Emotional Labour in MMOs: things you can’t get players to do

“when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’”

Leigh Alexander (who is a really good gaming writer, if you haven’t heard of her), twitter

Given that being massively multiplayer is one of the unique selling points of the genre, it’s always impressed me how far players will sometimes go in order to avoid having to interact with others.  (This isn’t an argument about forced grouping by the way, don’t worry.) I do this myself too sometimes – there are times when I just can’t be asked to interact. Maybe I’m not in the mood to teach a group a new encounter, or maybe I’m  in “the zone” and happily solo grinding/ levelling away and don’t feel like going all social with a group, even if it would be more efficient.

But players and designers have been wondering since the birth of the genre about how to encourage players to be more social, whether it be via forced grouping or rewards that require social organisation to solve, giving groups extra tools and props (like guild housing), providing social spaces and encouragement to socialise during downtime, better chat and communication tools (yeah, still a fair way to go on this one), and so forth. Some have worked better than others. We know that social ties are important to players and can help make an MMO more compelling as a long term proposition.

So it’s not unnatural to wonder if there are better ways to encourage players to interact. I’ve wondered the same thing that Leigh wonders in the quote above –  could you make it as fun/ rewarding to empathise, communicate, and be kind to other players as it is to defeat and grief them? Could that be the basis of some game mechanic?

Raph Koster takes the same tweet and runs with it, arguing basically that it isn’t a valid objective because it isn’t really the role of a game to guide how players feel. He notes that this is more of a non interactive narrative and, interestingly, that he thinks players feel controlled if they are told that they have to stop speaking and listen to someone else.

His argument is comprehensible only in a context of single player games – and certainly don’t apply to roleplaying (I wonder if he thinks RPGs count as games). In my tabletop games, I absolutely did expect players to be polite, considerate of each other and to listen when someone else was speaking. That’s a core multiplayer group based dynamic. We can call it “playing nicely with others.”

Oh noes, player A thinks the man is trying to control them if they are told to play nice with others! Whatever will we do?! etcetera.

But the question remains, could games teach these kinds of skills? Could they teach people to think about how the other person might feel before they let loose with some racist, sexist, homophobic smack talking rant? And if any games could, surely multiplayer games would be the right genre to try.

There’s work and then there’s WORK

Let’s get one thing straight. MMO players adore working on their characters. Not everyone has the bloodymindedness and tenacity to grind out every last faction and endgame upgrade but this is a genre built on the expectation of 10s and 100s of hours of play. Spending a long gaming session levelling, crafting, PvPing, instancing, or raiding for some minor upgrade is absolutely par for the course. It’s not as fun to feel forced to do something you don’t enjoy but the actual concept of work in these games isn’t a dirty word.

Listening to other people and empathising with them is work, it’s called emotional labour and lots of people have to do it as part of their jobs. And even these people like to switch off at the end of the day (because it’s actually quite demanding work, emotionally). This is one of the reasons why it does often feel like more work to interact with strangers than to grind away slowly on your own, because it is. And it’s not even all that fun unless they are listening and helping you too. Can we admit that socialising often isn’t fun? I think we can.

By the same token, splurging incontinent emotional backlash all over the game/ internet may not be fun per se, but is cathartic and relaxing(?) for people. Or maybe some people find it fun.

So when we are talking about wanting a game to encourage people to do the former and not the latter, we are looking for a mechanic that can reward people for doing  emotional labour, and discourage them from something that they find liberating. No wonder it is a tough sell.

Although anyone who likes the Bioware romances or Japanese dating sim types of games will at least be open to the idea that it might be fun to get to know someone, figure out what they like/ dislike, and be rewarded with some kind of relationship. So  maybe in order for empathy to be fun and not to be a pointless grind, there must be the possibility of a meaningful relationship (not necessarily romantic) at the end. Players have to believe that they too will be valued and accepted by a peer or a peer group on their own terms.

Why social pressure can’t solve this one

For all of that, there is a real issue that players feel controlled by in game communities. Some in game communities can be very controlling. One of the great appeals of soloing is not having to be beholden to the minor dramas and power players of a guild, not being told when to play or who to play with, how to use chat or which bboard to hang out on, and so forth. This is one of those cases where art mirrors life; RL communities are controlling too (you may not notice this if you fit in Smile ). In return for some conformity, you can then get support, security and friendships – things that are really key to making life worthwhile.

Which means, in games as in RL, if you want to feel less controlled you have two options: go lone wolf, or find a group of people where you fit in and are comfortable with the rules. MMOs are typically really bad at helping players find compatible guilds, it’s a flaw that no one ever has properly addressed.

Guilds have a much easier time than game mechanics in encouraging players to play nicely with others. The threat of being thrown out of the group is a very powerful one to our social monkey brains. The more pressing issue is that antisocial players tend to form up with other antisocial players, in groups that accept that behaviour.

This is fine in a group based game. If your Diablo group wants to swear at each other, no one else needs to care. But in a massively multiplayer game, groups will interact with each other.

That is what an MMO mechanic to encourage empathy would have to fight. Not the soloers (who are probably mostly happy to be left alone and will return politeness with politeness if they really do have to talk to anyone), nor the more fluffy or mature guilds who do encourage good behaviour, but the howling packs of invective laden muppets who are having plenty of fun doing what they are doing.

I think the best answer is better moderation, and better tools to let players ignore the people who are annoying them. Some things you can teach, other people need a slap round the chops (technically we call this “appropriate use of authority”). So what if they don’t like the feel of being controlled? That doesn’t mean everyone else has to pander to it, especially if it means designed won’t even try to make more emotionally nuanced games. Some of us enjoy controls, constraints, boundaries or railroads in games – it’s wrong thinking to dismiss them all as “that isn’t a game mechanic.”

It would be possible to go further, to look at how the justice system tries to get offenders to empathise with their victims. But so difficult in an online setting to actually isolate someone from their terrible peer support group.

Or else we could just design games like Journey where it is only possible to help other players, and never to grief them or interact in a negative way.

Picking Alts, and Seeing how the other Half Live

One of my favourite parts of going to a new restaurant is poring over the menu.

You scan over the different items, mentally imagining how they might taste. You pause at foods that you either don’t get often at home, or that bring back fond memories of previous meals. Then you change your mind at the last minute for no reason, and spend the rest of the evening suffering menu envy at all the dishes (that you passed up) being ferried to everyone else’s tables. It’s great! If nothing else, you leave with a mental list of dishes that you want to try next time. You could skip several steps by picking something familiar on your first visit; you won’t hate it and can compare it to previous dishes (I do this in Indian Restaurants, for example). Then you can try something new if/when you go back.

Alts can be this way also. You pick one because it sounds like a nice flavour combination and maybe it’s been a favourite in the past. Then  you get a flash of menu envy when someone else wanders by with an especially cool looking buff, or being able to do something your character just can’t, or generally acting overpowered. I have rolled alts before because I thought a spell had an awesome casting animation, or because I thought their role in one particular fight was really cool. I’ve rolled alts because I thought it must be fun to res people, or because I had a cool name in mind for a pet. I’ve rolled alts because a particular set of gear looked really good.

Watching other people play different classes or roles is one of the big motivators in picking alts. Especially if you have friends who really enjoy their characters. So is reading cool forum posts, watching videos, or anything that makes you look twice at another class and think … wow, menu envy. I want to do THAT.

Or there is also the related route of picking something because no one you know plays it. Maybe you are more of a risk taker, and hope you’ll be the one to give them menu envy.

Many Alts, Many Points of View

I’ve been thinking about alts because in Warcraft right now, I don’t have a whole lot to do on my main character when I’m not raiding. One random heroic instance a day for frost badges, and I’m done.

Like a lot of other players, I have a clutch of level 80 alts. (As an aside, there was a time when having several alts at the max level meant that you were extremely hardcore; now it is pretty much inevitable if you have been playing awhile*) So those could also run a heroic dungeon for frost badges every day also.

With the dungeon finder, it’s never been easier to gear up an alt, and get some playing time in groups. More players are doing this now than ever before. There are fewer other endgame grinds to take up game time, plus there’s the lure of frost badges which can be used to buy the very saleable primordial saronite, if you don’t need it yourself.

So really, the playerbase should be getting better at seeing other classes’ points of view. We should be understanding that some classes are harder to play than others because we have more time to try it. Some roles are more involving. Some tasks more taxing on a caster rather than a melee, or vice versa. It’s way easier for me to put up high dps numbers on my death knight in instances than on my warlock, for example.

I’m not sure that this utopia of broad understanding based on all walking in each others shoes is happening though. Yes, lots of people are playing lots of alts. Yes, more people than ever are dipping their toes into the murky pool of tanking or healing for the first time.

Maybe this is going to be a longer term trend. Maybe as it becomes more baseline to have multiple well-geared alts who are just one tier behind a main, we will have more empathy for the other classes based on our own experiences with them. Right now, I’m more likely to be impatient at people who persist in being blinkered by a single class or role.

Do you find that playing multiple alts or roles has opened your eyes to their issues?

* Note: This does depend on how casual a player you are, I know some people have been playing for years and still don’t have a level 80.  But they are outliers.