Population is the antithesis to community.
In other words, the bigger a community grows, the more it ceases to be a community at all.
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…
- The lower the chances you have of seeing any individual again.
- The easier it is for good players to get lost in the crowd.
- The easier it is for extremely bad behavior to get noticed.
- 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.
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.