than permadeath group play. You don’t meet afking healers and dps who tab target pull the wrong mobs – they don’t make it past level 10.

  8. nugget says:

    Have been playing a lot of Forsaken World lately, which also has a *server based* LFD system, and I get friend invites / add friends from PUGs all the time.

    WoW isn’t the only game out there, and the WoW LFD tool isn’t the only reason why WoW community culture in game is as horrible as it is.

  9. I don’t know what the future holds for the social conventions in MMOs, but I know that I’ve always been amazed at how most people seem to just innately know how to react or behave in certain social situations in games. Take invites to a group quest, for example. In real life politeness would demand small talk and chit chat, but in MMOs we just partner up, finish the task, say thanks and move on. And sometimes that is enough.

  10. [...] The Changing Social Conventions in MMOs – by We Fly Spitfires (More about PUGs then the good old LFG call to arms but I did warn you I am currently enjoying this blog – good read with some interesting ponderings.) [...]

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