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.

17 thoughts on “Emotional Labour in MMOs: things you can’t get players to do

  1. Forced grouping works.

    If your progress depends on finding a group, you won’t run around yelling “nigger faggott” even if that’s what you consider “fun”. People are ready to go great length to get their purple pixels.

    Horrible behavior comes from the fact that the other people can’t hurt him, nor he needs their help.

    • Or else you might find a group where everyone thinks yelling “nigger faggot” is really fun and cool. That’s the problem with a lot of hardcore groups.

      • Don’t you find it disturbing that groups yelling “nigger faggot” are successful? I mean we consider such people dumb and lowly. How can they achieve anything? Can it be a design problem?

      • I think Gevlon’s on to something and it’s quite interesting. There are unwritten social mores in Eve space empire politics. Recently the largest coalition of player alliances in the game fractured when its leader transgressed against the social mores.

        What is fascinating is that those social mores are unexplained, unwritten very much “I know it when I see it.” The guy who just screwed up did so in such a way that any Eve player and probably any MMO player could have told you wouldn’t have flown. He was basically like the Onyxia Wipe video guy but trying to do that harsh and punitive leadership style on to 35000 people instead of 50.

  2. Excellent overview and analysis, especially on the reasons and motivations both for soloing and for being highly selective in choosing a guild. Active moderation does, of course, rely on the skills of the moderators, and can also suffer from their prejudices but I’d prefer to see more of it in MMOs all the same.

    The only major MMO I can think of that I’ve played that does have real-time, hands-on active moderation of general chat is Fallen Earth. I found it very welcome in the time I played there. It used to be seen more commonly in other MMOs back in the days when there were Server GMs who would actually be online in avatar form. Everquest was like that for several years when I first played.

    The trend of the last few years has been in the other direction, sadly, with GMs being replaced by CS Reps and Petitions turning into Tickets. The change has almost certainly been for cost-cutting reasons and it’s difficult to imagine companies paying for full-time, in-game chat moderators, especially to give the kind of 24/7/365 coverage the system would need to be really effective.

  3. One of the things that makes empathy so hard is that stranger-to-stranger communication is almost entirely text-based. In meatspace or voice interactions, the emotional context comes through so much better. If you run into an articulate, witty, expressive player, you can get much of the same feel for the person behind the toon but these people are rare and often lost in the mass channel swamp of trade chat.

    I might have all the good will and human interest in the world but if all I see are stock character animations and speech bubbles that say “grats” or “thanks” or “lol”, it feels like there’s a huge gap between me and other players. The humanity in MMOs is hidden behind a very dense fog.

    • That’s a good point. The skills (such as they are) of communicating well via text were something that people had to hone in MUDs etc because they were text based games, in a graphical MMO most people won’t bother.

      • It’s also worth considering the impact that the shifts in game play have had in changing player communication. Modern games expect that you’ll be hitting a button every second or so. There is literally no time to chat when combat is occurring and sometimes even when it’s not.

        It wasn’t always this way though. I remember when I played FFXI back in ~03 I chatted with my group mates all the time, even if we were just a bunch of pugs who didn’t know a damn thing about each other, because combat didn’t require all that much input and recovering after combat actually took a non-trivial amount of time.

        If I try to to strike up a conversation mid-fight with my groupmates in WoW when I’m trying to a heal a random dungeon someone is likely to die in those few seconds I have the chat box open. And even if I try after the current boss or trash pack is dead the tank is usually off to the next trash pack so fast that there’s little distinction between in combat and out of combat at all when it comes to activity levels. PvP is just as bad, if not worse.

        Maybe the pendulum will start swinging back the other way once there are more and more gamers in their 50s and 60s who don’t have twitch skills needed for such games to work. Or maybe not.

    • There’s a flipside to voice chat, though; it easier to throw in casual stupidity. Bigoted, racist, misogynist, etc. words slip in where they would take a lot more effort to put in text chat. If you’re someone who is bothered by this type of chat, voice chat can be a lot more wearying and lead to less empathy than text.

  4. My instinctual reaction to turning the complexity and subtlety of human relationships into a scoring stick is frankly horror. Relationships are a function of our nature, not a measuring stick to determine if I’ve hit the top 5% worldwide on some leader-board.

    That’s probably the key, the difference between a game mechanic and personal interaction. I played in an Amber group for years and, other than a pair of wildcards, our characters loathed each other. That came through very clearly in play – but we also respected the other players and let everyone fully participate. The game content – the story – was brutally confrontational. The game mechanics were perfectly friendly. I’m all for using that model in an MMO. If I want to be a social butterfly, an embittered loner, or a sociopath who hates all that should be permitted. But, I should also be compelled to a minimum standard of decency in dealing with other players.

    The game is not the public green, I have no real interest in protecting your right to be rude and obnoxious in Azeroth or Telara though I will be the first to defend you right to be an ass in Times Square.

    • Your Amber group sounds great! I’ve only ever had much success RPing (either online or offline) with people where we all basically got on well OOC, I think you need that level of trust to be there.

      But with the scoring stick thing, I wonder if people could be pushed to model the kind of pro social behaviour that might turn into better community groups. I mean for example, if people are encouraged to act towards us in a way we’d normally interpret as friendly, we’re kind of programmed to react to that in a friendly way. (I found that with Journey actually.)

  5. I wrote a bit about this topic form a developer’s perspective last week: http://psychochild.org/?p=1203 I think that the socialization opportunities in older games lead to more retention. The current focus away from the social fabric is what contributes to the “MMO tourist” mentality that his hurting MMO development.

    I think it’s not so much about measuring and thereby rewarding social interaction in our games as just allowing it to happen. I remember playing WoW with my friends where we’d have a quest to go get 10 bear gizzards, and nearby there were 12 bears. Even if the loot was split perfectly, we each only had 6/10 gizzards and had to wait for respawn (and hope nobody else came along needing the bear gizzards). The most optimal solution was to head off in different directions and do different quest chains so we didn’t step on each other. It was mechanics like this that actively worked against grouping on top of the game being solo-friendly. Basically, another player was set up as competition even without explicit PvP in place, so other players were not welcomed.

    GW2 has finally, FINALLY gone against this by allowing players to fight together without penalizing xp or drop rates for items. But, the problem is that the game is so fast paced that there’s no time for a meaningful relationship to form beyond the slight bit of downtime reviving someone who is downed.

    In my post I talk about “social overhead” and how the costs of coordinating with others need to be taken into consideration when considering how players can interact. Don’t necessarily take away the ability to solo, but do let people who do coordinate get a bonus.

    Consider this mechanic for a game like GW2’s PvE: if you kill a monster with another player you haven’t interacted with before (maybe within the last X days), you get a +5% bonus to magic find (and maybe xp earned). For every 5 minutes you fight with another player, you get a +1% bonus, up to a max of 25%. If you are not within range of each other after a certain amount of time, you lose the bonus. Needs to be designed out better, but there’s the core idea. Now, consider how this would socialization change in that game? Nothing says that you can’t solo to your heart’s content, but now there’s some compensation for having to coordinate with another person in the game.

  6. I think how a community is built and nurtured, from the ground up, also plays a huge part.

    I remember exactly when I knew I was in love with Guild Wars (NOT GW2). It was in a random PvP arena match, where someone ran out of range of my heals, and got ganked, and *apologised* to me, rather than abusing me.

    It was when I saw match after match, be it in arenas or battlegrounds, where at the end of the match, people would politely thank each other for the match, and say gg (good game).

    It was when I saw a post (no idea what the URL is anymore), talking about how the new (at the time) Zaishen ranking animations were a step in the WRONG direction, because they emphasized epeen over sportsmanship and civility.

    GW has / had the best, most polite PvP I’ve ever seen in an MMO, and IMO has some of the best PvP in any MMO – and I haven’t even mentioned the mechanics.

    Everything I said above is community.

    …but how does one grow a community like that? Looking at GW2, I’m sure ArenaNet doesn’t know.

    P.S. Despite all the PvP talk above, I’m actually a carebear. 😉

  7. There lays the problem of monetizing the good behaviour. If you give money (or XP or whatever) you give a clear value on good behaviour. The problem is that often the unformulated value that people give to it is far higher than the value given by rulers.

    An exemple will be clearer : in child-garden some parent are often late to take back their children. Some try to monetize the lateness by giving 5€/15min fine. The net result was an *increase* of lateness : if it is only a matter of money, I am ready to pay to be late. If it is a problem of politness I will make more effort !

    Other experiment was done which prove the same point : asking people to do boring and pointless task like clicking on red squares. People that get paid for it will do less than people not being paid for it !

  8. Koster is getting it wrong more and more these days. I have no idea why he would even believe so firmly that making games more socially friendly is too controlling. The thought is asinine.

    I honestly don’t think it very difficult to construct these empathic systems. The problem seems to be it’s not popular to do so. Devs seem less willing to take any risks or bets in crafting games these days because everyone NEEDS a sure success so they don’t starve. It’s unfortunate, but I think this is why big companies like EA and Blizz get so much vitriol; they have the resources to spend time on these problems and they do so very little for them.

  9. I didn’t say anything like that at all. Leigh’s comments were in fact about single player games, and so was my response. The context of the whole debate was about linear narrative games, definitely not MMOs. I’ve been one of the biggest advocates for making games more socially friendly my whole career!

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always found that weak tie social structures lead towards stronger community and empathy. This was the core trick in the way SWG worked, for example.

    • Sorry if I misrepresented you, that wasn’t my intention and I try to give a fair reading to my sources. (I did wonder whether your views had changed because I remember SWG being a pro-social game and I regret my MMO time was mostly taken up by DAOC at the time — not that I didn’t have a great time playing that but would have been nice to try a few of the other games too.)

      tbh I’ve also wanted to write about why socialising feels like work for awhile and I thought that was a good jumping off point.

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