Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 14, 2009
Why do we play? - Social interactions

Social interactions, online friendships, have been widely cited as reason why people play an MMORPG, and specifically why they keep playing the same game instead of switching to another. That contrasts with the observation that the most popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft, is the most anti-social. If you wanted to design an online game with the specific purpose of making players hate and despise each other, it would be hard to do better than WoW is already doing. WoW players despise n00bs, the term "pickup group" (PuG) is used as pejorative, and those valuable friendships are quit in the blink of an eye as soon as an opportunity arises to join a more advanced guild.

Social interaction certainly was a major driving force during the times of Everquest. But Everquest was designed in a way that taught you that you'd fail when alone, and succeed when you were in a group. Sure, there always have been problems with other players in any game, but the social cohesion of players in EQ was much stronger than in WoW. In World of Warcraft a player experiences that he will always succeed when soloing, but frequently die when in a group. He will also notice that the WoW experience system, as well as the type of quest to collect X foozle ears, penalizes players for grouping up to do quests. You will gain less xp per hour and need more time to finish your quests in a group in World of Warcraft than solo.

But the major anti-social element of World of Warcraft are raids. Consider your favorite sports team, and ponder the question whether these guys are friends. Obviously being on friendly terms helps team play. But a professional sports team isn't a group of friends who decided to play together, but rather an assembly of people each talented for whatever position he is playing. And WoW raiding guilds are designed around the same principles: Guilds don't recruit nice players, they recruit a "healer with epic gear". There are guilds where you can get kicked out for crimes like taking a three-week holiday. And good luck explaining to your guild that you are retiring your raiding priest, because you'd rather reroll a hunter.

Of course there are also friendly guilds in World of Warcraft, and I'm proud to member of one. But even in the nicest guild there regularly arise conflicts as soon as the guild tries its hand at raiding. If you gather a group of nice people and friends, it is unlikely that they all happen to have the same degree of skill and dedication to raiding. Some people will always feel the others hold them back, and then demand that either the non-performers should be excluded from raiding, or if the guild resists the over-performers end up quitting for a "better" guild. With "better" being purely defined in terms of raid circuit advancement, not social interaction. Many people believe that raid progress is the sole purpose of a guild in WoW, and thus any social interaction which isn't conductive to that raid progress is disregarded.

Now while some people lament about the elitism of gamers, it has to be pointed out that anti-social behavior like that is a consequence of game design. Ironically it is the oft-maligned Asian Free2Play games who show how game design can make players behave nicer to each other. Create a new character in Luminary, and you'll see veteran players lining up to become your mentor. As new player in Atlantica Online you'll often see little gift boxes pop up on your screen, with money and equipment donated by more advanced players. And in many games you'll easily get invited even into powerful guilds at relatively low levels. And no, that isn't because for some strange reason all the nice people play these sort of games. It is a consequence of game design: Veteran players receive special rewards for mentoring in Luminary, get xp for the gifts they give to beginners in AO, and guilds are designed with various systems like guild quests which enable even lower level players to contribute something to the benefit of the guild. In Atlantica Online you will also get bonus xp and special xp book rewards if you are grouped, making grouping advantageous even if your fellow group member is sitting afk somewhere far away from you. Of course not all games that foster social interaction are Asian, for example A Tale in the Desert is probably the most social MMO you can find, with guilds working together to create a successful village, or building a pyramid, tasks that are collaborative without requiring the players to be online at the same time, having a specific character class, level, and equipment. And it is remarkable how much nicer players are to each other in games where such collaborative systems exist.

So games have to be designed to take advantage of the motivating effects of direct social interactions. But fortunately it turns out that many players appreciate even indirect social interactions: Running through virtual cities alive with other players, trading on the auction house, or proudly strutting your epic gear or freshly acquired achievement title in front of strangers. Most players feel that a massively multiplayer online game is offering something extra which a single-player game doesn't have. The very fact that there are other players around is a motivation, even if you don't directly interact with them. Why we play can be as simple as "because other people play it too". But just imagine how much better and more successful MMORPGs could be if they were designed to foster direct social interaction a bit more, instead of making us hate our fellow players! Ultimately humans are social animals and enjoy social relations. But as motivation of why we play, and how we play, game rewards are often stronger. Design the rewards badly, and players will behave anti-social. Design the rewards to encourage social behavior, and the social interaction will improve player's enjoyment of the game, and make them more loyal to the game their friends are playing. If the giant of a game World of Warcraft has one weak spot in its armor, then it is that it isn't social enough.

If the giant of a game World of Warcraft has one weak spot in its armor, then it is that it isn't social enough.

I .. don't think so. I mean much of what you write is true, but still ..

Ultimately humans are social animals and enjoy social relations

Yes, but humans are more. We like to have a small group of friends and everybody else is not of our tribe. Almost everybody who has played WoW for more than a year of 2, or 3, says openly that he plays, because his friends play. Often online-only friends.

You do not need to give incentives to behave nice to strangers to make people social.

If I got a box of gifts from some stranger and knew that he only did it to get a reward himself that wouldn't give ma a warm feeling.

From a Drawin point of view:
We like to be part of a tribe and we like to fight all those other tribes. That's typical for humans. It is the reason way we continued to evolve after we subdued our environment. We startet to compete against each other. That's social behaviour.
Of all the online games i played UO still stands out as the one with the most and most complex social interactions. Probably caused by the fact that the game offered no real story, quests or goal (apart from getting to 7 Grand Master skills); "content" was to be made by the players themselves. This resulted in something that resembled a digital version of a pen&paper roleplaying game, on a relatively massive scale: (scripted) intrigue, huge battles, invasions and sunday evening tournaments. What also helped i think is that back then this genre was still extremely niche, and probably only played by those (nerdy) people *really* into that stuff;)

Nowadays an mmo is just like any other game, populated by the average gamer, not necessarily the enthusiast.

Today i still play mmos but much, *much* more casually. Due to time constraint and changed priorities, I dont make any long term commitments in a game, which automatically leads to more solo-oriented gameplay. You mentioned the value of "indirect" social interactions and i agree. A gameworld full of players has appeal, even if i dont directly connect with them. Group play consists of PUGS (when i am able to set aside a few hours of guaranteed gameplay - this is rare) or PVP (which can be played in short bursts).
You are right that game design is the key how social a game is or not.

In WoW you might want a core group for raids and maybe for dungeon instances, besides that, there is no really incentive to socialize with players way below your level. They could as well live in another world or just no eixt.

This is not only true for WoW, it is true for all games where the driving force is personal progression that does not necessarily involve the help or banding together with other players.
Remember, social interactions are not just about hugs and kisses. Having an ingame rival or ten can also be a powerful incentive to play.. at least as long as you're winning. ;-)
I couldn't agree more with Tobold. WoW is without a doubt the most antisocial of all MMORPG's I have ever played. You've already hit all the nails on the head therefore I won't repeat them. The continuous Flaming of new Players because of their uninformed gear/talent spec decisions has brought me to the brink of wanting to cancel my subscription. The world of Azeroth would perchance be more civil if Blizzard would reward those highlevel players who mentor newer players. Dream a little dream.
Is social interaction key?

By your own logic, Tobold, people obviously don't care about that so much, since WoW is so popular, and therefore is what everyone wants to play. All the social MMOs you mentioned are small fry.

A game where you can hang out and get stuff done with any given group has no challenge, because as you say, any given group probably has any number of people who can barely play. If it has no challenge, there is no pride, if there is no pride, there is no reason to do anything. Or illusion of challenge, if you prefer.

Perhaps I only speak for myself, but I played for both reasons: social interaction and challenge. And the conflict between those two was the big drama of my time playing WoW. Without either one, I probably would have quit a lot earlier. Without both, WoW or any MMO bounces between being a grindy chatroom or a really mediocre Final Fantasy rip off.
There is absolutely no reward in WoW for ganking low level players. Yet, some people do it constantly.

There is no reward in WoW for boosting players. Yet some people do it constantly. Can you explain how could developers and their "rewards" be responsible for such actions?
There is absolutely no reward in WoW for ganking low level players. Yet, some people do it constantly. There is no reward in WoW for boosting players. Yet some people do it constantly. Can you explain how could developers and their "rewards" be responsible for such actions?

Define "constantly". You can't explain every possible behavior, because in a large enough population there will always be some people who behave different than the masses. I'm looking for LARGE motivating factors here.

Thought experiment: Tomorrow Blizzard introduces an achievement for ganking 20 lowbie players. Do you agree that this would increase the amount of ganking going on by several hundred percent? Even an insignificant reward can turn a niche behavior into the norm.
I'd argue that the majority of people playing wow are doing it FOR the social interactions. They're playing the game because their wife/husband/friend/co-worker/roommate/guy-on-a-street-corner, said it would be a fun thing to do. They sit in their guilds of maybe 5-12 people and they either have a constant steam of alts they level, or they run 5man's once a night when they get home from work.

I see these people all the goddamn time, you know them right away, they join your pug, horrible gear, a guild you've never heard of, and the explorer or jenkin's title over their head. Then they proceed to do less DPS then the tank.

These people are the core of blizzard's player base. They are why in BC blizzard said only 50% of people had even attempted Kharazan. They are the reason we've seen the recent shift to smaller raids, better badge loot, faster dungeons ect.

The actual Percentage of people like you mention who are only in a guild to raid, because raiding is all wow is about is actually pretty small I'd imagine. However its these people, the minority that are the exclusive voice of wow, because the casual social players probably don't even know what a forum is let alone where to find it. And they sure as hell aren't the type of people to troll gaming websites and blogs seeking a greater understanding of the core mechanics behind game design.

That's been my experience playing WoW anyway.
Fantastic article! I've tried upwards of a dozen MMOs in the last few months, but the one I'll stick with is Shards of Dalaya.

First I thought one of the others would convice me with better technology, but I found out that the people matter most to me, and most MMOs (as you say) are really really bad at the whole "multiplayer" thing.

I recognize most of the 500 or so people on SoD's /who list, and that's a much more satisfying feeling than I'd get from any achievement.
If only mmos could get away from the raid mentality where the rewards cause most of the drama. Three items of value to distribute to twenty five people? That won't cause problems. Then make it so that who that gear goes to depends on someone else with their own biases and desires. I have no problem with bad luck or other random factors causing me to not get the sweet loot, but i've lost track of count of how many times i go and help, only to be kicked when i win the /random roll. (in my opinion, that /random should automatically distribute the gear to prevent above.) I normally enjoy the PuG, as you never really know what will happen or what kind of people will join, even when that kicks my social anxiety in gear, but you are right that some games seem to punish getting in a group.
I keep talking about DDO, but it doesn't seem to punish getting in groups unless you have a higher level, in fact when you have a full group you can do the quests on higher difficulty with better xp and rewards, and each person gets their rewards from chests (if there are any in the quest) and from the quest giver. A bit off topic, but i LOVE the LFG in DDO. You can look at who is LFG and LFM without setting yourself as either. They can put up comments, set what classes, what quests, all that. In WoW on my priest, i'm hesitant to put up LFG as i always seem to get random invites anyway, but would like to see if there is anyone doing certain dungeons or quests. Better and more flexible LFG/M systems would help a lot in getting people together too i think.
I think people are missing the point of the article.

Tobold is saying, and rightly so, that globally speaking, Wow does not encourage through its systems and design, social behavior. I myself started in social guilds and ended up in a top 50 US guild by guild hopping. While it is fun to chill out on vent and do a 10 man on a friday night and tell jokes and all, the whole point of the activity is to kill bosses and get epics, which is ultimately a SELFISH motivation. There have been times when I have been happy for other people getting epics they earned through dkp they took months to get, but this pales in comparison to getting a very desirable epic myself...

This, among other reasons is why I quit and deleted the program and microwaved my CD's. If a person is to have work towards a sort of self improvement and progression, that work should probably be spent towards actual self improvement and not the improvement of some avatar. I'm afraid I've gotten off topic...
Great post and insights into social interactions and motivations behind MMOs, however, one thing is missing from this analysis and that is PvP and its social aspects.

Maybe that was discussed already, but all those small guilds of casual players are no match for professional PvP guilds and any game that has open map PvP in it has to deal with this.

The hard-core pvpier are the voice of those games and even though they drive away the population with their banalities, the devs listen to those pvpiers more in the same way as Wow was catering to hard core raiders. Maybe I am swaying off topic here, but taht is part of social interactions and why people play or do not play certain games as well.

Kinda make me wish that there was a way to reward pvpiers for protecting carebears instead of slaughtering them, "Seven Samurai" movie comes to mind.
I find the main reason wow seems to be lacking in social interactions as compared to EQ is the speed of leveling in wow not the lack of a requiement to group.

Wow characters just feel more disposable then EQ ones so cost of burning bridges and acting in a antisocial way is lower.

Good to see you back Tobold.
The social interactions that occur in an MMO are determined by the design of the UI, chat/voice interface and the level of functionality that all of these elements provide to the gamer as a complete package.

Everything else is a META activity that is either accepted or rejected by the player base over time.

I remember players starting 40-man Hogger raids with nothing but level 1 players being invited. I remember level 1 players dancing naked on the IF Bank post box for times, they were.

If anything, WoW isnt anti-social at all. The game simply provides so much meta-freedom that players are able to do things in a non-filtered or moderated enviroment. Which is a good thing, because I cant begin to imagine how dull and boring a world it would be if the majority were able to dictate what is acceptable, or not, in an online game enviroment.

I believe that sociability begins with the individual, but culminates and perpetuates itself within the group dynamic as dictated by the features offered by the game itself.
Great examples of games with design that fosters friendliness to new players.

More games need to explore that type of design.

The interesting thing is that by setting that tone early, it will permeate your community. You will inherently reduce the amount of "l2play n00b" crap that happens later on.
You hit many nails on the head there, and I would agree that WoW should offer incentives to the veterans to help out the low level noobs running around.

I mean I am someone that would normally help anyone. At the cost of my time and the little or no reward for it, I find myself saying no or not answering many help requests.

People on my server offer money to get pugs together. I have seen as high as 50 gold per person in some cases, and still those folks get laughed out of the trade channel.

There are games for MySpace, which give you rewards for sending gifts to friends which I think is a huge motivation to give those things. I think WoW could do the same and be very successful with it.

It's not about social interaction, it's about the age of the game. FFXI is heavily group-based, even with soloing options (although they are markedly inferior in every way to party play.) You need groups to progress. They had the same attitudes, the hate of PUG's, the endgame raiding drama, and people tossing guilds over to join elite ones.

As the game ages, players get much more professional since less new players enter, and all the "tricks" are worked out. Builds are optimized, raids are planned, and content scales to deal with advanced players. The shift in population tends to drive a lot of hatred towards noobs, because there are less of them, and it just takes one of them to ruin a party or raid.

No matter how social or independent your game is, as it ages the attitudes emerge. When the games are young, you see none of these attitudes, because everyone is a noob. Once the initial rush has worn off, people become less social and more organized.
" I myself started in social guilds and ended up in a top 50 US guild by guild hopping."

I think it was actually Tobold where i read it first, but it's been in my mind a lot lately, why not make a system where you can be in several guilds at the same time? That way you can be in your friend guild, a raiding guild, and a pvp guild at the same time. I'm sure there would be problems there too, but would be a bit more social i think. It seems now that guilds are more about status and gear than being with people you enjoy being with.
There's a number of phenomena that's particularly prevalent in WoW that leads to its odd social phenomena.

The first is the Thaddius effect - for those that have said good riddance to the WoW plague, Thaddius is a boss in the entry-level raid Naxxramus which is usually the point at which most pug groups break up.

The fight has only 2 points of interest. The first is that every 30 seconds he will give each person a random "Electrical Charge", after a fairly obvious casting animation. After a 5 second grace period, players will start electrocuting anyone of an opposite charge standing nearby. The solution is simple - everyone with a negative charge stands on the left side of the boss, everyone with a positive charge stands on the right side of the boss.

Despite this simplicity (-ve left, +ve right), in a pug people will almost always die because they stand on the wrong side and get zapped by 10 people with the opposite charge. This brings in the second complication - there is a timer to kill the boss. Loss of more than 5 people usually means the group will fail to inflict sufficient damage and wipe. The fight is fairly lengthy and given travel time, people taking a break to go to the toilet/grab a drink/visit their grandmother etc. each wipe will result in half an hour wasted and a repair bill. Hence a fairly large proportion of pug groups break up at this point.

The fight demonstrates that there is a reasonable proportion of players who, for whatever reason, take a while to grasp fairly simple tactics. Since in this case it results in the failure of the group, this contributes considerably to the elitism as people resort to gear/achievement checks to try and avoid these people joining the group. Beyond the pure hardcore/newbie aspect, it impacts on the social systems - people are far more willing to befriend people who can carry them through than those who could potentially drag them down.

It also illuminates a slightly larger design issue - how do you design challenging PvE encounters which require contribution from participants without punishing people on teams where members are, shall we say, lacking in contribution? The two most common answers I've seen are "Allow players to be 'carried'" and "Why are you designing PvE encounters? Player-based content ftw!", neither of which I have found terribly persuasive.

The second phenomenon is an artefact of the leveling process - since by the time players reach endgame they have invested many hours in (often solo) playing, there is a sense that they have mastered the fundamentals of their character. However, due to the social void that is the WoW leveling experience, many players have picked up superstitious beliefs as to how to play - resulting in warriors wearing spellcasting gear, ranged classes fighting in melee, and spellcasters tanking. The internal thought process runs along the lines of "Well, if I've got to the end of the game doing this, it must be a good way of playing".

This makes it exceptionally hard to exchange advice - it's the equivalent of someone coming to visit you at your job where you've been working for several years and commenting "You know you're doing everything wrong, don't you?". The usual response is a variation of "I know what I'm doing" with the level of hostility in the exchange scaling with how badly the group is progressing.

(The other extreme, which usually results in a temporary banning from theorycrafting sites such as, is requests along the lines of "I have a character of X class - give me step-by-step instructions on how to play it")

This highlights a second design problem - how do you shift the metagame of character development to be administered by the playerbase? Given the dynamic balancing of character classes, any static in-game tutorials are likely to become out of date fairly rapidly. A "mentoring" system might work, but you'd want to avoid situations where there's an "academy of bad advice" being perpetuated.
While I agree in part with your points Tobold, my own experience has been somewhat different and perhaps more representative of casual MMO players.

I am an officer and class lead in a casual raiding guild in WoW. As a guild we often struggle to field a steady roster of people to progress on the current raid content, and when we do have the requisite 10 or 25 people, their skill is often lacking. What are often labeled easy or "faceroll" bosses on WoW's official forums, we will struggle on for weeks. I know that I could easily move on to our server's top ranked guild and still be competitive in their ranks. I know that I invest a disproportionate amount of time and gold trying to help others in our guild improve themselves. Yet even when the chances have come up to move on to greener pastures, I haven't given it a second thought.

Nor do I think that most people who play WoW would abandon their friends for the next rung of raid content at the drop of a hat. The hardcore players who do engage in that type of activity are a minority of the player base if Blizzard's stated design philosophy and their recent changes are any evidence. Much more prevalent seem to be the type of player who logs on occasionally to play with friends they either know in real life or who they've known in game for a long period of time. I would think this is even more true in "social MMOs."

To your general point, social interactions aren't characterized solely by reciprocal altruism. Healthy human beings aren't skinner boxes, calculating endlessly what action is most expedient. There is some base level of sentimentality and sympathy among players that underlies the social interactions in MMOs. Game mechanics that reward the player for engaging in beneficial activities toward others obfuscate the altruistic motivation they might have had otherwise.

A first step towards facilitating social interaction might be to make player characters as unique as possible and closely tie that character's identity to the person playing it. If all one had was one character for one's account, and that character even from the first hour in the game looked and acted differently than all the rest, people might be more considerate about their actions and more cognizant about their consequences.
Great article, Tobold!

Spot on.

Be it the ever-changing and never thoght-out lfg system,
the limitation to a single guild (how many more channels than the guild do you regularly join in order to stay in contact with your friends and fellow players?),
the fact that raiding requires a group to cooperate and then to fight over the rewards for that cooperation,
the inability to silence psychopaths in general and trade chat:
social interaction and the creation of a social culture is wow's blind spot.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it's not a strength of many of its playerbase, who consider caring and friendly behaviour a weakness of character. The young male adults who need to prove their manliness by showing disrespect.
For me, the social part came into conflict with the progression part. I was in a guild with fun people. But they weren't very good players.

So you can either leave the guild and go to a better guild. Or enjoy the social interactions and try to not mind the fact that your guild sucks progressionwise. Neither is a lot of fun.
While I agree with your assertion that many people believe that raid progress is the sole purpose of a guild in WoW, it is not impossible to cultivate an environment where you have great social interaction and raiding progression.

Granted, it's not easy, but it is possible.

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