Population vs Community

Population is the antithesis to community.

In other words, the bigger a community grows, the more it ceases to be a community at all.

com·mu·ni·ty [kuh-myoo-ni-tee]
noun, plural com·mu·ni·ties.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

A lot of words have been said regarding the degradation of the “MMO community” or a community specific to an MMO, typically in the context of developer mistakes decisions. While my argument technically supports those who claim that, for example, WoW devs killed the WoW community by pooling the population together via LFD and the like, the actual mechanism of community destruction was simply the existence of more warm bodies.

The more people you get together in one place…

  1. The lower the chances you have of seeing any individual again.
  2. The easier it is for good players to get lost in the crowd.
  3. The easier it is for extremely bad behavior to get noticed.
  4. The more incentive someone has to behave even worse (for attention, or other gain).

You may have heard about Gabriel’s Greater Internet Dickwad Theory. I suggest the “Anonymity” component is redundant with Crowd. In sufficient numbers, even one’s real name becomes irrelevant, assuming it isn’t duplicated to begin with, i.e. John Smith. Think back to the cliques that formed in high school. Chances are that the negative behavior of the members of the clique did not persist on the individual level when they were split up (beyond, perhaps, a catalyst). For myself, I distinctly remember the dichotomy between how much the football team could be assholes during lunch, but how well behaved (and friendly!) they were in Art class, including the ringleader (so to speak). Even if we assume that such a clique required X amount of sadism in order to remain a member, the fact that it was apparently modulated on the basis of number of witnesses is telling.

I bring all this up as a means of arguing against Milday’s mourning of the loss of “community activism,” for lack of a better term. To her, things were better when people behaved out of fear of Scarlet Letters and social ostracization, rather than behaving well simply for lack of griefing tools. It is impossible to steal a resource node or ninja a dungeon drop in Guild Wars 2, for example, and that is apparently a bad thing. Better that someone could behave badly and such behavior be punished, than a world with no wrong to be done.¹

And, hey, perhaps Milady is even right. Maybe that is better.

The problem is that social ostracization only works on a community level. Could a ninja get blacklisted in the “glory days” of vanilla and TBC? On smaller servers, sure. Or maybe even on larger servers in the “community” of people running dungeons at 3am. But then again… were they really blacklisted? Paid name changes were rolled out in October 2007; server transfers existed since mid-2006. Alts existed since Day 1. And, let us be serious here, social ostracization only works anyway when both A) the entire community acts as one unit, and B) the target even cares. Your “xxIllidanxx is a ninja” spam might have inconvenienced xxIllidanxx for the 30 minutes you posted in Trade Chat², but what about the rest of the time? Chances are that he still got a group eventually, either because someone was really that desperate or they simply did not know. Or perhaps enough of his ninja friends logged on today.

The flood of LFD strangers circa end of Wrath makes social ostracization in WoW dungeons moot, of course. But I would say it was moot to begin with, given the size of WoW as a whole and the underlying level of persistent churn. There will always be more people. Even if you stopped xxIllidanxx in his ninja-looting guild-hopping TBC tracks, such that he reformed or quit the game entirely… xxArthasxx is right behind him. And xxDethwingxx. And xxlegolasxx. And so forth and so on ad infinitum. Not necessarily because there are infinite jerks/morons in the world (there is), but because the underlying incentive to behave badly still exists.

In the land of law-abiding citizens, the one criminal is king, to bastardize a phrase.

Should we simply throw up our hands and endure bad behavior? Of course not. But with games of sufficient size, the only solution that works is a systemic one. Guild hopping a problem? GW2 lets you join multiple guilds. Ninja looting and/or Need Whoring getting you down? Individual loot has rolled out in Diablo 3, GW2, and is coming to a LFR near you. Even Copper Ore nodes cannot be stolen in GW2, only shared.

The only downside to systemic solutions is what Milady refers to as the Automatization of the Social. In other words, if you provide in-game incentives to positive social actions – such as getting XP for helping resurrect dead players – one can no longer tell whether the action was performed for altruistic reasons, or selfish ones. I might suggest there is no difference between the two (altruism typically feels good), but I also recognize the potential pitfalls – I hardly ever thanked a stranger for rezzing me in GW2, whereas it would have been a bigger deal in WoW.

The key though, is simply recognizing all the new opportunities be sociable. Ever do Diablo 3 co-op and then stop and ask if your wizard partner needed the rare staff you picked up? Would Need vs Greed been better there? I say that voluntarily giving up a “secret” item is more social than simply not hitting Need. I have mentioned GW2′s resource node sharing several times now. In WoW, maybe there was social interaction is letting the other Miner grab the ore when you both show up. Or maybe you ganked them/stole it while they were in combat. In GW2, since you both can take the same node, you have an incentive to work together to kill the spider guarding it. That’s more social than what came before, IMO, because even if you gave the stranger the node in WoW, it allowed you to get to the next node faster, or the knowledge to move to a less-farmed area to maximize your own gains.

In Conclusion…

Any non-static community will “degrade” over time as the benefits of bad behavior naturally escalates with each additional member. The only real solution is changing the fundamental interaction between members, such that the more odious bad behavior becomes more than disincentivized, but impossible. With each additional participant in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the more likely the worst possible outcome comes to pass. Ergo, it is best to never present the Prisoner’s Dilemma at all, if you can help it.

Out of all of the social engineering experiments we have seen in the MMO space, the results of individual looting/resource nodes is the one I am looking forward to seeing the most. It is a fundamental shift away from zero-sum – I win the item, you don’t – to win-win. At least in theory. Maybe it will turn us all into asocial solipsists playing our single-player MMOs.

In which case… well, I still consider that a win-win compared to the current paradigm.

¹ Which should make one question one’s assumptions about the desirability of Heaven, eh?
² Ironically, xxIllidanxx would have a good case against you for in-game harassment.

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Posted on July 30, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. “The key though, is simply recognizing all the new opportunities be sociable”

    Thank you. I have long, long moved away from the anti-incentivized social behavior argument; to me it’s a fallacy – it’s based on the assumption that society can be this utopic ideal community that does anything at all out of pure selflessness and altruism. nonsense.
    you can have hardly any social behavior or actively incentivize social behavior in MMOs, QED. obviously if it’s more frequent, it becomes blurry and yes, less special – you can’t have it all. I still prefer this second option by a lightyear. it creates new opportunities to be social and that’s what counts. being social isn’t simply lost or abandoned, it’s shifting.

    on a more general note, I agree that server population and “community” (I don’t like this word for several reasons but anyway) are somewhat diametrically opposed, or rather start undermining one other after a certain server size is reached; I’ve written about difficulty/progression and the loss of social control in MMOs in this context. super-servers or cross-server isn’t something I personally see as beneficial towards “quality” interaction and social tools.

    • Tangentially, this topic always reminds me of Billy Connolly’s hilarious standup comedy, where he asks “What would you rather have someone say, have a nice day and not mean it? Or fuck off and mean it?” when confronted with people calling Americans (shop employees) hypocrites for their active friendliness. speaking of personal experience and living in a place where everyone is incredibly reserved and hard to talk to, I find the latter extremely agreeable; not because it’s the deepest or most sincere feeling, but it’s that: first contact. everything else may or may not follow, but it’s a first step towards each other and acknowledging one’s bloody presence. ;)

      Too bad I can’t find that particular sketch on youtube!

      • Faking it works.

        At my current job, I had somewhat of a management scare a few years ago wherein I wasn’t “fitting in” and seemed too arrogant and indifferent (wherever they came up with that impression, I have no idea). So I faked it; pretended to care about my coworkers’ days when I really didn’t. Go through the motions long enough though, and you start doing it automatically. And then you start doing it voluntarily. And then suddenly those coworkers start telling you genuinely interesting things about themselves, and you want further into their lives.

        You know, I bet LFD would end up being a lot more chatty overall if everyone was forced to type something in party chat when they first zoned in. Sometimes, even when I felt the need to say something, I didn’t… because it feels awkward breaking the initial silence. I hate intentional “ice breakers” at parties and meetings, but they do work.

      • by the by, I really recommend this article: http://www.whatgamesare.com/2012/07/zyngapocalypse-now-and-what-comes-next.html

        a very interesting read on social gaming in general, also in reference to what motivates players to cooperate.

  2. Thank you for the post, I found myself nodding when reading it :-) I hope you don’t mind I linked back to you in my comment on Mylady’s post.

    I was also reminded that this is not the first time something like this happened. In fact, AFAIK vanilla WoW came without ability to killsteal and it was also quite hard to train mobs on other people. Was it worse because of this?

  3. I think you bring up several great points in this and I agree with the idea that the larger the community, the smaller the “community”. It’s unstoppable in game the size of WoW. HOWEVER …as you later explained, conscious game design can easily make so much of the anti-social behavior a non-factor AND, as Milday was saying, create an environment which encourages cooperation. Incentives of a material nature really aren’t necessary if players are GLAD to play with one another, GLAD to share spoils. And this isn’t utopianism. Systems can be designed with encourage good behavior and in which it’s near impossible to behave badly.

    I just don’t think there are any game designers out there who has a clue how to do it. Nor would something like this be considered profitable (even though cooperation is far more lucrative than competition, because players would buy TOGETHER and not individually).

    Great analysis here.

  4. Sounds like GW2 might have learnt a thing or two from square enix about the benefits of social ties as multiple guilds is a ffxi thing. This ends up with people having a social guild and varies event guilds. Which naturally increases the number of people one comes into regular contact with. Community is relatively worthless if community doesn’t have things to do together though and ideally scalable activities. Especially where social guilds are concerned. Social and raid is an inherent antithesis as if the right number of people don’t turn up you’re screwed. Perhaps that’s one of issues in wow….that social and endgame are very different paradigms. FFXI has cleverly separated people requirements from endgame content. More people means you can get more done and more items in a given time frame. Less people means it will take longer to accomplish the same. In the this way the same content caters for different amounts and types of groups of people.

    The interesting thing about altruistic behavior is that even if people do things for selfish reasons they can’t escape the psychological benefit of helping someone out.

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