Wednesday, January 14, 2015
The dream of community
In response to my previous post on increased interaction with the world of WoW, Gerry Quinn asked whether there was also increased interaction between players, presumably the selling point for a multiplayer game. The answer is clearly that there is less and less interaction between players over the history of multiplayer online role-playing games. Many games go to great lengths to minimize player interaction, and many players think that hell is other players. How did that happen, and why didn't these games live up to their promise of community?
Now many people who were active in the early days of online games in the 90's will tell you that something went wrong over the last 20 years, and will maybe offer one of several different explanations of what it was that went wrong. Personally I believe that it was the original promise that was wrong from the start, and things moved from an unrealistic idea towards reality. The reality is that people don't necessarily want to form a community in an online game.
In the early days of the internet, the population of the internet was unnaturally homogeneous: The only people with access were those who had access to a mainframe in an university. I played LPMUDs on a green (or amber) text on black background mainframe terminal, or used that terminal to chat on BBS bulletin boards. The people I met online were from different countries, but they were predominantly young, well educated, and not poor, because that is the kind of person going to university. If your experience of the internet is one of a place where everybody you meet is socially compatible to you, it is easy to start dreaming of the type of community you could build. But that dream is built on a bad premise, a false experience with a too narrow and not representative sample size.
Then "AOL ruined the internet", as it was said at the time, by letting in everybody else. Suddenly you had a much wider diversity of ages, education levels, and social classes than before. And the history of mankind is one of constant segregation, often self-segregation. People naturally tend to form communities with others who are like them, and avoid people who are not like them, or even consider people not like them as enemy.
Game companies like their games to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, because more possible customers usually results in more money. But trying to force more interaction between people who wouldn't naturally have formed a community tends to fail. The core beliefs of one group of people might well be offensive to another group of people and vice versa. And real world conflicts like the political strife between left-wing and right-wing people can spill over into game communities. And if all ages can be online, there is the eternal worry of "we have to protect the children" from real and imagined dangers. As a result we get games in which chat is at the very least filtered, or even totally disabled. We get game systems in which things like "kill stealing" or "ninja looting" are technically impossible. And we get group content where players need neither talk to each other to set up a group, nor to play together as a group. The player economy is handled with an auction house system, so people do not need to talk to each other to trade. And most of the content of most MMORPGs is best played solo. Playing a multiplayer player game alone is more and more enabled, and direct player interaction isn't encouraged.
As I said, interaction between people online today is now more similar to interaction between people offline, and thus in a way more "natural". That is bad news for the utopians, but I don't see that trend reversing. We simple don't have the same pre-screened population any more that would have made a larger community possible.