Edward Castronova suggests that recent MMOs have become more like Massively Single-Player games rather than environments that foster a communal experience and collaborative effort. One of his recent posts begins with him explaining that one of his friends told him about WoW's recent introduction of the “Looking For Raid” (LFR) feature which encourages the formation of ad-hoc raiding groups. His friend passionately insists that "Back in the day the only way you could get raid-level gear was by being in a raiding guild and by raiding, a lot."
Using this example as a jumping board, Castonova continues to explain that early virtual world scholars argued that MMORPGs (MMOs for short) seemed to provide a communal experience for people isolated by contemporary society. Now, he notes, that the MMO experience has become very suburban in many ways. In the suburbs, he explains, communities live in places that resemble villages, but these places are in fact designed to provide each person with solitude. In other words, suburbanites are alone together. According to him, this has increasingly come to define the current MMO experience.
I believe there are two separate issues that are being raised here, one I agree with, the other I don't, and they are not directly related to one another although the post seems to suggest so. It is true that the early idealistic discourse about MMOs being social environments that foster communities has not really come to pass. In the virtual worlds class that I am teaching this semester, I assigned TL Taylor's chapter "Gaming Lifeworlds: Social Play in Persistent Environments" partly to demonstrate that these spaces are indeed social and that gamers aren't the basement dwellers who have no social life. One of the worlds I assigned for the class is LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online). This was a strategic decision because the game is available to play for free and isn't taxing in terms of hardware. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, now, not so much.
Their assignment for that week was to level their characters and get a sense of the game play and write a blog post about their experiences using Taylor's chapter on social play. Incidentally, when I was leveling up my toon in LOTRO a week prior to this, I had a high-level player help me with some of my quests and even give my some currency so that I can buy the things that I needed. This was a textbook case of social play that Taylor was discussing in her chapter.
None of this negates Castronova's notion of suburban gameplay, of course. One of my student's experience, however, was radically different than mine and was expressed quite passionately in his blog. Here's a quote from his blog post: "T.L. Taylor says that video games promote social activity and teamwork but I have yet to see this in LOTRO. I have helped a few random gamers finish difficult quests, and then they run off as if I held my dagger to their jugular. Those gamers are now on my hit list."
While I was surprised by the intensity of this statement, and perhaps a bit disappointed, I understood where the student was coming from. I recalled a month prior to this when a few guildies and I were griefed half an hour in a dungeon which we had found through the Dungeon Finder, another tool that promotes pick-up groups (known as PUGs). The tank was upset about my low DPS and refused to tank, and instead, started aggrooing the mob and getting all of us killed until finally I kicked him out of the group for being a punk. Incidentally, that's why I was there for, to get better gear to improve my DPS. I had just hit level 85. Since the previous tank in that very same dungeon technically ninja looted the gear that should have been mine (and got kicked out of our group by others because of it), I was yet again left with no gear and low DPS. So yeah, I understood my student's sentiment completely. We have grown to expect things like that to happen in pick-me-up groups where there is no social bond what-so-ever. On the other hand, I would expect the same jerks to have existed in the olden days of the MMOs even though the preferred style of raiding would have been with one's own guild.
Be that as it may, I am not fully convinced that features like the LFR are directly indicative of or could be linked to a suburban experience of a game play. In fact, the reminiscence about the "good old days" somehow suggests to me not pining for a more social environment or a multi-player experience, but rather, a disappointment in the fact that the game is not as hard, therefore, not as exclusive anymore. The attitude is more like "anyone with an axe in hand can play now." Meaning: "Back in the day, we raided a lot to get gear.” Other variations that I heard thus far would be: “Back in the day, we only had bags with fewer slots. Back in the day, we didn't get mounts till we were level 40," etc… Unfortunately, this rhetoric seems to me that it is coming from someone who clearly possesses a huge amount of gaming capital and feels the right to impose (and defend) a purist approach to MMO play style.
By now, you may have guessed that I am that "anyone with an axe in hand." I am the casual MMO player who doesn’t have the time to raid every night or compare specs till the cows go moo (Admittedly, these days I am playing every night possibly because the game got social for me only recently). But I would argue that features like Dungeon Finder or LFR, both of which encourage pick-me-up groups, do not replace the social experience of guilds, but rather, complement it in their own weird way. In fact, I would argue that it probably allows players, who would have otherwise quit out of frustration, to get involved in the game because these players feel that they can play even if that means playing the game casually.
Yes, it is true. As a result of these features, the guild system may have receded to the background a bit. But is that so bad? Guilds can have their own dynamic, internal conflicts, drama, if you will. In this case, these pick-up groups could be providing a social relief from the claustrophobia of having to be together all the time.
As a result of these features, players have options to get gear other than running in a guild raid. But in my experience players use these features in addition to their guild raids. In fact, guilds use LFRs together so they can share and exchange loot and have each other's back during raids. So the social gaming experience is still there on some level.
True: these raids are often easier versions of the real deal. So clearly, it is targeted for the casual gamer as well as the hardcore gamer. This means that the people you end up with are not always up to snuff, in fact, about half of them suck. One of my friends affectionately baptized this feature as “Looking for Retards.” It is an organized chaos if you will. Yet players learn through these experiences and get better, and if you suck really bad, well, you get kicked out of the group. I would imagine that none of these things would be tolerable by a hardcore gamer who is grown accustomed to a very defined play style.
Suburban, yes, in some ways… But the question remains: did the gameplay become more suburban as a result of features like these or has it always been that way, and that we, the idealist scholars, wanted so badly for our online life to provide a genuine alternative to our alienated existence in modern day society? Castronova's post ends up questioning these issues. But let's not condemn the game mechanics and the casual gamer to the gallows because of this.