View from the Sewer

Catchy title, isn’t it? Wilhelm, of The Ancient Gaming Noob has a post up pondering the social aspects of MMO’s. He quotes a commenter (quoting Tom Lehrer):

Life is like a sewer, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

Wilhelm then asks, “How about you? How significant do you see the social aspects of MMOs in your view?”

I’m like Wilhelm. I don’t seek out new friend constantly. I don’t do PUGs a lot. I’ve documented some of my worst PUG experiences. And yet…

I have many friends online, particularly in EQ2, who I only know through online gaming. They are as solid friends of mine as my RL friends, maybe moreso. And I know people I would not have the opportunity to know if it were not for MMO’s. For example, the couples I know who are in the military and who have served in Iraq recently. My circle would not intersect with theirs in any way other than via MMO’s. But I am enriched by them, and thrilled to be a part of their life, no matter how small.

And there are others. Mostly they are younger than me, which is inevitable, since how many folks are 3000 years old, after all? But it’s also good. Again, I wouldn’t be around them if not for MMO’s.

And my newest passion EVE Online, also follows this pattern. There are a few old friends and more new ones. It’s hard to say which friendships will really last, but that’s how it works face-to-face, too, isn’t it? I certainly have an opportunity to meet new folks, I bet some of them will stick.

I can be amicable and cordial with nearly everyone. But I can’t be long-time friends with nearly everyone, the numbers just don’t work. I think there was a time in my life when that disappointed me, or made me feel guilty. (I’m aces at that whole guilt game). Not so much now.

Here’s the thing. This touches an aspect of MMO gaming that confounds me. In what other entertainment business do you routinely allow or perpetrate unpleasantness on your paying customers? I think there’s a few cases, but it’s striking, and a fundamental aspect of gaming as entertainment.

Games need to be a challenge or they are boring. But if there’s too much frustration and unpleasantness, people also leave. We’ve seen lots of accomodations for this kind of thing in game designs, with death penalties getting smaller and quests easier to manage, and dungeons becoming exclusive, and camps being eliminated. But the core issue remains. The game needs to be a challenge at some level, or lots of gamers will lose interest.

So it is with the social aspect of the game. There are large numbers of people playing the game, and interacting with each other fairly freely. Not all of those interactions are going to be positive. In many other businesses, the public isn’t encouraged to interact all that much with each other, because it’s bad for Starbuck’s business if someone has a loud argument in front of the counter. But MMO’s do it anyway.

I don’t find it surprising that the most popular MMO by a huge stretch, WOW, also has some of the worst social behavior, because it’s a numbers game. Truly unpleasant people tend to move around a lot, because they aren’t able to stay in one place, or one guild, or even in one toon. Which means that far more people get to experience the joy of their behavior. And with more people playing WOW than any other game, there are consequently more truly unpleasant people playing WOW than any other game. And still they make piles of cash.

Meanwhile, the people worth knowing, the ones that make your day, or lighten your life, aren’t usually as visible. They do their business and move on. They don’t make a big fuss or draw a lot of attention to themselves. They can and do lead, but the best leaders do it almost invisibly.

These kind of people, the friends-for-life that you find once in a while, are worth it. They are worth the petty aggravations of the PUG you got into which turned out to be full of drunken, infighting, slumming power-raiders. They are worth the irritation of having to cope with that guildie who has a talent for irritating everyone else in the guild.

All MMO’s have this issue. Last night on Teamspeak, some members of my alliance were discussing a problem child that had been in the alliance recently. This was the sort of person who wants someone else to take their carrier somewhere to get his stuff because they hate him so much there that he can’t go there. He was described as controlling, overbearing and demeaning, too. He was given the boot.

And still people play. Playing MMO’s has a certain pleasure to it that I also get from reading comment threads on very popular blogs. I feel less insulated somehow, when I read the junk people will post. All the emotion is something like a primal scream that has been turned into music, the music of, say, Nirvana or Pearl Jam, or The Sex Pistols, to be sure, but music nonetheless.

I play MMO’s to be engaged with other people. We often dream of having only the good parts of life and editing out the bad parts. And games are meant to be fantasy worlds, right? I can see the equation, and sometimes when I play I just want to be by myself and putter around. But that’s a mood, not a choice. The best times are when I get a group, sometimes friends, sometimes new friends, and climb some mountain together. We have done things that were pretty darn cool.

The games we play are social. “Social” does not mean “filled with fairies and unicorns that do my bidding and always tell me how fantastic my fabulous red hair looks.” It means “filled with people”. And that’s a good thing.

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