Games as a Substitue Social Contract.

Stubborn asked a question of the blogging community on Individualist vs. Collectivist style in MMOs.  My initial impression, mostly technical, is on the blog.  This is the much too long response.  It seems the only purpose I have for this blog, other than having a handle to answer other people.

First, the disclaimer.  I will freely admit to being an individualist and an introvert.  I am not really comfortable in participating in a ‘chatty’ guild, I’m honestly not that interested in the moment-to-moment dialog of twitter, IM, or game chat.  If someone I know wants to grab lunch some Saturday and actually talk or exchange letters (even email), that’s great.  Lower the rate of exchange, improve the signal-to-noise ratio, and I’m calm enough to actually participate in a dialog.  Note that this does not imply that I want to be outside society, just that I interact with society differently than the extroverts.  And, despite the presumptions of most Americans, introversion is not a disease and it does not need to be fixed.  This is a personality style, not a personality defect, and is just as valid as extroversion.

Having had time to think this through I find that I need to question the general premise of the discussion.  The distinction between the Individualist and Collectivist, as a game description, seems to be a false dichotomy.  Why?  Because unlike an actual society a game is an elective and part-time activity.

If you consider utopian communes in the US through the centuries they demanded that members make actual sacrifices and significant changes to their lives to participate.  You could not simply dabble in the activity, you needed to commit yourself to the lifestyle.  Violating the precepts of the community carried significant social, psychological, and potentially physical ramifications.  This is also, to a much lesser extent, true in a traditional neighborhood.  As we’ve become a more mobile society that focuses on television rather than community activities that truism has faded.  I’m old enough to remember when things worked this way and how they changed.  When I was a child it did actually matter what people in the neighborhood thought, now I can’t even name most of my neighbors.

None of this is true in any game and it likely never will be.  If you really screw things up, go to another server or even another game.  As players we always have an escape clause that most people in actual collectivist communities lack.   It is also true that a game, no matter how immersive, is not reality. The character is not the player and never will be.  That in itself stresses the social contract in ways that would destroy any actual collectivist community.  If people could simply change gender, race, or any other physical identifier – go from a marathoner to body builder in the blink of an eye – it would be just about impossible to form a stable expectation of other members of the community.  Add in that real communities take time to develop, not the minutes of an MMO.  The old jokes about still being the ‘new comer’ 20 years after moving into a small town are based in reality and that reality will never translate to an MMO.

Let’s consider a truly collectivist game. Perhaps you can have one character on a server, that would certainly cause you to vest more concern in that avatar.  There is no name change, race change, faction change, or server change.  All good ideas, actually.  Your character can have one spec, selected either at creation or within a few levels of creation.  To succeed in any dungeon, raid, or other definitively group content you will require players in multiple roles.  Many of those roles will not be very viable or useful outside of that content.  There will not be class equality.  Some classes will just be better at some things but you will need diversity to get required buffs, debuffs, or capabilities (battle rez for example).  Most quests, even most experience-granting enemies, will be too difficult for a solo player to handle.

That structure would mandate that the first thing you want to do on creating a character is to find people to work with toward just surviving the newbie experience.  It is a game I would avoid like a plague-sick rat but that’s, again, personal bias.

So, why is the blogsphere seemingly set on collectivist gaming as the superior model?  I’d argue it comes down to the bloggers largely being extroverts who want highly social gaming and the false label tossed on LFD griefers and Trade chat idiots as individualists.  Think about it – if you are engaging in a social activity to gain notoriety, even infamy, you are not likely to be an individualist.  We just don’t care enough about what you think to put in that kind of effort.

In the end I am arguing that we cannot truly apply the “Individualist” or “Collectivist” label because player populations, investment in characters, and penalties for breaking social conventions will never be strong enough to compel obedience.  And that is a good thing indeed.


One comment on “Games as a Substitue Social Contract.

  1. […] Rimecat examines whether nor not the topic is even a fair one.  He wonders about the freedom factor: that we choose to play games, whereas we do not often get to make that choice within our own societies.  He comes to several conclusions about how limiting a truly collectivist game would be.  His post can be found here: […]

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