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Aug 02, 2012

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1.

Great essay.

I don't think that it is necessarily contradictory to believe that culture arises in part (and in response to) the game structures, and that at the same time there are fixed cognitive structures and tendencies to be found in games. One of the central tenets of Theory of Fun is that "since everyone has a different chunk library, fun is different for everyone."

I personally suspect that the fact that the vast majority of XBL games are about defeating someone, and they are mostly played by males hanging around other males, leads to a dominance game on every front, including the sort of language used.

Recently I read a couple of articles that resonated for me as regards the issue of sociability in online games. One was a postmortem of South Korea's efforts in eliminating Internet anonymity. What they found was that the net reduction in bad behavior is negligible: http://techcrunch.com/2012/07/29/surprisingly-good-evidence-that-real-name-policies-fail-to-improve-comments/

The second was an article on gun control, which argued fairly effectively that it was the excess of individualism, rather than the excess of actual guns, that in the end leads to shooting incidents -- essentially, the issue is a lack of empathy.

We know that persistent pseudonymity and real names work pretty well in small groups. But in large groups, you end up having no real emotional connection to people on the other end anyway. A real name still ends up being anonymous, a face in the crowd. Worse, acting out can be the best way to make yourself "into somebody."

If we buy the design scaffolding idea, that we design communities through action or inaction when we create virtual spaces (cf http://www.raphkoster.com/2011/02/01/designing-for-community/), then perhaps the design goal needs to be one of driving towards empathy for others -- at the very least a sense of interdependence. The interdependence aspect (expressed through economics) was a major design goal in the case of SWG, the empathy not so much.

2.

Oh, forgot the link to the gun control article. I am no doubt doing it violence by summarizing it so briefly, as it covers a much wider range of ideas than I just credited it with.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2012/07/26/the-jokers-wild/

3.

Here's a scary idea that's both impractical and possibly un-ethical, but I wonder if anyone has tried it:

How about the publisher creating player groups as the start of the game, particularly in Beta that exhibit exemplary behaviour ?

Prof Bartle has noted in one of his talks about the emergence of MMO culture that Beta is a critical time and an issue is that an overlapping group of players moves from one to another transferring elements of culture from the last MMO.

Paid-to-play-nice players might help break that cycle?

4.

So the question is: Is there anything game developers can do to secure a healthy and warm virtual community.

I guess the first thing is whether they want to do so, because some games do feed on ugliness. It is part of the marketing plan to start with.

But if that's not the case, that means, if a developer targets the healthy sociality market, some devs out there are already trying something experimental, and showing some results. If you have a chance, take a look at Guild Wars 2's in game world chat.

In WoW, there are PvP elitist dissing PvE pros because "PvE is merely a mechanical process of defeating a computer" or something like that. Then we got the PvE pros rejecting casual or even mediocre players for not able to prove their capability, something like "show me that title and that title or else go home". Then those getting rejected would go on the forum and whine about it like "how am I suppose to get those titles and gears to move on if everyone capable of doing the raid not letting me join, QQQQQ." The cycle goes on and on, and that is the ugly part of the virtual world today.

As this guy puts it, we can break the components down into 3 groups of skill - PvP Skill, PvE skill, and social skill. It is true that PvE also have skills that the best PvP players cannot achieve easily with their PvP skills. It is also true that socializing with the rest of the server requires skill that needs to be developed over time. In many mmos of today, majority of "pros" and "elitists" lack of that skill. Is it really that unbearable to spend 10~15 to explain the fight to a first-timer, perhaps getting wiped once or twice, to a point that you rather sit around for 3 hours waiting for one that is promising capable in one go? Is it hard to believe that "giving" to the bigger community would reward yourself some day in another way?

Maybe it is, looking at how most pros get to the top ignoring the majority of the server. But what if the game convinces pros and elitists that caring for the server actually is good for you, and you rather spend some time contributing than not bothered at all?

Take Guild Wars 2 as example, the open world pvp doesn't happen within the server at all - there is no faction war / realm VS realm. Instead, it takes place in the 247-available cross server PvP map, where the system is referred as "World VS World"; 3 servers fighting in one shared map, and no other way to reach another server's "homeland" to gank or invade, but can visit as a "guest" through the friend system, to do quests and other cooperative activities.

In the World VS World battleground, those who cannot fight as good due to gear or general skills can fill the role of riding siege weapons or other side objectives that are essential to the whole battle (much more than other RvR MMOs have done, e.g Warhammer online, Aion, Rift). You are also bumped to Level cap (80) so that you have the stats to withstand the gunfire a bit, just that you'd still be under-geared and lacking trait points / skill points.

The reward from the server doing well in World VS World is solely crafting bonus.

Further, the open world gathering nodes are individual-existence on each player's game, meaning that you and I would see the same node on the same location, but after I have gathered it, it would disappear on my screen yet still available on your screen. There is no reason to fight over it.

Also, there is no kill-steal. If I fight a mob down to 10% HP and you passing by land a hit on it, we both get to loot without splitting share, quest objective fulfilled, and experience point. There is no reason you shouldn't help a stranger to fight a mob.

The game also took away healing and tanking roles, so that you wouldn't need to wait all day to pull a group just because you're missing a healer or a tank. With the right spec, anyone can switch between a support or a main fighter role no matter what class you are. You just have to know your own class enough, and the rest is about team work.

Arena Net makes the GW2 into a game which players would hardly find a reason to compete or abuse others within the server. Of course you still have the rights to remain a social-outcast up to level 80, but what else is left to do if not bonding with the rest of the server? Scenario PvP and its tournament perhaps? But if that's what you're after, you wouldn't need to level up your character from the start, because in scenario PvP you get 80 Lvs right away, and have the same gears as every one else, with the optional upgrades all available to you. These people wouldn't even show up in town from the star, and would not be forced to interact with the rest of the community at all.

I'm not hard selling GW2 because I'm fan-boy... okay I am a fan-boy, but, as a response to the article above, I really enjoyed the reading yet I think it is still too soon to lose hope. I still believe that game developers can do something to gather up the right group of gamers by configuring the system into one that demands and protects social skills... not in a forceful way, of course.

5.

Ren, engaging in conscious culture-building is one of my main tricks to get a solid starting user base. This is why I always push for opening a forum community early, and participating so heavily. The SWG and Metaplace userbases were both very consciously "gardened" to give a good starter culture.

6.

Raph,
Ahhh ha.
ren

7.

Really interesting essay, Tim. I agree with what you're saying, though I'm also beginning to wonder -- as a child of the 70's -- whether my sensitivity to the coarseness of gamer culture is shared by people who are 20-30 years younger than me. I admit that I didn't get Barrens Chat back when I watched it scroll by, but I don't get "The Jersey Shore" either, whereas some of my students clearly do. All that said, I agree that Spore *is* (it still exists!) a better social ecosystem -- and some of that is probably about letting the community say something positive about those who can produce what the community values.

8.

funny,. id say sense of "singularity" vs "individuality" when speaking about the lack of empathy shown in the modern meme of gamerz culturez.

language is a medium.

9.

I think there will be no answer to this until designers twig that the gamers who respond most strongly to gamification are not motivated by social cues in the same way that more actively social gamers are. ie. the social people you want to attract will not be minmaxers who obsess about completing 100% achievements. So trying to induce pro social behaviour with that sort of gamification will only result in the hardcore players finding ways to game it.

I would be looking at ways to encourage players to build and nurture their own in-game communities, but to do this group content needs to not be heavily skill based. If your group content consists of 'hard' raids, then communities can only form up around 'people who can do hard raids' -- membership has to be based on skill/ commitment rather than social behaviours. Having been in many casual guilds, the hit that the leadership takes every time a new member leaves because they want to join a more progressed/hardcore group(ie. people end up feeling used because they taught the game to someone who left as soon as they had everything they wanted), makes them less and less likely to be welcoming to other new members.

Teaching and mentoring needs to be rewarded, but not in a gamified way. Designers need to think about how 'encouraging people to make new friends' could be part of the game world. Or at least not to automatically hate and fear new players. The huge issue with hostile populations is that they make it a nightmare to learn new group content in random groups IMO.

10.

@rits ... there is nothing such as a marketing plan. I do work with online games all day long and surprisingly... the freakier the better, the more gamers will play it.. Surprised?

11.

@247playgames.com - Free and Online games!

which sector of the industry you're working with? and what's your business's future vision?

12.

@Rits - We can discuss that in private if you like. This is nothing for a public discussion as Marketing Plans can not be revealed so obviously. You are free to mail me on info [at] 247Playgames [dot] com and we can discuss further.

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