Thought of the Day: We have gamed through a privileged era

I have been mulling over EVE and pondering why PvP sandboxes seem so much easier to set up than PvE ones. It’s related to why competitive games are easier to set up than co-operative ones. With EVE in particular, the griefing culture isn’t purely down to character progression since there are plenty of choices in how to play the economic and PvP game, not all of which involve scams or griefing.

Partly it’s due to the content issue: players will happily compete against other players when dropped into a sandbox. Some will happily continue to compete in the similar scenarios ad infinitum. It’s cheaper and easier for players to entertain each other than to need a constant stream of PvE content.

But it’s also because people generally only co-operate when they don’t have a choice. Many enjoy co-operating in groups but if they didn’t need the group then they might not join in the first place. Competition seems to come more naturally to us, maybe we’re socialised into it.

The internet in general has been friendlier towards strongly co-operative games than you’d expect. This I think is because the early adopters were blown away by being able to interact online with other people from around the world in real time. Our first inclination was not to try to fight them, but to get together and build stuff. That’s the culture in which early MUDs and MMOs were born. And it’s also no surprise that so many early designers had been avid roleplayers — pen and paper RPGs are one of the few breeds of tabletop game that are genuinely co-operative.  I suspect that culture  will be seen as an anomaly.

Those of us who have been able to play games online where grouping was strongly encouraged, where co-operation was part of the game’s culture, where players were inclined to trust others until they did something to prove untrustworthy, and where people were prepared to put their own interests second to be part of the group have been privileged to be part of a gaming culture that is vanishing. Even though those games may have been deeply frustrating at times, they represent a very unique experience.

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Why we need killers to show us how to have fun

Sara Pickell wrote a brilliant post about MMOs, and the struggle between companies trying to sell them to us as goods vs services. I’ve tried to come at this from a different angle before, but she does it far more eloquently than I did.

But there was one paragraph that made me stop and think (and she’s referring to the Bartle player types here – achiever, explorer, socialiser, killer):

The primary audience of any product will always be the achievers, those who want it for it’s own use and to excel within it’s use. The secondary target would be explorers, those who are interested in seeing it in it’s entirety. You may still want some socialites to build buzz for you, but they are more likely to strain your system without seeing very much content so their presence is more a marketing investment than anything. Killers are last place, to one extent catering to another audience is always a good thing, on the other, killers are more likely to drive away other players or cause harassment issues. Killers are probably only given serious representation now because they simply make up one of the largest minorities in MMOs.

I think it is commonly held (by non-killers) that the ‘killers’ (ie. players whose primary way to have fun is by attacking other players) are a negative influence on the genre. They’re the griefers, the min-maxers, the trouble-makers, the forum whiners. They’re the ones who will drive other players away by corpse camping them for hours and then flooding forums with illegible leet smacktalk. They’re the kiddies, the guys who just don’t know how to play nice with others.

But all virtual worlds involve competition

When you get more than one person into a room, in real life as well as in a game, they will compete with each other. It may be subtle, it may be non-serious, but they will compete for any resource available.

The idea that a virtual social world utopia would be completely free of negative vibes is ridiculous. Social competition is some of the most bitter, vicious, cut-throat gaming that it is possible to have. And it’s largely based on trying to be popular. Being bitter about not getting enough attention from ‘the right people’. Networking. Trying to make yourself useful. Cybering for extra perks (it happens a lot).

You know what guild drama can be like? You know how people fret if they feel left out of a clique? Imagine an entire virtual world which is all about guild drama. I’m not saying that it can’t be fun – people are extremely fun. They will surprise and entertain you in ways that no mechanical NPC ever can. But we don’t have a good ruleset for social competition.

If the killers know one thing, it is how to compete

And this is where the killers come in. The way they compete is far simpler. You kill someone. Or you get killed. You exchange some smack talk. You go back to base and start again. At the end of the session, they leave the game on the table.

Compare that to the extended guild drama bitchfests which can leave people in tears or depressed for hours. Which is the most healthy form of competition, really?

For all that devs and other players complain about the killers in our games, I wonder if we need them there to teach us how to play the things.