Discussions of emergent types of game play and questions about whether MMOs are more than “just a game” have made my anthropology senses tingle. In a previous post I brought up ritual but now I’m beginning to wonder why games aren’t tapping into all the different kinds of human culture that encourage human sociality?
Interactivity, room for player controlled practices in-game, a sense of realism and participation in a “living, breathing” worlds all seem to be major VW design goals reflected by the drive for ever better graphics – yet it seems that content writers and designers inevitably fail to acknowledge what it is that makes us human. Although MMO back-stories are often extraordinarily rich and detailed, where is the “culture”?
In every human society we find: 1) some kind of family structure, 2) religion/shared value systems, 3) communication networks, 4) social complexity (government, social organization, leaders/followers, etc), 5) recreation/arts, 6) education, and 7) economics/goods procurement and sharing (food, clothing, etc). Though these social forms are interpreted very differently between cultures, they exist universally as categories in every documented culture past and present.
Of these cultural universals, even the most advanced MMO genuinely incorporates only economics and some basic form of social complexity into their world systems. Yes, there are churches and priests in WoW, but there are no coherent religious belief systems clearly functioning, motivating characters and NPCs, impacting the world. Where are the mechanisms to participate in player-conducted rituals or create new branches of a religion? When will creating your character include constructing a dependant or family that can then play a role in that character’s own motives and missions? Where are the in-game mentoring systems through which you can actually teach other players powers available in no other way (taking it a step beyond City of Heroes and Asheron's Call)? These basic cultural systems help us make sense of our own world and can only advance our attempts to create more immersive virtual worlds. Can’t we create missions that involve a character’s dependant (they kidnapped Aunt Em, go save her!), provide room for people to create in-game cults or become part of existing religions that have all the benefits and restrictions of membership, provide tools for players to conduct meaningful rituals such as initiations, weddings, coming of age events that change the status of their characters?
Here’s my question – is it even possible to provide players with meaningful activities and tools with which they can develop these kinds of fundamental social structures in a way that is integrated with game play? If possible, why are these things still missing from MMOs? Perhaps because we still believe that it is “just a game”?