Although there are staff working and available for help in MMOs, sometimes it seems they are more on autopilot than before. No, I'm not talking about development, such as the current status of Guild Wars 1, but the involvement of GMs and a tighter-knit environment and the impact that has upon the community overall. Ultimately, the more hands-off approach has left things mostly to the players it can affect the nature of the community. As a result, it seems that this hands-off approach also brings a lack of consequences for behavior that is negative, bothersome, or otherwise poisonous.
Online games, especially if they are competitive, suffer from the same issue that the internet at large does. The inherent anonymity leads to a lack of empathy in some people and thus, serves as permission to do and say things one probably wouldn't ordinarily. While MMORPGs can be competitive, and spin-offs from the genre like MMOFPS games are truly competitive, this sort of behavior isn't limited to competitive spaces. Games like Guild Wars 2 tried to remove the heat of certain types of competition, such as that over mobs and nodes, in order to encourage player cooperation. That's one approach, but it is a multifaceted problem that involves much in the way of personal preference. The GW2 method was hailed by some and also criticized as making things too easy, proving you really can't satisfy everyone.
That's one of the problems when it comes to behavior and consequence in MMORPGs as opposed to FPS or MOBA games, which have their own sets of related issues. It's important to consider all of those, however, as there are things we can learn from every effort. Yet, one of the things that impedes us is the fact that, with so many people, and many different types of players with their own preferences, it's sometimes even hard to define the nuances of what sorts of behavior we should try to police. I think when it comes to chat, it's generally things like hate speech, blatant racism, sexist comments, threats, revealing real world information (AKA “doxxing”), spamming, and things like gold farm ads. Yet, what's acceptable behavior will vary a bit depending on who you ask.
With MMORPGs chasing a more mainstream audience now than they did years ago, there have been some concessions for having a larger appeal. Having active GM presence, events, and similar behavior costs money. It's enough to have one or two around for a game with a smaller population, but with so much going on these days, it probably doesn't seem like a prudent investment for companies to hire a squad of involved participants who can help guide the community and react to some of these incidents as they happen, or soon afterward. Sure, you can always file a ticket and wait, but it seems like that process is also relatively standardized these days. Also, some of the aforementioned bad items in chat don't even get bothered with anymore. Some of the most obvious ones do, and spam filters and reporting have helped, but people can and will blatantly attack each other in chat without the appearance of any sort of sanction most of the time.
When it comes to behavior, the problem with definition is only part of the problem. In a past game, for example, I was chased down by a fellow player on a server where you had to flag to PvP. He took all clothes off his character and proceeded to follow mine and dance in a way that it could look lewd. I kept going about my business, but he kept trying to get me to fight him. He'd just appear in front of me repeatedly for a bit doing things and taunting me before I grouped and went off to quest with guildies.
Now, some might just consider that a bit of harmless trolling. After all, he couldn't do anything to me since I wasn't flagged, and I could go about gathering mats. Yet the following, the removal of clothes, and the taunting and dancing could be argued as a form of harassment.
Another time, more recently, I was max level in a low level area of DCUO, when a level 5 player decided to attack me. Repeatedly. The guy couldn't do much to me, but I'd get CC'd and chipped away at whenever his cooldown expired. So I killed him. He came back to do the same thing. Eventually, I just left, because I was wasting my time.
I'm in the camp that believes no one else should be able to ruin my game or decide how I will be spending my time: A reason why the GW2 model works for me. However, I understand some people like the extra challenge and lack of security that being vulnerable brings. Yet, once again, many games lack consequences these days. A few, like Age of Wushu, EVE, and some of the smaller sandboxes, do have bounty systems or ways for players to enforce standards that they determine. Famously, Star Wars Galaxies's bounty system was a beloved one among many that still talk about it with fondness. These systems seem to mainly work for smaller games, however, and it's not completely clear whether that's due to their more limited appeal or if studios running more mainstream games are afraid to potentially alienate the mainstream base they seek.
So, we have one problem that is really many, and affected by perspective –the question of what behaviors make a community “bad”—and then the other, how to solve it. What kinds of consequences might work? Valve recently announced that 60% of those players given a temporary ban in DOTA 2 never received another one. Yet, MMOs have progression, and MMO players are territorial. What works in other genres is like using a screw that's slightly too small for the hole. We can take away from what works elsewhere, but are more GMs the answer? Naming policies? Things that tightened the experience that were let go when the mainstream hit? Whatever the solutions are (and I use plural on purpose here), for many games, they need to mesh with the more commercial direction and mainstream user base of the modern AAA/large MMO.
Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her at RTSGuru as the site's Associate Editor and news writer. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez