This is the first part of two posts involving issues I've had on my mind that affect the social situations that games place players in.
I feel like a good number of MMO's lately are missing out on a key component of their games to provide hours of amusement, argument, fun and content. That is to say, other people. Decisions are made in order to lessen the effect other players have on your experience in game, as if to anticipate you are going to run into people you don't like and never want to play with again. WoW and RIFT's dungeon finder systems come to mind, as well as SWTOR's presumption that you will want to play with an NPC far more than an actual person. Part of this design choice to exclude other players must come from developers trying to out think the people who actually -are- jerks in-game by making them incapable of doing much to bother others in ways that wouldn't get them immediately banned.
And yet, these systems are also creating environments where each person's experience is self contained and not affected by other players. Yes, I did just repeat myself. However, if nobody can affect and you can affect nobody, how are you supposed to care about other people in the in-game community? The people in the guild are just a vehicle for more epics at that point. The obvious topic of discussion involving social consequences is that it forces people to be nice to each other because your reputation on a server matters. Making the consequences of social actions have in-game solutions (vote-kick, cross server dungeons, ignore other people and solo) not only assists the players in removing rude players from their experience but prevents them from allowing anyone else to affect their experience either.
One of my favorite things to say about the dungeon finder is that it changed WoW from a game where you play with each other to a game where you play adjacent to each other. Sure, you're in the same dungeon as them killing the same boss, but you have no motivation to assist or befriend the person next to you. Jerk or potential next best friend, it hardly matters who they are because your only goal is the loot and badges.
Now, one could say that you could avoid the dungeon finder altogether and group the "old school" way, but that is like giving someone a powerdrill and then telling them to manually screw in the bolts to the bookcase he's building. Everyone else is using it, and though you may be patted on the back for doing things manually you end up with the same result but slower than everyone else.
Don't mistake this for trying to advocate spamming trade for groups though. The Dungeon Finder accomplishes its task extremely well. It is only an example of how design choices can turn a community into just a rough collective of people. Another example is comparing Monoclegate to the Battle.net fiasco from last year. EVE players formed an in-game protest and nearly shut down the central market hub. WoW players all posted on the forums and in blogs and sent e-mails to complain. the difference? EVE was a group effort, WoW was a collective of angry individuals each acting on their own accord, which just happened to coincide with the goal of the group.
Sometimes the urge to protect your players can be great, especially if you are an MMORPG player yourself and know firsthand how people can be terrible to each other from behind a computer screen. But some of these tools backfire and cause a community to dissolve into an rough collective. Making players depend on each other to succeed in a game outside of dungeons and raids may be a scary concept, but it has the potential to really solidify a community.
On an unrelated note, MMO Melting Pot is looking for more blogs to feature. I have shamelessly self promoted myself and I suggest you do too.