Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Social design and lack of it

I've been writing and discussing about the lack of social tools in WoW, though I could as well talk about them lacking in MMOs in general. It just happens to be so that the MMOs we play teach to do things in their way, and the teaching aspect can be very, very subtle.

We joke about "kill ten rats" quests, mention the few somewhat controversial quests on the repertoire (namely Kirin Tor torture quest in Northrend and the Aviana kill or release quest come to my mind right away) and may have noticed how the game teaches you to care only about yourself and steal, kill, murder and main in the name of fulfilling you quest. How WoW teaches you that it's ok to steal the half-empty glasses in Dalaran Inn to present them to a paying customer for a daily, for example.

All of this is in the category of social design. Not only the lack of control and consequences of the LFD PUGs, nor the inability to add cross faction players to friend lists (except RealID, I think), nor the inadequate and antiquated social tools presented in the game.

MMOs are based on the ever evolving Skinner Box, which just sucks you deeper into the hunt for new shiny gear, achievement, entitlement, making the players eyes shine and jaws gape like the ringing bell effect on Pavlov's dogs. In finer language, the operant conditioning in the game results the typical classical conditioning results in the players.

This is social programming, too. It makes the players do as the designer has planned the players to do when the game has been designed. As the players learn to do thing #1 from the beginning of the game, the designer can predict that the player knows how to do thing #1 when this player's character advances in levels. Due to this it becomes later on in the game to break the thing #1 causing something to happen. However, this is what happens in WoW this very moment: the game teaches the player to solo up and do it in style fast, and as the character 'comes of age' and reaches level cap, the rules are changed completely. Be social, group or leave.

In a twitter convo sometime ago Wolfshead asked a valid question: Why cannot we debate with the mobs? Why can't we take the culturally viable way of avoiding the physical confrontation and use non-violent ways to reach our target? Currently the social design of the MMOs in the market are more in line with the Milgram Experiment, where the designer has decided how the game must proceed and the player must follow that train of thought or quit. The torture and killing quests are just excellent examples on how - in my humble opinion - the game designers are using their power to teach, condition and change the players views wrong.

The further we go along the line, the more closer we come to the Stanford Prison Experiment, where the ones given the authority by their role became the monsters they originally abhorred. We have a sort of situation already, where the established guilds already dictate the non-guilded players fates quite by a whim and in fact use their power pretty casually. "If you don't like it here, you can leave" is a very common statement in a guild if someone proposes a change or asks for an explanation for something.

Power without responsibility is violence.

If the game design teaches everyone take care of themselves, the designers cannot expect the players later on to take the stand and take care of each other. Especially if they make it clear that only one can get the leet loot and epics in a raid, when some have to settle for the greys and coins.

Also the MMOs currently have very binary quest system: either you take a quest or you abandon it. If you take it, you get reward. If you choose not to take it, you get nothing. What if there is a quest chain in which you get into a moral conflict with the story and would like to take another approach? No, you either continue and do 'wrong'/against your morals (or your character's) or you decline and lose the rewards.

The binary Yes/No choices are way too ancient for the current games and there should be more ambition in the designer/coding side to get around this crap. Already in the early adventure games there were multiple choices to go along, so why couldn't the current MMOs have even rudimentary set of choices to be presented?

Also the social aspect of reputation and factions is laughable at best. The effects of ones actions should have repercussions ingame, on the NPCs and factions far more tangible than currently. The social minigames like the persuasion in Morrowind/Oblivion could serve as a starting point, add a few nuances and see how it works.

Anyhow, I could rant on forever. I think it would serve the MMO or RPG designers and/or companies to have at least one person with sociologic and/or psychology as a background to help in the design from this side and point of view.

At least this way the game design could change towards more socially engineered instead of more achievement oriented.

Do you have any other suggestions on how the social design could be changed? Regardless of the players, of course...