Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Love thy neighbor

As I traverse game worlds, it has occurred to me that we "reside" in virtualities that are completely devoid of altruistic devices. There are rarely any systems in place that reward doing something for someone else. For instance, take your standard MMO. The advancement path is strictly a route of selfishness. The more you accumulate for yourself, the more you get out of the world. You have no systematic reason to help someone else out.

Wait a second you say, what about...

  • Grouping? Sure, grouping may seem like a way you help others but gameplay mechanics force all of us to eventually group for advancement. You have no choice if you want to advance. Granted, some people group just to help others but there is no reward for that (not the type that I'm talking about at least).
  • Doing X for someone? Again, this is something you can do but the systems in place aren't supportive of this. You can give someone gold/directions/items but the gameplay doesn't recognize that gesture.
  • Guilds? Ok, here's where it can get tricky depending on the MMO in question. Some games do give you benefits for being in a guild such as ranks or unique content (guild items). However, in most games, guilds merely serve as a glorified friends list. Is it really a system that focuses on encouraging you to help others? Not really, it's more like duct tape that keeps like-minded individuals together.
The fact is, games and more specifically, current online gameplay has never left the living room floor. We are still playing by stand alone game rules only now we're doing it across a network. Does it have to be this way?

I don't think so. I think we get boatloads of enjoyment out of helping others. For some strange reason, this hasn't been incorporated into gameplay design. Well, actually, let me take that back... Ironically enough, most in-game quests require us to help an NPC. Our fellow humans, however, have to take care of themselves.

Now here's where I caveat that I'm not a game designer. Perhaps there's some fundamental flaw in my thinking that prevents us from moving away from this type of gameplay. Maybe human nature rallies against this type of gameplay. I'm not trained enough to know these things. However, I'm not suggesting that a game be designed completely on a gift economy system or some pay it forward philosophy. I'm merely saying that online games should open up to the possibility of including content that rewards us for helping others.

What if you could advance via two routes, one selfish and one generous. Healer classes are probably the only example of a system that closely resembles the latter. But what if you're rewarded for crafting and giving things to others. Sure you can grind all day long and advance but if others actually use what you make, then you move along faster. Some wouldn't do it just to help others but for those that do like giving away things, it gives them a nice reward as well.

Yes, I know by now you're thinking, giving is a reward in and of itself. I agree. But in virtual worlds we have an opportunity to institutionalize helping each other out. Wouldn't adding a couple of these elements make the experience all the nicer?


Anonymous said...

I think the intangible rewards are enough. If I do something to help you, there is some level of likelihood that you'll remember that I helped you. It may directly benefit me down the road, perhaps in the form of a guild invite or an offer of help, or the benefits may be less direct, in more of a pay it forward vein. Either way, I believe the benefits of in-game altruism are currently more advantageous than formalizing it as a game mechanic could ever hope to be.

In fact, you might even say that altruism *is* part of the game design. For example, EQ2 doesn't allow drive-by buffs for the most part. (this might have changed, it's been awhile) Therefore, unless you are in my group I can't buff or rez you. The designers did it to alleviate players from being burdened with "can u rez plz" requests from clear across the zone. But I think it was a terrible design decision, because it took away the choice from the players. Yes it sucked to get those kinds of tells and then having to make the hard decision (I always have to play healers dontchaknow) but these are the same ideas we wrestle with in real life when we see the panhandler at the intersection. But other games do allow drive-by buffs and rezes, and so altruism in this case really is part of the design. The benefits are, as you point out, more nebulous, but don't we already have enough numbers and status bars to keep track of? :)

Ken said...

I agree that the intangibles are and should be enough. However, that doesn't prevent us from enjoying some systematic benefit (tax breaks for donations come to mind).

What I'm ultimately trying to get at is that we have designed and enjoyed games with a singular purpose in mind: advance ourselves. Is this really the only way to think about gameplay? I think our gamer uber-brain has been inoculated with this sort of thinking and it's become calcified in game design. With games becoming more social, the design itself should mimic our breadth of motivations for doing things.