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.

In memory of absent friends

Towards the end of the year, it’s normal for us to look back over the last 12 months and take stock. What has changed? What goals have we met? Have we made any new friends? Lost any old ones? Learned anything new? Had major life changes? Anything unexpected that we coped with well … or badly?

And looking over the raid roster, I’m struck by how many people I have raided with since the release of Wrath (call that about a year). Many of them I barely knew when that year began, if at all. We aren’t all best friends, we don’t all mix or chat socially outside raids, but I feel that I know all of them even if that just means names, personality traits, voices on voice chat and maybe a few shared jokes and experiences. We spent a fair amount of time in each other’s company — even my one raid per week is a regular 3 hour weekly slot. That’s more time than I spend with a lot of my real life friends, whose lives are so busy these days that we have to plan a few weeks ahead to meet up.

Some players  we were fond  of had to bow out during the year either for good reasons (new job! new baby! switched up to more hardcore raid guild!), less happy ones, or just plain burnout with the game. It’s very easy when you are bound up with a regular raiding schedule to feel that people in online games have short memories. If you take a couple of weeks out, you might be replaced – after all, the raids need to keep running either with or without you. And it’s easy to feel that you’d be quickly forgotten also.

But when I look over the old Naxx signups, I don’t think we’ve forgotten those names who no longer raid with us (I’m sure there are some which have a special place in raid leaders’ memories, for sure :) ). I think we’d be thrilled to see them if they ever hopped back into the game to say Hi. I don’t know whether there would be room in raids, that’s harder to organise, but I know they aren’t forgotten. Thinking even further back, I still chat to Arb about people we used to play DaoC with years ago. For most  I never knew their real names, but there was some level on which we knew them as friends with a shared hobby, who used to play games with us. Or else they were ‘those guys’ who were jerks in game and still are the subject of massive bitch fests when we can be bothered.

And it’s part of the normal cycle of gaming that people join and leave. Life happens, circumstances change, people get bored. There is a quote I read (and I don’t know the origin) that runs: We will all be the same in five years as we are now except for two things: the books we have read and the people we’ve met.

Here’s to all the people we met this year, and to the people we’ll meet in the year to come.

Thought for the Day: How social are ‘social’ games?

Historically, a social game is one that you played with friends so that you could socialise while you were playing. Board games, card games, RPGs all involve having a group of people in the same room and even if you took your gaming extremely seriously, there would be time to chat between rounds.

The social part of MMOs is grouping. Again, you’re tackling the game with a bunch of other people and if they are also friends then you can chat while you kill mobs together. Even if you aren’t grouped up, an evening in the MMO for a social player means chatting to your mates via various text channels while you pursue other goals in game. But in a facebook-type social game, you interact with people without talking to them at all. Just send someone a virtual cow along with a virtual poke and maybe they’ll respond later.

So I wonder, how social can any game really be if you don’t talk to anyone? Are we heading towards the ironic situation where Bartle-type social players dislike ‘social games’ because they aren’t social enough and you can’t really get to know the people you are playing with?

The headset is my ears, the monitor is my eyes

I have seen it with my own eyes ….

It’s amazing how easy it is when we’re deep in a game for our brains to convince us that we are seeing the virtual world directly through our own eyes, and hearing it with our own ears. I’ve had times when I wasn’t aware of the headphones or the monitor. Immersion will do that to a person, and the human brain is smart but can be trained to substitute one metaphor for another – after all, I don’t much notice my glasses when I’m wearing those either.

But all it takes to break the illusion is one little hardware problem. The monitor blows? You’re (virtually) blind. Broken sound card? You’re (virtually) deaf. It’s tricky to talk about this without being disrespectful to people who have sensory disabilities in real life, but being without a peripheral can feel absolutely crippling in game.

I’ve had an ongoing problem for a few months with my microphone, in that it’s way too quiet. This week, we sorted it out (turns out it was something stupid that I’d done which was easily fixed, once we’d found it), and it’s astounding to me how much difference that made in my gameplay.

I could speak on voice chat before, but it was very hard for people to hear me. They would keep asking me to speak up, or complain that they couldn’t hear, and there wasn’t anything that I could do about it. It was frustrating because it broke the metaphor, in real life I can speak up by just raising my voice. But that didn’t work with a malfunctioning mike. It was so frustrating in fact that I mostly stopped even trying to talk, and along with that came a feeling of distance, of unintentional exclusion, and of being less involved in both the game and the community.

Of course I could still type wittily (and quickly), but as anyone knows who has played with voice chat, a lot of people don’t bother looking at the text on the screen. But my disability was relatively easily fixed. I have my voice back. This week I noticed that  every time I am to say something in game, I  hesitate more than I used to do. I still think ‘Oh, no one will hear’, even though they can now.

I’m happy to have my virtual voice back, and it will be nice to feel back in the loop and get used to it again. But that was a very powerful emotional experience, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

Thought of the Day: How we define challenge

I’ve read a few bloggers recently commenting about how challenges change in MMOs. Tobold joked that hunters were changing to FPS gameplay, as a way of talking about how WoW is tending towards twitch based challenge and away from knowledge/ puzzle solving — granted it wasn’t ever very puzzle based but it’s clear that designers now assume everyone will look the strategies up and are trying to find other ways to challenge players.

Gevlon has been thinking about why hardcore players complain about nerfs. Looking at the marathon example, the hardcore don’t ever have to be in contact with the casuals so why would it matter what they do? Again, it’s to do with the perception of the challenge and people being concerned that their previous achievements will be less ‘valuable,’ especially in a game where people often define their self-worth by what challenges they have beaten. (Sure, there are other reasons to complain about nerfs, I remember being sad when Ulduar was first nerfed because I was enjoying the original difficulty.)

This all reminded me of a wise comment I read recently on a bboard. From an rpg.net post by David J Prokopetz:

The ready availability of strategy guides and online FAQs seems to have lead many hardcore gamers to conclude that the only “real” challenges are those that test your reflexes, and those that test your patience.

Exploration-based challenges are deemed worthless because you can just look up where to go next; likewise reasoning-based challenges, because you can look up the solution; resource-based challenges are out because you can look up the optimal distributions; strategy and tactics disdained because you can look up an algorithm and apply it by rote; and so forth.

Ultimately, any challenge that doesn’t boil down to pure twitch or interminable grind will be dismissed out of hand.

So maybe it all does come down to spoilers in the end. But it speaks to something in player mentality where someone who levels naked (in game) or beats Ulduar in blue gear will be widely respected, whereas a group who go into a raid instance ‘blind’ so that they can figure out the strategy themselves will be mocked for not looking it up like everyone else. The player base values some challenges more than others.

It doesn’t look good for the non-achievers or people who prefer puzzle based play to twitch. But at least we still have single player games. And of course social players face the biggest challenges of all: running a successful guild or raid group.

And because it’s still being great, here’s the obligatory Torchlight screenie. My vanquisher at level 12 with a new gun. Why is it that I hate the thigh boots and miniskirt look in Aion but really like it here, I wonder?

Vanquisher with gun