Thursday, April 14, 2011

The limits of positive social interaction

In my previous post I doubted the ability of players to remember all the jerks they meet in pickup groups, based on the research of Robin Dunbar saying that you can't have more than 150 ongoing social relationships, due to the size of the neocortex part of the human brain. But that means that not only can you not hate over 150 people, but you also can't remember more than 150 friends. Take that, Facebook!

That struck me when I read Gordon's description of a questing group in Rift: "We didn’t need to speak. Speaking was for fools and QQ kids and players of MMOs from the first decade of the 21st century. We had surpassed speaking like the homosapien had surpassed the neanderthal. We were a new breed of gamer, distant yet close, apart yet together. It’s 2011 and this was grouping."

Now it is easy to blame the convenience of open groups and automatic LFG systems for giving us groups where players don't feel the need to speak to each other any more. But that is again the players blaming the developers for something which is mainly the players' own fault: Just remember how groups used to form in trade chat! Did you see "Looking for a nice group of chatty people!" or did you see "Looking for a group of minimum gearscore 6k!"? The players simply aren't interested in their fellow players as human beings any more. They just need the other players for their performance, so they are looking for somebody with the right class, spec, and gear; not somebody nice.

Heartwarming parables on the value of underperforming people are nice to read, but find less and less application in MMORPGs. Players in groups call each other "tank" or "mage" instead of using character names. Guilds ask for performance first, personality after. And in the part of our play sessions we actually consider as "playing", as opposed to "downtime", we don't really have time to chat anyway, because we need to focus on that last millisecond of performance improvement.

I once claimed that you couldn't do a MMORPG on a console, because it would be too hard to chat without a keyboard. I'm not so sure that actually matters any more these days. I can be stone silent with a gamepad as good as with a keyboard.

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