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.

Attracting a better class of player

Raegn@EpicBook loves the LOTRO in-game community. They’re friendly, chatty, uninclined to flood the chat channels with Chuck Norris jokes (yes I know that’s very 2007/8), patient, supportive, and don’t ask him what his gear is like before he joins a group*.

In fact, he loves them so much that it was the tipping factor in his decision to take out a lifetime subscription. And he wonders what makes that game so different.

Picking the right IP

Maybe LOTRO by its very nature appeals to an older, less hardcore and more relaxed breed of gamer. Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954-5, and as Raegn says, it has long since passed into the ranks of the classic canon. It is one of the few fantasy books to have done so.

So one theory is that people who read lit-er-atch-ure are more civilised beings. There aren’t many video games based on classic literature to compare with here – the closest I can find are games like Titanquest or God of War which are themed on classical mythology. So maybe the easiest thing to do is look at other games based on Middle Earth.

It’s a long list of games, stretching back to The Hobbit in 1982 (Thorin sings about gold. You kill Thorin.) Middle Earth has featured on consoles and PCS, it has been played as action games, war games, shoot em ups, and RPGs as well as an MMO. I’m not seeing any special indication that Tolkien fans are a special breed, though. They seem to like and play the same sorts of games as everyone else.

I’ll come back to that later, but there is a point to be made that different IPs definitely appeal to different age groups. This isn’t just about kids liking Spongebob and the Tellytubbies, its about everyone having a soft spot for favourite books they read while they were in their teens/twenties even though they may later go out of fashion or out of print.

Some IPs do eventually make the leap to a more universal appeal. In a way, they become the classics of their genre. Others don’t age so well. A few years ago, everyone would have been all over a Buffy MMO (and it’s still a cool setting) – in five years time, it’s history.

So if a company wanted to make a product that was focussed on a specific age group and type of player, picking the right IP is a good place to start.

This is part of the reason that I think that the Everquest setting will be a millstone around SOEs neck if they ever did decide to make EQ3. It only appeals to people who already liked the first couple of games. To anyone else, it’s an obscure fantasy setting associated with ancient grindy MMOs and with no outstanding special appeal. Unless you like the semi naked elf chick they use on all their ads, I guess. People would buy that game in spite of the IP, not because of it.

Search or Filter?

I think there are two different approaches here. You could try to only attract the sort of players you want, and filter out the rest by making your game unappealing to their playstyle. Or just go for attracting as many players as possible, but make it easy for the friendly ones to find each other. (note: friendly probably isn’t quite the right word for what I mean here, but can’t think of a better one.)

One of these routes will generate much more cash than the other, just saying. But at the cost that the friendly players will have to deal with the rest of the playerbase. The atmosphere of the game itself will be less focussed. That’s pretty much WoW in a nutshell. There’s something for lots of different types of players, but the downside(?) is that you’ll end up mixing with lots of different types of players.

But what about the gameplay?

Gameplay has a lot more influence than IP on what type of players end up in different games. That’s not to say that IP isn’t a part of the whole experience and some IPs lend themselves better to different types of game, but it is just as possible to make a hardcore sandbox Darkfallesque game based on Lord of the Rings as it is to make a casual friendly MMO.

It is true though that the starting zones in LOTRO are slow paced, friendly, and very evocative. I still think The Shire is one of the best zones in the game purely from evoking the feeling of ‘I was there!’. They set the tone.

If a game puts in extra features for casual type players – more fluff, nice costumes, crafting, housing, places to hang out and chat, not being so driven to level and go out to the farthest reaches of the world – then it’s also not surprising if they’ll attract a friendlier type. The type of player who is happy to sit around chatting or roleplaying is probably the same type who will be friendly to newbies; ie. they are more social players. It’s not guaranteed, but in every game I’ve played the RP servers had a rep for being friendlier.

The sub model

I think that LOTRO has one interesting advantage over other games. They brought in the concept of the lifetime subscription. (We still don’t really know how that’s working out for them in terms of profits but it was an interesting experiment, so I hope it is.)

So a proportion of players are very invested in the game world. They can still leave when they get bored, but they will inevitably think differently about the game. It’s more permanent for them. They’ve already paid upfront. And maybe people who are more invested in the game are less likely to be casually rude to newbies? Maybe they’re more aware that if they can encourage newbies to stay, they’ll have more people to play with later on?

Maybe, just maybe, it encourages long term thinking among the player base. And that would drive a more civil community. The benefits of being friendly to newbies tend to be long term.

LOTRO Exceptionalism

I don’t know that the actual players are any different from any other game. I know several people who play LOTRO in addition to other games. But behaviour of players actually in the game is generally friendly and polite to newbies.

I think they do have a good number of the social player type who is more likely to want to ‘mother’ and teach new players. This is despite the fact there’s no special reward in game for doing it. No mentoring titles or achievements. No purples ‘of the teacher’. They do it because they like to hang out and chat and be supportive to each other. There are downsides to this. The game itself is achievement focussed but a lot of the players aren’t interested in that side of things. And in guilds that can be quite divisive.

Oddly enough, WoW with its increased focus on raiding and grouping seems to drift to more cohesive guilds (i.e. the sheer mass of people encourages guilds to form around people who want to do the same sorts of in game activities).

I think it’s interesting. The more filtered nature of LOTROs players does make the player community feel very different, especially to a newbie. But in a game like WoW, the players you want are probably still there … if only you can find them.

* OK, I made that one up.