(Continued from YMMO? (Part 1) )
Confusion at Premise as “Social Games”:
The most stated reason for playing an MMO, both by the manufactures and the fans, is the social experience. Its claimed that these games take what is often a reclusive hobby and magically turn it into something social that can be played with friends. This line of reasoning has a few problems really that need addressing before we simply let that excuse slide.
For starters the “I play them because they are social” approach to the understanding of MMOs fundamentally mis-represents the remaining portions of the distributed body of information that is video games. This understanding implies through its reasoning that other games are in fact not social, that some how because I choose to play a game that only one person may control, or in the very least fewer than several hundred others, I am choosing not to be social with my games. If that were the case then why would I play games at all? I (and, from my experience, the distributed gaming public) play games so that I may be more social. The idea being: because my friends and I have faced the same challenges and have experienced the same stories, because we have followed the same characters through the same events, we have more in common and are able to better relate to one another. Games, weather single player, multiplayer, or massively multiplayer are intended as social engines. They are designed to convey people toward more in-depth social exchanges through shared experience. Basically what I am trying to say is, like all other forms of entertainment media, games are intended to be social.
Another problem with the premise that MMOs are more social is the question of what exactly makes them more social? Is it the ability to undertake the exact same actions your buddies do in the exact same places, while your buddies are? Or maybe it is the idea you have to work together in order to solve the puzzles and problems of the game? Or is it really just a fancy way of saying “I can talk to my friends while I play”? After several years of watching my friends play these kind of games I can definitively say there is no right answer, at least not 100% of the time. If I were too declare which of those alternative answers is the most right the most often however it would be “I can talk to my buddies while I play”. Whenever I would ask my friends why they play, that would be the most immediate response from all of them. Somehow they perceived the act of slinging lines of text back and forth across cyberspace as a very social occurrence. In a way I guess they were right, but honestly what are they really talking about? Can you really get to know a person between asking them for quest help and grinding those low level monsters to try and get that item you need. At some point the conversation always focuses on the game and what you are doing within it. I know, I know, I just spent how long convincing you that games in general are social, so talk about a game in a game must be social right? Well kinda… See games are intended not just to be social in and of themselves but to encourage further social engagement by being a sort of common meeting place to come back to, but not necessarily to dwell in. Since the conversations of MMOs are almost necessarily limited and directed to in-game concerns they tend to limit the social interaction, not further it as is often claimed.
Finally there is one simple very fundamental rebuttal to this idea of ‘social’ gaming, being social just works better in real life. I mean how well can you really get to know a person if there are no facial expressions or body language, or worse, the facial expressions and body language you do have are false. With these cues missing or being spoofed toward unknown ends, the person you meet online could be entirely different from the same person in real life. This is a long known problem with the online system of meeting people I admit, but still a ‘social’ game is essentially limited in how functional and authentic any social interaction within it is by these simple problems. If you are that desperate to hang out with someone, then go make some friends instead of simply hanging out with virtual ones. In fact, if you prefer hanging out with your ‘friends’ from an MMO to hanging out with real people, then you could quite effectively be argued to be anti-social, but its ‘ok’ it’s a ‘social’ game, right?
Being a little more specific here, I have several friends, who for about a year there scheduled everything they did around their raid times in WoW. After even a little bit of investigation I discovered through means of that glorious overflow of useless information, the Internet, that they were not only not unique in this, but that it was common practice at the time for players of the game. Further, these same friends were more apt to talk to each other in game than face to face and when they were interacting face to face, though they had plenty to discuss before every starting to play WoW, would always focus primarily on the events that had recently transpired in the game. It became quite difficult to even hang around them, not because they were talking about something I could not relate to, but because they were focusing exclusively on that topic and refused to discuss it in such a way that their friends who did not play the game could relate. They effectively were using the game for the reverse of its intended and advertised purpose of being a social game.
I guess what I am trying to say is, playing a ‘social’ game is fine, as long as you understand the game is not inherently social simply because it contains an internal instant messenger. What makes a game social has nothing to do with the game itself, but instead the way you approach the experience and how you use it to relate to others. With this understanding, the oldest most pixilated games for the Commodore 64 or the Atari (Pong any one? or maybe Asteroids?) can be just as social as visually stunning online games like EverQuest 2 or WoW.