If there is one quality in particular that I believe to be imperative for social relationships and bonds, that is the aspect of free will. Free will may be all that separates partnership from a prison, friendship from tyranny and loving care from obligation. In this life, I choose who I want to be with and for how long, and I don’t want any of my more meaningful relationships to ever be about necessity. “Yes, I do like you, maybe I even love you – but I don’t need you. My life won’t unravel if you leave and I won’t die without you.” I’d like to think that the best relationships I’ve ever established are grounded like this and I look at them as something that makes my life better – makes it a little more than it already is. And that more is very much worth having.
Of course none of that sounds particularly romantic; as kids we believe in grand gestures of undying love, we dream of losing ourselves in someone else entirely, we need and long to be needed or “completed”. Then we grow up and come to realize, one way or another, that need is no healthy base for relationships and that giving up oneself means to truly be deserted. “I need you” sounds romantic – but that is all it usually is. Way down that fickle road of need wait co-dependence, disrespect, manipulation and maybe even abuse. I want the important relationships in my life to be about free will, not need and not necessity. That is one luxury I am grateful for.
The same conclusions can be applied to online relationships: a while ago I wrote an article on the invisibility feature in MMOs and why it’s not only wrong but detrimental to community building, to prevent players from going invisible when they choose. Quality interaction and cooperation in MMOs are no different from the real world in that they need to be based on free will. Not on pressure, dictation or necessity. The line between where enforced cooperation ends and genuine friendships blossom, can be a very fine and blurry one – as the great majority of all MMO players have come to experience at some point in their gaming careers. Likewise however, most of us have learned just how quick and absolute long established bonds and even vows of brotherhood and friendship will be forgotten, when guilds end or players leave the game until further notice. And so we ask ourselves how much of it was genuinely committed, friendly motivated interaction and how much was simply a glorified common venture, serving the mutual and temporary purpose of individuals?
Yet, should we even make such distinctions for MMO relationships? …Human interaction in general?
Collectivism vs. Individualism
The simplest definition of collectivism and individualism is that they’re socially, culturally, historically and what not else-ly influenced values, at opposing ends of the spectrum of human collaboration and cooperation. Personally, I disagree with that in so far that both collectivism and individualism actually have an essential thing common: in isolation they’re both equally bad.
Pure, ideological collectivism comes at the cost of identity; things like personal fulfillment, expression or even free choice are second to the “greater good”. Historical and everyday attempts at collectivism keep failing because in the end the rule of a few privileged people over the rest of the herd seems unavoidable. As long as our species is driven by greed, personal gain and power lust, anyway. So, for simplicities sake let’s say collectivism has its noble ends in theory, but fails horribly at performance.
Extreme individualism is where things are going in our wealthy, western world; every man for himself, grab as much as you can. There is much room for greed and destructive exploitation, again of the few privileged – only this time it’s sanctified under a credo of freedom and pursuit of one’s own happiness. Meanwhile, the big, sparkly cities of man have become conglomerates of small islands, people living anonymously side by side, often feeling quite alone.
Individualism is very much a sign of material wealth though – it is a luxury. Human beings tend to stick together and pursue common goals when they’re all equally fucked. You know, when disaster strikes, sharing and compromise suddenly sound like a good idea!
…Where am I going with this? We need to be critical of social labels and so-called values, on all ends of the spectrum. The ideal society is probably one that can balance both polarities and in MMOs too, a balance must be struck between how social interaction and cooperation are “engineered”. Well, past games have only shown us a glimpse of the beginning!
WoW & Before: When necessity breeds cooperation
The glorified days of WoW, and yes I have done it myself, are the days when players could not advance particularly well without grouping up with others – be it strangers or friends. That’s when encounters were hard (unbalanced, restrictive) and soloing was only one, much smaller part of the game than today. It’s also where MMO veterans usually draw their fondest memories from: when quests and encounters were so damn hard that you and your buddies relied on each other’s every move, when punishment was quick on the ball and victory was so much the greater for it. Oh yes, I remember that too….and romanticism has its part therein.
Back in vanilla WoW, we didn’t just group up because of some notion of social altruism, curiosity or friendliness; at first, we grouped up because we needed each other in rather existential ways. We grouped up in order to survive or to progress faster, to access better loot or more content. There’s a common purpose of many individuals come together and each of them wants something – and that isn’t even a bad thing. What it certainly is not though, is some chapter in a romantic novel on social bonding and making friends for life. In fact, the classic MMO standard is the most incentivized realization of cooperation I can think of:
- Group up or be punished in any conceivable way
- Group up because target XY will only become available by doing so
- Group up with players X and Y because of their role / class
- Group up or…..be damned
Lots of “…or ELSE!” going on there! Grouping up is completely engineered by game design, by things like overall content difficulty, pacing or setup requirements. Does that mean I didn’t make friends on the way? I did, but I don’t think that was the game’s achievement. Lasting relationships are optional; they’re what players create and follow at a later stage. Grouping requirements in MMOs do not automatically exceed the purpose of simply killing stuff together. First and foremost grouping up is a self-serving, necessary act. The way most guilds and guild mates go (QED), cooperation is in fact not an awful lot more than that and maybe that’s just something to accept.
What all the oldschool MMOs (an no, I don’t count in WoW these days, but there is still the strict group setup) did in terms of cooperation, is pragmatic, social engineering at its best. Add to this, that within groups and potentially between groups, there would always be a certain degree of competition: for role spots, for spawns, for loot. Generally lots of “against each other” going on, rather than “together”.
In many ways enforced grouping like that shares aspects of social collectivism: people cooperate because they’re forced to – because they’re all equally bad off on their own. That’s no glorious and ideal state of social interaction though; it’s primal and primitive – and maybe that’s why many players take so naturally to this classic model at first. Food for thought?
GW2: Just the next evolutionary step
Much has been said about GW2’s grouping mechanics lately and if you’ve read my take, you know what I think about both the public events and cooperation in general. I also stated frequently that I find social criticism on features like FFA ressing in GW2 quite ridiculous; whether ressing comes with an EXP reward or not is a tiny, trivial thing compared to the way MMOs traditionally base their entire gameplay on incentivized cooperation.
So, what does GW2 do differently? I don’t claim it’s the big revolution, but it’s a step in the right direction – away from basic need to more balanced and well-rounded concepts of cooperation maybe. Of course you need to address the issue of engineered cooperation as an MMO developer; either that, or you better create very restricted content and unforgiving requirements (ye, those are popular). If you don’t, if you grant players a certain degree of self-sufficiency, freedom and independence, you gotta think of ways to motivate them not to solo all the time.
From my personal point of view and based on my beta experiences, I consider GW2’s grouping mechanics more open, free and more positively incentivized; instead of threatening players with what they’ll have less of, the game suggests that there is nothing to lose and often a little extra to gain from joining an ongoing group, helping another player or sharing an event (aka bonus vs. malus system). There is no loot or role competition and without formulaic grouping procedures, interaction happens more naturally and spontaneously. Rather than thinking of your small circle as questing partners, the entire server is your questing partner!
That is very much also the philosophy ANet have revealed for their multi-guild system. I personally don’t shed a tear over seeing classic appointment gaming go. I like the idea of cooperating effortlessly and without the pressure of agendas. These days, I group up for the purpose of meeting friends and then doing something together, rather than having a target-focused night of grind ahead (or failing to even have that because of teh holy trinity). “Monday is Onyxia, Thursday is Black Wing Lair” – it’s okay when playing together is all about encounters, progression and loot. Raid guilds especially are born out of the necessity to achieve all that; they’re not first and foremost about a wish to be social, although that can be added. That’s fine if it suits your playstyle.
It is just a little ironic when GW2 gets criticized for its more open, flexible approach when socially speaking, it’s years ahead of the classic MMO formula of necessity-born cooperation and glorified, artificial communities with a lifespan relative to endgame content.
I don’t know about you, but I feel that grouping up despite being self-sufficient is a better, more transparent way of doing things. It is certainly a dang lot more enjoyable to me these days, to play without the tiring bonds of obligation in order to progress. I enjoy the random and voluntary encounters in GW2 and that my choice to interact or not is about a potential for ‘more’, rather than the ever-threatening ‘less’. Maybe we could speak of a collective individualism for GW2; a balance between being your own person but also joining up (loosely) for the sake of increased enjoyment and reaching some loftier goals. What’s wrong with giving players a real choice? And why should this choice not also come with some bonuses and rewards, like for everything else in MMOs?
There’s no doubt in my mind about the improved quality of relationships formed this way, either. No, I do not want to need you, sorry! I’d like to think that as human beings we can reach a higher state of mind than this: that cooperation DOES still happen without existential commitment or the promise of punishment. I don’t expect my online relationships to mirror the real world, but then again – why should we be stuck at this stage? I still have a little more confidence in online communities than that. Shockingly!
P.S. This post is a contribution to Stubborn’s ongoing examination of a greater topic.