It happened a couple of months ago. I was in a remote area in Lord of the Rings Online when another player -- the only other player in this small zone -- sent me a tell. "Can you help me? I need to finish this quest, and I keep getting killed in this cave."
Honestly? My first instinct was to say no. It had been a busy day, and I was sitting down to a brief, 20-minute session that would be my only chance to get anything done until tomorrow. I was hoping to knock out a couple quests of my own, and I really didn't want to log out without accomplishing something with that character. So I responded and declined to help, which he took in good humor.
Then it hit me what I just did. In a social online game, I'd refused to help someone who blatantly asked for it, all because I was being self-centered. So I sent him another tell. "You know what? What the heck. I'm sorry; I was having a me moment. Let's do this." And so we did. It was fun, and I logged out 20 minutes later without having advanced my character but feeling as though I accomplished something substantial even so.
It was at this moment that I started to realize just how MMOs have conditioned me to be as selfish as possible -- and I made a promise right then and there that I'd start fighting back against that conditioning. I didn't want to be a selfish gamer any longer.
So how was this attitude fostered inside me? I know that in real life, I probably would not turn down a blatant cry for help like that, but I also know that I'm constantly warring with my own selfish tendencies as a person. I decided that there was something about these games that has encouraged, even nurtured, these self-centered impulses such that the scales had tipped in their favor.
For all the excellent qualities MMOs have, there's also the seedy underbelly of this genre that is willfully ignored by those who partake. MMOs have evolved not to bring out our best qualities but (in many cases) our worst. A while back I asked a quirky Daily Grind question about which of the seven deadly sins MMOs bring out in you. I was curious whether others could indeed identify just how -- if at all -- MMOs have cultivated less-than-desirable traits in their playstyles.
Sure, sometimes we just bring our bad attitudes and failings to the game, but MMOs have also shown how they can shape our own behavior: our desires, our goals, our intentions, our mannerisms, our actions, and our corruption of proper grammar and spelling. More and more I saw that these titles can and do encourage us to be as selfish as possible, because only by focusing hard on what you can do for your own character can you get anywhere in the game.
Think about it. Most all of our rewards come from doing something for ourselves, with the polite fiction that we're helping out an NPC in the process. We are given great rewards for striking out on our own, for tagging mobs first, for rolling higher than anyone else on epic loot, for spending a majority of our game time strictly focused on our own advancement. We even group so that our character can get more stuff. The more we learn to be selfish, the more treats we earn.
As I said, I don't see MMO design as the only cause of the rise of selfish gaming -- we have to accept some of that responsibility ourselves. But it's hard to make a case that MMOs encourage us to be altruistic, generous, giving and helpful. It's much easier to show how it's the other way around.
I don't think developers are blind to this. After all, the social element of MMOs is the glue that holds the game together. Without a strong, vibrant, interactive community, a title is a hollow husk that will suffer greatly for it. Devs, just like we do, see excellent MMO communities as those that are kind to each other, offering helpful advice and willing to lend a hand in game without begging and/or bribery. The question is how should the devs change the game so that it encourages our best behavior even while it's tempting us to expand our worst?
The first and earliest answer is to create forced interdependencies by making the gameplay so punishing or demanding that grouping is necessary. When everyone has to lean on each other to do anything, then at least we're going through the motions of helping others even though we're still out for ourselves.
On the flip side of the forced grouping stick is the carrot of tasty incentives. Give players enough of a reward to jump into a group and lend each other aid and they'll do just that -- and hopefully start to enjoy helping others for its own sake.
But neither of these approaches addresses the root of selfish behavior, because we're still out for ourselves and these games are designed from the ground up to be focused on personal advancement and loot acquisition. It may be impossible for devs to come up with a third solution -- a lollipop -- without changing how most MMOs currently work.
I used to be part of a terrific guild in World of Warcraft in which all of the officers, including the GM, would always say, "Does anyone need any help?" every time they logged in -- and they meant it. They led by example, and their determination to put a priority on helping each other out, even at the expense of their own time and characters' advancement, trickled down to the rest of the guild members. Soon enough, we'd become known for being one of the most supportive and helpful guilds on the server.
In this instance, a few determined players saw the selfishness that was rampant in the game and wanted to do something about it. They couldn't change how the game functioned, but they could influence how we approached it.
The truth is that it takes effort to reach out and ask to help others. It takes effort to see a question on the advice channel that's been asked a million times before and treat the player kindly by giving him the information he needs rather than rudely offering up a flippant response. It takes effort to even say "yes" when another player directly asks you for assistance. When we do this, we're putting our own needs and desires aside to become more flexible so that we can be there for someone else.
I can't change how everyone else plays, and when I look at the combined nature of our own inherent selfishness and how MMOs encourage it, it can feel futile to even try. But what I can do is to set a personal example by placing a premium on helping others. I can encourage others when they accomplish something instead of saying, "Hey, lookit me and what I did!" I can go out of my way to help a lowbie get through a sticky part or join up with a group desperate to run a dungeon that I hate. I can be a good mentor instead of an abrasive, jaded voice on the global channel. And, yes, I can get in the habit of logging on and always asking who needs a hand before I get to my own desires.
I think about the all of the times when someone put me ahead of himself and how that made me feel connected and accepted -- and I wonder what MMOs would be like if we were all a lot less selfish. I'd really like to be a part of that.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!