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?