Sociopaths r us! Is a social game a polite game?

I read a great article this week (courtesy of RPS), and it was by a gaming journalist who was explaining how playing Halo tipped him over the edge. He’s describing here how he got ganked by a random stranger, became mindbogglingly furious, and spent the entire rest of the evening tracking and corpse camping the guy to get revenge.

Not unusual behaviour for someone in a shooter, you might think. It also shows signs of classical sociopathy (A pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others) and I think he was right to recognise that the game was bad for him and quit.  Here’s an example:

Who was he to take my stuff? He respawned, this time I was off to the side of the base and tossed a ‘nade. It was beautiful, curved delicately and landed right between his shoulder blades. Pow!
I wrote: “2-1″.
In truth, I was sort of hoping for an apology. He could have just given me what I wanted.

The italics above are mine.

I’d spent time tracking this guy down, I was /right/. I killed him and he quit. I tracked him down again and again and again. An evening lost to bloodying up some jerk, feeling like a vigilante.

So when someone ganked him, he felt owed an apology, but no notion of apologising to the guy whose entire evening he had ruined. FPS shooter players just don’t do that. PvP has a similar dynamic. Why would you ever apologise or expect an apology for killing someone in a PvP game? They chose to play, they knew the rules. They can log off and do something else any time they like.

By comparison, look at an article that Matticus penned this week on his blog. It’s called How to Apologize. This is about a very different type of online game, and very different types of relationships between players. He’s talking with respect to running a raiding guild, although it could just as easily apply to any player in a guild or online community.

Still, the contrast between how the writers expect other players to behave is very marked indeed. FPS online chat is known to be vicious, hostile, sexist, homophobic, racist – in fact you can name the unpleasant behaviour of your choice and it’s probably rife on Xbox Live. Trade chat on WoW isn’t all that much better, depending on your server. But guild chat is usually more polite (or at least everyone is equally accepting of the level of rudeness.)

So why do players act like sociopaths online?

Freedom to unleash your inner sociopath!

If people are acting like sociopaths, it is because they enjoy it. A lot of players have stressful factors in their jobs, relationships, study. or just generally in their lives. Logging on and being randomly horrible to a random player may be a source of stress relief. Obviously, it’s not so fun to be on the receiving end of the insults. But the sociopath player is able to ignore that; they’re either a sociopath, or roleplaying it well online, or else it’s the local game culture that everyone is randomly horrible to each other equally. Griefers even find it fun.

So people who find it great stress relief to gank people and vent at randoms enjoy the general xbox live and trade chat atmosphere. It’s perfect for them. Just as long as everyone else plays the same way too. And if anyone dares to get upset or doesn’t want to play the sociopath game then it’s their fault for being different and not trying to fit in.

I am reminded of a guild officer in my old DaoC guild (which was, in retrospect, home to some of the worst officers I’ve ever encountered.) He saw himself as an in game sergeant major and regularly used to bitch people out in public if they annoyed him.

One day, he did this to a player who became very upset. They hated being yelled at, felt insulted and belittled, and made sure he understood exactly how upset they were. At the time, his reponse to this puzzled me greatly. The officer became furious with the upset player. How dare they ruin his good shouting session by bringing stupid emotions into this? Didn’t they know that when he yelled at them, they should accept it politely and change their behaviour to exactly what he demanded?

I don’t think he was really a sociopath, just an idiot who wanted the virtual world to reflect his self image. I think he knew that he’d gone too far, but what he actually did was to yell more at the upset player for being such a delicate flower. Unsurprisingly, this did not help and resulted in a gquit. i.e. the person who did not fit into the sociopath’s guild left.

Because you can!

The internet is anarchy. And without anyone to moderate the chat channels, bboards, or live chat then sociopaths roam widely, free to force the other web denizens to conform to their mould. And if we can’t boot or report the perpetrators, then everyone else is stuck with them.

So where do people go if they hate sociopaths online? Well, not to xbox live or open FPS chatrooms, that’s for sure. They have to collect in communities which will allow them to moderate other people’s behaviour. So guilds, private servers, social networks, moderated forums/ newsgroups and anywhere else where they can keep the riff-raff out to let their frustrations out on each other somewhere in the internet back of beyond.

And then people wonder why women don’t feature much in online gaming.

Social games force people to be more polite

So if a social game is one that forces players to communicate with each other, and to cooperate, then there is a limit to how sociopathic a successful player can be. If you want to win, then you have to work with others. That’s the bottom line in this type of game. A whole guild of sociopath players can be functional, as long as no one expects anyone else to care about what they think ( if you are the type who expects apologies when someone else insults your mother, then it’s obviously not the guild for you.)

But if a player who might be a sociopath in FPS is also an achiever, they’ll probably have to modify their behaviour in a social game. So social games will tend to be more friendly — whether they’re raid based like WoW or gift based like Farmville. Their communities will tend to be more supportive and functional.

We see this even more on roleplaying servers, because RP is all about socialising (you cannot RP on your own). So these servers hold a special attraction to the most social players.

More solo friendly games will breed more sociopathic gamers

As matticus’ post shows, players who make long term commitments to their online communities do need to foster and care about their relationships with other players. You don’t need to become best friends, but you also can’t treat them as abusively as a perfect stranger who you will never meet again.

And I wonder what this means with the ongoing trend to solo-friendliness in MMOs. Although the majority of players in the random dungeon finder are fine, it’s easy enough for the sociopathic ones to sneak in these days. And the less players need to communicate and cooperate with each other in game, the easier it is to treat the others as random objects of abuse.

But MMO culture isn’t the same as FPS culture. Many more women and older players play MMOs, for a start (and yes it does make a difference.) They won’t all suddenly become randomly abusive just because they can. But other people will. And especially if game companies keep chasing the hardcore male 18-30 year old player and putting out more solo friendly games, the prospects for better communities online are poor.

So driving away from that hardcore market and more towards the mainstream is a good trend, in my opinion. Casual gamers who won’t accept that they need to put up with all that shit as the price of entry may yet keep us all honest.

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15 thoughts on “Sociopaths r us! Is a social game a polite game?

  1. As Gevlon would love to point out, it’s also possible to be polite, social and sociopathic at the same time. Social games per se don’t discourage sociopathy. The sociopath can just as easily manipulate people to attend to his every whim. And when others even suggest that the sociopath should fulfill his part of the unspoken quid pro quo, he will complain loudly about them being rude, demanding and inconsiderate. A really skilled sociopath can even turn the tables on the accusers, making them seem unreasonable.

    IMHO, the factor that makes all the difference is people willing to stand up for themselves. Whether the rules are enforced by law, by game mechanic or by community is irrelevant, as long as they are enforced.

  2. Apologizing admits to being wrong. Being wrong – and admitting to it – shows weakness. In a venue where so many people CAN fantasize about being strong (when in real life, they might not be, physically, mentally, socially), ANY sign of weakness on their part is unacceptable to them.

    In these games, players are high powered arsenals of walking destruction, and saying “sorry” is not very intimidating. In fact, it can be counter productive: when other players are seeking competent, knowledgeable party, raid or guild members, many players probably thing that admitting that they were wrong shows the other players that they’re not on the same “do no wrong” level that the other players consider themselves to be on. Are they actually on such a lofty level? Of course not, but none of them will admit that they don’t knowwhat they’re doing, or that they have doubts, or that they made a mistake because admitting they were wrong is o a sign of weakness, etc etc etc.

    • “Apologizing admits to being wrong. Being wrong – and admitting to it – shows weakness.”

      I think that’s not universal. But maybe for the young male hardcore gamer audience. An older market might feel that being wrong and admitting to it is a sign of strength and self knowledge.

      But yeah, that’s a good point. In an escapist power fantasy, people want to be The Badass, not The Guy Who Apologises All The Time. By contrast, in a raid game, you really want to recruit people who will apologise when they make a mistake and not do it again.

      • Rule #6: Never apologize; it’s a sign of weakness.

        I disagree with this one and prefer McGee’s interpretation when he apologizes to Gibbs in a manner that wasn’t really an apology, but still acknowledged he had made a mistake. “It won’t happen again, Boss.”

        In other words you’re better off with someone willing to admit their mistakes and prepared to learn from them, than with someone who sees apologies as a sign of weakness and by inference refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

  3. “IMHO, the factor that makes all the difference is people willing to stand up for themselves. Whether the rules are enforced by law, by game mechanic or by community is irrelevant, as long as they are enforced.”

    I think that social games encourage creation of communities which can enforce rules internally. And that in an anarchy the sociopaths tend to take over because they just don’t care. I take your point though, a sociopath achiever could fake it. But then again, in an online environment if people fake it well enough, no one need ever care, and decent guild officers will nip any attempts to exploit other players in the bud.

    You could argue that if games took more effort to moderate server channels, solo-friendly multiplayer games could also be more polite. The only games that really do this are the ones that are trying to be kid-friendly because parents will pay for a better atmosphere online.

  4. When developers idea of content is to give players sharp sticks to poke each other, it’s natural some people wont like it. When they go and give one guy a bigger stick, they really wont like it. Social or not wont matter: EvE is famous for being heavily social and its worse than WoW in terms of sociopathy imo.

  5. “And I wonder what this means with the ongoing trend to solo-friendliness in MMOs. Although the majority of players in the random dungeon finder are fine, it’s easy enough for the sociopathic ones to sneak in these days. And the less players need to communicate and cooperate with each other in game, the easier it is to treat the others as random objects of abuse.

    But MMO culture isn’t the same as FPS culture. Many more women and older players play MMOs, for a start (and yes it does make a difference.) They won’t all suddenly become randomly abusive just because they can. But other people will. And especially if game companies keep chasing the hardcore male 18-30 year old player and putting out more solo friendly games, the prospects for better communities online are poor.”

    I agree with a lot of what you say (it has to be said that though I enjoy playing some of them, I tend to avoid the multiplayer PvP aspects of FPS like the plague – I do enjoy the co-op aspect though). However, I don’t think stopping the solo-friendly progression is the answer.

    I usually play my MMOs as a solo’er, and prefer it that way most of the time because I enjoy exploring, crafting, and doing my own thing when I have little time. But I socialise with people when I meet them, and I do group at times.

    Killing off the solo-friendly side of MMOs will force me back into single-player games, and getting my social-side of gaming from Faunasphere/Facebook games and the likes. Given the fact that I’m female, and 38 on the 20th, I’d suggest that it could kill off a decent section of the people you are actually wanting to attract/keep in the MMO.

    • I see developers adding more solo-friendly content to their game as a way of attracting the older, more social-friendly gamers. I realize that sounds contradictory, but I don’t think the hardcore, male 18-30 y/old gamers want solo content; I think they prefer group content because that’s where they can compete with each other to see who has the bigger epeen.

      This is not to say that older, mature gamers don’t enjoy grouped content as well (we do ;), but personally I think solo content was implemented to attract the more casual, relaxed, play-at-your-own-pace gamer than the hardcore, 18-30 y/old male gamer.

      End-Game Raiders don’t solo to 80 because they’re enjoy the solo content; they do so because it’s one of the fastest ways to hit 80 because, ITO, that’s where the Real Game starts. That there should tell you who the solo content in MMOs is really aimed at (Hint: it’s not the hardcore gamers).

  6. This is one of the things that turned me against pvp servers in WoW. After someone ganks you, you want vengeance. While it’s a little fun it’s also a huge waste of time, and the most efficient reaction is almost always to blow it off and keep playing, or to move somewhere safer. And if it’s a waste of time to go after guys that waste your time, what’s the point of pvp servers?

  7. Pingback: A Response « The Beast Within

  8. Solo != sociopath. Soloability doesn’t breed sociopathy, anonymity and lack of accountability does. Open world PvP in a level-based system and loot rolls have done more for sociopathy than soloability ever could.

    • I’m not sure. I think it does affect how players treat other people. Are they people you want to build up long term relationships with or just objects in your path?

      I don’t mean all soloers act like sociopaths, but clearly there’s no need to care about anyone else — that’s part of the attraction of running solo.

      • Is that better than using people in a forced grouping scheme? Politeness as a tool to get gear upgrades isn’t real, and can be pretty blasted manipulative.

        Soloability allows people to play and progress on their own terms… so when they do group up, it’s because they want to, not because they have to. There’s a world of difference there. (As well as the resentment that builds when you do have to bend your schedule to the will of others; something hardcore raiders know all too well. Yay for guild drama.)

        Also, I’d note that soloability doesn’t mean you don’t need to care about others, it means you don’t need others. There’s a world of difference there, too.

      • I also think teaching people to view opponents as things (not people) that you need to kill is part of the package. I mean, you don’t think that people tend to treat each other like trash in FPS games?

        I understand why people like soloing. I’m just saying that a game built around soloing/ pvp will encourage you to see other players differently from one built around cooperation.

        Also, politeness as a tool to get stuff is pretty much how real life works in many ways.

      • True, the notion that killing is the way to get things done really does have some effect.

        My main point is that yes, you get different communities when building around cooperation, but coerced cooperation and voluntary cooperation are very different things. It’s been my experience that the latter is excellent, and the former shows a veneer of civility, but underneath, is actually more septic than a community where people can “progress” solo if they so desire or easily play in a group without punishment (like loot rolls instead of stuff for everyone).

        Of course, the obsession with progress and loot over play is a huge factor there, too. If progress isn’t the point of playing, communities change, too.

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