Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

24 December, 2016

The holidays, relationships, and MMOs

Like it or not, it’s now the holiday season. For most people, this is a glad time of year as we get together for feasts to drive away the winter darkness and chill. During this time our minds often turn to families and loved ones. We look for source of warmth to drive off the emotional chill we feel this time of year. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don’t.

Often I like to take a closer look at things and evaluate them more in depth. Like relationships: How does our perceptions affect them, particularly in the online world? It seems that we fall into regular patterns in our relationships, conforming to society’s expectations of what we should do. But, the culture in the U.S. has a terrible time really defining relationships. Even a meaningful word “love” tend to be dangerously overloaded and fraught with peril. Let’s take a look at this, and maybe think about what it means for Socializers in games.

Related and relationships

Very often we develop connections with other people and we tend to assign a few common names to these relationships: family members, professional/co-workers, acquaintances, friends, lovers, spouses. We have different modifiers and variations: some friends are “best friends”, a lover might be a “mistress” if a guy is already married, etc. But, society sometimes have a hard time really dealing with relationships outside of these specific definitions, at least in the U.S. We also have certain social expectations: “normal” people only have one spouse because they think you can’t really love more than one person. This is enshrined into our legal system, where the state only recognizes a commitment between two people. And until pretty recently, those two people better be of opposite genders, otherwise it wasn’t acceptable. (Thank the gods we’re moving past that attitude.)

Eventually you might find someone who doesn’t fit neatly into these categories. Maybe your brother, a family member, is also your best friend. Maybe an acquaintance becomes a lover for a night. Maybe you’re fortunate that your spouse is also your best friend and lover. And then there are the relationships outside of these neatly defined boundaries. We have the concept of a creative “muse”, but what does that mean? It tends to be bound up in a lot of emotions: sexuality, encouragement, inspiration, longing, admiration, reverie. Things related to creativity, but often mixed up with other strong emotions.

Satisfying different needs

Yet we tend to reduce relationships to simple terms. Friends satisfy some amorphous “social need” we have, but that’s a gross oversimplification. Some friends are fun and help distract us easier. Other friends are thoughtful and help us when we just need someone to talk to. The guy who shows up ever gaming night to hang out and talk games can’t just be substituted in for the woman who listens to you pour out your heart about your problems and offers kind words of comfort and encouragement. These two people satisfy different needs you have, but fall under the general category of “friend”.

Or, to think about it another way, everyone satisfies a different need. Gaming guy satisfies your need for fun, but good listening friend gives you the emotional support you need to go through the day. And, not everyone needs the same support. Some may need more need for fun, others just want the physical presence of other people, or don’t care about simple social needs at all. The relationships I mentioned above tend to have certain default assumptions attached with them: a spouse is expected to at least provide emotional support, social engagement, encouragement, affection, and (at least in modern Western society) all of your sexual needs.

Unfortunately, this is a large responsibility to put on one person. It may be easy to feel all these things when a relationship is bright and shiny and new, but eventually that initial inferno of passion fades. People change, and so does the relationship. Yet, our western society expects people to fall in love and remain together despite any changes in emotion or needs. For some people, they look outside the relationship for the needs they want; this is called polyamory, “swinging”, “cheating”, depending on the level of consent between partners or opinions of the behavior. As with many things, it’s easy to make judgments from the outside looking in. But, this happens often enough that it’s important to realize this is a reality that humans deal with.

MMO relationships

But then you get to online and things get more complex. Is your raid leader your friend, or does it feel more like a professional relationship even though you’re raiding for “fun”? Is the person you cyber with your lover? Are the people in a shared chat channels acquaintances, even if you know more about their love lives than just about anyone else? Or, how does your relationship with your offline friend change if she’s a hard-core raider and you’re not? Does this change your overall relationship, or is offline and online different? It’s easy to say there’s a line between offline and online, but emotions and feelings from online relationships flow from one person to another online. I’ve played DDO with my static group for years now. I’ve only met one of them, but I feel a friendship with them that’s as real as any other I feel for people I see regularly. And this isn’t even considering that most people play with people they know from offline or other games these days.

Everyone reading my blog should know by now of the “Socializer” archetype from Bartle’s work. But, when we oversimplify our thoughts about offline relationships we tend to oversimplify what Socializers need in our games. We think a few chat channels should suffice, but this ignores the wide variety of relationships people form. Some people will want shared channels, others will want small private spaces, others will want some way to keep in touch with other good players who aren’t necessarily “friends” in the traditional sense. A “one size fits all” approach does a disservice to Socializer players if you want to attract them.

Thinking about it, FFXIV does a pretty good job on this end. They have “linkshell” chat channels that you can invite people to. These work great for a variety of purposes: organizing game events, keeping in touch with friends, and even one-on-one chat channels for people you want to chat with frequently. Linkshells work even when the other person is in a dungeon, which makes them great for people you want to talk to frequently. However, you’re limited to only eight of them, which can feel very limiting for people who are very social and/or active with disparate groups of people. You have to make the hard decision if your static raiding group wants to form a linkshell and you’re already full up; who do you ditch? But, I think this is a reasonable system to look at when considering the multi-guild concept I’ve mentioned before.

Looking at the larger picture

How do you think about online relationships? Do you view them as different from offline relationships? Do you see relationships as more complex than I described above, or do you tend to see them in their simplified form as society seems to expect? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.







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