Jason Wall sent me a note explaining that World of Warcraft (you've heard of it?) is doing even more to encourage the formation of ad hoc raiding groups. Back in the day, he notes, the only way you could get raid-level gear was by being in a raid-level guild and by raiding, a lot. Much was said back then (not least by me) about the way MMORPGs seemed to provide a communal experience for people isolated by contemporary society. If society gave people anomie, then online community, it seemed, was the antidote.
How pollyannish! We (I) also said that online environments were really no different from offline ones in a number of ways. "It's a strange theater, but the players are still human," I would say. I should have followed up and asked myself, if this is so, then why should we expect society to look any different in there than it does out here? How could game designers eliminate an anomie that is so pervasive elsewhere?
I suppose if I had challenged myself that way, I would have responded that game designers have the advantage of consciously designing a place. Or perhaps they have the advantage of vast dictatorial power over both the rules and the physics of interaction. These advantages would surely enable some designers to discover how to generate community among people who (I assumed) desire it.
The assumption that people want to have community, indeed that they would agree to be forced into it, is denied by tale of the suburb. Housing prices are highest in the suburbs, places that often look very village-y but are in fact built to provide each person with solitude. Soft barriers protect suburban residents from too much interaction. Yet unlike residents of rural areas, suburbanites are not completely alone. Suburbanites are alone together.
"Alone together" - we've heard that before. Over the past decade, online game communities have evolved from forced grouping models to alone-together models such as we see in SWTOR and in WoW's new pick-up group mechanisms. We've moved from massively multiplayer online games to massively singleplayer online games. Our virtual worlds are becoming like suburbs - places where most people, most of the time, are doing whatever they please and having no effect or interaction with anyone else. Protected from others, but not separated.
The neo-liberal in me says, 'this is apparently the life people want to lead.' It is striking that game designers have created environments that so perfectly match the isolating ethos of urban development that so many people bemoan. It is striking that the forced-grouping model has fallen away and been replaced by solo play. Both online and off, the villages went away and were replaced by cul-de-sacs. Both were developments - someone developed them to be what they ended up being. And people like it.
The whole thing smells of irresistable social and economic change, of dynamics that are unavoidable. The massively singleplayer outcome is perhaps a very solid equilibrium between the competing tensions freedom and community.
If that is so, and I think it is, it spells doom for all kinds of social engineering projects. The New Urban neighborhood? The Global Village? The online game that purportedly makes people into good citizens? These will all remain as empty as the dead little towns that dot the rural landscape, or as decrepit and bully-plagued as the once-vibrant urban neighborhoods that dot the cities.
In the end, people just want their space. The Buddha was told that the monks were squabbling. He replied, "Like pebbles in a small bag, the monks polish each other." But if they can get out of the bag, Wise One, won't they? And keep their rough edges?