Friends or Foes: Forcing Social Interactions In Online Games

Humans are social creatures; we’re pack animals. These factoids are lobbed around on a daily basis, and although well-worn, they do hold a kernel of truth.

When something happens to us, we want to share it with those closest to us. Often, our most loved activities and pastimes are only enhanced when others join in, and the same could be said for playing video games.

There’s a lot to be said for the activity of hopping into one’s favourite virtual world and taking several friends in tow – but like any element of design in a video game, it is susceptible to corruption. Despite what we in the stimulus-dependent droves that thrive off interactive entertainment may claim, there can certainly be “too much of a good thing”.

What started off in the halcyon days as arranging some haphazard construction of a LAN party to battle a then-unimaginable high player count of eight, has quickly grown to a feature that is now expected to ship with nearly every game out on the market.

One would be hard-pressed to find a game out on the shelves nowadays that is solely a single player adventure. Now, games are more social than they’ve ever been before – but is that necessarily a good thing?

Game designers have taken the challenge of designing group content head-on, and the results have been spectacular: massive worlds shared with thousands of strangers, contrasted by heroic romps through slews of enemies with three of your closest friends, the online co-op bug has sunk its teeth into the modern game industry – and it’s refusing to budge.

With eSports proving that there is money to be made in the business of watching multiplayer games, the future is not focused on the individual – but rather the group.

This presents a fascinating problem to game designers, as player empowerment is not only at the core of gaming, but an easy and empowering user experience is at the very heart of software design.

Why is it then, that multiplayer games are often faced with some of the largest design problems out there? Because they weaken the individual from the start.

It makes sense that, to facilitate group interaction, the creator must ensure no player is too powerful for their own good. Should they become so, there would be little point in them banding together to face down their challenges when they are capable of surmounting them themselves.

Thus, we are thrust into worlds where our only salvation comes at the hands of other humans. This is not a malignant aspect in and of itself, as there is much to be gained from fighting tooth and nail to conquer the denizens of virtual world with friends, but the adventure could easily turn into a nightmare at the hands of strangers.

Part internet anonymity phenomenon and part human nature, the forced sociability of online gaming has given all sorts of individuals the platform necessary to vent and project toxic emotions and behaviours at the expense of their temporary team members.

There is an adage from the multiplayer gaming days of yore, that goes something like this “You haven’t played online, until a 14-year old tells you how he fucked your mother.”

A grim adage for a grim reality. The pressure to perform, particularly in some of the most hardcore multiplayer games out there, already sets the tone for the forthcoming encounters with fellow players. Add any sort of perceived lack of performance during gameplay, and the pack turns in on itself quicker than a hungry cannibal.

The trouble with these sort of systems is how they are so strongly interwoven with the core gameplay design. Bring a posse of competent players, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more engaging and compelling social activity – but brave the wastelands of online multiplayer alone and you run the risk of not only failing to complete whatever objective was set out before you, but of having infuriating experiences at the hands of fellow humans that could result in a serious aversion to stepping foot in that game again.

It’s a persistent problem, and one without any clear solutions. Developers have done their best to implement stop-gaps in the form of rank and reputation systems, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and the will of a toxic individual is far too easily channelled online.

While the impact of toxicity may be lessened with clever design, the core issue remains a human one – and that is that misery loves company.