Could games do more to help us make friends?

One of my great disappointments with MMOs is that devs don’t do enough to recognise that they are social games with social elements.

But through the long history of gaming, games have primarily had a social function. Often gambling was involved, but equally the game was something that a family could play together. Games were used to teach kids about counting, games were used to break the ice at parties, games were used as hobbies and social intercourse. From the old roman games of chance, through to elaborate board games and today’s multi-player computer games, they have been tools to bring people together.

So why is it that in MMOs, it’s so easy to feel lonely even in a group?

In fact, there are a whole class of mini-games that exist to help people make friends. We call them ice breakers. And I’ve used them myself at parties or in training sessions. Their goal? To get people talking, or laughing, to help people work out their common interests, and to break down the social barriers that keep people in their shells. And they work.

Game devs even know that social bonds and social networking is one of the strongest reasons for people to keep playing MMOs, even after the novelty is gone. So why don’t we have more ice breakers in our games? Why don’t they put in extra content whose purpose is simply to get people talking, bring people of similar interests together, and maybe encourage them to continue hanging out or even to form guilds or alliances?

There was a time when a low level instance acted as those ice breakers. They weren’t designed that way, but players are (mostly) social people who will at least say hello to their group and maybe exchange a few words. Quests that required more than one person to complete acted as ice breakers, again they weren’t really designed that way but they did get people to talk to each other.

But as the player base levels up, newbies are less likely to meet other newbies in those starter instances and quests.

So what if we actually had some content that was designed deliberately as an ice breaker. Why not have ‘social party raids’ where you can guess which NPC the other players are pretending to be, or play some kind of silly IC drinking game that gets people talking and encourages them to tell jokes? I don’t mean we should force every player to be social, but for those who are interested, could this type of feature make our games more fun, more compelling, and more accessible for new playe?

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13 thoughts on “Could games do more to help us make friends?

  1. The late Metaplace had plenty of trivial socializing minigames. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mindset, but those felt like the equivalent of someone pushing me towards a crowd and telling me to socialize.

    For me, the more effective ones have been those where the overt goal was something other than socializing, and socializing was simply the natural tool to get the job done. For example, brainstorming to solve a puzzle.

  2. WoW has a great history of promoting social interaction, but never in the form of mini games. All these items that change a persons character.

    Nothing breaks the ice more than *BAM* You’re a Ninja.

  3. I think World of Warcraft Devs have made the game very “social-friendly” – from World Events to the LFD system, people are constantly being thrown together for various reasons. In the end, it falls on the shoulders of the person behind the keyboard to make the experience more of a social one. They just seem to prefer to treat the other pixels in their group as a part of the game, rather than avatars of real people. Devs can only change the social skills of the game. Sadly, they are helpless to change the social skills of the players.

    People can be shown the door. Most people seem to prefer hanging around in the lobby with their hands in their pockets, rather than step through the doorway.

  4. Hivrox made the right point. You can not “design” friendships, and you can not “invent” an in-game mechanism to make people become friends.

    I am not going to annoy you again, it’s already said in one of my previous comments, but the basic problem is:

    - being selfish does not require any friends.

    Probably we agree, that Solo-Games focus on personal development and your own gaming experience, while RPG focus on group experience.

    So you do not need any friends for a Solo Game, but you need a lot of contacts for an RPG, like in the P&P Days.

    Warcraft is focused on your personal development, you are continuously striving for improvement. Most things can be done alone, and assignment of tasks is very standartised, thus does not require a lot of inter-personal organisation.

    This is stressed by the fact, that individuality is limited, thanks to Min/Max System.

    Basically we end up, being more or less eloquent Bots. You can easily exchange one tank with another, be his name Usiel or Spinks, in a minute his name will be forgotten.
    Names are rarely used, most people just write the class or its task. “Hey Tank” instead of “Hey Spinks”.
    I do not think, they would even care, if someone would try to “de-anononymize” you by throwing in some Ice Breaker like in a seminar.

    In other words, friendships are individuality based, the problem is that there is not much room left to show your individuality, which would probably make other people become interested in you and not your gear or function.

    So if they will change the game back to a more group based experience, you will see a growth in social networks again.

    • See, I think there’s actually quite a lot you can do with MMO design to give people some space to chat, and make it easy for players to find other people with similar interests in game.

      WoW do it to some extent with cities like Dalaran and with their stoic refusal to introduce player housing. They wanted there to be a central area where players hung out (we’ll see how this works in Cataclysm when there isn’t a sanctuary city).

      EQ2 has a global guild finder where guilds can write a bit about themselves, and what they are recruiting for.

      LFG tools are another common way to get players together when they want to run similar content.

      Games which include cities that have large spacious buildings where players could get together (to RP maybe) are offering some kind of meeting space, even if they don’t back it up with much of an activity. (Compare with STO which isn’t really built for easy socialising.)

      So I think it’s quite untrue that games can’t make it easier for people to get together. It’s just that most of the ones we play don’t really try to encourage actual socialising. For example, it’d be easy to put some silly ice breaker games into holiday events, or into random in game pubs/hangouts. No one would mind that, and it might even be fun.

  5. Sorry, I think I did not explain it correctly.

    I think that MMORPGS charm is, playing together, but the absence of social behavior you are describing is a result of Warcraft currently lacking of any demand of social skills.

    Or exaggerating: in the current state WoW is an Singleplayer Game with a Lobby, not an MMORPG.

  6. I think Usiel makes a strong point. What I’ve been noticing lately that it’s easier to make new online friends in FPS game than in WoW. Group content in Warcraft tends to rather force you to group compared to invite to, so groups tend to get formed on a “let’s get this over with” basis.

    About these icebreakes, doesn’t everyone secretly like those trivia bots? They seem to work marvelously in getting people to clump up around some bank alt and have some fun. No restrictions, no obligations. I would definitely like to see more things like that in game.

    • The trivia bots are a really good example, actually. I think of it this way, they got the hangouts right … so people are going to be hanging around in Dalaran anyway.

      Why not throw in a few ice-breaker games to entertain and encourage them to talk to each other, while they’re there?

    • I summarily set people using trivia bots on /ignore. Every ten seconds or so you get 20+ lines of nearly-correct answers, drowning out everything else. It’s impossible to have a conversation when there’s one active.

  7. I agree with you that it’s within the MMO’s developer’s skillset to make those interactions easier. The problem with MMOs is you’re not just “playing” but also “acting” within your characters’ skin. When do you break the “fourth wall”? I enjoyed Metaplace because you weren’t inside a character, but if you are in an MMO you are there because you “disappear” within the character. Do you really want to know the city, or the profession, of the person you’re “slaying” with? Maybe you do, and they don’t want to tell. I agree it should be at least an option so that it adds one more facet to the experience, without hurting the illusion of immersion of the game.

  8. I ran a regular Shattered Hall the other night. As soon as we zoned in I saw a couple of people say ‘Hi’ so I said Hello, then added that it was my first time in SH and while I’d researched the Instance I would appreciate any advice as we went along.

    None was forthcoming.

    We got the first Boss, killed him, and without saying a word one of our DPS dropped group. I guess he only wanted/needed loot from the first Boss. Replacing DPS is a quick, painless process though so we had a full group again within seconds.

    In the gauntlet corridor as the waves of Mobs moved toward us and I stopped to Tank them someone finally spoke up, and said we could just keep going. So I slowly backed down the corridor (didn’t want to turn my back on the Mobs) and picked up the additional Mobs as they spawned.

    The second Boss went down without a hitch and at the final Boss I asked if I should just pick up and Tank the Adds along with the Boss. “Could try,” was the only response, so with the group appearing ready I charged in. The Boss went down fast and only 1 Mob had time to spawn, and with the distribution of the Loot everyone dropped group.

    Actually the Healer did ask if we wanted to run something else but when nobody spoke up right away she dropped group.

    You know…WoW with its Dungeon Finder Tool now feels very much like DDO, where you sit around in the town putting a group together, and in most cases once you have a full group the Instance entrance is often usually no more than a few seconds away. No flying 5 zones then catching a boat then flying another 5 zones, then mounting up to ride halfway across the 6th zone to the Instance.

    Just hit ‘I’, choose your poison, and within minutes you’re in an Instance. Okay, within minutes I’M in the Instance, or maybe you’re a Tank, too ;)

    I saw someone bemoaning the Random queue as being so long last night, and before I opened my mouth I Shift-Clicked his name. Ahh, a Hunter, not one of the multi-role classes. Yeah, that’s what you get for rolling pure DPS. I tactfully shut down my “snappy comment” about hybrids speccing DPS and went on my merry way.

  9. I’ve run numerous random heroics of late. My icebreaker question has been, “Hmm… when was the first time you looted gold? I think the first time I saw gold was in Gruul’s Lair.”

    As often as not, I am met with stony silence but a usually efficient run. Sometimes, though, it has led to other “I remember…” moments. Not bad for 20-25 minutes worth of play, but it is unlikely that I’ll ever see these random people ever again.

  10. RE: Interchangeable tanks – Zow, things have really changed since a year and a half ago in WoW I guess.

    …a very close friend stopped playing about 2 years ago, in very great measure because he was not only a very good tank. He was a very good leader.

    He had/has that indefinable ‘it’ factor. You know, the one that makes people WANT to follow, rather than, ‘Oh ok, you’re good at what you do, I’ll go on a run with you quite happily *if you ask me to*.’ *Dry nugget tone* If you couldn’t guess, I was more of the second type than the first.

    But… said friend’s problem was that he couldn’t log on anymore without being spammed by people asking him to run this/tank that.

    And the funniest part is, he’s not all that social. He just knows how to be pleasant I guess.

    …could it be that WoW’s LFD system might actually be better for such players? They can disappear more easily without people poking them when they don’t want to be poked.

    HOOM!

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