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Beau Hindman's MMO Thoughts

My name is Beau Hindman: a freelance writer, developer, artist, drummer and gamer from Austin, Texas. I've been gaming since '99 and writing about them since 2006! This is my blog about ducks. I mean MMORPGs.

Author: beauhindman

Are Social MMOs More Than Chat Rooms?

Posted by beauhindman Monday August 15 2016 at 1:04PM
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As part of a recent research bender, I have been playing through my past history of MMOs. I forgot how much social MMOs had shaped my gaming habits! Before I ever attempted a raid or long-winded questline, I was chatting with other people inside social MMOs, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. In looking at my account histories, I see that There, the social MMO, was my main game for a while before I joined up withSecond Life. Before the pair of those, I played Ultima Online and EverQuest.

If I look back even further, (I started with MMOs in 2000) I can remember the chat rooms of the later 90s. Chat rooms were all the rage then, and I remember my friend telling me how she would stay up all night, pack of smokes and a soda pop at her side, chatting with people. I thought it sounded ridiculous. Not so long after, she hosted a get together and I found myself on her computer (after everyone attempted to go to sleep) chatting with a batch of strangers about who-knows-what. I was so intrigued!

Now that I think about it, the early foundation for my love of MMOs was set, thanks to those 90s chat rooms. It still feels miraculous that I can log into a game and talk with gamers from all over the world. Just last night (at the time of this writing) I loaded There to join a 50s dance party. I ended up chatting, dancing, and finally exploring the landscape to find a giant skating bowl, which I then put to good use.

At its center, every MMORPG is a chat room. Chatting and socializing is the core of the genre; without it you avoid the pure definition of MMORPG. Whether we like it or not, Guild Wars 2 is the same thing as There or any 90s chat room.

So, where are the distinctions between MMOs drawn? Simply put, in the activities. There is not just a chat room, after all, as I illustrated with my reference to skating above. Second LifeHabbo HotelIMVU, and others all offer other things to do while chatting like roleplay, decorating, paintball, art shows, or building. In this way, social MMOs still share a lot in common with standard MMOs. Compare a social MMO’s party hosting to an epic raid in a standard MMO, and you can see that the one true distinguishing characteristic is only in the possible skill level required to participate in the activity.

So, both social and standard MMOs have social aspects and more challenging aspects, but are different in the way they ask players to challenge themselves. It’s not necessarily “easier” to maintain a lovely social presence than it is to host a raid of 10 people on a Friday night, but it draws from a more common, more accessible skillset. Perhaps what draws me to social MMOs is the way they are open to almost anyone. Simply bring your ability to chat and participate in a conversation, and you too can become a social hero!

Some social MMOs literally encourage social-skills-as-game by introducing incentives to hosting parties or helping others. There is a brilliant MMO because it has “levels” to skills like “Renowned Event Host”, “Expert Fashionista”, or “Renowned Socializer” that are earned in different ways. Even basic chat rooms can reward frequent chatters with moderator abilities, special titles, or colored text. On top of that, many chat rooms and social MMOs live over years and years, and their players maintain long, winding backstories for themselves or their “character.” MUDs, which are almost a purely-balanced combination of social game and combat mechanics, often tout some of the oldest MMO player characters in the world. I have read stories of players who have 25-year-old characters and are still going strong! What do you think is more important to these players… their long history in the game world, or their epic gear?

I’d say that a social MMO is as important or effective to a social MMO fan as a combat-based MMO is to someone else. For many, socializing, meeting new people, hanging out, and decoration are closer to an expression of their true selves than they find in a combat MMO. Perhaps that is why many social MMOs are often filled with people who build a duplicate of themselves instead of a character they fantasize of becoming. I almost always name my characters after myself, and I try to make that virtual character literally me, if I am allowed to. In a way, that character is the equivalent of a Facebook or Twitter profile, and serves as a representative of me, instead of a more heroic, muscular, or skilled version of someone else that I simply control. My social MMO characters have my same quirks and shortcomings. When I meet other social MMO fans inside a game like There, I am interested in the person behind the avatar more than the avatar’s in-world skills.

So, are social MMOs more than glorified chat rooms? Yes, of course. Chat itself is more than just chatting, and can lead to roleplay, informational exchange, and anything else that chatters have the imagination for creating. To be literal, social MMOs would be better described as virtual places or worlds, or electronic societies.

Despite what some people seem to think, MMOs are not going anywhere, and it’s very likely that one day we will all play and maybe even work inside a virtual world. Once internet speeds and machines become more robust, and technologies more standard, perhaps everyone can easily log in to a virtual version of themselves to do virtual work that has very real consequences. Just look at how commonplace and integrated Facebook has become… it’s only a matter of time until your online profile becomes an avatar walking around in a glorified chat room.

Beau writes:
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