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.

If you only read one thing today …

Read this interview with Jenova Chen (designer of Journey). Included in the interview is quite a convincing explanation of why people become griefers and what designers could do to minimise it in games, IF they wanted to.


“I am a competitor,” he says. “I play and love competitive games. You know, I was champion at a fighting game in high school. I was a StarCraft champion in college. I still play DOTA. I love to win. I love to win. When it comes to making games it’s not like I love peaceful games. I make this kind of game because I want to win as well. To me the measure of a human’s greatness is the value they can contribute to society. The game industry doesn’t need another shooter; it needs something to inspire them.”


There’s this assumption in video games that if you run into a random player over the Internet, it’s going to be a bad experience. You think that they will be an asshole, right? But listen: none of us was born to be an asshole. I believe that very often it’s not really the player that’s an asshole. It’s the game designer that made them an asshole. If you spend every day killing one another how are you going to be a nice guy? All console games are about killing each other, or killing one another together… Our games make us assholes.


The thing is, everyone is seeking for maximum feedback. If you push someone in the pit then the feedback is huge: the other guy dies, there’s animation, sound, social tension and the opportunity to revive her. These things combine together make pushing another player into a pit much more satisfying than just pushing somebody into the wind.”

“I see,” I say.[…] “So what happened when you removed collision detection?”

“Players started looking for other ways to get more feedback. Helping each other yielded the most feedback so they began to do that instead. It was fascinating.”

Griefing people … for SCIENCE!!

A story that has been doing the rounds and caught my eye today was that of a  Professor of Mass Communications who deliberately riled up the CoH community and then wrote a paper (link is to a word doc) about it.

The way the story is being reported is that he went to a PvP zone on his superhero character and attacked supervillain characters. Players in CoH aren’t big on PvP and tended to use the zone for farming or private duels and he disrupted that, so they (over)reacted very harshly. Lots of smack talk, death threats, and so on.

And I thought, “Oh the horror, forcing people to PvP in a PvP zone! Whatever next?”

I was put right by my husband and friends who also play the game. Lum goes into this in more detail too. It wasn’t just that he was forcing people to PvP, he was actually teleporting them straight to NPCs who would kill them instantly, thus incurring extra xp debt/repairs that wouldn’t have happened in a straight player vs player fight. This would be known as griefing in most PvP-type games that I have played, although sometimes training people onto NPC guards is a smart tactic. Just … not generally when there is no skill involved and no chance for the victim to either fight or escape.

My friends weren’t just pissed off or amused though. (If you want to avoid gankers in that game, then just don’t go to the PvP zone, right?) They were utterly outraged.

Looks like valid research and a valid paper to me

Here’s my conclusions:

  • I think there’s enough material there on how players behave (cue huge overreaction) when their agreed norms are breached to make a decent study.
  • I think it’s interesting that the devs allowed such an unbalanced power into the game and didn’t fix it, even when lots of other players had complained. If anyone was ever considering PvPing in CoH (and I’m honestly not sure why they would), then I’d stop that thought right now.
  • I think that the fact that players didn’t trust the devs to stop the griefing affected how they responded. In a game where devs were quicker to hotfix PvP imbalances, they’d probably have just reported him and moved on. As it was, they felt powerless to stop him.
  • I’m surprised that Twixt had evidently played the game for awhile – because he says so in his paper – but didn’t explain why his particular form of PvP/  griefing was so outside the normal rules of behaviour. He seems to think it was just because he was making people PvP in a PvP zone.
  • He’s not very clear in general about what the game rules actually are, or how the game rules can be fuzzy or change over time in a MMO. eg. an ability that is legit in one patch can be fixed in the next. His goal wasn’t to change the rules though (which is what is likely to happen when you find an exploit), it was to break the social rules whilst still keeping the game rules.
  • I’d love to see him try it in a more PvP oriented game. Or one where the devs have more resources to fix stuff, or are just generally more on the ball.
  • The majority of CoH players clearly did not want to PvP. However devs had been trying to introduce it as an element to the game, it didn’t work.
  • Why on earth did the supervillain players not band up and stop him? They were PvP flagged. Was there an imbalance on his server that meant they were always outnumbered? Or some other reason they couldn’t take the law into their own hands? I’m curious as to whether anyone tried to stop him in game or whether they just left it as smack talk on channels and forums.
  • Shame he didn’t actually do this on a supervillain; being a known griefer would have been a great way to build up some immersion and player notoriety. And it would have been an intriguing way to grief people, bend the local rules, but still in a sense be playing in the spirit of the game. (I know that wasn’t his goal but it’s interesting to me that you could do it and argue that point.)