My previous article dealt with the claims of MMOs as ‘social’ games, and for this article I would like to look at a similar claim. Many MMOs have long claimed that they have a great community of players, and I have often wondered how true this is. I am not trying to argue that they do not have a community element to them, any group of people with similar interests can be considered a community. I doubt, however, this interpretation of community is what is intended by those who mention the community facet of MMO gameplay. For the next few paragraphs I will be inspecting MMOs in terms of community, how they function as communities, what they lack, where they go wrong, and -if I am feeling nice- where they go right.
Before we look at MMO communities in general, a few things need to be established. First is that I, admittedly, am an outsider looking in to the MMO phenomenon. I have very limited personal experience with MMO worlds, and that experience I do have is limited to hanging out with my real life friends for a few hours in a virtual setting. Next is something I attempted to establish near the end of the previous piece, any virtual social interaction is necessarily limited by the nature of the medium. Finally, something that is often forgotten about communities built around MMOs, at least when they are referenced in real life, they are focused around a game and deal primarily with the things of that game. With those few points out of the way, I am ready to continue.
Now for my big question about MMO community: is there really any? I will freely admit there is plenty of community in the sense that any fan group is a community, but what I am asking is this: Is there really a thriving functioning social community in game? Do these games actually support community in something like the same way a town or small city does? I have seen many descriptions of the nuance and subtlety of guild relations and inter-party speech which seem to imply this type of community does exist within these games, but these descriptions belonged to what I often observe to be a minority within the MMO environments. From my vantage point, on the outside looking in, I see a few small groups of people that get along in a way that resembles a real community, at least with respect to game things, and much larger collection of people that simply want handouts or someone to beat the monster for them or someone to drag them to where they can quickly gain levels worth of experience. What results is less a community and more a collection of players trying to exploit each other toward the same end. This system simply cannot meet or fill the same emotional and mental role of an actual community, it fails by being to narrow and focused on the game and by leaving real concerns or issues untouched. It is also telling that those who form the small community like groups tend to extend their interaction to things and modes outside the game, they were friends to begin with, or they use e-mail or instant messengers to talk about things other than the game when not playing. Essentially, these groups form community by using the game as a spring board to further, and different, interaction. For them the game is not the end of their community, it is merely a part of it.
There is one other problem I have with the MMO approach to community, a problem which I admit is a bit odd considering the ‘social’ premise of these games. It has always bothered me how difficult MMOs make it for someone who attempts to play without engaging in their little community of mutual exploiters. If I wished to play the game on my own for a few hours, I would be very limited in my choice of quests, enemies, and even character types. I admit that these games were intended to be social and that by forcing some degree of interaction they are better able to accomplish this goal, but sometimes you just need to be alone and these environments make for very immersive and enjoyable places to be alone, if you didn’t have to drag a party with you to find anything interesting to fight. On a slightly more social note, this particular limitation also makes getting your characters to a level where you can effectively interact with your high level friends during gameplay far more of a chore by forcing you to grind low level ineffective enemies, simply because you are playing alone for a while.
Again, what I seem to be saying here is that the answer to the question is determined largely by how you chose to approach the game. If you are using the game as a meeting ground, something to bring you together long enough to find other things to relate and talk about, then community is possible from an MMO. If, however, you take what appears to me to be the more common route of viewing the game as essentially social and not using it as merely a starting point, then you will find it to be lacking in the community aspects for which you are looking.