Individualism vs. Collectivism. Or: Glorified MMO misconceptions

http://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/23-Feb-2010/56079-230_Girl_on_a_Swing.jpgIf there is one quality in particular that I believe to be imperative for social relationships and bonds, that is the aspect of free will. Free will may be all that separates partnership from a prison, friendship from tyranny and loving care from obligation. In this life, I choose who I want to be with and for how long, and I don’t want any of my more meaningful relationships to ever be about necessity. “Yes, I do like you, maybe I even love you – but I don’t need you. My life won’t unravel if you leave and I won’t die without you.” I’d like to think that the best relationships I’ve ever established are grounded like this and I look at them as something that makes my life better – makes it a little more than it already is. And that more is very much worth having.

Of course none of that sounds particularly romantic; as kids we believe in grand gestures of undying love, we dream of losing ourselves in someone else entirely, we need and long to be needed or “completed”. Then we grow up and come to realize, one way or another, that need is no healthy base for relationships and that giving up oneself means to truly be deserted. “I need you” sounds romantic – but that is all it usually is. Way down that fickle road of need wait co-dependence, disrespect, manipulation and maybe even abuse. I want the important relationships in my life to be about free will, not need and not necessity. That is one luxury I am grateful for.

The same conclusions can be applied to online relationships: a while ago I wrote an article on the invisibility feature in MMOs and why it’s not only wrong but detrimental to community building, to prevent players from going invisible when they choose. Quality interaction and cooperation in MMOs are no different from the real world in that they need to be based on free will. Not on pressure, dictation or necessity. The line between where enforced cooperation ends and genuine friendships blossom, can be a very fine and blurry one – as the great majority of all MMO players have come to experience at some point in their gaming careers. Likewise however, most of us have learned just how quick and absolute long established bonds and even vows of brotherhood and friendship will be forgotten, when guilds end or players leave the game until further notice. And so we ask ourselves how much of it was genuinely committed, friendly motivated interaction and how much was simply a glorified common venture, serving the mutual and temporary purpose of individuals?

Yet, should we even make such distinctions for MMO relationships? …Human interaction in general?

Collectivism vs. Individualism

The simplest definition of collectivism and individualism is that they’re socially, culturally, historically and what not else-ly influenced values, at opposing ends of the spectrum of human collaboration and cooperation. Personally, I disagree with that in so far that both collectivism and individualism actually have an essential thing common: in isolation they’re both equally bad.

Pure, ideological collectivism comes at the cost of identity; things like personal fulfillment, expression or even free choice are second to the “greater good”. Historical and everyday attempts at collectivism keep failing because in the end the rule of a few privileged people over the rest of the herd seems unavoidable. As long as our species is driven by greed, personal gain and power lust, anyway. So, for simplicities sake let’s say collectivism has its noble ends in theory, but fails horribly at performance.

Extreme individualism is where things are going in our wealthy, western world; every man for himself, grab as much as you can. There is much room for greed and destructive exploitation, again of the few privileged – only this time it’s sanctified under a credo of freedom and pursuit of one’s own happiness. Meanwhile, the big, sparkly cities of man have become conglomerates of small islands, people living anonymously side by side, often feeling quite alone.
Individualism is very much a sign of material wealth though – it is a luxury. Human beings tend to stick together and pursue common goals when they’re all equally fucked. You know, when disaster strikes, sharing and compromise suddenly sound like a good idea!

…Where am I going with this? We need to be critical of social labels and so-called values, on all ends of the spectrum. The ideal society is probably one that can balance both polarities and in MMOs too, a balance must be struck between how social interaction and cooperation are “engineered”. Well, past games have only shown us a glimpse of the beginning!

WoW & Before: When necessity breeds cooperation

The glorified days of WoW, and yes I have done it myself, are the days when players could not advance particularly well without grouping up with others – be it strangers or friends. That’s when encounters were hard (unbalanced, restrictive) and soloing was only one, much smaller part of the game than today. It’s also where MMO veterans usually draw their fondest memories from: when quests and encounters were so damn hard that you and your buddies relied on each other’s every move, when punishment was quick on the ball and victory was so much the greater for it. Oh yes, I remember that too….and romanticism has its part therein.

Back in vanilla WoW, we didn’t just group up because of some notion of social altruism, curiosity or friendliness; at first, we grouped up because we needed each other in rather existential ways. We grouped up in order to survive or to progress faster, to access better loot or more content. There’s a common purpose of many individuals come together and each of them wants something – and that isn’t even a bad thing. What it certainly is not though, is some chapter in a romantic novel on social bonding and making friends for life. In fact, the classic MMO standard is the most incentivized realization of cooperation I can think of:

    • Group up or be punished in any conceivable way
    • Group up because target XY will only become available by doing so
    • Group up with players X and Y because of their role / class
    • Group up or…..be damned

Lots of “…or ELSE!” going on there! Grouping up is completely engineered by game design, by things like overall content difficulty, pacing or setup requirements. Does that mean I didn’t make friends on the way? I did, but I don’t think that was the game’s achievement. Lasting relationships are optional; they’re what players create and follow at a later stage. Grouping requirements in MMOs do not automatically exceed the purpose of simply killing stuff together. First and foremost grouping up is a self-serving, necessary act. The way most guilds and guild mates go (QED), cooperation is in fact not an awful lot more than that and maybe that’s just something to accept.

What all the oldschool MMOs (an no, I don’t count in WoW these days, but there is still the strict group setup) did in terms of cooperation, is pragmatic, social engineering at its best. Add to this, that within groups and potentially between groups, there would always be a certain degree of competition: for role spots, for spawns, for loot. Generally lots of “against each other” going on, rather than “together”.

In many ways enforced grouping like that shares aspects of social collectivism: people cooperate because they’re forced to – because they’re all equally bad off on their own. That’s no glorious and ideal state of social interaction though; it’s primal and primitive – and maybe that’s why many players take so naturally to this classic model at first. Food for thought?

GW2: Just the next evolutionary step

Much has been said about GW2’s grouping mechanics lately and if you’ve read my take, you know what I think about both the public events and cooperation in general. I also stated frequently that I find social criticism on features like FFA ressing in GW2 quite ridiculous; whether ressing comes with an EXP reward or not is a tiny, trivial thing compared to the way MMOs traditionally base their entire gameplay on incentivized cooperation.

So, what does GW2 do differently? I don’t claim it’s the big revolution, but it’s a step in the right direction – away from basic need to more balanced and well-rounded concepts of cooperation maybe. Of course you need to address the issue of engineered cooperation as an MMO developer; either that, or you better create very restricted content and unforgiving requirements (ye, those are popular). If you don’t, if you grant players a certain degree of self-sufficiency, freedom and independence, you gotta think of ways to motivate them not to solo all the time.

From my personal point of view and based on my beta experiences, I consider GW2’s grouping mechanics more open, free and more positively incentivized; instead of threatening players with what they’ll have less of, the game suggests that there is nothing to lose and often a little extra to gain from joining an ongoing group, helping another player or sharing an event (aka bonus vs. malus system). There is no loot or role competition and without formulaic grouping procedures, interaction happens more naturally and spontaneously. Rather than thinking of your small circle as questing partners, the entire server is your questing partner!

That is very much also the philosophy ANet have revealed for their multi-guild system. I personally don’t shed a tear over seeing classic appointment gaming go. I like the idea of cooperating effortlessly and without the pressure of agendas. These days, I group up for the purpose of meeting friends and then doing something together, rather than having a target-focused night of grind ahead (or failing to even have that because of teh holy trinity). “Monday is Onyxia, Thursday is Black Wing Lair” – it’s okay when playing together is all about encounters, progression and loot. Raid guilds especially are born out of the necessity to achieve all that; they’re not first and foremost about a wish to be social, although that can be added. That’s fine if it suits your playstyle.

It is just a little ironic when GW2 gets criticized for its more open, flexible approach when socially speaking, it’s years ahead of the classic MMO formula of necessity-born cooperation and glorified, artificial communities with a lifespan relative to endgame content.

Individual Collectivism

I don’t know about you, but I feel that grouping up despite being self-sufficient is a better, more transparent way of doing things. It is certainly a dang lot more enjoyable to me these days, to play without the tiring bonds of obligation in order to progress. I enjoy the random and voluntary encounters in GW2 and that my choice to interact or not is about a potential for ‘more’, rather than the ever-threatening ‘less’. Maybe we could speak of a collective individualism for GW2; a balance between being your own person but also joining up (loosely) for the sake of increased enjoyment and reaching some loftier goals. What’s wrong with giving players a real choice? And why should this choice not also come with some bonuses and rewards, like for everything else in MMOs?

There’s no doubt in my mind about the improved quality of relationships formed this way, either. No, I do not want to need you, sorry! I’d like to think that as human beings we can reach a higher state of mind than this: that cooperation DOES still happen without existential commitment or the promise of punishment. I don’t expect my online relationships to mirror the real world, but then again – why should we be stuck at this stage? I still have a little more confidence in online communities than that. Shockingly!

P.S. This post is a contribution to Stubborn’s ongoing examination of a greater topic.

28 comments

  1. I wasn’t going to say anything about GW2 this week but arrrrrgh, now I have to! You know I respect you, Syl, but man I could not disagree more about GW2’s approach to “grouping”. I better go write that post…

    1. Now, I had not expected YOU to disagree! *grin* :P
      one of these days we need to meet up in Rift, just so we can say we’ve played something we’re both enjoying, haha! and you know I look forward to read that post ;)

  2. Kind of depends if you see MMOs as attempts to represent a rounded virtual world or as games. If the former, then you’re spot on.

    If the latter, however, then it becomes a lot more about playing to a set of rules and having fun or enjoying the company of who you play with becomes very much secondary to winning.

    MMOs include large factions representing both those polarities and their needs frequently conflict. Whether it’s either advisable or feasible to try to serve both communities in the same MMO I remain to be convinced. I don’t think it’s impossible but my experience suggests that over time one or other gains precedence.

    (And of course those are by no means the only two disparate sets of needs vying for attention in most MMOs).

    1. Oh, I agree; you can absolutely play MMOs for that second purpose, but then I really think you should refrain from calling it the more erm, social way of playing. ;) it baffles me when GW2 gets called out for incentivizing cooperation. lol? first of all they all do it to some extent and I don’t even think that’s a bad or ‘lesser’ way of social interaction (imo all social interaction is also about personal gain, anyway). but GW2 clearly has a bonus system where older MMOs had a malus system. everyone gets something and getting together is all about creating increased value. before it was basically create a party or be damned. not that that doesn’t have its moments :D

      and yeah…appealing to everyone never works. am fine with that as long as I’m among the winners! :P no really, luckily we have more than one MMO to choose from.

    2. By the way, your –

      “I think the new “all in it together” mode of co-operative play is already becoming the norm and it puzzles me now why the other version was ever invented in the first place.”

      -comment at KTR was also very much echoing in my mind while writing some parts of this article!

  3. I quite like GW2’s approach, which doesn’t so much incentivise grouping as just remove the classic disincentives to grouping.

    As you pointed out, in pre-WoW games you HAD to group, and soloing was positively discouraged (very low xp rate compared to grouping, few classes were self-sufficient, lots of downtime for non-healers and killing anything as a healer took forever). You had to play DAoC or EQ collectively or you were Doing It Wrong.

    WoW made soloing viable but the price of that was that for the levelling game, it actually discouraged grouping – the faster killing time didn’t compensate for the hassles of putting together a group and syncing up quest logs. You could group up with friends to be sociable if you really wanted to, but there was very little reason to group up with strangers unless you ran dungeons (which below the level cap were completely optional).

    GW2 is taking forward the trend started in WAR and Rift with public quests and public groups – they make it painless to ccooperate with other palyers. There’s no need to share quests and make sure you’re on the same stage, if you’re in the area when a dynamic event occurs you ipso facto have a ‘quest’ to deal with it.Everyone in the same area doing the same thing is effectively in a group for that purpose. It’s a looser assocaition than old-style grouping, but it doesn’t feel forced and it doesn’t feel that you’re penalised for other people being in the world with you.

    I also think the xp for reviving other players is an interesting example of trying to ‘nudge’ player behaviour (something that’s a hot topic in UK politics these days). The xp isn’t THAT good – nobody’s going to write a levelling guide on how to hit level 80 by being a rezzing maniac – but it reinforces cooperative behaviour by giving a reward for being helpful to other players rather than just relying on blind altruism.

    1. First off great post….. as usual. you should apply for a paid gig at massively (hopefully replacing beau handyman)

      I also agree pretty much with everything tre says.

      P.s I had typed up a big reply but your reply as button doesn’t always seem to agree with my android phone :(

    2. @Telwyn

      Exactly. I like how you refer to “positively discouraged”, hehe…alternatively I call this “negatively motivated”. it’s a tremendous difference between oldschool MMOs and the current trend; am not saying oldschool didn’t work (heck, I endorsed it for long enough myself!), but it has clear downsides that can be improved on. it’s an ongoing project and to me personally it’s very interesting to see what happens from here. maybe things will fail horribly, that is entirely possible. but I doubt very much the last word has been spoken when it comes to online game communities and the way they interact and cooperate.

      @pitrelli
      Ah, thank you for your high praise! :) always glad if people enjoy my write-ups.
      not sure I would want to make this a regular gig though – you know, agendas and pressure and shit, kills creativity and spontaneity (is that even a noun?)!! ;)

    3. Old school was great when it worked, but when my rose-tinted glasses slip I remember the evenings where I logged on, spent an hour trying to get into a viable group with no success, and then logged off and watched a DVD instead. A game which you can’t always play when you have the time free to do so isn’t the best model to follow, which may explain why solo-friendly is here to stay.

      BTW – uhh… Telwyn? Am I having an identity crisis here? :P

    4. !!!
      that’s what I get for reading so many different blogs why also commenting on my own! =O very sorry indeed lol! ^^

      “but when my rose-tinted glasses slip”

      QFT! =)

  4. Amen!

    I couldn’t agree more with all your points and this is was the first reason I got interested in Guild Wars 2 to begin with. After years playing tanks in one form or another in MMORPGs I am really tired of being forced into just one role and being frustrated when I am not playing a tank that our group can’t find or has to spend a lot of time trying to find one.

    As you I don’t think Guild Wars 2 is doing anything revolutionary group-wise or that it will change everything in MMORPGs going forward but it suits my current tastes and will be more than enough to keep me happy for years to come. :)

    1. It certainly isn’t a revolution; but yes, it’s quite a difference already when there’s no strict setup and grouping up “feels” more natural than engineered. I think it’s a good thing that people are replaceable when it comes to their ROLE; it means the focus shifts to other things, such as performance and the actual players, rather than setup first.

  5. As much as I like to jump in and just do something, I do miss the sense of purpose, of knowing that I am logging in today to do something with a certain group. it wasn’t always convenient, but that’s why it as so great to finally get it.

    1. I get that; but then I wonder how this is much different to making a virtue out of suffering. I think in oldschool MMOs we had an awful lot of that and I’m just fed up with it. I don’t want finding and setting up a friggin’ group to be the challenge – I want the actual game and encounters to be the challenge. and if a player disconnects, needs to leave or is simply an assclown, then at least that issue is easily fixed.

    2. Surely we can differentiate between “virtue of suffering” and delayed reward being greater.

      Beside that, “setting up the group” can still be a challenge, regardless of the model. If the game is a challenge that means that players are challenged, so you need some level of skill from your group. That means that a bad player is equivalent to a missing player: you need a replacement, and so you’re right back to “setting up the group” as challenge.

    3. True. much more replacements to choose from though in GW2, so less of a headache. try and find ‘the good guys’ from 100% rather than 33%. and maybe there’s also the aspect of simply switching tasks more easily if somebody can’t cope with something specific (assuming a theoretical encounter with special tasks and responsibilities). means you don’t dump someone as fast maybe? ofc I am speculating here but that’s what they promised in theory.

      Delayed reward is greater, yes…surely it can be delayed by other means though? like overall difficult tactics or requirements etc. of course you want a challenge, else reward means nothing. I don’t see how that is directly connected to the main topic here though – challenge is achieved in many ways?

  6. Sometimes I think you must have played a different game than I have, hee. I personally am no great fan of GW2’s grouping. I mean, theoretically I find it fantastic. In practice I found it led to a very anonymous style of gaming where people silently played with each other, without forming any sort of social bond. My golden memories of WoW are only so golden because friendships and connections were made when grouping with strangers. In GW2, the most I got out of another player was a ‘thx’ before they moved on.

    For me personally, it always felt that those other players out there might as well be NPCs.

    1. Haha, you know that’s how I feel frequently reading different views. like we’re using the same points of critique but for the exact opposite stuff lol. in a way it’s funny. :)

      I agree the component you mention is in GW2 too; it’s not like each and every person you meet or join during events will be somebody to talk to or remember. from that PoV all MMOs are the same, I’d say. it will be up to individuals how far cooperation and social exchange will go in the end….I just feel it’s a lot easier to make the first step, when it basically happens naturally all the time and isn’t restricted by more external factors (role, level, loot etc.).

      I earlier compared this to my situation when I traveled to the USA some years ago; if you’re Swiss, you’re used to people keeping a distance and strangers being reserved – in a shop, bus, train etc. you generally sit alone and you don’t just talk to people (THERE BE DRAGONS!).
      I was bewildered at first how the USA was different in that respect; people would talk to me all the time in shops or during queuing somewhere. is it very meaningful and sincere exchange at first? of course not. but it’s a very natural and much easier way to establish a first contact at least. to me it felt right, even if that doesn’t mean you are already friends. it just seemed more open and ‘human’ and I felt more connected to a greater group and collective, than being solo/alone all the time.

      This is the best comparison I can come up with.

  7. Couldn’t agree more with your post. I’m always mildly alarmed when someone says they like being beaten with a stick in order to ‘encourage’ them to cooperate. (Or for other people to be beaten so that they will cooperate.) Wut?

    Isn’t there more joy in coming together purposefully just to be social and enjoy each other’s company? The intrinsic factor, not just the extrinsic “they help me get the reward at the end.”

    I tend to be very much a loner in many MMOs, but in positively incentivized, low failure penalty situations, I find myself happy to group up with others. I hardly ever turn down a pickup group in City of Heroes, for example. I could do it solo, but the fun multiplies with more.

    1. Thanks! it’s an interesting point that especially if you’re more of a solo person, oldschool grouping mechanics are the bigger turnoff. in reference to –

      “Isn’t there more joy in coming together purposefully just to be social and enjoy each other’s company? The intrinsic factor, not just the extrinsic “they help me get the reward at the end.”

      …the thing is, I personally don’t even look for a “higher quality” or altruism or something in social cooperation. I think human interaction is always also selfish – with varying degrees on the ‘also’. that is not a bad thing. but I keep hearing how GW2 is supposed to be especially bad in that respect (“incentivizes group play so much there is no true social behavior anymore!” …yeah right) and that simply is rubbish lol.

      so, my article is very much a counter to such criticism, while I personally couldn’t care less if GW2 incentivizes cooperation – AS LONG as it does it in a different way than before. all MMOs must do this, but how is the point.

    2. @Jeromai

      by the way in case you still read this – I left a comment on your latest post today, but unfortunately it went straight to your spamfolder (wp does that a lot noawadays). :)

  8. Okay, all this collectivism vs. individualism finally drew this out of me:

    You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
    You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
    I will choose a path that’s clear-
    I will choose Free Will.

    So it’s about Existentialism. Big deal.

    (You didn’t think I’d transcribe the entire mass of lyrics to 2112, did you?)

    1. LOL! x)
      Existentialism, eh…..this topic is getting more complex by the minute!

      but indeed, NON SERVIAM. one day I’ll make a tattoo out of that.

  9. My MMO experiences in a nutshell:

    GW2: stumble accidentally into the middle of a frankly gigantic battle, get promptly mauled, prepare to resurrect at the nearest available respawning point. And then… pause. Because someone in chat has declared “SAVE SCI”, which becomes an impromptu rallying cry as twenty random strangers push forward into the swirling vortex of death I wandered into, hold the line long enough to resurrect me, and escort me back to a safe distance.

    Stick around to help finish the battle that I otherwise had no stake in, because I now care about seeing these people win.

    All other MMOs ever: tentatively attempt to make a friend, find self rebuffed, solo until I run out of solo material, quit game entirely.

  10. I’d sum it up simply: That which we are forced to do, we do grudgingly, and good memories stand out for their rarity. That which we choose to do, we do gladly, and bad memories stand out for their rarity.

    There’s certainly something to be said for character forged in the fires of annoyance and irritation, but it’s also my experience that “friends” that are only friends by coercive circumstance very rarely last beyond the coercion and motives are always suspect, but those who were my friends first will usually persist through circumstances *because* their motives aren’t circumstantial.

    1. Ah, insightful and brilliantly summed up as usual! :)
      every word you say I agree with fully. in fact I think I gotta steal that first part of your comment for my next post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available