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Where's the Social?

Adam Tingle Posted:
Columns Tingle's Touchy Subjects 0

I used to be really good at making friends on the Internet. Oh sure some of them might have been older than my great grandpappy and online for "nefarious" purposes, but for the most part, whether it was MSN or EverQuest, I had just cause to type "Lo", "Wuup2", and "Gratz" on a regular basis.

When I started playing MMORPGs back in the grand old days of the late 90s, there was a wonderment about the possibilities of the Internet. If you passed someone else in your game, generally you stopped, circled each other warily, and finally somebody starting jumping to break the ice. Hours later you would be shooting the breeze, ducking in one another's line of site, and racing each other to see who had the fastest Internet connection.

But that was many, many moons ago.

Now, it seems like people are generally unwilling to strike up a conversation with an online stranger - unless of course it's to curse at them and hound them into depression. As a rule, you are now more likely to find a talking dog in a game than an actual person: and it's all quite sad really.

Perhaps it's my age, or maybe it's because I generally roll into MMOs with a group of friends and stay tight nit for the duration, but making new acquaintances seems more and more of a rarity.

And yet, despite not actually striking up conversations, we play with other people more frequently than ever. Console games have taken the mantle of online and run far and wide, strapping it Call of Duty, buckling it tight onto Borderlands, and throwing it in the path of Halo.

Even MMORPGs encourage interaction past general group finding. Raids, public quests, and Guild Wars 2's dynamic events allows you to romp and stomp your way through snowy tundra and arid plain with hundreds of players.

But still nobody stops to say "Hi".

Ever since my debut outing in Dark Age of Camelot, I can't say I've really met anybody else virtually. Guilds are made up of real-life friends, or failing that, a collective community, such as this website, transported onto the game and tailored made to fit any grouping needs. What happened to those alliances and friendships forged in the dim embers of a midnight dungeon crawl? I think generally that making friends has coincided with the change in direction that developers have taken post World of Warcraft.

While people bring in their friends, there is also a lack of having to rely on "the kindness of" strangers. Dying in the Deadmines is an inconvenience, a small percentage of armour damage and a few minutes wasted. Dying in The Plains of Fear was the loss of a level, gear, and your own sanity.

As time commitments have come down, and learning curves significantly doctored, MMORPGs aren't quite so life and death, and so friendships don't have the chance to develop: because let's remember, the reason why you became fast friends with somebody was similar to how war veterans make buddies. The scars aren't physical: but they're very real.

So while game design has undoubtedly become better, and nobody is asking for a return to the type of timesink older MMOs offered, I do feel we've lost social. And this really affects how I personally view the genre.

I have less reason to be hooked in these days. If my friends lose interest, or simply fail to come with me for whatever MMORPG that happens to be launched, I find myself having a particularly lonely experience. Even Guild Wars 2, as fantastic as it was and filled with random group encounters, just felt like a lonely trek to the summit of the cap. I barely uttered a word on the chat tabs, and my character stood stoic and antisocial - crying in his spare time and making friends out of bits of carrot.

For me, part of the appeal of an MMORPG is in those random friendships that spark suddenly over a dungeon crawl. Whether it starts out as good group tactics, or, god forbid, Chuck Norris jokes, part of that experience of online role-playing boils down to one thing: good company.

My interest with online games, as a whole, is beginning to wane recently just because I feel so adrift from anyone else. As friends move on, and some would say mature, I'm the last (gaming) warrior standing. While I beg, plead, and bemoan the fact my real friends won't play, I still remain tight lipped in-game, refusing to reach out. And am I the only one?

So while games undoubtedly force players to group up, worryingly they are taking out those few boundaries that made a thriving social scene possible. We don't have to shout for groups anymore because we have group finder. We don't have to organise raids because we have raid finder. We don't even have to join parties to take down beasts because we have random encounters.

All of the above are great, massive steps for the genre, but they take out a key ingredient of playing with others. Taking on a public quest is a enormously enjoyable, but after awhile you may as well be playing with NPCs. Players run into the fray, hack, slash, and maim, and as quickly as they arrived they have gone. Nothing was said. Nothing was forged. Something died and we all moved on.

Of course, I understand now that I sound like the loneliest man in MMORPG town, but I don't deserve pity. My abandoned characters are of my own making and I'm part of the problem; but am I the only one?

Do you feel slightly lonely in newer MMORPGs? Do you feel that developers have made advancements that make socialising a neglected art form within MMORPGs? Or am I just a moaning, complaining, social cripple that should learn how to type "Hello"? Let me know in the comments below.

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Adam Tingle